The funeral had been everything hoped for, and more. The person honoured; hospitality shown. Words and music flowed. The one technical hitch wasn’t worth worrying about. But I felt done in. Ready to drop them from my repertoire.
After 20 years of leading funerals, the feeling of dissatisfaction wasn’t new. But this time it was more acute, cutting, demanding that I pay attention. To step into the discomfort instead of brushing it aside.
Born in the first generation after World War II, death on a massive scale was my backdrop. Along with the soldiers and civilians killed, millions had been slaughtered in Nazi death camps. As a teenager I read voraciously about the Holocaust trying to understand this devastation in the light of the Jewish and Christian biblical stories I was raised in.
I was 21 when my mum died after four years of cancer. By then I was becoming aware that life and death were interwoven. That living into mortality mattered but I didn’t yet have words to describe that. Nearly 25 years later at theological college, I chose to do my first practical placement at a funeral director’s rather than a parish. There I appreciated that walking the valley of death was a strangely life enhancing experience.
Since then, I’ve lost count of the number of funerals I’ve led. Some in church but most at funeral directors’ premises, in private homes, outdoors or at the hospital where I’m spiritual care coordinator. They’ve been varied, from two people attending to hundreds, and across all ages. Sometimes I’ve travelled the pathway into death with people, others I’ve never met before I’m tasked with crafting the words for a funeral ritual.
Although some funerals have been for people with connection to an organised religion, most have been for the 88%, the estimated percentage of New Zealanders who have no connection to any religious tradition. At those, a funeral director contracted me as celebrant.
There’s no question that I want to be customer focused, creating, and facilitating rituals that have meaning for the person, whatever spirituality they inhabit. But it’s a challenging task to navigate what is essentially liminal space between the wisdom of ancient religious traditions, where I was trained, and secular space where I live and work.
These days, I increasingly wonder about who or what I am in service to, given that my vocation, training, and experience is in soul work. By soul, I mean, ‘that dimension of existence that lies somewhere between understanding and the unconscious’. Its chief instrument is imagination and has much to do with genuineness and depth. 
Soul, said author and psychotherapist Thomas Moore, is revealed through attachment, love, and community. Known by its absence as much as by its presence and when not cared for obsession, violence and loss of meaning emerge. All that’s quite a mouthful so it’s easier to just use soul as shorthand.
In our time, even if people instinctually connect soul to food or music, they can be bewildered by talk of soul around death. The word can conjure up fears of a punishing after life, especially if religion has been a negative experience in their lives. Perhaps this is why most funerals in Aotearoa today eschew any divine narrative because, as people repeatedly say, ‘we’re not religious’, although what that means is not entirely clear.
One outcome is that all the focus lands on the deceased and their achievements. The egoic self, the achiever, the hero, or heroine is lauded. Sometimes this includes fighting cancer or some other long-term condition. Striving to stay alive against great odds appears to be valued over consciously moving through the stages of life towards death.
Because the art of eulogy by an accomplished orator is fading fast, close relatives are left feeling a responsibility to speak, often with little experience of public speaking. There’s a subtle cruelty in that when people are deep in grief.
Memories are jogged by a life in pictures usually named the visual tribute. Music is often streamed rather than sung and if there is any singing it tends to the popular rather than thoughtful hymns that point to something greater than ourselves.
When celebrating life has become the norm, priests and celebrants can struggle to speak about grief and loss, a reality that binds us all. This although every person present carries their personal experiences of grief and loss, which surface and need space to breathe.
One of the greatest illustrations of that reality was the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. Millions lined the streets and tuned in to watch although none of us knew her. But the great Anglican spectacle in Westminster Abbey, including Elton John singing a revised version of Candle in the Wind, touched the individual losses that we all bring to any funeral.
On a different scale, the funeral of Prince Philip was stark, formal, ritualistic. Few people attended in person because of COVID, meaning that the Queen sat socially distanced from her family. Some saw this as inhuman, but it was a poignant reminder that no matter how many people turn up to a funeral, coping with the loss of a close personal relationship is something that is, in the end, done alone.
But unless you are royalty or holding your funeral in a church, temple, synagogue, mosque, or other place with a religious sensibility, funerals have mostly lost touch with the sacred. Conducted in soulless funeral chapels instead of religious buildings with architecture and art designed to draw us into contemplation of the ancient stories that point to more.
Religious sanctuaries have the capacity to expose our hubris, reminding us that we’re mortal. Hopefully known and loved but nevertheless, small fry in the great grand sweep of time and space. It’s as though our death-defying culture has subsumed and sanitised this opportunity to use ritual and mythology to step into our mortality.
