Changing the Ritual of Death

by John Lampard.

Anyone who has taken part in a funeral over the past year or so, as minister or mourner, will have experienced a very different ritual to ones they have previously taken part in. Restrictions enforced by the Covid crisis have led to limited and attenuated services and rituals, religious or otherwise.

Covid has hastened a steadily developing trend towards different forms of funerals and one of the biggest changes has been the development of Direct Cremations. At its simplest a body is collected from a home or hospital, it is cremated at an unknown time and place, with no mourners or ritual, and if requested ashes are subsequently delivered to the person who made arrangements for the cremation. There is no need for direct contact with a funeral director, no hearse, no service and no attendance by mourners.  It can all be arranged impersonally on line. It is then up to the person requesting the Direct Cremation to arrange or ignore any farewell ritual, religious or otherwise. In the last year these forms of funeral have increased from 14% of all funerals to 25% (or 33% of cremations).

One of the leading Direct Funeral providers recently carried out a survey of people who had signed up in advance for a Direct Funeral. Apart from the fact that such funerals are about 60% (£2,000) cheaper, the survey indicates a fundamental shift in attitudes towards death, how it is ritually marked and who should be in charge of that event. The focus has largely shifted to a secular celebration of the life that has been lived, rather than a Christian narrative of the next life, with a minimum or complete absence of traditional rituals.

The Christian churches lost their monopoly on the ritual and more importantly the interpretation of death early in the nineteenth century. Secular burial grounds were developed as churchyards were increasingly closed as ‘full’. This trend of ‘loss of interpretation’ increased with the rapid building of crematoria after 1945. Early crematoria had crosses on the outside (and often inside) and were designed to look like a church; modern ones have none of this.  

How will these trends affect Christian funerals? Of course they already have. When did you last see the word ‘Funeral’ on the printed order of service? Today church services use ‘Celebration’ or ‘Thanksgiving,’ with the past life at the forefront and the afterlife soft-pedalled. Increasingly a body is cremated before the service and a ‘thanksgiving’ service is held in church afterwards. Only recently has thought been given to the Christian burial of ashes, rather than a secular scattering.

Perhaps the church can only maintain a tenuous hold on its interpretation of death by being counter-cultural. The following suggested pattern represents a possible Christian funeral today.

1          Funeral service in church with the coffin present. If there is to be a eulogy, this should be early in the service, before Bible readings, sermon and Commendation etc. This pattern separates the ‘looking back’ from the Christian ‘looking forward.’

2          The coffin, perhaps accompanied by a minister (though this is not necessary), travels to the crematorium where it is cremated at a time suitable to its capacity, without a service. This is the preparation of the remains of the body for burial.

3          Meanwhile the family are able to meet and reunite with mourners for light refreshments and receive the blessing of support, affirmation and retelling of memories.

4          At an appropriate date (40 days after death?) mourners assemble for the final farewell when the ashes are buried (not scattered) in consecrated ground accompanied by prayer. It is a matter of individual choice if there is to be a memorial marker.

This pattern achieves the two major ritual aims of a Christian funeral. It enables the journey of the body of the deceased to be where it should be, and it enables the journey of the family and friends to be where they should be. These are, of course, both spiritual and physical journeys. Furthermore, a Christian funeral is an act of Christian witness.

3 thoughts on “Changing the Ritual of Death”

  1. I agree entirely. We should return to the “commit and commend” form of service. We commit the body (as a body or ashes” to the ground and commend the soul on its onward journey to God where our loved one, having lived by faith will now enjoy sight. Those who do not believe will carry on singing “wish me luck as you wave me goodbye”.
    David Booth.

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  2. Like others, I imagine, I have taken country funerals following exactly the pattern suggested here and have been the only one to accompany the coffin to the crematorium.

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    1. Do we as Christians believe in disembodied souls? I’v e always been taught that that is a Platonic idea not a Biblical one? Of course I may be wrong.

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