The afterglow of the Good Funeral Awards

partying-vicars

The verdict? It was a good day out!

The partying vicars above certainly looked like they were enjoying themselves.

There are likely to be a lot of local news stories appearing round the country as the winners of a Good Funeral Award 2016 celebrate their recognition by their peers, and Christopher Hooton from The Independent definitely got it – read the full article here .

We’ll share any other articles as they arrive, but in the meantime we thought we’d feature each of the winners on a daily basis in posts on the blog, along with the reasons why the judges felt they deserved to win.

 

What the hell?

“Belief in life after death is as common in Britain as it was 30 years ago in spite of a sharp decline in church attendance” according to researchers at the University of Leicester. The story is in today’s Times. The stats in the Leicester report don’t tell us anything we didn’t already know, probably; not if you work in the funerals business, anyway. But it’s fascinating to read the numbers all the same. 

44% believe in an afterlife. Belief in Hell has risen from 26.2% in 1981 to 28.6% today. Almost a third of the population of Britain believe in all 5 Christian tenets: 1) God 2) life after death 3) Heaven 4) Hell and 5) sin. Almost a third! 

Older people are less  likely to believe in an afterlife than the young. 

All the while the C of E carries on shedding churchgoers at a steady 1% a year. Spare a wince, too, for the atheists who supposed that people would cast aside superstition and come over to them. As for the institutional religions, the growth of spirituality shows they are clearly missing out on a growing market and have only themselves to blame. 

In its leader, The Times quotes the philosopher AJ Ayer, who died in 1989, and who “recorded towards the end of his life an experience in hospital when his heart appeared to stop beating. What he “saw”, in that state, he later wrote, had “slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death, which is due fairly soon, will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be”.”

The Times also paraphrases the political philosopher Edmund Burke, who described society as a partnership of the dead and the unborn as well as of the living

The stalemate of funeral choice

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

Cherishing freedom of speech we often quote the line, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. So democrats proselytise in order to influence others, and sometimes those influenced leave one tribe and join another. A far cry from relativism, the message is, choice is good, but don’t choose them when you can choose us.

Funeralworld is no exception, and no more so than in matters of faith. To illustrate the point, let’s fisk the views of an Anglican priest who embraces the clarity of set liturgy over the burden of unfettered individualism. Fisking in red.

Father Edward Tomlinson writes:

‘In the last few years it has become painfully obvious that many families I have conducted funerals for have absolutely no desire for any Christian content whatsoever’.

Yes, it’s clear many folk book the funeral services of C of E priests without any real enthusiasm for religious significance.

‘I have stood at the crem like a lemon, wondering why on earth I am present at the funeral of somebody led in by the tunes of Tina Turner, summed up in pithy platitudes of sentimental and secular poets and sent into the furnace with ‘I Did It My Way’ blaring out across the speakers. To be brutally honest I can think of 100 better ways of spending my time as a priest on God’s earth’.

If you were saying noone should ever choose Sinatra, I’d call you a snob and busybody. As you’re saying, ‘why Sinatra and me, a priest?’, I sympathise. So what are you going to do about it? You could perhaps create a sensitive compromise that gently allows God’s presence to resonate: for example, people who haven’t been to a service in years might value their choice of, say, the Beatles’ Can’t Buy Me Love being linked to the words from 1 Timothy that ‘we bring nothing into this world and we take nothing out.’ Granted, you might be scratching your head to find such a link with some secular songs. ‘My Way’? If this smacks of fudge, your other option is to decline bookings unless they request pure liturgy.

‘Today the norm is to place the liturgy in the hands of a humanist provider or ancient crumbling cleric who will do as told, in short those who will not trouble undertakers with unavailability’.

The norm is not to place the liturgy in secular hands, although civil celebrants are indeed increasingly chosen for non-liturgical services. However, you’re right that undertakers have retired priests on speed dial due to their availability. But you did say working priests were quite busy enough doing priestly things without sitting through Tina Turner at the crem. Also, it’s uncharitable to refer to old people as ‘crumblies’. ‘Wrinklies’ is more acceptable.

‘I am troubled that pastoral care is being left in the hands of those whose main aim is to make money. And I am further concerned that an opportunity for evangelism is slipping through our fingers’.

It’s wrong to assume civil celebrants and retired priests are just in it for the money. Secondly, while it’s our duty to bear witness, evangelising of a finger-wagging nature is likely to score an own goal at a funeral where mourners have not specifically requested Christian liturgy. I return to the two C of E options: decline the booking or accept it, limiting evangelism to taking the secular elements and gently and resourcefully relating them to God’s universal truths.

