Funerals and our shared mortality

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. [1] 

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’.[2]

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. [3]

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. [4]

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


[1] Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, 1998

[2] Thomas Moore, Soul Therapy, p241

[3] Murray Stein, Jung’s Map of the Soul, p197

[4] Paul Tillich, Ultimate Concern Dialogues with Students, p36-37

15 Replies to “Funerals and our shared mortality”

  1. How lovely to hear your voice again Sande – so distinctive and so full of great chords. Thanks for sharing with us. I’d like to say more but I’m preoccupied (in a fruitful sort of way) with trying to be sure of finding my own voice in a book that I hope will be published by the end of this year. I’m surrounded with recently died friends and feel their loss intensely. I try talking with them still but I’m not sure that that is working. Getting really old is proving better than when I was younger and that younger life was hugely privileged and rewarding. Of course I say “I” “I” “I” but was surrounded and never really alone in anything I was involved with and it’s the same only more so today. Jocelyn and I have been marvelling at Jane Goodall”s “The Book of Hope”…. to be continued …

    1. Thanks George. Always keen to get your feedback.
      I still talk to my mum and she’s been dead over 40 years. Go for it!
      Looking forward to seeing your book emerge.

  2. Absolutely agree about funerals, and other life rituals for that matter, being about the great human journey – the repeating narrative. Without that – perhaps it is humility at its core – there isn’t much left except the individual. Held in too strong a gaze. If it is about the individual there is only terrible loss. If the narrative is held, it is also about what must happen to every person for life to renew.

    1. Thanks Niki.
      So, I’m reading that as the need for the ongoing dying and rising. For me that would go beyond humanity and include all creatures, the cosmos and every idea that we ever had. That would seem to take us back to Truth with a capital T, digging down as philosophers (and the kitchen table version) have done, into what can be held as true within that reality. Iwonder if that means that we might, as some point, regain some sense of a meta narrative.

      I’m also wondering if you have other thoughts based on your 2021 experience as a secular priest?

      1. Absolutely, it is renewal of all creatures. From my worldview, which I guess you could call materialist, when a person dies, their body re-enters the ecosystem, literally becoming nourishment for other beings. So I’m not talking about dying in one form (as a single person) and then somehow rising again with the essence of that form in tact. I think we dissipate – are thrown to the winds and there is nothing left. When I hear of attempts to stretch out the average human life span, I think – what of the young? We can keep propping up our old bodies, but as we do so, we stop regeneration, which is profound and absolute loss of form, but also the springing up of new form. In terms of the secular priest project, to me this is the most compelling secular narrative that perhaps does some of the work of religion – deep and continuous interconnection, and the capacity to gift yourself, being in a sense, the signal of life at its fullest.

        1. Thanks. No, I’m not talking about dying and rising as an individual either and I deeply suspect religions aren’t either. It’s just that we humans are so self absorbed that we might read it like that.

          From what you’re saying I can also see that trying to extend life is one of the most selfish acts of humanity. Now, that would be an interesting conversation in the public health area!

  3. I can’t imagine a funeral without soul. I will be forever grateful that although Simon was not prepared to accept the inevitability of his death in those 10 days before he did die, he was able to tell me that if the worst happened he wanted you to take his funeral. That started our walk together and I probably have never told you how much it meant to have you there with us that day he was “on leave” at his sister’s and then again when you answered my call on the Friday before the “worst” did indeed happen.
    Having you there then and the next day meant I was able to express thoughts about the rituals around death that I didn’t even know I had. With your help I could tell the nurses that I wanted to wash him and get help with that. Grief took away my words but you spoke them for me. After that I felt that the children and I were assisted rather than directed.
    Your careful crafting of the liturgy for a deeply spiritual man who had been re-drawn into the Anglican tradition through his love and caring for St Martin’s still sustains me. Our incredible Evening Prayer in St Martins where family and close friends could gather themselves for the very public funeral the next day was so important. I hope it helped you prepare as well.
    I hope you do continue with your walk through the valley of death. But maybe it is the soul funerals that are the ones that will fulfill you, where there is attachment, love and community.
    I hope that you put Simon’s funeral in that category.

    1. Thanks Robyn. A very significant funeral and definitely one of soul, including the very moving gathering the night before. So glad to have been part of the whole process. It’s that kind of experience that is being lost to us all. Maybe there’s an opening for soul funerals. Worth a conversation..

  4. Quite a ‘walk’ there Sandi. Huge things are happening in this secular, godless world. Its as if humanity is hitting a stone wall, and the soul within is about to break out of bondage to money and material things, and a total lack of sense of good v. evil. Glad I am soon to cross over….

    1. Thanks for the comment Gillian. I think that change is unsettling especially around what runs deep for humans. Part of the key seems to me to be staying with it and fiding new ways to be in it, which is, I suppose where I ended up in this piece of writing..

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