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January 26, 2006

Theodore Dalrymple contemplates death - and is shocked by the growing informality of modern funerals

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple has been a frequent visitor to cemeteries of late. This has turned Dr Dalrymple's thoughts towards death - and the growing informality of modern funerals. If there is one place for formality, asks Dr Dalrymple, is it not at a funeral?

I have always been attracted to cemeteries. Like sepia photographs, they exert a calming effect on me; they remind me of the transience of life in general and of my passions in particular.

Of late, however, I seem to have been going to cemeteries a little too often for comfort. In other words, I have reached the age at which the people around me start to die off. No doubt it is selfish in the circumstances, but the thought "Me next" rises in my mind, especially when the departed was about my age.

Recently I attended such a funeral. The man to be buried was almost exactly my age. I didn't know him well, but like me he had his virtues and his vices. I arrived early at the cemetery and took a melancholy stroll around it. Since it contained tombs going back quite a number of years, it spoke eloquently of the dignified tragedy and suffering of previous ages: for example, of widows and widowers who survived their only spouse by thirty-five or forty years.

Tombstones have definitely become less dignified in the last three or four decades. It is as if, by using informal or colloquial locutions, people imagined they could somehow domesticate or reduce in significance the tremendous fact of death. Nevertheless, tragedies still occur and are written on and around the tombstones: I was particularly moved by one tombstone, in what amounted to a children's corner, dedicated to the memory of a child who had died aged three, ten years ago. There was a little ceramic photograph of the child on the headstone, the kind of thing I should normally have found kitschy, but in this instance moving: for around the grave were flowers in various stages of freshness and decay that suggested that the parents visited very often. As it was near Christmas, they had planted a small Christmas tree, from which hung small presents for their perpetually three year-old child.

A sorrow for these still-grieving parents seized my heart. Perhaps they had had no other child to console them for their loss. But was this grave sadder than the one next to it, of a child also aged three who had died fifty years before, which was now so neglected that the administration of the cemetery was offering the space it occupied for a child who needed it more? How few of us, for all our self-importance and absorption in our own affairs, will be remembered thirty, let alone fifty years hence!

A crowd gathered for the funeral I had come to attend. It was mainly middle-class, with a fair smattering of bohemians (the mass bohemianisation of society is seldom accorded the sociological importance it undoubtedly has).

I had dressed very sombrely, in a way that I thought appropriate to the occasion. But I soon felt like someone who had overdressed, as someone who attends a poolside barbecue, for example, dressed in a lounge suit and tie.

The fact is that the majority of the people who attended the funeral came in everyday clothes, the young in their jeans and trainers, their elders in sweaters or whatever they happened to be wearing that day.

I confess that I was shocked by this. Have we so lost our sense of solemnity that a funeral means nothing more to us than, say, an appointment to meet a friend for a cup of coffee? It is as if our everyday lives are so preponderant in our minds that we have no time or space or energy left for anything else. Nothing rises above the level of soap opera. This, it seems to me, makes us very shallow beings.

Of course, I know what the partisans of authenticity will say. They will say that the people who gathered at the funeral would not have felt any the less sorrow for the deceased because they were dressed informally than if they had adopted all the traditional paraphernalia of mourning. I can hear them asking sarcastically:

Do you really want to go back to the black-plumed hypocrisies of the Victorian era?
As a matter of fact, in my heart of hearts I do, though I would scarcely admit it. But in any case, one could surely take the arguments of the informalists one stage further: why have a funeral ceremony at all? Why not let everyone stay at home, or go to work, to grieve authentically in the privacy of his own mind?

I am not arguing, I hasten to add, for public manifestations of hysterical ersatz grief that followed the death of the late People's Princess. I am rather arguing for public dignity and decorum, of which there is now so little. For example, I have noticed that juries nowadays do not dress up for the occasion, but rather look as if they'd just popped out at an ungodly hour to the corner ship for a pint of milk, having hastily donned the minimum of clothes that would prevent them from freezing to death or being arrested for indecent exposure. The trial of their peers is for them no more special an occasion, at least to judge sartorially, than an evening spent slumped on their sofa watching telly and grazing on junk food.

I think this lack of ceremoniousness and public dignity explains, at least in part, the popularity of Alexander McCall Smith's series of books about Mma Ramotswe, founder and proprietor, as well as chief detective, of the Number 1 Ladies' Detective Agency in Gabarone, Botswana, Africa. For in those stories, we learn about a society, relatively poor as it may be, that observes certain social formalities and therefore appears to us better-mannered, more dignified, indeed just better, than our own. By comparison, our informality, which so easily slides into outright rudeness, is charmless and unattractive.

