The slow (and ignominious) death of the British funeral

When my time comes, I don’t want a ‘celebration of life’. I want tears

14 May 2016

9:00 AM

14 May 2016

9:00 AM

Funerals ain’t what they used to be. Today’s emphasis is more on celebrating a life past than honouring the future of a soul. While I am not averse to a celebratory element, the funeral is morphing into a spiritually weightless bless-fest. This was brought home to me last week at the funeral of Enid, a lady I knew only through our mutual attendance at bingo in the community centre.

I was uncomfortable from the moment we gathered outside the church, where my sombre suit set me apart from the Technicolor crowd of family and friends. The atmosphere was more akin to a wedding, even a hen do, than a funeral, the air drenched in perfume and aftershave. Inside, there was pew-to-pew chatter, wall-to-wall music (Robbie Williams’s ‘Angels’, inevitably), not a single moment of silence, and not a single sacred song, let alone a prayer (an inaccurately mumbled Lord’s Prayer excepted). There were two readings, one by a grand-niece of perhaps eight, snivelling, bless, a poem about being only next door; then a nephew offering a eulogy, the main point of which was that his aunt had been a keen gardener ‘and she will plant her flowers in heaven’.

I know I shouldn’t sneer. Religion, the Anglican version anyhow, is a broad church with a wide liturgical spectrum. But I could not help feeling that such celebration missed the point. It somehow connected with a virtual life rather than a real death. It was spiritual displacement activity.

As someone already in the queue, so to speak, I can see why this is becoming the norm. Social media declares that privacy is theft: your life is public property. The same must apply to death. And yet selfie culture insists, ‘Look at me, I’m having a wonderful time.’ It is uncomfortable with any performance conflicting with that message. Grief falls into this category.

One means of resolving the contradiction is the memorial service. Originally reserved for civic and media nobility — and there has been an epidemic of such sad departures recently — it has now become fashionable for more local heroes. Such services occur substantially post-mortem, enabling a style of celebration that might be perceived as distasteful if indulged during the actual funeral service. Another option is to forego the funeral entirely through ‘instant cremation’: the deceased is taken direct from the deathbed to disposal at the crematorium. Finally, there is the fashion for heaping flowers on memorial benches and accident locations rather than at the grave.

In each case, the effect is to devalue the funereal act. Does it matter? The decline of the religious funeral is symptom of a cultural malaise — one infecting even those services with a traditional liturgy of prayer and Bible readings, where too often the president admonishes the congregation to avoid sadness, presumptuously invoking the deceased’s authority: ‘Enid would not want your tears.’

Well, sorry, but when it is my turn — and it could be any day now — I do want tears. I have no wish for a eulogy, and certainly not one which reduces my three score years and twenty to an aptitude for horticulture, but I expect some recognition that I will leave a gap: that in simple, silly ways I shall be missed.

This plea is made as much on behalf of those in attendance and those left behind as it is for myself. The funeral is a universal social construct, based on an ancient formula for the healthy expression of collective grief. But it is more than that. It nudges us all into an amendment of life. It offers liturgical material which reassures us that the man with the scythe will not have the last word. Because, whatever our beliefs, the reality is that the death of another is a shock and the religious funeral — which places the event within a more cosmic dimension — is an essential part of the therapy for the traumatic distress which will invariably follow.

As it happens, I attended a better funeral a couple of weeks earlier. It took place in a crematorium, whereas Enid’s affair had been in a real church. So in a sense the contrast was the greater. We sat in silence until the coffin was brought in with those wondrous ominous words

I am the Resurrection and the Life…

which set the tone for a sustained focus on the divinity of love and the hope of eternal life. Even without the accoutrements of a holy building, there was a feeling of belonging to a larger universe, a sense of the transformational.

In this secular age, sceptical of the numinous, the religious funeral demands from us the spiritual literacy which can surrender its cerebral convictions to an incredible hope. If that ingredient is removed, if every departure is presented as an event from which we are urged to move on, to draw a line under, then it does not take a psychiatrist or a theologian to identify a major source of contemporary angst.

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  • MummyofPrudence

    Excellent article, I couldn’t agree more. Humanist funerals are even worse, and, as someone who writes poetry, doggerel and silly verse, I’d like to point out that there is nothing more embarrassing than poems at funerals (apart from poems in the Spectator comments section, written by me, since someone is bound to say it) pretentious deep ones are as bad as naff ‘birthday card’ type offerings read by children.

