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Who wants a funeral?

A strange title I know, but it refers to a very specific situation. Actually – make that two situations.


Firstly, until Covid came along and put a stop to volunteering, I worked as Humanist Chaplain in Leeds hospitals, as described elsewhere on this site. Because adherents to organised religion are increasingly (but by no means only) drawn from older age groups, I found myself, as a non-believer, seeing more than my share of younger patients. Many of these were young couples who had suffered the loss of a baby before, or shortly after, birth. Although this is obviously a distressing situation, working with these young people was not as depressing an experience as you might imagine. Of course everyone upset and sad, but they were also very resilient, and it was inspiring to see the way that families and friends rallied round to support the grieving parents.


Quite a few of them asked me to perform a naming service for their child, and joining them at the bedside, with (usually) the mother holding her tiny but outwardly perfect stillborn infant was a very moving experience, and a privilege. Others would ask for a formal funeral service, and I would offer to include a naming within that service, an offer that was always accepted.


Now although I have no evidence for this, I'm guessing that twenty or thirty years ago, holding a formal service in this situation would have been considered unusual, and even now, many parents choose not to do so, which is fine – we all have different ways of coming to terms with this sort of loss. But why should we find it a bit odd to hold a funeral for a stillborn or miscarried child?


When I asked the parents what they wanted from the service, the answer was always a variant of this: they wanted to establish their child's place as a member of the family; not a tragic event never to be spoken about, but a real individual to be remembered on their birthday like any other. And that's why a name is important – it confirms our existence, and rather than simply acting as a reminder of a sad loss, it actually gives a focus for the good memories of the child's brief existence, even if it was all within the womb.


The other side of the coin is a move away from holding funeral services in situations where one might normally have been expected. You will have seen adverts on the TV from funeral directors seeking to undercut each other with their offers of cheap direct cremations, where there is no service, and the deceased's ashes are simply returned to the relatives to do with as they wish. It has always been possible to do this, although the option was not one that most funeral directors would draw to the attention of their clients, for obvious commercial reasons. I'm not sure why this has, relatively recently, become a 'thing', but presumably once the possibility of direct cremation became more widely known, it had to be embraced and monetised.


Strange things, funerals, anyway – who are they actually for? It tends to be assumed that they are for the bereaved, and not for the deceased, who knows nothing about it, but that's not entirely true. When I was acting as a humanist celebrant I met with a number of people who were approaching death and wanted to arrange their own service, so it obviously mattered to them. Also, experience of conducting nearly a hundred services myself taught me that not all funerals are the same: some are sad, sparsely attended occasions, and others are genuine celebrations of a life well-lived. The former can lead you to wonder why, other than a desire to conform, the bereaved put themselves through such a depressing process; the latter can, in addition to giving families and friends a chance to come to terms with their loss, be life-affirming occasions. I remember in particular the funeral of an elderly lady who hd been a trade union stalwart and friend of the Labour Party giants of the sixties and seventies. At her request, we all stood to sing The Red Flag, something I'd never done before and don't expect to do again. The chapel was packed, and the attendees raised the roof – the antithesis of those painful services where the bereaved feel obliged to include a hymn, and no one sings.


So what do I want when I depart? I have a secret hankering for four huge black horses pulling a glass-sided hearse with floral tributes to 'Bob', 'dad' and 'granddad', the streets lined by thousands – a bit like Ronnie Kray's send off – but failing that, I think I might settle for a quick cremation followed by a wake for the family and friends. Which leaves me with the problem of where to be scattered. I'd like to say, as a Leeds Rhinos supporter, the centre circle at Headingly, but I think they're reluctant to allow that these days, players having presumably become fed up with crashing to the ground after a tackle and getting a gritty mouthful of dead fan. So perhaps I'd settle for the lake in Roundhay Park, I've walked around it enough times over the past thirty plus years, sometimes with a dog, sometimes without, and if they scatter me at the southern end, near the outflow, I'll be off down Wyke Beck (one of the last redoubts of the endangered native white-clawed crayfish), into the River Aire, then via the Ouse and Humber, into the North Sea. Yes, that'll do (but preferably not just yet).

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