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Tony Grist

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Funerals [May. 16th, 2005|10:15 am]
Tony Grist
The humanist guy who'll be taking Bran's funeral took the funeral of my sister-in-law's neighbour last week. My bro-in-law didn't think he was solemn enough, but the widow thought he got it right.

What does one want from a funeral?

A reminder that we've all got it coming to us?

A dose of religious uplift?

A celebration of the life of the deceased?

Some combination of the above?

No, this isn't a quiz, but I'd be glad of your thoughts.

When I was a clergyman I prided myself on doing a good funeral. People usually congratulated me afterwards (but they would, wouldn't they?) Here's a (15 year old) poem I wrote looking back on those times..

TWO SERMONS

With time on my hands between two funerals,
Leaving the crematorium chapel,
I made a tour of the old graves.
Their ragged turf was covered with snow.

Blackened stones, the height of a woman,
They had the appearance of cowled figures.
It was a meeting of black robes
As I in my cassock moved down the rows,

Reading the names, the dates, the praise
That could have been uttered of anyone.
These made money in cotton, I thought,
And these kept shop. But try as I might

I couldn't conjure their living presence
For all my thoughts had a coal-face glitter.
I saw them stiff in their gothic houses
With puppet faces and black clothes

And the voices I gave them in my mind
Protested, "You will learn nothing here,
Patronising this underclass.
You deaden us with received ideas.

We were fickle in love, like you,
And insecure in our certainties;
How can you hope to account for us
Until you have thoroughly understood

How you are nothing? Don't bother to ask
The dead for truth. We are even less
Than any makeshift living thing.
As well interrogate drifting smoke

Or melting snow. And as for God..."
Their voices now were the rasp of the wind
On frozen snow; then they were cowls
Lined up as on a river bank

And lastly blackened stone. I turned.
This was before I ditched my love
In love's name, as Augustine did,
Saving myself; I wasn't ready

To hear their sermon. The hearse was coming.
Black tinder fell from the sky.
I wouldn't have noticed it but for the snow.
I had my own brief sermon to say.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: idahoswede
2005-05-16 04:36 am (UTC)
I don't know, we had a pretty okay funeral service for both my mom and dad, especially considering they were not linked with any church and the lady who did the service didn't actually know them, but we had a nice talk with her and she did something simple. I don't care for funerals where the deceased has become some kind of marvelous person, especially if they weren't in real life. I don't want a funeral service myself, maybe just a memorial service a month or so after I've been cremated and tossed to the winds (note to survivor who does this, check wind direction first and adjust your position accordingly).
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-05-16 05:06 am (UTC)
I always thought the important thing was to try and make it personal. As celebrant I did my best to find out as much as I could about the deceased.

I loved the memorial service they had for Graham Chapman where Eric Idle insisted on saying "fuck" and John Cleese began his eulogy with "good riddance to him, the cheap, free-loading bastard...."
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[User Picture]From: halfmoon_mollie
2005-05-16 05:16 am (UTC)
Wow. Great poem.

I know I keep bringing up my brother...but his is the only funeral I can compare anything with. He didn't have one, he had a memorial service and no one spoke. I liked that - we all had tea and cake and talked about him.

And one of the nicest things I've ever heard said at a funeral was said there. My brother had assorted 'step children' from different relationships. There was Kimmy, and Marcus, there was Dana and Nikki. And someone said "Were they all his children?" Someone I didn't know, but who was a great friend of my sister-in-law, said "He was biological father to none of them, he was father to all of them."

That's the kind of funeral I'd like to have.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-05-16 08:11 am (UTC)
I'm glad you like the poem. It's my (very potted) version of Dante's Inferno.

