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  • Writer's pictureDavid OMalley

Death and disposal

In this blog I normally try to write about issues around spirituality and education. Today is an exception. I have had experience recently of several deaths which have led to a very rapid cremation with no family member present. These arrangements seem to becoming more common and I wanted to reflect on the issue and share my conclusions with you.

The offer being made by a number of companies includes a plan, made with the individual who will die, for a rapid removal of their remains followed by an unattended cremation. Ashes would be returned in a cardboard container within 14 days, although I know of one case where that took nearly two months. The speed of the process is designed to remove all the awkwardness of a dead body and all the details of planning a funeral. Many of the businesses offering this service recommend a memorial event with food and toasts a few months later. Some point out that the money saved can be used for a holiday in memory of the deceased.

Perhaps this offer is made in good faith and out of a genuine concern for the bereaved. There will be, according to the advertising “no frills” and no “fuss” no expensive wooden coffins, no limousines or hearses, no awkward receptions. The awkwardness of death is simply tidied away, leaving you with a saving of over £2,000. This is arranged usually between the deceased and the crematorium company and often comes as a shock to some, if not all, of the family. They are presented with this as the will of the deceased person and the firm will have signed documentation to establish their legal obligation to carry out the disposal of the body.

It is as if the death of a person is a private matter that does not affect the family and wider network. In practice we are all interconnected. As Earnest Hemingway reminds us, “Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” I believe that these rapid disposals of the dead are an expression of an individualism that undermines our human nature. We are social beings, family, friends, lovers and not isolated commodities to be picked up or dropped without ceremony.

Instead, I want to say that we need to grieve, to mourn and to struggle. To do that well we need a body not just a memory. Lucy Richards is the mother of a son murdered in 2009. To date the body has not been found and she says that the pain of his loss is as raw today as it was 13 years ago. She has no place to go to visit. She is still lost in grief. We only need to think back to COVID when so many rapid funerals took place and the wave of pain and frustration that created around the country is still source of sadness. The need to gather around the remains of a deceased person and remember together is a vital ritual in accepting the reality of personal loss. Even the government guidelines for unknown deaths urge the local authorities to find the next of kin and be considerate of the bereaved before a funeral takes place.

Listen to what one detailed study in the USA had to say about this issue: 'When a loved one dies, the first reaction for many people is to want to get things over with as quickly as possible. They mistakenly believe that not having a funeral will shelter themselves and their family from more pain'. Here is what Professor Fulton found in his research:

"When we compared the respondents who had less than the traditional funeral, i.e. those who did not view the body or had arranged immediate disposition of the remains, we found that those who had requested no viewing and/or immediate disposition of the body reported experiencing the greatest hostility following the death, the greatest increase in the consumption of alcohol, of tranquilizers, and sedatives, the greatest increase in tension and anxiety, the lowest positive recall of the deceased, and, in general, but particularly among the male respondents, greater problems in adjustment to the death."[1]

There is no dodging our humanity, we belong to others, have emotional attachments, and dependencies that are changed by death. The cult of the individual cannot cope with the reality of such interdependence. We need the outward experience of mourning and the inner experience of grief, and we need each other to do that well at the time of death. We cannot commodify death like the disposal of a car that has failed its MOT. We must stop, struggle and face the mystery of life, of death and the meaning of our own existence. Psychology and religion are unanimous on this point let’s not get confused about it.

We have to come together at the point of death. We must tackle the painful details of planning a funeral as a community. We need to witness one another’s grief and tighten up the network of relationships around the void left by the deceased person. The alternative, according to Professor Fulton, is a lot more stress and for much longer because we have ignored a basic, relational aspect of our human nature.

Another aspect of the commercialisation of the disposal of bodies is caught in this quote from a well-known provider:

Outdated, impersonal traditions can lead to a funeral that’s expensive and stressful to organise.[2]

Sadly, these words parody the work of countless religious and humanist ceremonies where so much is done to make the funeral experience personal and supportive. The wisdom of humanity reaching back to Neanderthal people is full of rituals around death and the importance of funerals. The Egyptians were embalming bodies over 6000 years ago. Every culture has focused real care on the gathering at the burial or cremation of a body. Such traditions do not survive without a deep human purpose, even if it cannot be expressed in the individualistic and commercial thinking of today.

As Christians we believe that we are all children of God, we are related, we belong together. That is why the Catholic funeral service points out that the ties of love and friendship that bind us together in life are not broken by death. Catholics talk about the communion of saints and the fact that we will see the deceased again in a different reality. These are not outdated and impersonal traditions but the fruit of thousands of years of human wisdom. My advice would be to accept that a funeral will be difficult, stressful to plan and just get on with the task together for the sake of your own humanity not to mention your mental health.

[1] Robert Fulton, Ph.D., Department of Sociology, University of Minnesota Reporting on a large-scale study of bereaved people [2]

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Oct 17, 2022

Absolutely agree. As a school chaplain, I encourage students to be involved in all aspects of their grief traditions as family and in faith. I have never had anyone regret going to a funeral - only that they didn't. This new process is the next step in convincing people that they are a burden - when caring for others is a sign of humanity. People need to be cared for in community - even in death. Why our parish priest will often ask parishioners to attend a funeral where there are no or little family.

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