Amongst other ill-effects of our ideologically-driven informality on all occasions is that it disguises the real nature of our social relations with others. It therefore makes social life more difficult rather than less difficult. I confess, however, that I have little idea about how we may recover our sense of the necessity of formality. I would welcome suggestions.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and recently retired as a doctor.

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" ... ideologically-driven informality"

Ouch! yes. But not, I suspect, an ideology coming from the old-fashioned left - more than a whiff of extreme individualism/existentialism.

What is really missing is a sense of place and a Burkeian feeling for the past and the future and the solemnity that goes with that. Yet I don't believe the labour movement was particularly informal, and one is often struck by an element of cultural conservatism in British socialist writing, Morris and Ruskin being obvious examples.

As it happens I am currently re-reading Raymond Williams's very fine (and naturally out-of-print) historical novels:

Often while reading the stories I find myself struck by Williams's sense of place, and of time and continuity, and of the seriousness of life. I remember him as a gentle and kind man and recall seeing him in a church service not kneeling, for he was not a believer, but sitting quietly.

I suspect that there is no answer to the "mass bohemianization" and triviality of modern society. I have a feeling Mark Steyn would say that a society that really gives itself over to the present won't be around long and perhaps he is right.

Posted by: Mike at January 26, 2006 06:24 PM

Dr. Dalrymple,
May I suggest that at least one reason for the trivialization of funerals is the move away from traditional Christianity? Until recently, most Europeans had at least some faint allegiance to either the Protestant or Catholic branches of Christianity. Christianity takes a particularly solemn view of death. Who can hear the words "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," or "Requiem aeternam, dona eis, Domine," without feeling the awful finality and solemnity of death? But modern life's insistence that man is little more than a sort of higher animal makes funerals superfluous. Do we mourn the death of a pigeon? Not really. Then why should we mourn the death of a person, who is after merely a higher form of a piegeon's distant furry cousin?

Posted by: Carissa Mulder at January 26, 2006 09:03 PM

My own remedy is to spend as little time as possible in the West, partly because it pains me to see Western society dying, but also because people are more polite, dilligent and frankly civilised in South Asia, the Middle East and much of Africa. It may well be because economic necessity makes them more reliant on one another, and so their social and professional skills are honed by need, but their good manners will probably last out my life.

The salvation of the West, I believe, will come only from the economic collapse that looks increasingly likely and harsh. It is the economic ability to be thoughtless and selfish that sends these swine to funerals dressed for the gym, lacking respect for anything or anyone, denying that anything is more important than their squalid selves. And they are this way because nothing has the power to make them behave. Nothing, sadly, except the threat of hunger, which can swiftly make family and community once more essential, and reestablish manners and mutual respect as tools to promote cooperation and survival. Over a long period of economic deprivation, good manners will become a habit again until everyone gets rich enough to permit a return to today's depressing solopcism, selfishness, and savagery.

Posted by: s masty at January 28, 2006 09:32 AM

I'm afraid that the contagion has spread to places outside the West. I live in the Philippines and recently attended a funeral where one of the sons of the deceased was dressed in a T-shirt(albeit a black one), short pants and basketball rubber shoes. I, a distant relation by marriage, had been more suitably attired than most of the male members of the dead's immediate family; the females were all appropriately dressed in simple black dresses, though.
Perhaps they have a keener sense of propriety in these matters and should take the lead in bringing society back to more formal ways of dressing and behaving.

Posted by: frml at March 7, 2006 02:32 AM

I note that you only cover burials here. The situation is far worse at cremations. Usually of no particular creed or religious faith those I have attended have usually been notable for having little clumps of mourners waiting for the hearse to arrive from the undertakers. Once arrived it may be some minutes before the coffin is unloaded due to a previous funeral taking slightly longer than allowed. [It might be wise to see that you ask for the earliest possible time for the funeral to begin]

Once the coffin has been removed from the hearse the mourners come, uncertainly towards it and look for someone to show them where to sit, I have known incidents where this has caused bad feeling.

Once seared the 'service' begins. Usually a retired priest, or in lieu, a humanist 'master of ceremonies' says whatever they have been told by the family left behind. Then members of the family and assorted friends may recite a poem or say a few words which are often appallingly sentimental or 'fashionable'. [For a while after the film 'Four Weddings and A Funeral Auden was very much recited]

Finally, as the coffin slowly disappears or curtains automatically draw across to hide it music is piped into the 'chapel' I have heard 'Westlife'
'John Lennon' and 'Atomic Kitten' on different occasions.

The mourners then file out. Yes they are dressed in ordinary day clothes and anyone with as much as a black tie is considered 'morbid'.

The burials you have described sound severe in their austerity by comparison.

Posted by: Kim Hatton at August 27, 2008 03:46 PM
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