    I feel a poem coming on now, perhaps I’ll call it ‘The Dumbing Down of Death’.

  • MummyofPrudence

    The Dumbing Down of Death

    When I am gone
    Think only this of me,
    I did not die
    Because I longed to lie
    In silence where I couldn’t hear
    You reading poetry.
    Crying, stumbling, sobbing, taking care,
    It’s all as bad,
    Though man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live,
    And is full of misery,
    Don’t make it worse,
    I did not love the works of Edward Lear,
    More than the language of the Book of Common Prayer,
    So don’t read verse.

    • red2black

      It’s not the cough
      that carries you off;
      it’s the coffin
      they carry you off in.

      • gunnerbear

        I ‘aven’t ‘eard that in years….. 🙂

  • Yorkieeye

    You shouldn’t expect any sort of memorial in a traditional Anglican funeral; it’s not about you as a person. It’s about God and you as an example of his creation.

    • Stu

      This article has really brought out the proselytizing among you.

      • Yorkieeye

        Not really, I’ve been to a lot of funerals and that’s the liturgy.

  • The more jollity people try to inject into funerals, the more depressing they are. Thankfully, the only funerals I find myself at are those of my brethren in Christ. These are genuinely spiritual and uplifting occasions, times when we’re reminded that our Lord has triumphed over death and the grave, and those that are His share in His victory, and go to be with Him. The apostle Paul could speak about “having the desire for departure and being with Christ, for it is very much better…” (Philippians 1 v 23).

    • Stu

      As long as you’re happy in your delusion and don’t inflict it on others, have fun!

      • Jim Station

        …but you are free to inflict your cynicism on others? A bit inconsistent in your argument.

  • SunnyD

    ahh……. reminiscing…. ……..I used to be so good at it…….

    • Jonah Varlik

      Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be

      • SunnyD

        I’m going to meditate on that one, thank you

  • Zalacain

    Christianity has had 2000 years in which to perfect a funeral. Maybe the non-religious need a few decades in which to develop their own funerals.

    • Stu

      I have my disposal already prepaid and planned…cardboard coffin, no service, no words, no people besides the funeral directors and council grave diggers, over and done with.

      Anyone who claims a ‘funeral’ gives ‘closure’ doesn’t know what they’re talking about. I’ve been to close family member’s funerals, stood with a cord in my hand, even visited graves months later, and I had no feelings that the deceased was anywhere, neither in the ground nor off in some other realm.

      As for the old cliche “Wasn’t it a lovely service” or “Such a comforting service” …what rubbish!

      I have to steal from the late Christopher Hitchens when discussing ‘closure’, when he said that it doesn’t exist, and it wouldn’t be worth having if it did, because all it would mean was that you woke up one morning and thought “How nice, I don’t feel anything about her anymore”.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Look at the coffin; bloody great knobs on
    Isn’t it grand boys; to be bloody-well dead

    Let’s not have a sniffle, let’s have a bloody-good cry
    The longer you live boys
    The sooner you’ll die

    Look at the florist, counting his profits
    Isn’t it grand, boys, to be bloody-well dead?

    Look at the mourners, bloody-great hypocrites
    Isn’t it grand, boys, to be bloody-well dead?

    Look at the preacher, a bloody-great poofter
    Isn’t it grand, boys, to be bloody-well dead?

    Let’s not have a sniffle, let’ have a bloody-good cry
    And always remember: The longer you live
    The sooner you’ll bloody-well die

    Look at the widow, after his best friend
    Isn’t it grand, boys, to be bloody-well dead?

    Let’s not have a sniffle, let’s have a bloody-good cry
    And always remember: The longer you live
    The sooner you’ll bloody-well die

    • Jonah Varlik

      poofter… you have personal knowledge perhaps?

