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Other Peoples’ Funerals 9 March 2015

Posted by Dr Moose in Chaplaincy, Faith, Language, Life, Ponderings, Prayer, Theology, University.
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I know, I can hardly comment about my own…

Last week, among other things, I journeyed into Suffolk. To Ipswich Crematorium to be precise, accompanying a group of thirty or so students to the funeral of R the first year student who died in halls last month. It’s part of the role of University Chaplain, even if not explicitly stated, or at least, that’s how I see it.

Indeed the whole topic of seeing funerals is something of an odd one. As a minister of the established church I am no stranger to funerals: I must have performed hundreds of them in the last fifteen years, primarily as curate and later as half-time parish priest. I have been to far fewer as a supportive presence, and fewer still with some degree of mourning involved, sometimes as both mourner and celebrant. To view funerals as both celebrant and companion is the same in one respect though. In the former case you are a privileged outsider, an outsider with insider access. You hold the proceedings together, are privy to whatever the family and friends have told you about the deceased, as well as learning to discern details beyond those, and yet you have usually never ever met them. You are In yet Out. I always feel it’s important to publicly acknowledge this lack of personal knowledge when you conduct a service too (and not just to protect yourself from accusations of partiality or misrepresentation).

As a companion, as last week, you are a step further removed. Present to provide support, should it be needed by those who mourn, yet with nothing to mourn beyond that common empathic acknowledgement of the nature of grief and loss, by which we are all diminished. (Yet I suspect it wasn’t that long ago that the phenomenon of the professional mourner slipped into obscurity).

The service itself was an explicitly secular humanist one, the second I have been to in six months (and making me wonder how common they are). And what did my professional eye make of it? Well, the phrase “tasteful hagiography” would be a good starting point (something that faith-based funerals are just as capable of). Memories were shared, and just possibly wallowed in a little, with a few “might have beens”. Thankfully I did not hear the old, unthinkingly offensive, statement about only the good dying young!) Any weaknesses or failings of the young man in question were avoided entirely, and there was a good link to the context that might have been expected for the funeral of a lad of a similar age 100 years ago. (I was reminded once again of the question from the faith perspective of what constitutes the ‘good death’, as well as that recurrent question about the generally observed inverse relationship between the age of the deceased and the number present at the funeral, and the difficulty of imagining the older person as once having been vibrant and full of energy and exuberance).

There were many words, mainly channeled through the celebrant. But it occurred to me that there was no real opportunity for corporate expression. Unlike the previous secular funeral I attended, and the vast majority of faith funerals, there was no corporate singing. Beyond any issues of whether God receives praise in the singing of a hymn there is something of a corporate dynamic such an exercise provides. That, and the nature of the rest of the service, are perhaps a definite sign of the times in which we live.

And what of the choice of readings and ‘canned’ music? They were fair enough, and I have no reason to believe that they weren’t representative. They served the secular context to reflect, to both remember R and our own mortality. What I was reminded of (or noticed) most through the whole proceedings was that in the faith context there is an explicit meta-narrative, a meaning as part of a bigger picture or story arc. Take faith out and we were left bereft of an agreed meta-narrative. “That’s your lot, sonny. Let’s rejoice in how it was used” was the implied message. Proceedings carefully wrapped up to avoid hopelessness, but hardly hope-filled either, beyond the encouragement to take his light and apply it into our own subjective environments. It raised the question for me whether the process was basically meaningless, beyond any meanings we brought with us, and I suspect that the lack of any corporate engagement in singing, or even in corporate spoken response (a function covered by communal prayer) further reinforced that atomised, individualistic slant. (In passing a comment also revealed the misunderstanding of the nature of prayer. While music was played to enable reflection on the life of the one no longer with us those who had faith were explicitly reminded that they could use the time for prayer. This is all well and good, apart from the fact that praying while music with lyrics is being played is not the easiest of activities!)

I have to acknowledge that it’s been a long time since I’ve actually critically reflected on the nature and practice of faith funerals too, and so may be open to just as many questions, even if from a different direction, one of which is over how much people hear of what the liturgy and celebrant are saying as opposed to hearing what they want to hear. That, however, is for another day. Nevertheless, it helped me to write, and may have given you, dear readers, a different perspective.

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Comments»

1. Martin Couchman - 9 March 2015

Surely the purpose is for friends and family to say goodbye, to meet each other, and provide a day on which they can pin their memories and farewells. Meaningless? Well, perhaps, but life and death themselves are pretty meaningless, so I see no expectation of ‘meaning’ in a funeral. I attended a Quaker funeral, which we thought would be painful, but was actually very good. There was of course no formal service beyond a brief introduction, and anyone was free to stand up and talk. The result was a collection of memories, stories and comments which both the religious and non-religious could appreciate; a memorable occasion. A heavily religion-filled funeral can be a frustrating and irritating experience for anyone present who thinks the person at the front is talking a load of nonsense.


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