Ignore the Bishop of Chester: at funerals, we should celebrate life however it was lived

I think we’re all agreed that funerals are not fun. But tell that to the Bishop of Chester: apparently we’re enjoying ourselves too much – all those ‘hallelujahs’ from across the pond have been having a negative aspect on our solemnity.

The Rt Rev Peter Forster, has written in his diocese newsletter how he “regrets” the current social trend for memorials that don’t involve a coffin, for private funerals or cremations followed by memorial services: “especially when it invades the Church”. Really? Of all things to invade churches (junkies, tourists, the other week’s Doctor Who), people tearfully blaring out ‘My Way’ at a separate service after the family have said their goodbyes in private seems fairly low on the scale of concerns.

In the June issue of Chester Diocese News, he writes:

“Firstly, it easily gives the impression that our bodies don’t matter much, that the essential ‘me’ is a disembodied soul or spirit. It was precisely such a view, common in the ancient world, that (like Judaism) Christianity rejected. I believe in the resurrection of the body: that statement is not in the Creed for nothing. It emphasises that we are created, taken from the dust of the earth, and that it is this world which God has chosen to redeem and re-create.

“We are not spiritual chips off some cosmic block longing to return home: we are sacred individuals, made in God’s image, body, soul and spirit.

“Secondly, these new funeral practices can seem to put death to one side, to ignore or even deny its reality. Some poems read at funerals give the same impression: ‘I have only slipped into the next room’, etc. Some music chosen at funerals likewise seems out of place, missing the proper solemnity which should mark the death of a child of God.”

Are we just skipping the bit where we regret the death and simply go on to manners? The bishop can’t seriously be saying that a funeral without a body in the middle of it isn’t valid. June from accounts may want to come and pay her respects at a memorial, but feel a bit uncomfortable about the intensely personal business of saying goodbye to a body.

As a Christian who is getting confirmed next year, I have a vested interest in this. Senior church members turning funerals into intricate Victorian tea dances with rules and solemnity barometers makes me sad and irritable in equal measure. When I die, I plan to have Rainbow’s ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ played in its entirety before a Phantom of the Opera triptych. The people at my funeral will either engage with gusto or let it pass in quiet mortification, but, with the greatest of respect, the Bishop is mistaken. What business is it of his as to how family and friends deal with their grief?

Living is a difficult, visceral act. We should celebrate the very achievement of doing so, not try to stiffen it with propriety and add solemnity if it doesn’t come naturally. Even if you are the Bishop of Chester.

He continues:

For Christians, death is an intrinsic part of life itself. We are baptised into the death of Christ, that we might live his risen life. The Christian life can be seen as a progressive embracing of death, or rather of the crucified and risen Christ progressively embracing us. Just as the crucifixion is presented in the New Testament as the crucial event in God’s love for the world, so we should not evade the central place our death has in our journey to God.

Sorry, but this is just ridiculous. It’s absurd to say that celebratory services ignore the body. With or without a coffin, there is a very big body-shaped hole in any funeral service, a glaring void where the person should be. I attended two funerals in quick succession, one with coffin, one without, both keenly missing a person. My insanely glamorous aunt, Tina, model-spotted at Vogue in the 70s, died from cancer in October 2008. In February 2009 my friend Ben died, also from cancer. Neither of them should be dead. Tina had a young son, Ben was only 28. Both are dearly-loved and missed. And yet how we feted their lives: both during their services and with stories and wine afterwards. Being celebratory is not ignoring the fact that “a child of God is dead” as the Bishop says. But my goodness, it’s a good flipside to the rage, the frustration and the incomprehension of why people die.

I find the Bishop’s issue with poems particularly ironic given it was another Bishop, Bishop Bren, who wrote the beautiful poem I read at my aunt’s funeral and which features these lines:

Then someone at my side says
There, she has gone –
Gone where?
Gone from my sight – that is all

These lines don’t deny death. They are words of great comfort and reassurance. Anything you can find to comfort is welcome, even if, to the Bishop of Chester’s horror, it involves being cheerful or playing a bit of Tina Turner during the service. Sadness goes hand-in-hand with death. We don’t necessarily need solemnity to spell out how heavy our hearts feel.

Years ago I read about a service that blared out ‘The Only Way Is Up’ by Yazz. Wonderful! My brother, a strapping 6’7, plans to have “Nick Brown – finally under six foot” etched on his gravestone when he cops it. Humour, and a favourite song or memorial, help you to cope with it a little better. The loss of a loved one is hard enough to bear without the Church chuntering about how you say your farewells.

A version of this post originally appeared on The Times’ Articles of Faith blog

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