No sacred cows

A very British response to a death at a funeral

7 April 2018

9:00 AM

7 April 2018

9:00 AM

Something very odd occurred at a funeral I attended last week — somebody died. I don’t mean the person who was being buried. They had died a few days earlier, obviously. I mean one of the mourners passed away during the service. That was shocking in its own right, but what made it surreal is that the other mourners carried on as if nothing had happened.

The funeral took place in the deceased’s garden, where her family had arranged for her to be buried, and at the conclusion of the service someone announced that wine and food would be served. The 100 or so people in attendance formed a queue at the kitchen door and started chatting among themselves. Meanwhile, the poor woman who had died was flat out on the grass behind them.

Actually, that description doesn’t quite do justice to how bizarre the scene was. The woman wasn’t simply lying in a corner of the garden, where she might have gone unnoticed. Rather, she was being attended to by a doctor who was doing his best to resuscitate her. That is, he was performing vigorous CPR in a way which was impossible not to be aware of. Then, after about ten minutes, an ambulance crew arrived and started trying to shock her back to life. It was like a scene out of Holby City, with a paramedic shouting ‘Clear!’ before applying the electrodes. It could not have been more dramatic. And yet no one paid the slightest bit of attention.


I can think of several explanations. The first and most important is that there are no longer any clear social guidelines when it comes to death and funerals. Had it been a Christian service, there would have been an obvious authority figure — the vicar or priest — and he would have suspended or postponed the service while he dealt with the crisis. But it wasn’t a Christian funeral. Rather, it borrowed from several religions, including Buddhism, and there was no single person in charge, and therefore no one to take a decision about how to react. You could see people looking at each other, hoping for cues about how to behave and I daresay that if even one person had called a halt to the proceedings and suggested people go home, everyone would have done so. But because no one did — because there is no unambiguously ‘correct’ way to respond when someone dies at an unorthodox funeral such as this — everyone just ignored it.

The fact the funeral was taking place in the garden of the deceased, and a gazebo had been erected, also complicated things. It meant there was no obvious place to retire to, away from the body on the grass, as a mark of respect. Had it been in a church or a graveyard, we could have left and gone on to the wake, leaving a group to deal with the unexpected death. True, there was a house, but it wasn’t large enough to accommodate everybody and, in any case, much of the downstairs was occupied by the caterers. The choice was between ignoring the death or asking people to go home and, given the trouble the family had gone to, and that everyone wanted to pay their respects, ignoring it seemed like the lesser of two evils.

People might have behaved differently if the woman in question was known to them — if she’d been a member of the deceased’s family, for instance. But it soon became apparent that very few people knew her. She was unaccompanied, too, which is one of the reasons the doctor and paramedics continued trying to resuscitate long after it was obvious she wasn’t coming back. Apparently, medical professionals are obliged to do that, irrespective of how clearly dead the person is, unless they’ve expressed a wish not to be resuscitated — and there was no way of knowing in this lady’s case. This is partly what made the situation so bizarre: the professionals had a clear protocol they had to follow, even though it was patently ridiculous, while the rest of us were hamstrung by a lack of protocol. The upshot was the worst of all possible worlds for this poor woman, whose death and its aftermath could not have been more undignified. Then again, she did die almost instantly, so perhaps it didn’t matter all that much.

I’m not sure if the way we behaved was wrong — I’ll have to consult Dear Mary. But the odd thing is that the additional dead body didn’t seem to tarnish the experience for anyone. It was a very good funeral and the fact that no one overreacted to what happened reminded me of the deceased, who would have done the same.

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