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Angela Tilby: Funerals should not deny the reality of death

23 February 2018

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I WORRY about what is happening to funerals. So often, they seem to be an attempt to pretend that something as unpleasant as death has not really occurred.

Under the billing of “A celebration of the life of. . .”, we have come to expect tributes, jokes, and secular upbeat music. Often, the body has already been cremated before the church service, as though it were something disgusting or shameful. If not, and the service happens at the crematorium, the coffin is often left alone while the mourners depart; they do not want to be there when the curtain is closed.

One of the most memorable funerals that I have ever attended was that of the scholar and writer Judith Pinnington. I had known her a little when she worked at Sion College Library, and became reacquainted with her when she moved to Cambridge and joined the Russian Orthodox Church. At her funeral, she was present in an open coffin, surrounded by her friends from the Orthodox parish. There was a good deal of prayer for her to be forgiven her sins (voluntary and involuntary). Towards the end, we were all encouraged to approach the coffin and say our goodbyes to her personally.

This seemed, at the time, completely natural: it gave us a chance to acknowledge that Judith’s unique personality had been present to us through her particular body, and that this fragile body was now destined for burial. As a keen environmentalist, Judith had a woodland burial. It seemed all of a piece. The body would now rest in the earth, the precious person in the Lord. It was full of tenderness and resurrection hope.

Death is awful and awe-ful. We know that; and yet current practice seems determined to deny both the fact and the solemnity of death. We say “We are sorry for your loss,” and talk about the deceased’s “passing”. When I conduct funerals, I feel unnerved if people say that a tribute “summed him or her up to a T”, as though my job had been to conjure the deceased’s spirit for one final grand appearance before the tea and cakes appeared.

What was remarkable about Judith’s funeral was that it was so Christian. The body was honoured; and Judith was prayed for both as a sinner and as one redeemed. There was a real parting, but it was a parting in hope, not a shadowy lingering.

I have been to a humanist funeral, and found it moving and reverent. But real Christian funerals now are rare: even Christians prefer not to call a funeral what it is.

It seems obscene, when so many die randomly in violence and war around the world, that we try so hard to domesticate the deaths of our friends and loved ones, denying both the majesty and the mercy of our final public engagement.

 

The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.

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