What I learnt about what goes on at funerals from Victor Turner

Nigel Rooms is the Leader of Partnership for Missional Church UK, Church Mission Society; Associate Priest at St. Peter’s, Braunstone Park, Leicester; Editor of Practical Theology and Co-Editor of Ecclesial Futures; freelance researcher, consultant, facilitator, author, editor and spiritual director. Correspond with Nigel at nigel@praxisworks.uk.

Interpreting behaviour and transforming practice at funerals with liminal theory by Rev Canon Nigel Rooms.

I am based in Leicester, UK and have been a Christian minister for thirty years. This short piece arose from experience I had many years ago when both beginning ordained ministry in the UK and first encountering liminal theory from reading Victor Turner and understanding about structure, anti-structure and liminal space alongside ritual theory. Its just that I never got around to writing it and, indeed I had no outlet for it. The writing of the book Crossing Thresholds on the Journey Faith: A Practical Theology of Liminality (Cambridge: Lutterworth, forthcoming 2020) and the creation of the Engaged Liminality blog prompted me to write and offered the right place for the reflection. Since it arose when I began ordained ministry it might be useful for those in that phase of life, but I expect ‘seasoned campaigners’ might usefully review their practice also. I hope for any others reading this it will be enlightening in understanding the funeral through the ‘liminal lens’.

A funeral is the culmination ritual of the whole ‘rite of passage’ for the death of a person. Whatever one believes about the afterlife (and this varies enormously even amongst Christians) it is clear that in any physical sense the person who was alive and with us is now not. A change in their state of being has occurred. They are dead. Ritual theory tells us that rituals exist to dramatize, in a focused microcosm what is happening in the overall rite of passage, which marks a status change. That is, we have to come to terms with the fact that ‘Dorothy’ was with us for 73 years and is now no more. So here is the first point of contact where we can learn. I suggest that the recent trend of conducting a funeral without the body physically present is a denial of death, of the reality of what has happened – and there are many other points in the ritual where denial can also manifest itself. We know that bereavement takes a very different course for those whose loved ones are lost at sea or who died in major explosions or other tragedies where the body is not recoverable.

A funeral, therefore dramatizes in a few hours the loss of a person – essentially, we start with the body and finish having disposed of it in some suitably reverent fashion. Thus, the process of a funeral is to dramatize progressively the ‘letting go’ of the person from us – to allow them to metaphorically die in our imaginations – such that, life may be taken up again – even though the illusive ‘closure’ may take years, or in fact never arrive (this is particularly the case for the loss of children, however old). So that’s how we’ll proceed in this piece – from the beginning of the ritual to the end.

I generally find, when visiting bereaved relatives for the first time, explaining this purpose of ‘letting go’ for the funeral, in everyday language, really helps them to ground what is going to happen. It also supports an explanation of the key moments in the funeral during the visit as we’ll see. Many, many people will tell of how in-between the person’s death and the funeral they feel ‘in limbo’, not really sure what is happening – they describe all the conditions of the liminal state and not to conduct the funeral rite would be to leave them stuck in this limbo. In terms of our theory which we explain in Crossing Thresholds they are placed at the bottom of the U (of Scharmer’s Theory U) until the ritual can happen. This again helps the explanation of why a funeral ‘must’ happen – the vast majority of people I have come across realise, deep down its fundamental necessity. It is not difficult therefore to reinforce this with simple explanations of what is happening and why.

Traditionally in the UK bodies were kept in an open coffin either at home and/or in church overnight before the funeral. My grandmother spoke of her and all her childhood siblings and friends taking a ‘peek’ into the coffin, looking at the latest person around them to die, in the early twentieth century. So, we start with the person – even though they are dead, we can still see them and interact with the body. The denial of death and consequent squeamishness about its presence has largely removed these actions as part of the contemporary rituals around death. However, I always encourage a visit by close family to say a final physical farewell to the person in the morgue if at all possible – it has to be a healthy thing to see the dead for the last time (unless, perhaps the body, for some reason is badly mutilated or has been donated to science etc.). 

One of the lovely micro or sub-rituals which used to happen in the fairly close community I worked in was that the funeral cortege would pick up the close family and, led by the hearse travelling at a relatively low and respectful speed would divert to the deceased’s home on the way to the place of the service or when going to the committal. Sometimes they may have lived in the same home for decades – the cars would arrive, slow right down, linger outside the home for a minute or so before moving off. Once again, the drama was saying this person was here and is no more.