‘It is my passionate belief that a requiem mass and the Christian prayers of ‘commendation and committal’ are not mere aesthetic choices in a market place of funeral options. Rather something real and significant is happening, on earth and in heaven, when these take place. Because I am a priest, I want to point the way to Jesus Christ. Naturally there will be those who disagree with my beliefs, I think they should have the right to exercise this choice, even if I think they’s misguided. But if this is your position, why invite me to the party?’

I agree Christian funeral liturgy is profound and sacred, and we both hold it can’t be imposed involuntarily on those who don’t share the faith, whether atheists, Jews, Muslims or Hindus. If you don’t feel you can point the way to Christ within the context of a funeral with secular elements, there’s no alternative but to opt out.

Your frustration is no doubt caused by genuine concern that people are missing out by choosing ‘Simply the Best’ on a sound system over prayers of commendation and committal. Perhaps your exasperation is heightened as you believe more people would share your view if they truly thought about what they wanted from a funeral. Some Christian-lites might, but decided atheists would not. The purpose of a funeral is in the eye of the beholder. That’s not relativism as we can still hold firm views for ourselves.

Footnote 1: I deliberately didn’t fully identify the priest until now as there’s a twist in this tale. Father Ed homlinson shared the above views while he was C of E vicar of St Barnabas church, Tunbridge Wells. He’s since converted to Catholicism where what can and cannot be done within the requiem mass are clearly defined. So no more hand-wringing conflicts between priestly obligations and pressure to offer secular choice. The menu is set, not à la carte. It’s now down to the free will of members of the Church to choose to dine or lapse elsewhere.

Footnote 2: At the time of speaking out, Fr T got a mixed response. ‘I think that most cremations I have been to that have been run by a humanist have all been more than off key,’ said Jane Greer. ‘Give me a good burial with a proper vicar anytime. It’s the difference between Cod’s Roe and Caviar.’ Denise Kantor Kaydar disagreed. ‘It should not matter if someone wants Verdi’s Requiem or Frank Sinatra. I think he is being a little insensitive, but he could be trying to incite a debate.’

Funerals, who needs em?

When England first played Scotland, on 30 November 1872, both teams employed formations that would raise eyebrows today. Scotland went for a cautious 2-2-6 while England employed a more swashbuckling 1-1-8. The game was all kick-and-rush in those days.

Kick-and-rush. It’s how businesses, anxious to futureproof themselves, respond to prophecy. Some bright spark peers into a crystal ball, dreams a dream and holds up a trembling finger. No matter that their vision is little more than a projection of their wishes and values, everyone rushes towards it.

Remember the Baby Boomer Hypothesis which held that, just as baby boomers reinvented youth culture, so they would reinvent death culture? Pretty much everybody bought that, including the entire advisory council of the GFG. The theory was that these free radicals would reject bleakness and embrace creative, themed, personalised, sometimes iconoclastic celebrations of life. The good news for the industry was that there would still be good money to be made from funerals so long as undertakers made the switch from cookie-cutter to bespoke; from being po-faced solemn-event planners to bright-eyed party-planners adding value through accessorisation and offering concierge-level service and red-carpet delivery. Pretty much the package Alex Polizzi tried to sell to David Holmes in The Fixer.

It’s not happening, is it? And as we take that in, we reflect that baby boomers have, yes, always been insouciant about what went before and unsentimental in their rejection of it. They’re re-inventors, not renovators. And they’re not all going the same way.

The evidence seems to be that baby boomers are increasingly asking themselves what good a funeral would do, really. More and more of them see little or no emotional or spiritual value in the experience. They’re not all rejecting them out of hand all at once. Some are dressing trad funerals up in a gently creative way with wacky hearses, jolly coffins and startling music choices. But on the whole they’re whittling them down. The reasons are complex and we’ve rehearsed some of them here before.

Dissatisfaction with the value offered by a funeral is probably most widely evidenced in the near-universal belief that funerals are too expensive — ie, they’re not worth what they cost. The strength of this rejection of funerals is evidenced in people’s unrealistic incredulity that a basic funeral should cost much more than having an old washing machine taken away.