Every funeral should be different and crafted to the character of the deceased and the needs of mourners. I like what was said about your brother. It makes a very fine epitaph.
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[User Picture]From: lblanchard
2005-05-16 05:25 am (UTC)
A good funeral is one that allows the attendees to grieve and be comforted. My brother's achieved that for me -- my mother and my sister's family are all members of the church were it was held, and my mother can see the churcyhard / memorial garden from her apartment windows. It was a full service, with Eucharist, so it was very much a part of their regular lives. Although the rector knew my brother only slightly, from his participation in occasional church events (like mine), she knows the rest of the family well and was able to offer a short homily that spoke to our feelings. There was something beautifully intimate and familial about recessing through the church and having the gravesite be a scant 20 feet from the church door.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-05-16 08:25 am (UTC)
My grandparents were all cremated and their ashes scattered and there's no where to visit and leave tributes. I guess they wanted it that way.

But my father's ashes have been interred in the churchyard just down the road from where my mother lives. Thinking about it- the long grass, the rose bushes, the yew trees- I'm reminded of what Shelley wrote about Keats's grave in the Protestant cemetery in Rome; "it might make one in love with death, to be buried in so sweet a place".


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[User Picture]From: jackiejj
2005-05-16 06:07 am (UTC)
Your poem is brilliant, Tony. I'm saving it (one clicks that heart icon).

And lastly blackened stone. I turned.
This was before I ditched my love
In love's name, as Augustine did,
Saving myself; I wasn't ready


I fixed on this, because it is a powerful, so simple way to explain (I think this is right) why you left the Church.

And so I went above to see what the sermon of the dead was for you, and saw it:

As well interrogate drifting smoke

Or melting snow. And as for God..."
Their voices now were the rasp of the wind
On frozen snow; then they were cowls
Lined up as on a river bank

And lastly blackened stone.


How superbly this moves God from the evanescent into the material and finally into stone that is polluted by "black tinder" falling from the sky--

--As for funerals, they are to help us say goodbye, to believe the person is really gone, to help us past that strange numbness that we experience when the world turns upside down with sudden change and loss. They should have enough weight of ritual to make the moment real.

I have been to Southern funerals which included the preacher attempting to get members of the congregation "saved." At one such funeral, a man came forward, and it flickered through the air that "she would have been so happy to know" her death had brought about a saved soul...

But these are side-issues, I think. Surely the core purpose in all our rites of passage are to imprint upon our minds the gravity of the moment, so that marriage, or death, or graduation will not be forgotten or thought unimportant.

Thank you for that magnificent poem.

Your sermon has become your life, I think.





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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-05-16 08:35 am (UTC)
Thank you.

I read a poem (by Eavan Boland) which described a journey into the underworld. She met various spirits, but none of them spoke. I thought this was a terrible mistake. A cop-out even. The dead have to say something- even if it's in the form of a riddle. And so I wrote this poem as a way of showing how I thought this kind of thing should be done.
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[User Picture]From: dadi
2005-05-16 06:14 am (UTC)
I am becoming more and more fascinated. Beautiful poem! And I didn't know you had past in the clergy!
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-05-16 08:36 am (UTC)
I'm glad you like the poem.

I was an Anglican clergyman for ten years (1976-86.) It seems a long time ago now.
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[User Picture]From: arielstarshadow
2005-05-16 06:25 am (UTC)
As others have said (and which is obvious), the funeral/memorial service is for those left behind. I think it's just one of those rituals we do to gain some closure on a person's life. It's a way of demonstrating that yes, this person is no longer here on this plane of existence.

Honestly, I wish it were legal to simply dig a hole and bury a person, no box. That way, the decaying body can feed and replenish the earth, the way it's supposed to. I think, for myself, I would want something more along the lines of a wake - food and fun and music.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-05-16 08:39 am (UTC)
I don't know if you have this option in the States, but over here there are companies offering "woodland burials". The body is buried in a biodegradable coffin and a tree is planted on the grave. Over time the cemetery turns into a wood. I think it's a fabulous idea.
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[User Picture]From: four_thorns
2005-05-16 07:22 am (UTC)
i love the poem! the imagery is great. and the scenario is interesting as well. i would have never thought about what priests do when they're not doing priestly things. is this as you wrote it 15 years ago, or have you revised since?
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-05-16 08:44 am (UTC)
Thanks.

