Only funerals let us confront death head on


The trend for cremation without ceremony is a mistake. A proper send-off is a vital ritual for facing up to mortality.

At Paul Daniels’s funeral, his widow says, there will be a silver wand — one of his awards — placed on the coffin, and they may play Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah because he would like that. At Sir Clement Freud’s funeral his daughter Emma, not normally a public singer, did “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places”. Elsewhere, there are biker funerals, a New York yellow taxi hearse or a customised ice-cream van, wreaths as everything from spanners to Tesco bags. In some crematorium chapels, with their tactfully removable crosses, there will always be someone asking for Monty Python’s Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

Traditionalist though I am, this is all fine with me. You do what works. What did strike a slight chill, though, was the Times report of a trend for “direct cremation”, where the coffin goes straight from hospital or home to the crematorium without ceremony. Anita Brookner and David Bowie both apparently requested this, and 2,000 people a year choose it, opting only for a memorial “celebration of life” weeks later. This is not only cheaper but, according to the Good Funeral Guide’s author, Charles Cowling, will spare friends and family the upset of having the body present. One seller of direct cremations says it is “baby boomers who are used to calling the shots”.

Well, let this baby boomer respectfully demur and speak for funerals. Memorial events, secular in tone and arranged to suit everybody’s diary, are splendid and celebratory: they lovingly spin sadness into golden memory before the widest possible acquaintance and admirers. The shock has abated, the body is long gone, life has moved on, one’s own remorseless heartbeat and breath blur the perennial unwelcome fact of mortality.

A funeral, on the other hand, brings us square up against a fact. It lets death do what it should: disrupt arrangements and mundane duties, force us to stop and gather quietly around a coffin. The box’s dreadful solidity brings home the inconvenient truth that we are only leaseholders in our fragile bodies. It enforces respect for the way that a messy, organic body and brain have marvellously contained personality, intellect, emotion and individuality, and now can do so no more. Mr Cowling’s airy remark about “separating the disposal of the corpse from the memorial event” gives itself away: you dispose of distasteful reality to weave a golden legend.

I am, God knows, all for golden legends, and I hold at heart and speak regularly of many of the lost; but their funeral events were not mere “disposal” or even memorialising. Like childbearing or nursing, a funeral accepts physicality and the fact that for this person the physical is over. You need not be religious to get bleak comfort from the Book of Common Prayer: “Man . . . cometh up, and is cut down like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow . . . We brought nothing into this world, and . . . can carry nothing out . . . ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. If you are religious there is the comforting addendum, “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life”. Even if not, and I have seen strong and moving humanist funerals, there is certainty, respect, and formal acceptance underlined by the presence of the body.

Funerals can make the mourners rise to something more than they believed they could: a friend’s granddaughter, who had never sung publicly, did most beautifully all verses of Amazing Grace; widows and widowers who were crumbling find dignity, holding it together as the coffin is carried out. We had to hold ourselves that way at our son’s funeral: his university tutor and his sister spoke and read, and the vicar talked marvellously of the debt we owe to poets. But the most striking memory is of our elderly Suffolk undertaker following the coffin out, pausing to bow to us the chief mourners. I had not know that was a tradition, but it chimed with something deep.

This was not a crassly business-minded funeral director like the one who told this paper “the 21st-century consumer expects to be upsold products”. He is a man of vocation, won’t offer high-priced coffins (“What was good enough for Peter Pears is good enough for anyone”), and makes sure his bearers can sing the hymns loud and lustily to strengthen scanty or elderly voices. At “pauper” funerals of homeless people without friends, he will say a prayer aloud himself.

Not every community has such a figure. Yet any funeral brings the harsh, necessary salt of reality, forces acceptance, and makes people drive across the country to pay respect to someone who can never thank them. Memorial events later are fine, the last awards ceremony for those considered special. Funerals, in affirming death, also affirm common humanity. Whether you stand by the coffin of a Falklands hero or an ex-convict — I have done both — you know with John Donne that “No man is an island entire of itself . . . any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind”.

It’s not just “disposal”. Whether it is intimate and private, or processional with plumed horses, a funeral is worth doing. In Ireland the village shops put up the shutters as the hearse passes. In 1997, when Princess Diana’s sons followed her coffin on foot, some voices condemned it as cruel and said that small Harry at 12 need not endure this. My own son was 14. He watched it on the television and quietly said, “They’ll be glad they did that”. He knew. We all know, really. Funerals matter.

Libby Purves, The Times 21st March 2016