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Bean and Gone

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The Coffin and the Wall

A funeral service is being held for a woman who has just passed away. At the end of the service the pallbearers are carrying the coffin out when they accidentally bump into a wall, jarring the casket. They hear a faint moan.
They open the coffin and find that the woman is actually alive. She lives for ten more years, and then dies.

A ceremony is again held at the same place, and at the end of the ceremony the pallbearers are again carrying out the coffin. As they are walking, the husband cries out, “watch out for the wall!”

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Religious Funeral

 

22 August 2013.    Why I, a non-believer,  would prefer a  religious funeral

Walter Humes

I have come to a surprising, and rather illogical, conclusion on the subject of funerals. My thoughts were prompted by my recent attendance at a service for a former colleague, which led me to reflect on the different types of funeral I have encountered over the years.

Most have been Christian in character (Protestant or Catholic) but a fair number have been secular. Some of the latter have been explicitly humanist, while others have resisted easy labelling, being conducted with greater or lesser formality by friends or relatives of the deceased. In one case there was a New Age element to the proceedings, with a mystical flavour to the readings and tributes.

The surprising feature of my conclusion is that, as a non-believer, I might be expected to prefer the secular version to the religious. But I find I do not. It is not simply a matter of having experienced impressive examples of religious services and unimpressive examples of non-religious ones. I have attended good and bad instances of both. I can recall cases of ministers and priests who have not done their homework and have shown little knowledge or understanding of the deceased, going through the motions in a routine fashion. Equally, I can recall cases of non-religious funerals which were badly organised and the tributes were ill-judged to the point of embarrassment.

What is it, then, that makes me prefer the religious to the non-religious? On any rational analysis, it is completely inconsistent. Partly it is a matter of tone and feeling. In my experience, there is a warmth and humanity about a well-conducted religious service that is not there in the secular version, which often comes across – despite the best efforts of the speakers – as cold and clinical. For many mourners, there is also comfort to be found in the familiar rituals of Bible readings, prayers and hymns.

It is true that nowadays the singing at funerals is often disappointing but, when there are a few good voices leading the congregation, it can lift the heart and spirit in a way that recorded music from a sound system cannot. Fortunately I have never had to endure a recording of Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ as the coffin disappeared behind the curtains.

I suspect too that my experience of family funerals has been an important factor in my attitude. In the case of two elder brothers, who were not themselves church attenders, the services were conducted by the local Church of Scotland minister (who, unusually, had converted from Catholicism). His preparations were thorough and sensitive. He arranged to meet several members of the family to gain background information about the lives, work, character and interests of my brothers. At the services, he used this information to pay tribute to them in a way that captured the sort of men they were, citing events from their pasts, interspersed with touches of humour.

People who are not in the habit of speaking in public often do not realise just how difficult it is to strike the right note in situations such as this. The minister’s handling of both services demonstrated ‘the art that conceals art’, a skill that makes the carefully crafted seem natural and spontaneous. The whole family agreed that he could not have done a better job.

To date, I have not given much thought to my own funeral. I certainly have no wish to try to stipulate what form it might take – that strikes me as a form of vanity. I hope that there may be a decent turnout, though I suspect that some of those who might attend will be there to satisfy themselves that I have actually gone. Moreover, I would be disappointed if the service lacked a touch of irreverence and would have no objection if some of my faults received a mention in dispatches.

Excessively fulsome tributes, especially when their object is an important public figure, often strain credibility to the point where mourners begin to exchange sceptical glances. I would much prefer a smile of recognition when some dubious episode from my past is recalled.

I shall leave it to others to decide whether this would happen within a religious context, though I would fully respect any minister who declined to officiate on the grounds that I was a non-believer. (I tend to avoid using the words ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’ – the former because it strikes me as being too dogmatic, the latter because it seems rather like placing an each-way bet on a horse.) All I would hope for is that any sense of narrow denominationalism would be eschewed in favour of an open-minded recognition of what all human beings share as they face, or bear witness to, the end of life.

There is one final reason why I prefer funerals to have a religious dimension, even if I am lacking in personal faith and am unconvinced by the claims of ‘truth’ which are made for biblical authority. Whatever their failings – and they are many (particularly in their institutional forms) – the great religions have sought to respond to a deep need to explore the mysteries of the human condition, that sense of transcendence which is also captured in great literature.

The importance of that quest – even if it can never be fully achieved – is reflected in the way in which religion, over many centuries, has inspired some of the finest expressions of human aspiration through poetry, art and music. Simply to jettison that in favour of the crude reductionism of the secular seems an act of arrogant vandalism. I accept that my ambivalence lays me open to the charge of intellectual confusion. But the certainty of death, and the emotions that it inspires, resists purely intellectual explanations.

Walter Humes is a visiting professor of education at the University of Stirling

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August 24, 2013 · 14:48