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The way we treat the dead in Britain is abominable

You are standing on the pavement and you spot a funeral procession. What do you do?

By on Thursday, 7 April 2011

Members of the Royal British Legion lower their standards as the coffin of Corporal Stephen McKee arrives at Wootton Bassett (Ben Birchall/PA Wire)

Members of the Royal British Legion lower their standards as the coffin of Corporal Stephen McKee arrives at Wootton Bassett (Ben Birchall/PA Wire)

Picture this. You are standing on the pavement in a moderately busy road or street somewhere in Britain. In the distance you spot a hearse, followed by some black limousines. Yes, it is a funeral procession. What do you do? Is it:

a. Stand to attention, remove any headgear if you are a man, and wait for the coffin to pass; as it does so, you make a bow with the head. If you are a Catholic, you make the sign of the Cross. When the coffin has passed, you carry on as normal.
b. Ignore it, pretend it is not happening, and carry on as normal.

Once upon a time, everyone opted for “a”. Nowadays, everyone opts for “b”. I know that of which I speak, because only yesterday I did “a” as a coffin passed, but noticed no one else doing the same, and I often sit in hearses myself and see the way pedestrians behave. I have never seen anyone doing “a”.

The way we treat the living in Britain is pretty appalling, but the way we treat the dead is abominable, and even more inexcusable, as it would not cost us much to show a little respect to those on their last journey, or to teach our children to do the same.

Furthermore, undertakers often tell me that they have to deal with rude drivers on the way to the cemetery or crematorium; I too have witnessed the hooting of horns, and the “cutting in” at roundabouts. Funeral processions are supposed to go at a funereal pace, and people should give way to them – but this is all too rare.

I think this is another symptom of what has rightly been diagnosed as “Broken Britain”.

The tie that binds us together is no longer there. For stopping and noticing a funeral procession is a sign that we share a common humanity, a common mortality, that we are all one community. When people fail to do this, what does it say?

Kudos to the one shining example of a town in Britain that shows us how we ought to behave – Royal Wootton Bassett.

  • Anonymous

    Two months ago I would not have responded to this but, last month I attended a funeral at Vit et Pax, Cockfosters. Having lost the funeral procession I afterwards ended up at the wrong cemetery. Strangely, I am sort of pleased I did. Let me explain. I ended up at New South Gate Cemetery in London. I searched around for the lost funeral party in vain and chanced upon the Greek Orthodox section.

    I pulled up and found myself compelled to look around at the profusion of bright colours, candles, devotionals, rosaries, photographs, and beautiful headstones. All this was in a neat and tidy order, manicured to the nth degree. I felt like a trespasser in a foreign land. This was definitely a vision that lifted the soul that I will never forget and it taught me something valuable about the way we should consider the dead.

    The stark contrast the rest of the grey, unkempt cemetery, as I drove away, made my heart sink and I came back down to earth with a sudden bump, if not a little ashamed of the pitiful scene. It may sound a little over dramatic but, I am actually not exaggerating.

    Is it too fanciful to imagining a time when Catholics will start visiting family graves on All Souls Day again. This is where Catholics go in the evening and light candles over the graves of there relatives, just like in many other parts of the remaining civilised world.

  • Anonymous

    Puppetry of the Polis mon cher…
    In the film ‘Steptoe & Son Rise Again’ Old Man Albert’s faked his death and is inadvertently trapped in his coffin and being transported through the streets of London on a horse & cart in a traditional ‘Totter’s funeral’.
    The film shows a tiny clip of an old soldier in the crowd, unaware that it’s actually a comedy, standing resolutely still and saluting with the best decorum he could muster – I’m certain the director must have thought “Oh God bless the old codger! We’ve got to keep that bit in”.

    You’re wrong of course, Father; it isn’t everyone:It’s just the many. I’ve been to a few hundred funerals over the years and know that sadly, yes; few stop to respect the deceased – but those few have the dignity of angels – it’s not lost – it’s a practice that can easily return – we just need those ‘tzaddikim’ in the populace to become our teachers or prick our consciences.

