The British Way of Death

It was about half past ten on a hot July morning and we were having coffee in the welcome shade of a café on the main square of a hilltop village in the south of Sicily when the proprietor brusquely pushed past our table and started frantically pulling down the blinds. “What on earth is he doing?” we thought and then we heard the distant tolling of a church bell. 

Joining the café owner on the pavement outside, we stood and watched as a procession approached. It was led by a priest, splendidly robed in red and gold vestments and surrounded by clouds of incense from the thurible he swung from side to side. Behind him, on a carriage drawn by two black-plumed horses, was a coffin wreathed in chrysanthemums, carnations, and roses. Behind the carriage came the family, the younger members looking sharp in their designer sunglasses, the faces of the older ladies concealed by fine lace mantillas and behind them came a crowd of friends and neighbours who, like the family, were uniformly clad in black. 

All other traffic had stopped. The whole village was silent – ‘chiuso per lutto’ – and we could see that all around the square, every shop had pulled down its blinds and their proprietors were standing in silence in their doorways. Taking our cue from them, we bowed our heads in respect as the cortege passed, and when we looked up again, the bell was still ringing out as it turned the corner on its slow procession to the church. Now we knew what all those black-bordered A4 posters were about. They weren’t advertising a concert or a movie; they were announcing a death. 

They take death seriously in Sicily and as in many Catholic countries, their funeral rituals have ancient, pagan roots. To prevent their spirit from returning to haunt the living, the dead are often buried with coins to help them on their journey. Salt is spread about the doors of the home and its windows are left open, to encourage the soul to leave. Coffins are usually left open too, so people can give the deceased a last kiss but despite the beauty of the flowers and the glorious sunshine, the procession cast a melancholy shadow. This was no ‘celebration of the life lived’; it was a deeply felt mourning for the life that had been lost. 

It is reckoned that over a hundred billion people have already lived and died on this planet; our museums are filled with their grave goods and there are many long and fascinating books about the funerary rites of our ancestors.

Even before the advent of ‘Dark Tourism’, a term coined to describe travel to places that are connected to death, the dead were giving an incalculable boost to the global economy. Until Coronavirus brought the world to a halt, millions of people travelled every year to marvel at the buried terracotta army of the first Chinese emperor. Millions more made their way to Egypt to stand in awe of the pyramids, but surprisingly few people have ever visited the world’s earliest burial sites which are here on our doorstep – and no, I’m not talking about Stonehenge.

Five thousand years ago – a thousand years before Stonehenge and two and a half thousand before the pyramids – the Neolithic inhabitants of Orkney constructed a vast stone temple complex bigger than the Acropolis. At its heart lay a burial chamber aligned to capture the rays of the setting sun on the eve of the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice. Quite what the Orcadians of five thousand years ago thought about their dead is irrecoverably lost to us, but what we can reasonably assume is that they wanted to honour and remember them. 

We still do, and even if the best we can expect is a twenty-minute ceremony in a municipal crematorium, the funeral is still one of life’s most important rituals. It’s also the one that has proved remarkably resistant to change. 

In 2018, the Turner Prize winning artist Grayson Perry made a TV series for Channel 4 in which he travelled from the rain-soaked Midlands of England to the rainforests of Indonesia to explore the rituals we perform at the big moments in our lives. “All rituals were invented by somebody,” he said. “They didn’t just come out of the ether from God,” and Perry’s contention was that while rituals can become meaningless if they no longer relate to the societies they were designed to serve, they can also evolve. 

In the misty mountains of Sulawesi, Perry visited a people whose ideas about death could hardly be more different from our own; the Toraja. Unlike their neighbours who converted to Hinduism, Islam or Christianity, the Toraja hung onto their animist beliefs, one of which is that we need time to come to terms with our loss before we are ready to say goodbye. 

It’s hard to be late for a Torajan funeral, as Perry observed. 

Mr. Alu, the gentleman whose funeral he had been invited to attend had been dead for over a year, and his body, mummified with palm wine, flowers and different roots had spent all that time at home with his family who had talked to him every day, and brought him his meals just as they’d done when he was alive. His wizened face peeked out from among the blankets in which he was wrapped, and although he was clearly very dead, he was still wearing his spectacles. 

“Does having the body in the house help with grieving and coming to terms with death?” asked Perry to which Mrs. Alu, who looked a little surprised to be asked such an obvious question, replied, “Yes. We all feel very blessed.”

“The first question that’s on your lips,” said Perry, turning to the TV audience, “I know it, I know it, is – does it smell? But every village will have someone who has been handed down the knowledge of how to embalm the body, and it works. I can tell you, there is no smell. And also, you’d think it’s something horrific or scary because in our tradition the body is something that we’re scared of but here, it’s completely okay: it’s very domestic, it’s very sweet – it’s a member of the family; it’s ordinary.”

