Funerary Rights

An archaeologist on Orkney once explained to me that nothing helps anthropologists to understand a historical civilisation and society better than its practices and traditions for dealing with its dead. Burial places, rites and rituals, accompanying objects, carvings, gravestones, mummification, ceremonial pyres, cremation, urns and ash disposal – all have something to say about how societies respect their dead. Mostly they are also expressing some kind of appreciation for the life lived. But more importantly, theses funerary rites generally reflect the way a civilisation thinks its dead should be prepared and furnished for some kind of transference to another world.

Many years ago, long before my cancer diagnosis, Dee and I made the decision, and the arrangements, to donate our bodies to medical science. All usable organs were to be transferred to appropriate donors, and the rest sent to the Anatomy Department of the University of Edinburgh. They won’t want my organs now, but apparently there is still interest in receiving the body. So there isn’t going to be any funeral for me – no body, no coffin, no service, no cremation.

I was brought up as a Christian in the Church of Scotland in Glasgow. I’ve always been grateful for my Sunday School grounding in the stories and imagery of the Bible, which proved essential background knowledge for an appreciation of the literature and culture of the Western Judaeo-Christian tradition (culminating, I suppose, in the subject-matter of my PhD thesis). I was a regular and enthusiastic church-attender from my teenage years. But I was finding it increasingly difficult to accept – and believe – the central tenets of the Christian faith. I sublimated these doubts in increasing practical activity around my church and its community, playing the organ, joining committees, taking the minutes, driving people to and from the services, visiting some old dears, even becoming an elder and taking vows. I thought the local church was fundamentally a source for good in the community, and I could play a part in that.

When I went north in 1998 to work in Inverness (and live in Drumnadrochit, and meet Dee …) I became distanced from the church, in more ways than one. I felt able to acknowledge that my ‘doubts’ were not a failing on my part, for which I required to do social penance. It’s always been nice to go back to the Park Church (even when the occasion has been a family funeral) and be welcomed by old friends as a member of that community. But I have also become increasingly frustrated, occasionally very angry, but most often hugely disappointed in the illiberal position the Church of Scotland as an organisation has taken on some of the key social and political issues of the day. In particular, of course, I was disappointed by their attitude to civil partnerships (mealy-mouthed ambivalence at best) and am currently incensed by their response to the Scottish Government’s proposals for gay marriage. As (the Right Reverend) Richard Holloway said – bravely – to the Colinton Literary Society a few weeks ago, ‘what on earth gives any Church the right to think it has absolute jurisdiction over the meaning of any word, and what gives the Church of Scotland, or the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, or even my own Scottish Episcopalian Church (which, he said, really ought to know better) the right to tell the Quakers, or the Liberal Jews, or any other group of worshippers, that they have no right to marry two women or two men who love one another and want to pledge their lives to one another in the eyes of their God’. (I paraphrase, but I think that is true to what he was saying).

Of course, in all of this, I need to make a fundamental distinction between the establishment of the Church on the one hand (which has always operated, I think, mostly as a form of social control, raising certain groups and individuals to positions of power and influence, and ensuring that any disruptive elements were either eliminated or ‘persuaded’ of the errors of their ways), and on the other hand, what it means to lead a good life. My parents taught me, by word and example and by the entirely comfortable and secure context of our upbringing, how to determine right from wrong for myself, to be kind, and fair, and understand the meaning of justice. Not being a Christian does not mean not being a good person. Not being a Christian does not mean I have not been profoundly touched by the thoughts and prayers of so many people – some known and very close to me, some complete strangers – who have been remembering me in their communion with their God these past months.

It’s odd that I find myself describing my position in a series of double negatives, of course. Atheism is an unpleasant word; it implies an antagonism I do not feel. Julian Baggini wrote a really interesting article in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago advocating the term ‘heathen’. I’m not sure I like this term – it recalls hairy illiterates who lived on the heath and never came near civilisation (= Church). If I do require a concept to describe my world-view, perhaps humanism comes closest.

Whatever you call it, it’s a strong and powerful position to be in. I am reconciled to my lot, I do not rail against any external forces which have dealt me any cruel blows, I do not expect any miracles. I cannot in any conscience countenance a Christian funeral for myself. Nor even a humanist one. I do understand that funerals are intended for the mourners rather than the deceased. There’s something I find entirely inappropriate about someone who never – or hardly – knew me talking about the life I lived while those I love have to sit and listen. I cannot put Dee through that. I feel very strongly that anyone who would like to ‘pay their respects’ can do so – and are indeed doing so – while I am still here and able to enjoy their company and comfort. Is that terribly selfish of me? There are other ways of marking my passing than with a coffin and a crematorium. Have a party. Drink Loire fizz and fine whiskies. Eat cake and chocolate ice cream. Tell terrible jokes. Play the piano, sing very loud and out of tune. Have a laugh. It’s your funerary right.


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