      • terence patrick hewett

        Whenever you see a hearse go by
        Remember some-time you’re going to die
        Oo-arr-eee how happy we shall be

        They put you in a big black box
        And cover you up with dirt and rocks.
        Oo-arr-eee how happy we shall be

        It goes quite well for very first week
        But then the coffin begins to leak
        Oo-arr-eee how happy we shall be

        They wrap you up in a big white shirt
        And bury you six feet under the dirt
        Oo-arr-eee how happy we shall be

        Your eyes fall in your teeth fall out
        Your brain comes drizzling out of your snout
        Oo-arr-eee how happy we shall be

        The worms crawl in the worms crawl out
        They gobble you up from the inside out
        Oo-arr-eee how happy we shall be

        They eat your eyes and they eat your nose
        They eat the jelly between your toes
        Oo-arr-eee how happy we shall be

        And then your bones begin to rot
        The worms are there but you are not
        Oo-arr-eee how happy we shall be

        A big green worm with rolling eyes
        Crawls in your stomach and out your eyes
        Oo-arr-eee how happy we will be

        Your stomach turns into a slimy green
        And pus pours out like whipped up cream
        Oo-arr-eee how happy we will be

        Spread it on a slice of bread,
        And that’s what you eat when you are dead
        Oo-arr-eee how happy we will be

        The moral of the story that’s been related
        Is not be buried but be cremated.

  • Marian Hunter

    Excellent article. People’s discomfiture in the face of death foments these weird party type funerals with awful mewling music “I will always love you” “Angels” “I did it my way” to name but a few. Death is a solemn occasion ( unless one is bound to inherit a vast fortune) and it should be treated as such.

    • Stu

      Not that I care for these colourful events, but I think it’s up to those concerned.

  • Mary Ann

    I find myself thinking at religious funerals that wouldn’t it be nice to believe in heaven and everlasting life.

    • Stu

      I couldn’t think of anything more ghastly!

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      There are Atheist like that. Wish they would believe/buy into that religious claptrap, but just can’t. Theoritically, without religion you should have a lot more free time.

  • Katja Küttner

    The result of the ideas promoted for quite a while, that the essential thing is to find pleasures, do things for fun and be yourself. If you want to put on garish outfit at the funeral or step out and say that you feel more concerned about your faulty gadget than your close friend’s or relative’s death, there is nothing wrong. There are no wrong or right whatsoever, that’s all your perception, imagination and complexes. Life is too short, make fun, change ideas, friend, relatives, if you find that comfortable. The most alarming fact is that I see the shoots of the ideology everywhere and even my friends mention some fragments of that, even if they are not completely dedicated to that primitive hedonism and a kind of schizophrenic inadequacy, that we all are supposed to develop.

  • Stu

    I’ve only been to a couple of funerals myself, and to my horror, I found I was struggling to prevent myself from bursting in laughter…no disrespect intended, and I found nothing funny about the gathering, but upon looking to my right I found my then girlfriend was having an equally hard time keeping a straight face. Neither of us could explain it, but we were close to having to quietly remove ourselves and run outside – thankfully we survived without anyone realising.

    • rob232

      Possibly because you are young and have never experienced the death of a close friend or relative. Once people start dying around you ( and sooner or later it happens to us all ) death and funerals become very sad even if you don’t feel directly affected.

      • Stu

        I’m not so young rob, not so old either unfortunately, and I’m facing my own demise in the near future. I must admit I was 23 years younger at the funeral I mention, and I imagine it was really nerves and anxiety which made us struggle to contain our inappropriate reaction.

        • rob232

          I’m so sorry to hear about your problems.

          • Stu

            Kind of you to say Rob, life is rarely fair though, and I don’t think there’s ever a good time to go…I mean if I were in my 80s I’m sure I’d still feel the same as I do now, and so many never even see adulthood, so it’s pointless to indulge in self-pity.

  • carl jacobs

    When life is meaningless, it’s hard to find meaning in a funeral. Better to eat, drink, and be merry. Tomorrow we are all dead. We go where there is no justice for the afflicted, and the evil man hides himself in the ground beyond reach. Blessed is the man who has the wealth to narcotize his life with pleasure, for he shall at least die in a fog.

    Until of course he hears the words “Thou fool!” and can say nothing in response but “Earth, cover me up.”

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      You been reading the Beano again?

      • carl jacobs

        Well, no. I have never heard of The Beano, and don’t know any more about it than a quick perusal of the first page of a Google search – the accomplishment of which required the investnent of more time than your comment deserved.

        • Jackthesmilingblack

          “never heard of The Beano”
          Kids today, what would you do with um!

  • I’ve seen some utterly dreadful drivel poured out at both religious and non-religious funerals. This isn’t just a problem of the humanist kind. One of the worst was when an eighty something lady, the mother of a friend of mine was described about twenty times (I kid you not) by a priest as ‘a faithful woman’. Now I have no problem with her being referred to in that way once, but twenty times? Bad funerals are lead by sloppy, ill-prepared folk of all persuasions. Sometimes, the problem is that there isn’t much to say about the person because they didn’t do much, other than breathe.

