When I retired as a humanist celebrant I thought I'd stop writing this blog, but my fascination with all things death-related prompted more posts. They're just written from a slightly different perspective, that's all. Oh, and I still do the odd one, by special request.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Funerals for bad people

The Underworld

Nobody has to have a funeral. It’s up to your next of kin, or whoever’s responsible for tidying up after you’ve left, whether or not there is any sort of ceremony, and if there is, what form it takes.

Criminals, those blown to bits by guns on the battlefield, or the anonymous victims of massacres hidden in shallow graves, have all been denied any sort of dignified send-off, but otherwise most people are given a funeral of some sort, if only because it’s expected.

In an article due to be published in this month’s Tablet, writer and broadcaster Libby Purves describes the experience of attending a Humanist funeral conducted by one of my colleagues. Admitting she felt apprehensive at the prospect of a non-religious send-off, she’s complimentary about the funeral. She wrote, “… a good humanist can, I thought, do a rite of passage and celebrate a good life better than quite a few clergy I have heard, bumbling on coldly and impersonally at far less kindly funerals.” But then she goes on to ask, “… what it would have been like if we had been seeing off someone far less amiable, and not at all virtuous.” She asks,
“What then for the humanist funeral address? There are not, of course, many such people - most of us have redeeming features somewhere - but there are a few about whom it would be difficult to work up much of an encomium without stretching truth to the point of ludicrous embarrassment. So perhaps that’s when you really need a Christian funeral, with its assertion of the ultimate irreducible value of every immortal soul, the possibility of redemption, the mystery of forgiveness and the human spirit whose depths can be seen and judged only by God.

“Perhaps it is the worst of us who most need religion to give dignity to our passing. The humanist perspective is fine and admirable, as long as your life is visibly decent. It is when we become atrocious, temporarily or permanently, that the Christian message becomes indispensable. You have to be quite exceptionally nice if you’re going to try and do without it. I do not think I had ever quite realized this before.”
Of course, it all depends what you think a funeral is for. Presumably, Libby, like many religious people, sees it as fulfilling several functions, including sending the deceased off to meet God and explain him or herself, before spending eternity somewhere they call an afterlife, whatever or wherever that is. The ferryman Charon used to row the dead across the river Styx to the Underworld; nowadays most people’s idea of the afterlife is altogether more comforting, with only nice people to keep them company. Gives me the heebie-jeebies, just thinking about it. If there was an afterlife, which I’m sure there isn’t, I’d rather not go there, thank you – but that’s another story.

A few years ago, I visited a man whose father had recently died. After I’d established who was who in the family, I said, “Tell me about your dad.” This big tough-looking middle-aged man’s face crumpled. For a moment I thought he was distressed by grief, but I soon realised it was more complicated than that. They were tears of anger, frustration and great sadness for his mother and the rest of the family, who’d had to suffer living with a man who was a bully. His mother had died several years before. This was so unfair, he said; she’d never had an opportunity to escape the brute of a man she’d married; never known any happiness since the day she’d married him. It would be a travesty if I were to describe this man in favourable terms. There was nothing good to say about him, and the son didn’t want me to. It would have been an insult to his mother, and to everyone else who’d been made miserable by his father. So I didn’t say anything good about him. I did, however, give a brief account of his life, and I did talk about the effect he’d had on other people’s lives, without embellishment. In situations like this, I try to reassure the family that their feelings are quite understandable. Despite being the victims of other people’s cruelty, many of those who’ve been abused feel guilty, mistakenly thinking that if they’d done things differently, their abuser might have been kinder to them; that it was partly their fault. Then they feel that it must be wrong to feel glad that someone’s dead. Why ever should they? I find ways of congratulating the victims of bullies and abusers for the fact that they’d come through it all with their humanity intact, and offer them hope that their future might be happier than their past. We can’t stay in the past, nor spend all our time blaming what’s happened to us for preventing us from finding fulfilment in the future. Was this man’s father happy in his brutality? No, judging from his foul temper and general negativity. Bad people are generally unhappy people. Even those who take pleasure in cruelty are not happy. Afterwards, my client thanked me for what I’d said. He said he felt better for having had the funeral, and for the way it was done. Some people who’d known his father might not have appreciated how he behaved towards his family, and might have been surprised to learn that he was not kind and considerate towards them, when he was so good at turning on the charm for other people – as is often the case with bullies. Redemption? Well, if anyone’s God were to forgive him, I’d question his, her or its judgement.

I’ve done quite a few funerals for people whose behaviour was far from perfect. There are a few lovable rogues whose families still love them despite their carryings-on, rolling their eyes as they tell yet another story about what he or she got up to. There are people who were clearly bonkers, who couldn’t control themselves, and who wore everyone out. There are liars and cheats and drug-addicts and drunks and thieves. One young man got himself killed late one night a few miles from his home by staggering into the middle of a dual carriageway off a slip road after he’d crashed a stolen car into a tree. He was hit by two lorries, one after the other, so his partner was advised not to view the body – he’d been flattened. He’d fathered several children who lived with their mother in a hovel of a cottage on benefits. He’d never had a job but stole for a living, then spent the money on drink and drugs. His family had disowned him. What happened to him wasn’t really a surprise to anyone, except perhaps his girlfriend, who naively thought he’d keep his promises to sort himself out. I got the impression that most of the people who came to his funeral were just reassuring themselves that he was really dead, and that they wouldn’t have to worry about a knock on the door from the police again. There have been a few funerals like that, often as the result of sheer stupidity on the part of the deceased. The families were given permission, in coded form, to feel relieved and to get on with the rest of their lives. What else did I say? A brief history, perhaps. References to some of their earlier escapades. An acknowledgement of the difficulties he or she had caused other people, and the efforts that had been made to help him or her. Stories that reflect the way that those affected had given support to one another. A suggestion, maybe, that this person was deficient in some way; lacking an instinct for self-preservation; lacking an appreciation of the effect of his or her behaviour. Then, at the end, a suggestion that no one need worry about him or her any more. Not so much goodbye and good riddance, as simply goodbye.

Now what would a priest have said about any of them? Pious sentiment about forgiveness would not have gone down well, and might only have added to the feeling of confused guilt that people need to leave behind. Goodbye, and get on with it.

Libby Purves wrote, “Perhaps it is the worst of us who most need religion to give dignity to our passing.” The behaviour of the living is what gives the occasion “dignity”, not the reputation of the deceased.