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The enduring importance of a proper send-off

We human beings are ceremonial animals and funerals are vital, even for the non-religious

By on Tuesday, 24 June 2014

There is no reason  why a coffin cannot be driven up to a crematorium  without ceremony (PA)

There is no reason why a coffin cannot be driven up to a crematorium without ceremony (PA)

I had an interesting conversation with an undertaker the other day, in which I he told me that about 70 per cent of the funerals his company undertakes are now “non-religious”, that is to say conducted by a lay celebrant or by a presider from the British Humanist Association (BHA).

There is a difference between the two. People who are not members of a church will often ask the undertaker to find them a celebrant, whom they may ask to incorporate certain religious elements into the funeral ceremony they devise; a person from the BHA will only conduct a non-religious funeral, that is, one without any hymns or prayers. My undertaker friend and I both reached the same conclusion: why don’t those who are not religious simply opt for an Anglican service? After all, the vicars of the Anglican Church have wide experience of funerals, and you cannot fault the Anglican service for dignity or beauty of language. Moreover, its religious content is not likely to offend anyone.

There is of course another option, which few, if any, take up: that is, not having a funeral service at all. There is no reason whatever why a coffin cannot be driven up to the crematorium, or taken to the cemetery, without ceremony. Unlike a wedding, where certain words have to be spoken, at a funeral there is no need to say anything – at least no legal need. But here’s the rub: we human beings are ceremonial animals. There is a strong sense that something must be done, and if it has to be done, it ought to be done properly.

Catholics are people who are at home with death, and one of the best novels written by a Catholic is The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh, a book that makes no mention of what its author would regard as serious religion, though it does introduce us to the idea of the “non-denominational clergyman”, which is more or less what the current figure of the funeral celebrant is. (One notes that the term “celebrant” itself is directly lifted from the Catholic liturgy.)

In other ways too The Loved One is proving to be prescient. Dennis Barlow, on his visit to Whispering Glades Memorial Park, finds out about “leave takings”, the occasions where embalmed corpses are put on show, and is told that the dead are put into lifelike poses, and that one lady even wanted to be posed speaking on the telephone. This is blackly comic, but, amazingly, it happens in America today, as this illustrated article in the New York Times tells us. Indeed, the current practice has a long history, going back to the Victorian era.

Waugh’s comedy is essentially about how undertakers deny the nature of death; I have visited Forest Lawn in Los Angeles, and found it just as Waugh described it; he barely fictionalises anything at all. This denial of death, however, is no longer confined to Southern California. Yet we are all going to die. So, we might as well get used to the fact, devote ourselves to saving our souls and serving God, and cheer up.

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