Saturday 12 September 2009

Funereal thoughts

I have no wish to criticise or offend anyone reading this so please understand that these are my personal feelings on a delicate subject.

Recently Barry and I went to the funeral of a very pleasant lady whom we had known for some thirty years. We were never close but always friendly. Beforehand I told Barry there would be standing room only at the crematorium for she and her husband were a gregarious and sociable couple. I was right – we stood for the entirety of the fairly short service and it was heart-warming to see such a supportive attendance. Her widower, their children, many of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren were there. Some people had travelled great distances to attend. Of the one hundred or so people in the congregation about half were 'family'.

Why then did Barry and I drive away with such heavy hearts? Simply, it was a dreary, gloomy, miserable service giving little insight into this person's life. I believe this was due in no small part to the officiating minister whose delivery was – I was going to say 'soulful' but in fact it wasn't – it was empty of any warmth but full of 'Day of Judgement' – there was no comfort in it at all. Our friend had a full and loving life and many interests which she relished but no-one would ever have known this from the service. I don't know if her family members were happy with it – I sincerely hope they were – but it reinforced some thoughts I had formulated at other such solemn occasions.

Singing: this is a means of expressing emotion. Most people don't sing in tune or even keep to the same key within two lines of a song. This doesn't usually matter until they are gathered together and asked to sing. So . . .

1: If you are going to have hymns or sacred songs, make sure they're transposed into a key which accommodates most voices. Few people can sing accurately an octave higher or lower than middle C. Build in the emotion and you have a sound like a cracked bell.

2: Cut the number of verses to be sung. Do you really want everyone to be reminded of death in every verse? The very act of attending a funeral ensures that no-one's going to forget.

3: Employ an empathetic organist who will subtly speed up the accompaniment when required to avoid a dirge.

3: Unless you are going to have a professional choir to lead the singing don't choose hymns/songs that are unfamiliar or the chapel/church will echo with wavering tearful voices.

Dress: this depends very much on your attitude. Certainly a funeral is a solemn occasion – very few people really want to dance on someone's grave. (My neighbour told me he wanted to be buried at sea and I, gullible as ever, said, 'Really?' and he grinned and said, 'Yes, to spite all those people who want to dance on my grave'.) My feeling is that a funeral should be a celebration of life, however long or short that life may have been. I have known of funerals for small children where immense sorrow and grief were mixed with the joy of having known them. Personally I'd wish to have anyone who cared to come to my funeral to wear their favourite colours (knowing my luck, they would all favour black! Maybe I should specify that they wear bright colours.) Dress for the season and for comfort.

Flowers: in my opinion flowers are for the living. Those expensive wreaths are destined to fade, turn brown and crumble away at the site of the funeral – what a miserable tribute they become and yet in this sense they are a short enactment of life. Give flowers to the people you love while they live. After my father's death I gave my mother flowers every week – she knew why. After death plant a shrub or give money to the dead person's favourite charity.

The coffin/casket: this is going to be burned or buried so any plain box should serve. However, not wishing to appear mean or penny-pinching many people are persuaded to buy expensive coffins of highly-polished wood with brass furnishings. I've always said that my body could be put in a bag in the dustbin since I wouldn't need it any more though I think the local refuse collectors might object! I jest - my point is that a dead body is the left-over remains, the shell of the person it housed. Dispose of it decently with due respect but don't waste money on appearances. My family know my feelings so a bit of plywood should suffice for me!

The service: I'm not suggesting there should be riotous assembly at this final farewell ceremony but try to remember the person who is the centre of attention, the guest of honour who is, perforce, absent. Many people don't trust themselves to give a eulogy so make sure the people who can speak are furnished with enough information to raise a smile, a nod of recognition, to reawaken a memory. Enable the people to laugh while they mourn. Let the congregation leave the service with a smile as well as a tear.

The wake: Most post-funeral gatherings are referred to as wakes but to be precise, a wake is traditionally held before the funeral in the presence of the deceased. The original purpose was to make absolutely sure that the inhabitant of the coffin really was dead and not merely cataleptic. My sister would so have enjoyed the gathering after her funeral and it's sad that people so often don't see each other until called together for a funeral.

The disposal of the body: I felt it was most unfortunate and not a little insensitive that as we stood outside the crematorium and our widowed friend wept and hugged his family and friends, clouds of smoke, first dark then light, drifted over our heads. It was a busy day and already another funeral hearse was at the entrance with its attendant crowd of mourners but surely there must be a way of avoiding such a crass reminder of what is happening to the body of the person you loved.

My thoughts on final resting places have changed over the years. When I was young I felt that cremation was the only sensible answer – graveyards were full. As a very young child I had a recurring waking nightmare of being buried alive, unable to make myself heard or to escape – with the egocentricity of the infant I could not envisage a world without me in it. The concept of death as more than deep unconsciousness was beyond my understanding. Latterly I have thought that burial might be the answer but in a woodland setting, a 'green' resting place where I might give back to the world more than I have given it in life. We tried to arrange this for my mother eight years ago, for she would have loved the notion, but were gently told that the few sites available were not attractive places, little more than construction sites. My father wished his body to be donated to medical research but when we attempted to honour his wishes we were informed that no bodies were required. That was twenty years ago and I suppose now bodies are no longer needed because every experience can be simulated. Simulation is not always a satisfactory alternative to reality – but more of that another time. Cremations are currently considered to be ecologically unsound.

A funeral can never be a truly happy event but surely it should reflect something of the spirit and vibrancy of the life that has passed.

Ah well, I'll be lucky to have three people and a dog at my funeral . . .


  1. I found your 'funeral thoughts' insightful and thought provoking. In my experience, the most cathartic and satisfying 'memorials' are those that celebrate the life of the loved one or friend who has just passed.
    Hugs and blessings,

  2. Thank you Happily Retired - is it our age, do you think, that causes us to ponder these things? ;-)

  3. I agree with Happily Retired Gal, funerals should be about the celebration of life. I know I would want that at mine. A poignant post and one that I will keep in mind. Thank you for writing it and sharing with us all.

  4. I have never seen the sense in burying or burning very ornate coffins. I suppose it is down to the idea that families had to give the deceased 'a good send off', the cost no doubt reflecting their status. Thankfully, this seems to be less of an issue now and there are cheaper, greener funerals available.

    This suits me fine, I'll be happy with my whicker coffin. Or even one of those cardboard ones which you can decorate yourself!

  5. Ooh that sounds fun - you'd have to be careful with the paint though - don't want to knock everyone out with the fumes ;-)

  6. I am sorry about your friend and that she was not honoured properly at her funeral. I think sometimes that the service part of a funeral can be the worst part-if the vicar did not know the deceased and there is no one to represent them as it were. I have been to two funerals a little like that, where the gathering afterwards was lovely but the service not so. The third was a beautiful service and had a speaker who did justice to the person we had lost and did what you said-made us leave with laughter as well as tears.
    A very interesting post.

  7. Oh-as another thought-I saw this programme about Ghana years ago-I think this is correct-I will go and check-but they bury their dead in beautiful carved wooden coffins-quite crudely carved-and brightly painted-as animals-now that is a coffin I would like!

  8. Sarah - that really does sound like fun. Now, what animal should I be? H'mmm . . .


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