Read the comments under any broadsheet article about funerals. The evidence of rejection is everywhere. If the effect of a funeral is to leave you feeling, next day, beached and empty, that’s not surprising. A funeral is supposed to fill a hole, not leave a void. Here are some recent comments in a discussion forum on Mumsnet, of all places:

My MIL has said … she wants the absolute bare minimum in terms of coffin and cremation. No service, no ‘do’ afterwards. Then she wants close family to either go somewhere nice for the weekend together. 

I had it put in my will that i don’t want any sort of funeral when i die. I think the money funeral directors charge for the most simple of services is utterly abhorrent

[My mother-in-law] died recently, she didn’t care what we did by way of funeral (I think her only words on the subject were that we could drop her off the pier for all she cared…)

My uncle didn’t want a service – he just went straight to the crematorium.

I wouldn’t want to burden love ones with the cost, I have life insurance but would want the cheapest option

It is criminal how the respectful disposal of our loved ones has turned into a million pound industry!

I have left strict instructions that I am to have no funeral service and I have made sure everyone knows about it. It is written in my will and my family would never go against my wishes. They know how strongly I feel about it.

Immediate cremation, ashes in a simple box and then take me down our local and stick me on the bar whilst everyone has a quick drink. Next day, throw my ashes in the sea at the place I grew up in as a child. That will do. No order of service with dodgy photos and poems, no wittering on about my life and no-one failing miserably to pick out my favourite songs. Boo hiss boo.

I am a crematorium manager, and can confirm that plenty of people choose to have no funeral service.

I just don’t get the whole thing. I’ve only ever been to one funeral that was really a lovely rememberence and not out of duty of what they thought they had to do. I would much rather my family used money to go on holiday to our favourite place and remembered me there.

My FIL keeps saying he doesn’t want a funeral and wants to be cremated asap with no ceremony or fuss.

We chose not to have a funeral for my dad when he died. Cardboard coffin, cremation with no service. I think he would have been pleased but I tend not to tell anyone as I have some judgey reactions as if we were being cheap (was not relevant) or he was not loved (he was very much).

The Mumsnet discussion includes a few objections on the lines of: ‘To be fair, it’s not really about you. It’s about the loved ones you left behind, it’s an essential grieving process.’ But the overwhelming majority can see no good in a funeral.

This would seem to overturn the supposition that excellent secular funeral celebrants and empathetic undertakers would save the public ceremonial funeral by making it meaningful once more. But there’s a growing realisation that you don’t need to put a corpse in a box and tote it to the crem in blackmobiles, you can create a perfectly satisfying, private, informal farewell event with ashes. Direct cremation, already growing rapidly, looks set to skyrocket.

I know that there are lots of people who believe that reports of the demise of the funeral are exaggerated. They tell me to stop being so pessimistic, things are getting better. But I had lunch with Fran Hall, chair of the Natural Death Centre on Friday, and was struck to discover she thinks as I do. She said, “One day soon the industry is going to wake up and find itself dead”.

It’s possible that there’s no saving the funeral — it’s had its time. After all, it’s not just Britain that’s saying nah. But funeral people, overly focussed on commercial concerns, are putting up absolutely no concerted philosophical defence.

If the public, ceremonial funeral is worth saving, now is the time for the best in the business, from all walks of belief, to come together and be an influential voice in public discourse about funerals, much of which remains incoherent. If the emotional and/or spiritual health of the nation is at stake, who better to do it? Ans: among others, the people whose livelihoods depend on it. Come on, don’t go down without a fight. Do we really need funerals? If so, why?

Don’t all rush, I could be wrong, this may not be a Dunkirk moment. But crisis or no there still exists a pressing need to make a considered, rational and persuasive case for funerals — if, that is, you truly believe they do any real, deep and lasting good. Do you?

There are an awful lot of people out there who don’t. If you can’t demonstrate the purpose and value of your product, who’d want to buy it?

Who is mimicking who?

 Posted by Richard Rawlinson 

Two seasonal events coming up: the Nine Lessons and Carols is a traditional Christmas Eve ceremony, the most famous and widely broadcast being the service from King’s College, Cambridge; and Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, is showing for 10 nights in December at London’s Bloomsbury Theatre. A rationalist celebration of Yuletide, this year’s line-up promises music by Jonny & The Baptists (pictured) and stand-up comedy by Alexei Sayle.

Of course, members of the British Humanist Association, a non-prophet organisation, might enjoy the former, just as Christians might enjoy the latter. You don’t need to believe in angels to sing along to Robbie Williams’s Angels. And a bit of incredulous mockery doesn’t do the faithful any harm.

