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The danger of colluding in the denial of death

by
25 October 2013

At funerals, the Church should challenge the latest popular fantasies about remembrance, argues Nick Jowett

 

THE children at Broad Square Primary School in Norris Green, Liverpool, in 2007, held one minute's applause for Rhys Jones, aged 11, who had been killed by a teenage gunman. It might have been too difficult to hold a minute's silence with such young children, but this was an early example of a change in British remembrance rituals, perhaps begun in 2005, when football crowds applauded, instead of falling silent, in memory of George Best - or earlier, in 1997, when crowds clapped as the coffin passed by at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales.

All who have conducted funerals over recent years will have participated in the move away from abstract, grieving solemnity to a less formal focus of celebration of a person's life.

A few years ago, for instance, I led a funeral for a young man, and I agreed to the family's request that, at one point in the service, his friends could come forward and write messages on the plain white coffin. This was a long, informal, and very moving moment in the service, as the many young people present wrote, drew, and read words of appreciation for their friend.

I wonder, however, whether the trend towards "positive celebrations" has reached the point at which people in our culture are being drawn into denial - that is, not allowing themselves to live through the reality of death.

Today, those who officiate at funerals receive requests to attach balloons to a coffin. You can have floral tributes that look like a bottle of Stella Artois or an Arsenal shirt. You can remember your loved one by letting off doves or butterflies. You can decorate a grave with solar lamps, windmills, and meerkats. And if you do not know what to do with someone's ashes, you can have them sent up into the sky on a rocket, or converted into a coral reef. You can buy huggable teddy-bear urns in which to keep a child's ashes.

All such cheerful, this-worldly activity means that people risk being drawn away from the harsh aspects of death - the absolute end of relationship, the unfinished business of lives all-too-imperfectly lived, the grief for which there can never be absolute "closure". This is certainly an issue for posthumous humanist remembrances, but it is a bigger challenge for the Church.

 

THERE are four main purposes of Christian funerals and memorial practices: remembrance and thanksgiving for the departed; the solemn farewell to a loved one; the proclamation of the hope of resurrection in Christ, in the face of the "last enemy" with its sting of sin; and the commendation of the dead to God's love in eternity.

But the first of these is beginning to overshadow the other three, even in church funerals and in churchyards. I believe that the Church is colluding too easily in the "death is nothing at all" culture, failing to offer a rounded Christian theology of death, and implicitly encouraging modern fantasies (such as adults' telling children that grandpa is now a star in the sky), which do not face the real scandal, and hope, of death.

There are no easy answers, but that does not mean that we can do nothing. Of course, we should welcome the creative and appropriate ways in which families wish to celebrate the lives of their loved ones. But when those who are to conduct a funeral meet a family, how much do they emphasise the solemn commendation of a human life to God, as the central act of the service?

Sometimes we might be right to suggest that some of the readings or music proposed belong in a wake, or during the funeral tea, and not in church. We could also take more seriously the need for a short sermon at a funeral, as well as the tributes. We should preach, in a way appropriate to the listeners, of the cross of Christ, the sharpness of death and its sting, and the hope not of "going to heaven", but of the final resurrection of the body.

The increasing determination of close relatives to speak the main tribute at a funeral could perhaps be gently discouraged, on the grounds that they will lose the unique opportunity to sit quietly and focus on the moment.

Also, having welcomed children to attend funerals throughout my ministry, I am now beginning to wonder whether their presence does not induce the adults to hold back the full expression of their grief.

 

QUIET memorial services, with the lighting of candles, are already one of the greatest gifts of the Church to our culture. Perhaps if more churches created a garden of remembrance for the burial of ashes - small oases of beauty and peace - fewer people would resort to silly ways of disposing of them.

Some churches also offer a quiet, reflective "Blue Christmas" service for the people who find that the outer jollity of the season only increases their inner sense of loss and loneliness.

It would be great if some ecclesiastical supplier were to produce tasteful and positively Christian items for people to place on graves. I suggest a simple pottery Easter garden, with the stone rolled away and small places to plant flowers, and the text "Death, where is your victory?"

I certainly do not hate all modern practices of remembrance. Some are tacky, to be sure: there are now too many plastic memorial benches cluttering our parks and cemeteries; and too many burial grounds are unsightly with piles of shoddy ephemera on the graves; but I like the idea of a minute's applause, or decorating a coffin. I am also moved by those white-painted "ghost bicycles" decorated with flowers where a cyclist has been killed on the road.

Nevertheless, I think it is time that the Church began to challenge more firmly the surrounding culture of remembrance, in which, let us not forget, the denial of death is also the denial of resurrection.

The Revd Nick Jowett is a retired priest in the diocese of Sheffield.

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