Possibly the most curious phenomenon when first encountering funeral ministry was the ‘gathering’ of mourners either at our church or at the crematorium before the hearse and the close family arrived (unless the family were very well known to me I usually did not accompany them from home or say any prayers there before they set off). Hardly anyone, gathering in the half-hour or so before the advertised time entered the building to prepare themselves, they would rather stand outside, perhaps having a last cigarette before the service, often conducting slightly awkward conversations with their fellow mourners. Often it felt like there was even something contagious about entering the building before time – as if death might be catching! If I wanted any last-minute stories about the deceased or simply to put myself about I needed to be out there and not inside the building. And then it clicked on reading Turner. The building is the liminal space equivalent to the circumcision camp in the bush for the village age-mate ritual. It is the place of chaos and awe, not to be entered without permission from the ritual elder (me) at the right time (when the coffin arrives). Here then was a lesson about how the church building (it is different inevitably for sole-use crematoria) is imagined in the lives of the average local mourner who does not attend regularly. For them the building is truly liminal space, mostly to be avoided as it requires the serious engagement and invitation to change that any rite of passage signifies. However, ‘other-worldly’ the regular week-by-week worship is for the churchgoers the building for them becomes more structure than anti-structure, in Turner’s terms. This does not preclude effective oscillation between worship and work (see chapters three and ten of Crossing Thresholds), but it does mean, I suggest that other liminal experiences are wisely built-in to the annual programme of local churches – pilgrimages, festivals and even the “week-end away”. The liminal nature of the building for the newcomer is yet another hurdle they need to clamber over if they are to join the regular worshippers. I wonder how many congregants realise this when inviting their friends and families to worship with them.

In the Church of England’s funeral rite, the service begins with the procession into the space where the ritual will take place, whether a church or chapel at the crematorium. The ritual priest (me) walks reverently in front of the coffin, the coffin bearers and the immediate family – followed by the rest of those mourners who were waiting for permission to get going. Thus, the priest creates the container for the rite of passage to be dramatized effectively throughout the funeral from the very first moment. Sentences of Scripture are provided for this procession – enough (at least seven – e.g. John 11: 25-6; Rom 8: 38-9; Lam 3: 22-3) for quite a long walk. I found myself, in time taking up my role as ritual leader by announcing these verses in as firm and commanding a voice as I could muster, making sure I heard the echo coming back from around the building.  

Crematoria are essentially technological solutions for the lack of physical grave space, at least in the western world where burial in the ground has traditionally been the norm. Their design and architecture vary enormously, some of which enhance the ‘flow’ of a funeral and some which definitely do not (one of my laments is their, often functional nature and lack of transcendence – and therefore the inability to provide sufficient containment). It seems to me interaction with the coffin, which is one removed from the deceased (yet we all know who is in there – it is rarely left open these days) is the point of a funeral.  If at all possible I would always place the coffin centrally in front of the mourners, yet some crematoria have it off in a corner out of their direct eyeline. In these cases, I would leave it out, with the permission of the family and have it placed on the ‘catafalque’ (from whence it will proceed to the furnaces after the service) just before the Commendation. More on that movement in a moment.

 I won’t say too much about the content of the funeral as practice varies a great deal. The key is that the celebrant holds the space for mourning and grief to happen – through their words and their silences. Eye contact, especially in music and hymns if there are any is key; humour and the right level of pathos also really help. Generally, I am looking for tears, for expressions of emotion, for grief to be demonstrated in physical ways within the overall containment. Standing quietly by a close friend or relative as they offer a tribute often is enough to hold them through that tremulous moment. Because the space is liminal space however the slightest disturbance will be attributed meaning by the mourners, for example a fly buzzed around me once at a profound and silent moment. Clearly ‘Arthur’ was not finished just yet, I was reliably informed afterwards.

 The next stage in the drama of the funeral is the enacting of the loss of the person, as the coffin is removed from us. It is a staged process which I think really helps lead the mourners to the heart of what needs to happen for them. Thus, the Commendation precedes the Farewell in the Committal and prepares the mourners for it – leading them gently to that moment which cannot be avoided. 

