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Death rites relate very largely to established notions of an afterlife and for most of its history humanity has believed in some kind of afterlife that is related to social rules Life in this world is related to the life that will be led in the next This linkage has, of course, been in uential on the thinking of critics of religion who see the promise of heaven and paradise or the threat of hell as a means of controlling human life based upon false beliefs By contrast, we might draw attention to what has become a shift into a this-worldliness in Europe through the second half of the twentieth century Much could be said about the philosophical roots of agnosticism or atheism grounded in the Enlightenment, as also on the rise of science as a major source of knowledge; indeed, much could also be added on the development of liberal theology within major religions, especially in Protestant traditions, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Similarly, the rise and fall of Communist ideologies have made their mark But, all this apart, it is the general and popular drift from a religiously in uenced view of the world to one in which religion is marginal or ignored that is of interest here And it is in and through the way people deal with death that I see that drift taking place Here, England and, for example, Australia are in the lead
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Our searchlight upon funerals, death and destiny falls upon the churches on the one hand and individuals, the family and friends Removing the Dead 57
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of the dead on the other European Christian churches, especially major Protestant churches, have decreased their emphasis upon the afterlife to a considerable degree; hell is seldom mentioned and is, in fact, practically an ignored topic, while heaven has, if anything, become an optimistic way of speaking about the enduring nature of human relationships Heaven is more therapeutic than theological At the same time the kin and friends of the dead are increasingly taking part in funeral rites The choice of non-biblical readings from poems or literature often replaces or complements scriptural material and is used to express the personal relationship with the deceased or to highlight some aspect of the life and experience of the one who has died It is the personal and individual note that is struck Though religious venues are often chosen, and religious leaders regularly conduct proceedings, it is far from certain that this is because of the key religious doctrines they represent It is likely that they bring a cultural frame of seriousness to moments of emotional complexity More than that, circumstances of death and funerals are such that in contemporary societies there is what might be called a cultural default position : in other words, if no speci c decision is taken to the contrary then one path will be followed The historical background of Christianity in Europe, and much the same could be said for other major religions in the countries of their historical dominance, makes it natural and normal for clergy to conduct funerals This is the easier option for people, even those with little or no active religious belief or commitment Funeral directors are of particular importance in the rites of death and they tend to be particularly conservative in matters of customary behaviour They tend to encourage and certainly not to discourage established ways of doing things, not least because it is easier to ensure a satisfactory performance They may have particular priests or ministers with whom they work well Against that weight of expectation bereaved people would need a very special reason and relatively strong motivation to choose quite a different pattern for a funeral To elect not to have a religious 58 Removing the Dead
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functionary or venue raises many questions about what to do and how to do it, issues that may be hard to resolve over the short and intense period of an immediate bereavement It is much easier to adopt the default position and then to request personal readings or personal music as markers of individuality set within the traditional framework Many clergy, for their part, are happy to engage with people in these requests They do so for many reasons In part it is an expression of pastoral care and a means of discovering family dynamics with the potential for future contact It is also a means of being accepted by people who may not be actively involved with churches The alternative would be to try to impose a traditional form against the will of the bereaved, and the mood of society would hardly make that feasible There is, also, for some churches, a very real nancial incentive, with the fees from conducting funerals making a signi cant contribution to church income All in all, a collaboration between priest and the bereaved family and friends can yield a highly satisfactory rite in which elements from the great tradition of Christianity combine with local and personal items re ecting the desire of family and friends to mark the individuality of this particular dead person This emphasis upon the individual and the relationships with the living marks a change from traditional Christian rites which, even until the closing decades of the twentieth century in Britain, tended to treat the dead as one of the general class of God s sons and daughters or of those who were becoming part of the heavenly kingdom or of the communion of saints References to our dearly departed brother or sister saw the deceased as a Christian in general and not a named family member or as a friend of named individuals in particular Many clergy were trained in the early and middle parts of the twentieth century to think in this way about the dead and were not encouraged to engage in eulogies on the virtues of the deceased nor to dwell upon their idiosyncrasies Much of that has now changed and Removing the Dead 59
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marks, within the history of death, a shift to the importance of the individuality of each person as individual in death as in life To move from this combined position of tradition and customized treatment of the dead to one in which the traditional theological element falls away, leaving only the customized form, might not be at all dif cult Many people may think that one must have a priest for a funeral, which is not the case, and once that fact becomes widely known and acted upon by funeral directors a change of the default position might emerge relatively quickly For some funeral directors this would be an advantage because they might decide to serve as of ciants at services, thereby intensifying their relationship with the deceased and building into their relationship an after-care service for the bereaved, something which many priests nd it dif cult or impossible to do for reasons of time or because the people are simply not church-involved Already a few funeral directors in England are engaging their own of ciants and bereavement counsellors
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