Death and mourning are both ubiquitous and yet unique. We are all bound to go through it sooner or later, and for each of us, it will be a singular and individual experience. Yet modern life demands that the laying to rest of loved ones must, by necessity, proceed according to imposed schedules. And that can mean a clash between the needs of the individual for time to mourn and those of society to provide funeral services for all.
I attended a funeral the other day: the husband of a friend who had put up a long hard fight against cancer and finally passed away. The turnout was humbling and gratifying — more than 100 people squeezed into the chapel of rest at the crematorium, with standing room only at the back. Several people had travelled from Europe to attend, and others came from all over the UK. The ceremony was short, barely 30 minutes, with tributes from family and friends and two pieces of music. It was a simple remembrance of the man, and no less powerful or moving for that.
As the closing music filled the cool airy chapel, we filed out past the coffin, some people pausing to touch the casket or the photographs placed on top. There was a sense of being part of a collective mourning — understated, subdued, the obvious emotional distress still held in check. The celebrant and the funeral director were very professional, very respectful as they ushered the mourners out towards the gardens of remembrance. It took quite a while for everyone to leave the chapel; there was a curious ‘one-way’ system, which meant that we had entered through one door and exited through another — a bit like life and death itself. Outside, an autumn gale buffeted us as we stood and waited to pay our respects to the widow. People huddled close to the doors to try to escape the chill wind.
After a while, most people left to drive to the hotel where the wake was to be held. It was there I found out that as the last few mourners were waiting to leave the chapel, queueing behind those who had stopped to pay their respects, one of the ushers was asking people to keep moving — “I’ll be in trouble”, he was heard to say, “if I don’t get these doors closed before the next funeral party comes in”. The celebrant, it later emerged, had cut sections of the tributes written by the friends of the deceased because they would have taken longer than the allotted three minutes to read aloud.
How sad, I thought, that even in death — that most distressing of life events — we are under pressure to ‘move along’ and ‘cut it short’, whilst filing in behind us was another group of black-garbed mourners, grieving for a loved one and celebrating a life. It had the taste for me of making death and mourning a commodity, rather than recognising it as a unique experience for all who go through it. How do you fit a life lived as a friend, a husband, a brother or a son into a 3-minute slot to fit someone else’s timetable? What do you cut out as ‘not so important’ or focus on as the ‘highlight of my life’?
And yet, on a rational, sophisticated, realistic level, what else could I expect? We live in an over-crowded society, where multiple deaths happen every day. It is a tragedy to the individuals involved, but to those whose professional duty it is to handle the laying to rest, it is simply fulfilling their role — a job with huge responsibilities to all of the families they see, not just this one or that one. People die and have to be laid to rest, a certain number on each given day — meaning that a schedule has to be drawn up and stuck to, otherwise someone will be kept waiting, and no-one wants their loved one’s funeral to be delayed any longer than absolutely necessary.
On the other hand, how are we to reconcile the demands of modern society to process and parcel off its dead with the need of the individual for time enough to mourn the passing of loved ones and for healing to take its own time? After all, you can no more force an emotional wound to heal up quickly than you can a physical one. How do we help each other through the process of grieving and coming to terms and recovering enough to take up the reins of life again?
There are few social customs in western secular society for supporting and reintegrating bereaved people back in to ‘normal life’; whereas most religious traditions have rituals and expectations around death and mourning (the wearing of black garments, periods of ritual mourning, particular prayers, ceremonies or offerings to be made), secular society offers very little in terms of communal support to those who have lost a loved one. In earlier generations, the churches provided support and spiritual comfort to those in mourning, but with the decline of organised religion it’s as if we’ve lost the knowledge of how to recognise and provide comfort to individuals in distress — particularly after the funeral has taken place, when the world goes back to ‘normal’ and the bereaved can often feel cast adrift as if expected to simply get on with things.
On top of that, we are not as a society very comfortable with open displays of painful emotions; we fear offending people by speaking words intended as kindness or, even worse, upsetting them further by acknowledging their grief and offering our condolences. And yet, it’s so important that our emotional experiences are openly acknowledged and validated, because it helps us to feel that we are not alone. We are so afraid of grief, and yet we will all at some point experience it — and perhaps its inevitability is exactly why we fear it so much.
There was a slightly distasteful ‘production line’ feeling for me at the crematorium the other day; a sense of individual grief being artificially boxed in by the standardised, 30-minute scheduled slot before the next funeral party was due in. I didn’t want anyone to be hurried through to make room for others; I wanted the people I knew to have the time they needed to pay their respects, rather than told to make way for someone else’s individual grief. Fixed time slots and fitting into other people’s funeral schedules may be inevitable in this day and age, but I don’t have to like it.
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