At the Commendation I normally move to the side of the coffin and gently place my hand lovingly upon the top-side of it. I am representing what the mourners would also wish to do (and may in fact be given permission for if there is time, but this does have risks in them becoming overly attached). It is perhaps the most poignant moment at which the ritual priest is at their most vulnerable as the creator for the containment of grief. I once had a hardened local publican who had lost the love of his life in her early thirties to a massive and sudden brain haemorrhage tell me some time later that he wanted to jump up and “brain” me at that very moment when I touched the coffin; ironic in the extreme. Yet here is the ‘letting go’ which has to happen, we cannot cling to the dead person, I must remove my hand and move to the Committal.

I have to say here, why I unequivocally prefer burial over cremation. As I often declare in the preparation meeting, ‘no-one would leave the coffin on the side of the grave and walk way’. Burial is clearly a final symbolic act – I hope that the mourners at my funeral will follow the beautiful African and African-Caribbean custom of filling in the grave before leaving the site, while many hymns are sung (and please no plastic grass to hide the earth mound!). Once the coffin is in the grave it is clear it is not coming out again. Death has been thoroughly and movingly dramatized, and physical energy has been expended in filling in the grave. And even if it isn’t filled in there is the chance to symbolize that by scattering some earth on the coffin. In fact, it is one of the moments I feel most connected when I take up a handful of earth before the Committal begins and drop it in the grave three times coinciding with the words, ‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust’. It resounds in the space of the grave on the coffin lid, my hand becomes soiled, the pages of the service book get grubby, bits of sand are left in its spine and death is real for me as well as the mourners. They in their turn sprinkle some earth on the coffin, perhaps throw in some flowers and take their time to leave.

Things are not the same in a crematorium. There are two main issues. First the burial has to be symbolically represented in the technology. Second it is not over when it’s over since mourners are left with what to do with the ashes – which prolongs the rite, often quite unhelpfully. Especially when the ashes are kept on a shelf in the garage for years afterwards, since no-one quite can bring themselves to dispose of them.

So, in a crematorium there is usually some ritual action which symbolises the lowering of the coffin into the grave. I have seen mainly curtains operated by the discreet pressing of a button, also gates closing (in some odd juxtaposition of the opening of the heavenly ones?) and in one case in a design from the 1930s an actual lowering of the coffin mechanically into the bowels of the crematorium (accompanied quite often by the clanking of the machinery). All of these methods seem to me overly melodramatic (though what alternative is there?) and families often baulk at them – asking for the curtains or gates to be left open, the coffin not to be dropped. This always seems to me highly unsatisfactory as it offers opportunity for denial. And here is where ritual theory can really help. Often, though not always, my explaining the function of the curtains goes some way to persuading the mourners that this is the moment of letting go – and ‘we wouldn’t leave a coffin on the side of a grave, would we?’

Time is what is required at this point particularly as there is no equivalent of the earth scattering on top of the coffin, though as indicated above there might be some limited interaction before the commendation. Music helps too I would suggest, as part of the containment and permission giving for grief.

I won’t say much more about ashes except to note that there is usually a great deal more of them than people expect and they tend to blow about in any kind of wind, and in the case of my father make a rather surprising and immediate white stain on the bed of his chosen river in Yorkshire.

And finally – the ‘wake’. The final piece of the ritual jigsaw which is saying life, not ‘must’, but in fact ‘will’ just go on, continue. Time will pass and we need to be together, this first time without ‘Delia’ for all the times that will come when she won’t be with us; In this first year at Christmas and on her birthday, Mothers’ day etc and then in the second year too… Yes, at the wake we can continue to tell stories of her, share photos and memories, but this is now about the future – about re-aggregation and returning to structure in Turner’s terms. And so, a final plea for the ritual priests reading this; do not avoid the wake! Do not make the excuse of being too ‘busy’ to attend (what a terrible word for spiritual leaders to utter). The ritual is not over by any means at the graveside, it only concludes afterwards as people gather in a wholly different, more ‘normal’ space. The presence of the priest at the wake – and it only really requires presence, a drink or two and a bite to eat – gives unspoken permission for some sense of normality to return. If things go on for a long time and become a bit raucous there is no harm in slipping away, but not to be there at all, I would suggest is a heinous sin of omission.

Liminal theory, understanding ritual for what it is strengthens the container we can create when conducting funerals which makes them more meaningful and effective as rituals. We ignore its wisdom at our peril.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s