John Walsh: Tales of the City

'There's something about the way the casket disappears through the drapes, like an actor after his last curtain-call'
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It comes as no surprise that the traditional funeral is itself doomed to a lingering demise. The formal stuff we associate with kicking the bucket – the murmurous organ, the whispers in the aisle, the ladies' black hats with their foxy Mata Hari veils, the cambric square applied to the eyes, the constant repetition, over post-graveyard drinks, of the words, "It's what he would have wanted" – it's all going to be redundant. A laugh-a-minute weekend conference on "Death, Dying and Disposal" at the University of Bath brought the news that the standard religious funeral is being ditched in favour of more personalised, do-it-yourself ceremonies. While the C of E conducts 200,000 funerals a year, there are now 15,500 non-religious ones annually, in houses, town halls and woodland glades (no kidding – they're quite the rage in the US, ever since Nate Fisher was buried, coffinless, in a sylvan bower in the last series of Six Feet Under.) And their number is growing. Crematoria in the Home Counties report that non-religious services now make up 10 per cent of the total.

It's in the crematoria, I suspect, that trendy modern funeral practices got started. There's something about the way the casket exits on whirring rollers, disappearing through the drapes to its final conflagration like an actor shyly withdrawing after his last curtain-call, that cries out for a more theatrical response than tears and churchy music. I remember my shock at the funeral of my mother's friend Jo, when her children nixed the priestly choice of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" for "Puttin' on the Ritz". It was sacrilegious, it was disgraceful, it was... absolutely the right thing to play. (It was what she would have wanted.) It's now practically de rigueur for crematoria to play "You Can't Always Get What You Want" or "Heartbreak Hotel" – or, my own final request, Leonard Cohen's "Closing Time" – at high volume on a Bang & Olufsen stereo.

Church ceremonies have been invaded for years by the same airy, teasing spirit. When I was young, it would have been considered an act of howling pretentiousness for a friend of the deceased to get up and speak about his or her attributes. Such behaviour was only for posh people at memorial services. The likes of us were allowed to tell the priest a few endearing tales about the departed, which he'd factor into a sermon if he remembered, and felt like it. The emotional, ad hoc eulogy that's as familiar in modern funerals as it is in middle-aged birthday dinners, began in earnest, I suspect, after John Hannah recited Auden's "Stop All the Clocks" over Simon Callow's coffin in Four Weddings and a Funeral. Now you get self-penned poetry, yodelling, mime, baton-twirling, card tricks, sword exercises, Irish step-dancing – all manner of intrusive self-expression beside the horizontal cupboard in which your recently exited pal now lies.

The most fervent expression of non-religious obsequies in decades was, of course, the avalanche of flowers, cards, cellophane-wrapped teddies and other secular impedimenta that attended the death of Princess Diana; it put the case for the Church service back years. A new orthodoxy sprang into being – that you greet death by insisting on the primacy of your own grief rather than the soul of the departed, by indulging in doll-hugging infantilism, and by listening to lachrymose songs that compare the deceased to Marilyn Monroe.

Does it matter? Do we need churches to preside over the burial of the dead? If we have the right songs, the public display of tears, the sprays of lily-of-the-valley and the novelty party piece, do we need a clergyman to pilot the frail craft that was our friend on to the river Styx? If we can bury the deceased relative in the garden beside his dogs (and people do, though you have to apply to the local borough for permission) do we need the graveyard, the intoning of prayers and the plaster archangel?

Yes, of course we do. As religion has lost its importance in people's lives, they (we) have tried to find a substitute that convincingly tells us human life is infinitely precious. If we can find no substitute, we affect instead to be offhand about death, but inside we're having panic attacks, because unexpressed grief turns inward and starts eating itself.

We need to be properly serious about the Reaper. It isn't something to be cool, or cute, about. We need churches, fluted columns, vaulted roofs, prayers, talk of eternity, hymns. The greater the outward display, the more we can fill the ghastly void that's opened up inside us. The greater the human involvement, the closer people feel to their own mortality. We need to have more going on than novelty songs and the disposal of the corpse's hand-made suits. We need to be reminded that death is about grief and anguish and things on which we'd rather not dwell. Death is the ultimate reality check. We shouldn't let it seem like an audition for reality TV.


While we're talking religion, I'm indebted to the Catholic Herald for its report on the gifted footballer Jay-Jay Okocha. Mr Okocha, once captain of Bolton Wanderers, recently decamped for the glamorous environs of Hull City. Why? Because God told him to. The Supreme Being of the Universe, possibly weary of explaining to President Bush why he should bomb Iraq, apparently enjoys regular chats with the tricky midfielder. "I always ask God if it is his will, and if so then let it be," he told the Herald. " That's why I am here at Hull." Jay-Jay, how could you make such an obvious blunder? The Lord God obviously said unto you (as he says to all of us,) "You are destined to go to Hell..." Not Hull, Hell. I mean, duh.