Funeral rites are a cultural universal. Some of the earliest archaeological finds have to do with the burial and memorialisation of the dead. Art has played a key part; from the tombs of Egypt to the requiem Mass. We use art when rationality fails us because death stands as a bald fact; one who was living is now dead. There seems little more that we can say except to announce this fact.
A recent experience of a secular funeral prompted a re-reading of my original article on the subject. I discovered that I had covered most of the ground but also found that I had more to say and was spurred to write more on the subject after I left the funeral in a disturbed state of mind and with a knot in my stomach.
We were crammed into a room no bigger than a generous lounge room illuminated by naked neon lights. The celebrant, an employee of the funeral company, was competent as she gave some biographical information on the deceased. We were then subjected to three-quarters of an hour of eulogies each one more tearful and heartbreaking than the last. At the end of this sob fest, we were asked, for no particular reason, to stand and say the Lord's Prayer in the old version. The coffin was wheeled out to, you guessed it, old blue eyes singing "I Did it My Way." Our hymn to untrammelled egotism. We drank tea and ate sandwiches in a carport like structure that could only be described as dilapidated, blasted by the hot wind of the day and in full view of passing traffic and a team of road maintenance men driving heavy machinery.
My overwhelming impression was of impoverishment. Of course, the inadequate facilities of the funeral company added to that feeling, and it may have been that the family took the cheapest option. However, there was a feeling of a more profound lack. The funeral consisted almost entirely of mourning. Some of the eulogies included memories of grandchildren of their grandpa, and that was welcome. But all we were left with was feelings of overwhelming and unmitigated grief; and this for a 90-year-old! I was left wondering why the death of a man in advanced age so completely unmanned the participants. Of course, funerals are sad, and people do cry, justifiably. But it was the absence of any other note than the sad that left me in such a bad way.
We were told that the deceased had no time for religion and agreed with Carl Sagan's statement that:
"I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking."
I agree with Sagan on this. Christianity has, for too long, used the promise of life after death as a stimulus for belief. But to reject Christianity in toto because we cannot believe in life after death is a mistake. Indeed, such belief, while widely supported popularly, has never been part of the doctrine of the Church. Neither can Christianity be refuted by atheists who reject a God that has little to with Christian faith.
The point is that the rejection of Christianity has led to the impoverished funeral during which we can only listen to the mourning of loved ones. We are left with misery and loss. There exists no other dimension. The reason we spend so much time recounting the life of the dead is because only actions in this world count. The infinite, the eternal and the invisible do not exist. Human beings are counted as being entirely in the world and of the world. This means that the world becomes no more than a charnel house.
It is the purpose of art, in all its forms, to speak of the invisible. It goes without saying that secular funerals are devoid of the artistic. We sing no hymns, and the architecture does not celebrate the infinite. There is no liturgy to carry us through. What we say is prosaic. Our offering in the face of death is tawdry and mundane. It is at these times that we realise that something is missing from our lives. It was not love. Indeed, it was love that motivated all of the speakers. Why then did I find it so unsatisfactory? I think it was that there was no solace for the mourners. As it was, death seemed to have the final say, there being nothing other than what is visible to the eyes.
In our rush to be free of the religious tradition that has formed out civilisation, we find that we have no adequate way of farewelling those we love. All we have is our tears and shallow clichés. Here we see the blasted wasteland of the post-Christian era in which there is no relief from the absolute dominion of death.
In the Church, we talk about the community of saints, those who have gone before us in the faith and who now lie in the bosom of a loving God. It is important to understand such statements not as descriptive of the state of immortal souls but as a poetic pointing towards a reality in which believers live day by day, that while they may be in the world, they are not of the world. They owe their existence to a reality that transcends this world.
At the end of the service I longed for a prayer of committal to commend the deceased into the loving care of God. This, of course, was not allowed because the deceased and many in the room did not believe in God. Why then, the Lord's prayer? Was this a failure of courage? Do we think that if we went all the way in rejecting all religious language that we would finally find ourselves alone and desperate in a cruel world?
As I see the Church decline, I am divided between two realisations. The first is that our society is on the way to being impoverished in ways that we have not fully realised. We have lost the ability to speak into the face of death. The second is hopeful that the Word has been set loose on the earth and disbelief on a massive scale will not alter that. We have been here before as Christos Tsiolkas' novel Damascus skilfully illustrates. The followers of Jesus found themselves in a sea of paganism, surrounded by cruel forces, but yet changed the ancient world. We may see the churches close, and the shortage of ministers and priests and our grandchildren educated without reference to Christ, but the Word will still be at large in the world ready to be reawakened to raise us from our graves.