The Good Funeral: Death, grief and the community of
Thomas G. Long and Thomas Lynch
Westminster John Knox £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.20 (Use code
Heaven's Morning Breaks: Sensitive and practical
reflections on funeral practice
KM Publishing £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.20 (Use code
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,