The culture of death differs all over the world. Many of the rituals and rules surrounding death are for practical reasons, such as the climate, temperature, etc. Religious rules developed from these practical needs.
Human’s have been on this planet for a long time. But according to findings from archaeologists, rituals around burial, and disposal of the body has been around for all that time too.
I haven’t space or time to go into a history today; that will take another article. But I will say that in the 20th Century, death in England became taboo.
So that you can get the picture, I am going to describe four funerals.
The first one is an experience recently of a friend of mine. Grace was born in Northern Ireland. Very recently she went there to attend the funeral of a close friend’s husband.
The culture in Northern Ireland is to respect death and honour the deceased. Part of this respect in Grace’s eyes was getting up in the very early hours of the morning at 3 am, to travel to Bristol to catch a 7 am flight to Belfast.
When she arrived in Belfast, her taxi driver was very kind and reduced the fare. Not only that, but he took her back to the airport the next day. Again he saw this as respect because Grace was attending a funeral.
Since Billy had died, which was in hospital, a week before, he had been lying in an open casket in the front room of his own house, and people held what is known as a vigil. The old belief is that the soul takes three days to leave the body. But even if they no longer believe that the vigil is an essential part of the culture, and it also means that the closest family are not left alone, and there is always someone in the house, to talk, have a cup of tea with and draw comfort from.
The Mass was being held at 10 am. Before that, at the house, Grace found the coffin still open in the front room, with hundreds of cards beneath. After she had paid her respects, it was time for a final goodbye by Billy’s wife, to her husband. The wife sang a little song to Billy, then kissed him goodbye, just before the Funeral Director arrived to seal the coffin.
There was a parade of people following the hearse to the church, on foot. After a personal address, mass and service led by the priest, everyone went to the crematorium, where they enjoyed listening to Billy’s favourite Pop songs, including the Everly Brothers, before he was cremated. At the end of which everyone attended the Wake.
Funeral number 2, was an English Funeral. The same friend heard that a neighbour had died. When she asked her husband who out of the two of them would attend the funeral, he was surprised to think that Grace would even consider it. Grace, in turn, was shocked to realise that this attitude was normal for England.
She attended the funeral and found that no-one else in the street went. There were only a handful of people there, even though this elderly couple had lived in the same street for over fifty years.
The coffin was brought to the church and paraded down the aisle to the words from the C of E funeral book. After a couple of prayers, and mournful hymns, led by a vicar who obviously did not know the chap who had died, the close family went to the Crematorium and everyone went home.
I attended a similar family funeral a couple of months ago, and the picture was the same. No sense of community, because there were only about twenty people scattered all over the church which was big enough to hold three hundred. I wanted to gather them all together and ask them to sit closer to the front. The body had been in the funeral Directors offices, taken out for a viewing at an appointed time, with an hour time slot. Then put back in the fridge until the funeral.
The vicar did not know anyone, spoke over the top of everyone’s head and was quite impersonal.
The few members of the family present went with the coffin to the Crematorium and the people in the church, just went home. Even though there would be a cup of tea at the house, the family had requested that only close family go to the crematorium. So that there was no sense of community or even a chance for anyone to pay their respects to the husband.
At the fourth funeral, everyone gathered outside the Crematorium, and the procession was led in by a Funeral Celebrant. She had been in touch with the family ever since the death.
After bowing to the coffin and placing a lovely photograph of the dead person on top, she took her place at the lectern and asked everyone to sit down.
She read some beautiful opening words acknowledging the family by name and saying a few words about death, and how everyone sees it differently.
The eulogy was read by the son of the person who had died, but it had been a joint effort with the Funeral Celebrant during an hours interview and meeting the family. The eulogy had everyone laughing and crying and reminded us of the character and life of the man who had died.
After the eulogy, everyone sang “Abide with Me,” not necessarily for religious reasons, but because Albert had been a big football fan.
This was followed by five minutes of reflection, listening to Leona Lewis singing “Footprints in the Sand” while we all looked at a show of pictures on the screen above, of Alberts journey through life, his children and grandchildren.
The children who were present then went up to the catafalque and placed a flower on top of the coffin. Followed by those who wanted to, just to touch the coffin and say goodbye.
After a short committal prayer, the curtains were closed, and the Funeral Celebrant then closed the procedure with appropriate words including a poem about taking up the reins of life without the dead person.
We left the church to the sound of Acker Bilk!
There was then a Wake in the local football club premises.
I will leave it to you to assess what you think would give the most satisfactory way of saying goodbye and support loved ones left behind. It may be one particular funeral described here, or it may be a combination.
The moral of the story is that it is possible to do things differently with death.
The lady who founded the group that I trained with, Jane Morrell, had a vision of “Changing the face of funerals in England.”
The culture in England is one of secrecy. The body is quickly removed from the place of death, often even while it is still warm, whisked away to have “mysterious things” done to it.
We may have a chance to see it; all made up to look good, for a while at the appointed time in the funeral directors office.
On the day, the hearse turns up either at the Crematorium or the church, and there may be a good ceremony or not.
(Have you noticed the disrespect from other drivers when they see a funeral procession lately?)
This culture makes bad things even worse, and the funeral is something to dread even more, than just the saying goodbye.
Jane was inspired when she had that vision. We do need to change the face of funerals. We need a better culture of death.
If you want to read more about death, please visit my website