    I stack shelves in ASDA – it’s very easy to determine what has been the nature of the previous night’s television viewing – for if it has been teen-oriented [skins,misfits,inbetweeners etc] the younger staff members will be more obstreperous, mocking, incendiary – there will be more vitriol, tears and squabbles amongst the girls, more red-faced young men sullenly concentrating on their work and keeping away from their fellow workers who have spent considerable time mocking their presumed physical attributes or sexual prowess etc.If the TV programme schedule has been laden with soap operas you can almost guarantee that amongst the more middle-aged women there will be significantly more short-tempered backbiting and in-fighting.
    But if there’s been a ‘comforting drama’ [doc martin, kingdom, a legal drama etc] or a heart-wrenching real-life documentary of a terminally ill baby or a child living with a disfigurement or a tear-inducing episode of the secret millionaire then these people’s demeanour is different – I mean it seriously – we are that shallow! That malleable!

    Take for instance teenage motherhood – despite what you may hear on the news the statistics reveal that the figures have been dropping since 1972 – except for two years over the past 39 – Would you care to guess which years contained these statistical ‘blips’?
    The years following Michelle Fowler’s teen pregnancy [113%] in Eastenders and Sarah-Louise Tilsley’s [111%] in Coronation Street !!! Scary isn’t it? Makes one a little scared that BF Skinner might have been more right than we ever want to contemplate.

    Why was it so different among the general populace decades ago?
    And let’s categorically eradicate and refute the downright lie that it wasn’t better then – it was!

    We have to allocate a lot of the blame to the politicians [let's face it - argue all you wish about the benefits or detriments of Thatcherism - but it wrought selfishness,disrespect, ingratitude, greed and social conscience and responsibility became less mandatory and more a commodity to negotiate with or ultimately abandon]

    Ever heard of Nepreryvka? The Russian plan to destroy the family and its anti-revolutionary traditions and ties? What the Soviet Union did was abolish the weekends and designate everyone with one of five colours – on their special colour day it was their rest day – families could no longer have social gatherings or family meals because 80% would always be at work and unavailable – Luckily family bonds were too strong in Russian culture and the social engineering experiment didn’t last much longer than 12 years – but they had the ‘right idea’ in how to destroy the social fabric and turn the citizen into an alienated ‘independent’ entity.
    Where the Russians failed to destroy the family – we succeeded!!!
    Any idea how much havoc Sunday trading wrought upon society? Young mothers mainly working in retail now forced to work on a Sunday or unsociable weekday hours – teenagers working evenings and weekends – factory workers were now compelled to work ‘continental shifts’ where the alternating rota would guarantee they had to work a couple of weekends a month – the notion of Sunday being a day of rest vanished instantaneously.

    So now families don’t eat together – neighbourhood housewives [economically compelled to work] are now in the majority working during the day so there is little interaction between them – where once everyone knew their neighbours almost too intimately – the house became a moated castle with the drawbridge raised…

    The fractured society was a result – and then came the deathblow – previously the majority of the public watched the TV but spent most of their lives interacting with work-colleagues or neighbours – they invariably experienced a vast dose of reality on a daily basis – but when you remove this social interaction and cohesion from the equation ? The effect of the media beomes drastically concentrated.

    If people become disenfranchised from their society – dispossessed of their communities – what they see of human interaction on the goggle-box is what they get…
    And sadly the great leveller in social mores is that the majority live up to the lowest common denominator – that which is acceptable becomes the aspirational…

    Now yes TV was always a fantasy – the comedies were invariably anachronistic, the family dramas too twee, endearing, sentimental, stereotypical and accommodating – but if there was true-to-life realism or nitty-gritty drama it was tough and defiant – and brought with it a deep social message. It might have brought a little escapism but it never stole reality from one.

    But what happened in the 1980s was the dissociation from reality by production teams – I don’t want to appear sexist but a new generation of predominantly female middle-class producers wanted to bring ‘reality’ into drama – social-realism and tough hard-biting stories – but these people came from very cossetted comfy economically secure backgrounds – they hadn’t got a clue about life’s major issues or working class experiences – so they invented what they presumed to be the reality – they created a panoply of dramatic interacting strawmen and women to play out their envisaged perspectives of ‘real-life’ – and it was nasty, selfish, cruel, shallow, angst-ridden and ultimately amoral and immoral – except in that these pawns & puppets must conform to the prejudices and prevailing sociological ideologies of the writers and producers – and remember these writers/producers were no longer working from experience or an informed position any more…these ‘true to life’ reflections were utter fabrications…even when they related incidents which had redolence in a social ill or trend – it was always and uninformed, mendacious fabrication.