  • rob232

    Unfortunately I’ve been to quite a few funerals. The majority of them Catholic, many Spanish as I’ve lived there for many years. I can only remember one religious funeral conducted by a sensitive priest ready to give comfort to the bereaved. Seldom have I seen such an exhibition of sloth as that displayed by the Spanish clergy. Garbled masses are the norm. Often they forget the name of the deceased. The modern trend to simply give eulogies and play music is a most welcome change and I have found much more comforting than the impatience of an unprofessional religious celebrant.

  • Jacobi

    I have left specific instructions that Celano’s Dies Irae will be sung plus other Traditional cries for mercy, such as the penitential Psalms , and of course no sermon or speeches of any sort.

    All of that will last for at least two hours so I do not expect all that many to turn up.

    Which will be good for members of my family who will have all the more time to enjoy the very splendid selection of whiskeys and Guyanan rums I am storing up for the house party. And first choice to the poor Proddies, for sticking it out. We are a large but mixed family you see!

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Wouldn’t there be an Atheist Handbook for this?
    Or even the semtex waistcoat.
    Don’t mess with the elderly. They’ve got a lot less to lose.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    “‘e was a diamond geeza”
    That is so Ronnie and Reggie.

  • philadelphialawyer

    I recently attended the funeral of my great aunt. While there were definitely tears, to me, the most moving part was the eulogy spoken by one of the deceased’s granddaughters. Rather than all the BS about Jesus and eternal life and so on, which is just generic and obligatory anyway, besides being wish fulfillment, her words about the real person, the grandmother, the mother, the cook, the wine drinker, the great kidder, the modest woman, and, yes, the gardener, were what rang true and honest and heartfelt. And most everyone felt the same way, despite the fact that this was a religious funeral and most of the attendees are believers.

    A celebration of the life of the decedent is what it really should be all about. We, the living, have lost this actual, distinct, particular, and (let’s hope!) beloved, person. That is the bottom line. That should be the focus. NOT trotting out, for the millionth time, some one size fits all fairy story about imaginary beings and imaginary places and so on.

  • Miss Floribunda Rose

    Even worse are the roadside ‘shrines’. These always seem to feature a card bearing the single yet so eloquent word “Why”? written upon it, and another containing the heartfelt message that “Heaven has gained a new angel”. I have informed my nearest and dearest that no matter how tragic my demise may be, under no circumstances is a shrine to be erected in my memory!

  • Sargon the bone crusher

    Yes, the absurd infantile denial of reality in the modern British funeral is another constituent element in the deconstruction of profundity. Everywhere in present Britain is trivial, childlike superficiality. A dreadful time to live in a dreadful but once wonderful place.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      So hate it and leave it.
      Jack, the Japan Alps Brit

  • fitzfitz

    The efficiency of the Neptune Society’s in California is remarkable : within a couple if hours they will pick up those who have completed their Violet Hour and return their ash reduction in a wicker or other pre-selected container. Swift, Silent, serene; just as my father says BOAC was.

  • Will

    Celebrating life has been a part of funerals since the Victorians at least. Before them it was the whole point of a wake.

  • TrulyDisqusted

    I attended the funeral of a neighbour and friend and was horrified when the service in the church was conducted whilst the deceased remained parked outside on a busy road in the back of the hearse for its entirety.

    What kind of family would agree to that? I must admit it has altered my view of them and now every time I see them and exchange small pleasantries I can’t get it out of my head that there stands a woman who excluded her mother from her own funeral.

    Let us hope that God was outside in the back of the hearse keeping Esther company because she was the only person at her own funeral who wasn’t present for her favourite hymns, prayers and eulogy.

    It ruined an otherwise perfectly good day out.

    • Marian Hunter

      That is the height of disrespect to your neighbour and friend Esther. I am sure God was keeping her company in the cruel disregard of her human remains, surely someone must have noticed her absence.

  • I loathe this trend. People will attend my Requiem Mass to pray for my soul, or they can stay right away thanks. That’s what I want.

  • Dacorum

    I hate attending humanist funerals. They are like a retirement party without the guest of honour and as such, utterly pointless and empty.
    A funeral should be religious and offer the usual Christian funeral liturgy.

  • trobrianders

    I buried my father on Monday. It was comfortingly ordinary.