Despite the increasing disconnect with organised religion, some people have a sense and enquiry about ultimacy, truth and mortality, often emerging when they’re forced to face their death. By being still and prepared to contemplate the unknown, space opens to enable reflection on what their life, and any life means. This can mean re-evaluating stories, mythologies, beliefs, and practises from the past, sorting out what can be retained, left behind, or renovated as they move towards death.
The questions that arise are existential; who am I, what am I doing here, what are any of us doing here, what is ultimate, how will I make sense and meaning out of this suffering and then what? Answers are not required but soulful listening is, which is itself a ritual, defined by Thomas Moore as therapeutic conversation where we’re listening for soul, ‘the depth of experience that is best expressed in images, dreams, and art-work’. It is, Moore says, the source identity of a person and ‘reaches to immeasurable depth’.
This source identity, the immeasurable depth, is what I see slipping away from our current approach to funerals leaning as they do towards external achievements. To regain this focus demands great skill. Both with silence, to tentatively edge towards the unspeakable, and with words to frame what runs deep in ways that can be heard by a non-religious gathering, even although what we’re doing is religious, in a symbolic way.
Words and how they are shaped, matter. The late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks says that the Torah frames the creation story in Genesis 1 by repeatedly saying, God said. ‘God created the world by words and thus Judaism became the religion not so much of holy places or holy people or even holy times but as a religion of holy words’.
He continues, ‘God creates the natural universe with words, and we create or damage the social universe with words. In words we think of possibilities and futures that have not yet been and we act to bring them about. That is what makes human beings in the image of God’. This is echoed at the beginning of John’s gospel when the writer says that in the beginning was the word, the word was with God and the word was God.
I understand this to mean that the way we shape, and form words enlivens what is divine within us, the essence of us and that we, or those grieving, can, through the judicious shaping and use of words be moved forward into a new way of being necessary for life.
Murray Stein, a Jungian analyst and author describes this essence as a cosmic entity that exists beyond us, moving in and out of our psyche, reliant on humans providing a home so that it can become conscious of itself. It needs us and we need it. 
Divine child narratives describe the gods moving from the inaccessible heavens to become incarnated in humanity; our divinity that must be nurtured and grown. Theologian Paul Tillich might name it as the ground of being.
There’s a liberating freedom that the call to be creative with words is embedded deep in the tradition that raised and nurtured me. But that freedom comes with significant challenge for spiritual care practitioners or chaplains when called on to lead ceremonies in secular environments.
Facing up to where we are in our society, personally and professionally, and what our role could be is crucial. As Paul Tillich points out, like it or not, we are now part of ‘the secularism of the Western World, stemming from the Renaissance’ and we cannot escape it. Although he saw himself as strongly attached to the ‘quasi-religion of liberal humanistic tradition’, steeped in, and actively participating in it, he was also of the Christian tradition. 
The key for me is Tillich’s understanding that liberalism and humanism grew out of religion in its oldest and deepest sense. The danger, he said, comes from trying to empty secularism of the religious source that underlies them, instead finding ways to draw from it.
When spiritual care practitioners or chaplains are called on to lead rituals, we need words and there is no shortage of them. There are thousands of bespoke liturgies online, dependable frameworks in existing prayer books and a plethora of ritual books available to draw from. But there must be more.
When we’re trained within a religious or spiritual tradition and have a commitment to a deeper source, there is another challenge. To bring a perspective to rituals that enables the participants to see life transitions, not just as human achievements but as movements within a larger narrative and to be in awe of that. To be prepared to lean into suffering and mortality, a stance that changes everything.
Secular funerals are a tough gig. Being open to unfamiliar world views and practises can be wearing. Calling and commitment to a tradition can unconsciously get in the way so that the words used start sounding ‘religious’ and unintelligible to others. It can be isolating if you’re estranged from the organisation that trained you. Secretly mourning the way things used to be will make you miserable. Being perpetually dissatisfied may be the reality. Like me, you might have days when you walk away vowing never to lead another funeral.
In the weeks that followed I took inspiration from Leonard Cohen, who drew with erratic intensity from his Jewish roots. Riffing on Rumi he said, Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in. Then I had to start again, committed to working out how to say what matters in the light of our shared mortality that goes beyond culture or creed.
Image: Calvary Cemetery Queens Wikipedia
 Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, 1998
 Thomas Moore, Soul Therapy, p241
 Murray Stein, Jung’s Map of the Soul, p197
 Paul Tillich, Ultimate Concern Dialogues with Students, p36-37