Though from an era of more restrained comedy, I’ve LOL’d at Dave Allen’s religious gags. Attending a funeral as a child, he recalls thinking the priest was saying: ‘In the name of the father and of the Son and into the hole he goes’. 

There are a few gentle jokes about non-believers, too. What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with an atheist? Someone who knocks on your door for no apparent reason.

The there’s the one about a priest and rational sceptic both up for the guillotine. Asked for his final words, the priest says: ‘I believe in God who will rescue me in my hour of need’. The executioner then pulls the cord, but the blade of the ominous contraption of death suddenly stops just short of his neck. ‘A miracle,’ gasps the crowd, and the executioner lets him go free.

Next, the rationalist is asked for his final words. He doesn’t hear the question as he’s staring intently at the guillotine. The executioner asks again to which the rationalist finally replies: ’Oh, I see your problem. You’ve got a blockage in the gear assembly, right there.’

Now to the more serious question of who is copying who at funerals, the subject for which the Nine Lessons and Carols events were a mere prelude:

Are secular funerals still too closely following the ceremonial rituals and traditions of religion? Or is the trend among religious funerals towards emphasis on eulogy and celebration of life in fact aping secularism? Are they merging into one and, if so, should they define themselves more clearly?

What would you like to see on your TV?

When media people phone the press office here at the GFG-Batesville Shard, their requests for information often conform to whatever they suppose to be trending.

“We’re doing something on living funerals. Are these catching on?”

“No.”

“We’re doing a documentary about the dying process and we want to film someone actually dying. Can you help us?”

“No.”

“Arranging a funeral?”

“No.”

When they say they want to expose malpractice, we urge them to shine a light on good practice, too, in the interest of fairness and balance.  We can introduce you to lots of good undertakers, we say. They always promise. They never do.

Today we received an enquiry about the growth of professional mourners in the UK. We replied a little perfunctorily that there hasn’t been. Actually, there’s an outfit called Rent A Mourner but we’ve always thought it must be a spoof. Have you ever encountered a professional mourner? We thought that would be the end of it.

But the enquirer, Malcolm Neaum of CB Films, pursued the topic on a broader front. Are British funerals being in any way cross-fertilised by multiculturalism, he wondered. And it’s a good question because, even though they haven’t to any remarkable degree, we have from time to time, on this discount cialis coupon blog, discussed the desirability of respectfully and gratefully adapting rituals and observances from other cultures with which to enrich our own ‘secular’ funerals, many of which are beautifully and expertly scripted, but are characterised by a DVT-threatening inactivity on the part of the audience. Funerals are going to go on evolving. The question is whether they are going to evolve in the direction of elaboration or extinction. 

Malcolm is keen to make a documentary about funerals — has been for some time. He tells us: I’ve been working in documentaries for 15 years and have never been able to get a commissioning editor interested in even approaching the topic of death.’ 

He adds: ‘My grandfather died last year and I can’t help but feel that so much of the symbolism and power has been stripped from a modern day funeral. Hopefully, an interesting programme may be an opportunity to you explore the funeral ritual in modern times.’

Malcolm has asked me to ask you what you think. What could he most usefully make a programme about? 

It’s a rare thing to be asked what we think. I hope you will tell him. He says, ‘it’s very exciting to think what we will hear back.’ 

Go on: excite him!

Modern grief 2 — To shirk suffering is also to shirk those who suffer

Posted by Charles

Over at the Heart of Mopsus blog, here,  the Rector of Swanvale Halt took part in an Easter Friday Walk of Witness and reflected as follows:

Christians insist on publicly remembering a single, immensely violent event on a sunny Bank Holiday when everyone else is enjoying themselves; certainly most of my friends, to judge by Facebook which is the measure of all things, were doing and describing a variety of lighthearted activities while I was deliberately and voluntarily turning my mind to pain and horror.

The relationship between these different modes of feeling and thinking is complex. Our natural human tendency is to avoid the painful and problematic, quite understandably and rightly, and yet our understanding of who we are, what we are capable of, and what life can include, is superficial and incomplete if we spend all our time avoiding such dark elements of our common experience – and perhaps that even encourages us to avoid those who suffer, or misjudge them. As always, in my opinion, the Church has down the centuries got this wrong: but I think, by contrast with the heathen world growing up around it, the truth and rightness of the sacrifice of Christ is becoming clearer than ever.