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What a funeral is or should be

14 February 2014

Lyle Dennen looks at two considerations of current practices

The Good Funeral: Death, grief and the community of care
Thomas G. Long and Thomas Lynch
Westminster John Knox £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.20 (Use code CT798 )

Heaven's Morning Breaks: Sensitive and practical reflections on funeral practice
Jeremy Brooks
KM Publishing £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.20 (Use code CT798 )

SHORTLY after being ordained, I remember travelling on a train, reading a collection of essays. I became aware of the anxious, fishy looks that my fellow passengers were directing toward me. And I knew that it was because, in bold print, the title of my book was Dying, Death and Disposal.

Perhaps it was because of my proven lugubrious nature that the Church Times has asked me to review two books on funerals. They are dramatically different from each other. Heaven's Morning Breaks by Jeremy Brooks is out of an English culture of dealing with death, bereavement, and funerals. Brooks is a team rector with a wealth of experience, compassion, and insight. His deep commitment to pastoral care and Anglican inclusivity shines out from this book.

The chapter on the death of children by his wife, Dorothy, is outstanding. Even though Brooks's book does not analyse in great depth what is happening in a funeral, or engage with contemporary society's profound ambiguity about death and dealing with loss, I would still choose someone like Jeremy Brooks to be the priest at my funeral, because of his gentle goodnessand sensitivity to including those who mourn.

The second book is The Good Funeral, written jointly by an academic pastor and preacher, and a funeral director and poet - Thomas Long and Thomas Lynch. This book clearly comes out of the American scene both by being deeply influenced by Jessica Mitford's critique of the American commercialisation of death and grief, and at the same time being concerned about restoring the physical importance of the dead person. The way we care for the corpse tells us not only how we understand death and dying, but also how we understand being human.

There is a helpful mantra that runs throughout this book: we endeavour to serve the living by caring for the dead. This is spelt out in the authors' attack on the privatisation of the funeral service and its replacement by a memorial service without coffin and the dead person, which becomes, according to them, a karaoke "celebration of life", where people take turns in bringing out stories, reminiscences, favourite songs, and jokes. By making central the dead person's presence, not the grieving process of the mourners, Lynch and Long believe that one not only affirms faith, but more effectively manages grief, by getting the dead to be where they need to go, and getting the living where they need to be.

An easy way to understand the different purposes of the two books is to look at their subtitles. The subtitle of the Brooks book is Sensitive and practical reflections on funeral practice, and that of the Lynch and Long book is Death, grief and the community of care. The first focuses on practice, and the second on the deeper meaning. The two books are symbiotic, not confrontational. For example, both are committed to restoring the balance between the importance of caring for the body of the dead person, and caring for the grief of the mourners. Brooks is characteristically practical and helpful. Lynch and Long are challenging about the deeper significance of what is happening. For example, Lynch and Long strongly attack the received wisdom of the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. For these authors, grief is not a psychotherapeutic process: rather, grief is unpredictable, wild, and undomesticated in its form and intensity.

Again, it is interesting to reflect on how the two books look at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. Brooks points out the great impact of this funeral, but focuses on the practical consequences of having a personal tribute from her brother rather than an address by a cleric; and on the significance of Elton John's song in giving permission for people to include their own favourite piece of music in a funeral service.

Lynch and Long, on the other hand, reflect deeply on why one may be unmoved by the death of a neighbour whom one saw almost daily, but cast down into deep sadness and grief by someone whom one has never known, such as a film star or the Princess. They surmise that the reason is that the neighbour did not figure deeply in our personal narrative, but we did weave threads of our life around our image or our fantasy of the Princess.

Lynch and Long suggest from this that grief entails a task: making new meaning, a revised self-narrative into which we need to include our loss. Then they say: "In the wilderness of grief, God provides narrative manna - just enough shape and meaning to keep us walking. . ."

The Revd Dr Lyle Dennen is a former Archdeacon of Hackney, in London.

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