    You produce constant counterfactual and a dystopian hyperreality on TV – and the populace; now isolated from their neighbour in ways heretofore impossible throughout the history of humanity – become indoctrinated into believing that this is what life is truly like!!!!

    Yes – the TV and Media are now more like the brainwashing machine Malcolm MacDowell was forced to watch in ‘A Clockwork Orange’

    Life imitates art – the more outrageously immoral and amoral the soaps and ‘dramas’ become:The more it’s reflected in the household and workplace and in the pubs/clubs.
    You force-feed the unemployed/stay-at-homes with the deplorable duplicitous evil that is Jeremy Kyle in the mornings and a post-midnight schedule flooded with ‘true-life’ documentaries of the police arresting violent drunken teen yobs,vomiting feral scantily clad ‘ladettes’ , drug-pushers and criminals you aren’t going to have lovable loyal endearing Chestertonian working and under classes…No matter how much the reality is more akin to the devoted hard-working struggling community workers you get in programmes like ‘the secret millionaire’….

    Isolate society from their neighbour and the media turns into the ultimate weapon – it becomes O’Brien’s boot stamping on a face – for ever!

    But human beings might be oppressed, indoctrinated and disenfranchised – yet they are always free – the human spirit still fights against it – basic common decency has not vanished – the human spirit will refuse to be utterly programmed into this lie; they stil strive for that ‘lazy perfection’ and some sort of happiness which they know they won’t find in the perfidies of quick-fix analgesic anaesthetic pleasures.

    They’re crying out for guidance, support and education – they’re pleading for the reassurance that there is more to life than this…and we should be the ones at the fore telling them ‘it doesn’t have to be this way’ – this should be real Catholic Social Action – but frankly rather than fighting to prevent the fractured society our sins and failings in the systemic destruction of our social networks in Catholic parishes and schools has less delayed the collapse and more conspired, compounded and aggravated the situation….may God forgive us.

    But it’s never too late – we need to take on our hierarchy and politicians calling for this new eidolon of a ‘big society and a common good’ – and tell them what the real disease is – and how we can fight it and reclaim our society for all our neighbours’ sakes.

  • MP

    I like the idea of visiting graves on All Souls: thanks for reminding me of that tradition.

  • Anneg

    It is difficult to know what to do when a funeral is passing. I don’t know whether to make the sign of the cross or not. Since I don’t know the religious sensitivities of the relatives at a very delicate time in their lives? Would welcome opinions, polite only please.

  • Anonymous

    Anneg – No offence but the deceased is the person to be respected – and everyone will be a Catholic in the Church Triumphant and Purgatory – reality gives no other choice – if the dead individual was the most ardent militant Atheist that option is no longer available to them – you give no offence by making the sign of the cross – if others take offence that is their narcissistic problem.
    You’re a Catholic – a corporal work of mercy is to bury the dead – your sign of the cross might be the most sincere, authentic and symbolically real aspect of the whole process ? You never know ?

    I’d be more concerned at someone not making the sign of the cross because they didn’t wish to offend – well technically the ‘good manners’ do offend – God and the Soul of the departed…some sensitivities are to be respected with defiance for the sake of Truth – the Person of Our Lord and Saviour.

  • JohnH

    On the Sunday, nearest All Souls day we, my brother and sister meet with our ‘old’ school friends and visit the graves of our dead parents. And then go for a meal!

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Anne, I reckon no one can be offended by the reverent religious sign of the Cross, just as I would not be in the least offended by a Muslim or Jew or Hindu recollecting themselves in prayer as a coffin passed. One is not making the sign of the Cross into some sort of political statement, after all… just a sign that you care and that you are recollecting yourself according to your own tradition.

  • Tumulus

    Paul Priest I always enjoy your posts on this and various blogs – you are a one-man Renaissance, a true Defender of the Faith. God bless you and your thoughtfulness which always give everyone plenty to think about. Ever read any Rene Girard?