On the day of the funeral, along with his flip flops, Mr Alu’s body was loaded into a carved, red wooden coffin embossed with golden symbols, before being carried by his friends and family to the centre of the village where it was laid on a simple metal frame over an open fire. 

The mood of the five-day long funeral was playful and joyous. Twenty-four water buffalo were killed and eaten in his honour, the master of ceremonies introducing each beast before it was slaughtered and thanking the person who had generously donated it. Mr Alu’s widow laughed as she tweaked Perry’s nose; the translator explained that was to ensure that her next grandchildren would be born with long noses like his, a feature highly prized by the Toraja among whom they are rare.

As the funeral party continued in the background, Perry turned to camera and said, “Looking at this funeral, it makes me think when do we really die? We in the west are so bound to rationalism and science, we think it’s the moment our heart stops beating or brain death, but maybe we die when we’re forgotten or not loved anymore and maybe that says something about our attitude to feelings because, you know, the Torajans take them very seriously. They give plenty of time and space to let them have their due importance, whereas in the west, we go, ‘dead; on, go, stop the smell, let’s get rid of it!’ Death is the most important and inevitable rite of passage of all and yet the Toraja people have shown up for me how in Britain we shroud it in silence.” 

I think Perry’s right. We might now wear bright colours and sing along to Robbie Williams, but we British remain stubbornly stiff upper-lipped about death. Our coffins are not carved in the shape of fish, as they are in Ghana nor are our corteges led by jazz bands, as in New Orleans. It’s as though we have tacitly agreed that while these colourful practices might be all well and good in a Channel 4 documentary, ‘they’re not really how we do things here’

In death as in politics, we British find it hard to let go of our past. Our funeral etiquette has hardly varied since the 19th century which is why with their tailcoats, top hats and canes, funeral directors still look like members of Queen Victoria’s household. But while the aesthetics have not changed, the tone and content have, and while that is largely the result of a general decline of religious belief, the impersonal nature of religious funerals undoubtedly played its part.

It’s impossible to say how many funerals are secular because there is no official record. Luckily, the Co-Op, which is Britain’s largest funeral provider, has published a chart of the top twenty funeral songs every year since 2002 and it gives us a clue. In that year, every song was a hymn, but when the chart for 2019 was published, the fact that there were none in their top ten made headline news. 

The spoken content of funerals has mirrored that change. Where once most funerals were led by the clergy and focussed on the promise of eternal life, by 2019 the majority were being delivered by secular celebrants who talked instead about the life that had been lived.

It would be unfair to say of all religious funerals in the 20th century that ‘you arrived sad and left miserable,’ but that was how they were often perceived, and in a 1996 paper called ‘Ritualising Death in a Consumer Society’ a lecturer at the University of Reading Tony Walter summed them the worst of them up as “20-minute jobs in the ‘crem’, where the duty clergyman is lucky to get the name right”. 

At the time, Walter was already being described as the leading authority on death in this country, and he ended his academic career as the Emeritus Professor of Death Studies at the University of Bath where he was also the Director of the Centre for Death & Society

As he wrote, “we have to look at death through a filter, not one that distorts and denies, but one that enables us to decipher what death means to us, as individuals and as a society. That is the role of ritual.” In the course of his many books, he has argued that because beliefs and practises around death and dying are continually evolving, we need to develop new ways of dealing with them and as he concludes, a good funeral should be “intensely and creatively personal; it should involve as many of the mourners as possible, cherish the individual who died and weave together the survivors in bonds of love.”

The funeral has changed in our secular age. Where once its purpose was to help the soul make its way to heaven, now it is to reaffirm our connection to family, friends and the wider community. 

A good funeral allows us to reconcile ourselves with our loss and to begin to move on, knowing that for as long as we think, care and above all talk about our loved ones, they will live on for as long as we do, in our hearts and minds. 

It’s a lot to achieve in just twenty minutes, which is why increasingly, I encourage people to separate the funeral from the memorial. We need to safely and hygienically dispose of the body and we need to remember the life, but – as the Torajans have always known – we don’t have to do both at the same time.

  1. Gerrie Douglas-Scott left a comment on March 29, 2023 at 7:02 pm

    Yes!!! Let’s break out of the imposed timescales and patterns! Having conducted over 1500 funeral ceremonies over the years, only about 30 have broken out of the pattern imposed by….well,whoever has imposed them . When I go I want to have the last word and the last dance. It’s all in preparation with three ballet classes and two Zumba classes a week. And my partner bought me a surprise yesterday: tap shoes. Yup I’ll tap my way out of the world if I have my way! A white van and a shroud will do me. Then party please with loving kindness and hilarity as the focus. Oh and loud drums, enough to wake the Deid!

    • Tim Maguire left a comment on March 30, 2023 at 8:45 am

      Thanks Gerrie! Keeeeeep dancing!

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