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