Is it wrong to say that funerals may sometimes be enjoyable? I don’t think so. Obviously the funerals of the young or the tragic are likely to be traumatic affairs, although even these should bring some kind of consolation. The funerals of those who die because they are old and have earned the love of their families may, if properly conceived and executed, be enjoyable, even for the mourners, perhaps especially for the mourners. Perhaps that is their point.
I do not mean enjoyable in the sense of celebration – that can be left to the memorial or the wake – but rather in the sense that a good funeral heightens one’s own sense of being alive. This past weekend I was at the funeral of the father of two of my closest friends. At the interment, as the congregation stood among the stones of the gently sloping graveyard, slightly hung back from the principals, the coffin was lowered into its plot to the plaintive strains of a Royal Marines bugler blowing the Last Post. Warwickshire and England rolled away around us in the light Spring rain. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The words are almost comical in their familiarity, but it is the comedy of mortality. This has been going on a long time.
Ritual is important. Repetition is important. The church was full, many standing. The hymns were familiar and sung with gusto. Corinthians was King James, as it always should be. Shakespeare, Tennyson, Elgar. There are traditions which live because they flex and accommodate. The Church of England is very good at this. It may not turn pagans like myself into believers, but somehow the touching of those familiar nerves, and the genius of so many of the words used draws one into a communion.
But the Church is dependent on a family’s determination and willingness to do things right. As it was, here the deceased had made it clear almost twenty years ago what kind of a service he wanted. He’d done that in a funny, unaffected, tremendously characteristic letter to his daughter just before boarding a flight on a questionable carrier. Her ability, and the ability of those similarly affected, to pull off so perfect – so good, so enjoyable – a funeral, spoke well for all parties: the church, the deceased and the bereaved.