The poem was written shortly after I left the Church. It's in the nature of a "goodbye to all that". As I remember it took me several months to get it right. I will have made minor revisions since- changing a word here and there- but basically it's as I wrote it c. 1987/8
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[User Picture]From: karenkay
2005-05-16 07:42 am (UTC)
"You deaden us with received ideas."

I feel like having this tattooed someplace prominent on my body.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-05-16 08:45 am (UTC)
Yay!

I don't think a poet could ask for a higher tribute.....:)
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From: morrison_maiden
2005-05-16 11:24 am (UTC)
I'm not really sure, because the funerals that I've been to were religious, Jewish ceremonies. I guess that in my opinion, a "nice" funeral is one where the clergyman's manner is respectful and doesn't seem redundant (like he says the same for every person, even if he does) and that he seems to care about the family too. I remember I really appreciated the kindness of the rabbi and funeral home employees when my grandparents had passed away.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-05-17 01:25 am (UTC)
I dealt with a lot of funeral directors back in the old days, and I was impressed with them. Some were better than others, but all of them made an effort to give a good and caring service. Off duty they tended to be very likable, gentle, genuine people- and usually with a very good sense of humour.

Gosh, I couldn't do that job!
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[User Picture]From: zen_punk
2005-05-16 03:54 pm (UTC)

Wow.

You really are quite the wordsmith, aren't you? If I may be so bold, I ask you: does it help you? Writing, that is. I mean, you obviously enjoy it enough, and I imagine it is very cathartic at times. I know the focus that comes from expressing oneself in an artful way can be quite exhilariting and help one to right oneself against the buffeting winds of life, but....Does freezing thoughts(as best we can express them in language), and then saving them, committing them to posterity, does it help you to grow as a person? As you look back, how has writing changed your life? Do you suppose it is something that furthers you along your path towards...well, wherever(or whatever) it is you are striving for? I'm really trying to get my head around this whole writing deal. I've decided to take my laptop on the bus with me to write during my commute, but I'm afraid now that I'll spend most of the time staring at the screen. Well, I must run. I'll be back!
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-05-17 01:35 am (UTC)

Re: Wow.

Yes, it does help. I've been a writer all my life. It's how I deal with things. When I left the church- and was in a real mess emotionally and financially - I wrote up a storm and every piece I wrote (poems, articles) took me one step closer towards getting myself out of the morass. If I want to find out what I think about anything I write about it.

Yes, take the laptop with you on the commute. And here's a suggestion- if you can't think of anything to write, just shut your mind down and write automatically. It's amazing what comes through. OK, it'll be mainly gibberish, but in amongst the nonsense you may well find the odd little nugget- an image, a line of dialogue, the rough sketch of a character- which you can use as the starting point for a story or poem or whatever.
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From: manfalling
2005-05-17 01:09 am (UTC)

speaker for the dead

orson scott card- the dude i'm reading all the time now- has this idea of a speaker for the dead- who basically comes in, investigates a dead persons life, then just says the truth of that person at the burial. and the truth is all the things they did, everything bad and good, but chiefly, what their INTENTIONS were. cos nobody MEANS to be bad. they just MEAN to be good, and maybe screw up along the way.
it's interesting cos apparently some of his fans went ahead and did this at the funerals of their dead. wud be interesting. probably too rough for the way we treat death tho. speaking ill of the dead and all...
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-05-17 01:55 am (UTC)

Re: speaker for the dead

I like that idea.

But could one trust the "Speaker" to get it right? A person's intentions are just about the hardest things to determine. You can accurately report the events of a life but its meaning is always up for debate.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-05-17 03:32 am (UTC)
I tried to do that.

I always met the family beforehand and did my best to draw out their memories of the deceased.

I used to feel it was one of the more important things I had to do as a priest...

Today I'm on the other side. We're going down to Ruth's to meet the humanist guy who'll be taking the service. I'm nervous about it....
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