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Tumulus – but truly I’m just expressing frustration – an ordinary Catholic in a position to do nothing about it except pray, receive the sacraments and make the odd direly-written confontational comment on places like this when I’m not stacking shelves in a supermarket. I wish I was the way you describe but please- I beg of you- don’t be hoodwinked – I’m a non-entity.
    I’ve read plenty about Rene Girard over the years [mimesis, neoteny etc] but [embarrassingly] not the man himself; so you’ll have to excuse me in this analysis of the gentleman as it comes through multiple intermediaries; and I can only apologise to the great man if I make false presumptions or errors:
    There’s something ‘not quite right’ about his anthropological interpretations [it was rather disconcerting to hear Ivereigh proselytise Girard's 'destruction of the sacrificial order' in his R4 Lenten talk - Ivereigh didn't exactly understand what the sacrificial revolution within Christianity actually demands from us - hardly surprising considering he wished to use it for ulterior motives]
    Let’s say that Girard’s analysis is accurate regarding what’s wrong and what were the elements of the darkening of our natures through violence and how our psychological and pedagogical development is enmeshed within it …but I’ve been brought up on von Balthasar, Chesterton, Voegelin and St Francis de Sales – beneficial/beneficent mimesis [virtually absent in Girard because it doesn't fit with the violent surge of self-discovery throughout history] is intrinsic to Catholicism – We are dwellers in the fairy tale applying the ethics of Elfland – we are the great re-symbolisers of the order within history – and we’re surrounded by saints and heroes whom we emulate and gain so much from it – we fake it till we make it – we stand on tiptoe till we reach Heaven. Girard’s postulate is we only recognise ourselves by Prince Hal’s response to Falstaff “I know you not; Old man” – a renunciation and kenosis and an almost pelagian self-absorption of a synthesis of violence and responsibility – but what these moderns don’t understand is that kenosis is not an emptying to be gradually filled – it’s more like selling everything one owns to buy the pearl of great price – having the humility to recognise , receive and be overwhelmed bu sacramental grace – opening one’s mind so one can stretch a little farther to close it on something greater…Girard doesn’t understand the kiss of Christ on the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov.
    For he sees it as the subsuming of violence, ignorance, blame and anxiety – we know it to one thing: Love! And all else follows…It’s probably why Girard can understand Stendhal but never quite ‘gets’ Balzac.
    Maybe Girard would have had a different perspective if he’d been Scottish? One feels he needs to be force-fed a diet of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson to realise how romantic, heroic and ‘gothic’ we really are…
    Aha…just clicked….That’s it! Girard should have spent a long time reading Chesterton’s ‘The Ball & the Cross’ and analysed its main protagonists…they don’t fit into his perception of things – but then again neither does the meaning of the violence behind a parent slapping an errant child across the face.

  • crouchback

    Great stuff Paul…..

    I think this is where it started to go wrong http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1C_6_tPj33A at least as far as the cinema and media are concerned, apparently the word delinquent got its first outing with Dixon of Dock Green….

    I used to lap this stuff up when I was 5 or even earlier,can you begin to imagine the damage it has wrought on my psyche..??? I even got a Dixon of Dock Green police uniform for Christmas once, my old man took me to see the local football team and the referee was going to have me removed for blowing the whistle, causing mayhem amongst the bemused players.

  • Ratbag

    Paulpriest… I was about to say that you are wasted as a shelf stacker at ASDA …

    …but I pulled myself short when I remembered a conversation I had with one self-made wealthy man who said to me: ‘having a job – any job – is dignity, whether you sweep roads, stack shelves, shovel gravel or run a multi-national.’

    In this day and age, any job is a good job.

    Back to funerals, I always bless myself when I see a cortege or a black van called ‘private ambulance’ when I’m out … even when I walk my dog. When my dad and gran died, people did stop to pay respects, cars and buses (on a very busy bus route) let us pass – even a BT engineer blessed himself!

    Those who honk horns and cut into funerals – WERE YOU BROUGHT UP OR DRAGGED UP? SHOW SOME RESPECT!

    More haste, less speed – you’re a long time dead!

  • Ratbag

    Here, here, MJCarroll!