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Meaning to Life in Death

By Mike Thornton.

Can we play 'Fly me to the moon' at my husband's funeral please Pastor?

No doubt for pastoral practitioners currently engaged in local church or sector ministries, this request from a recently widowed lady during a pre-funeral visit seems only mildly bizarre compared to many suggested musical or literary elements requested to be included in funeral services these days. The question for the Christian minister is whether to include such items or not and in considering the issues seeking to determine if it will help the bereaved travel through the grieving process, and if it will help or hinder the ritual which aims to assist the bereaved transition from one social status (on this occasion married) to another (widowed). Concurrently the Christian minister is also seeking to impart a sense of hope and meaning, a sense of ontological security through the function of the ritual. Therefore, this type of request seems, prima-facie, absurd, yet perhaps, in the framing of the ritual, it has a place.

One recognises immediately that the Christian Church has never existed or operated in a vacuum, but within the social context of the culture in which it seeks to minister. In the past the Church had been able to make small adjustments in the way that it communicated the gospel story as one generation succeeded another, and so could catch up with the change affecting society as a whole. This has been the history of the Church within, not only a European context, but a world-wide context, over some two thousand years. Today, perhaps the greatest challenge to date faces the Church. Against a backdrop of unprecedented change and the rapid pace of transition within European and particularly British society since the end of the Second World War, the Church finds itself under attack from a new enemy: the nature and speed of cultural change.

As we have noted above, one area worthy of particular note is the changing ways in which people seek meaning and hope at major points of life crisis and transition. All societies have developed forms of ritual which are built into their culture in order to provide acceptable ways for someone to behave in a disturbing situation, a situation in which their usual means of coping may seem inadequate. One very important group of ritual actions is that associated with life crises, which mark the passage from one social or religious status to another, such as the rituals relating to birth, marriage and death.

One of the earliest major studies was conducted by the Belgian social anthropologist Arnold van Gennep (1873-1957) who first employed the term rites of passage[1] for such ritual aids to life transition. He saw these rites as a means whereby individuals might be eased, without undue social disruption, through the difficulties of transition from one social group to another. Roger Grainger applied and developed this thesis in respect of major Christian rites within his context as an Anglican incumbent.[2]

In British society today Rites of Passage are provided by most faith communities and, to some degree, by competing ideologies such as secular humanism[3]. Most of these communities provide at least the three major rites for their own members and some offer a service in some form for the wider public. They are moments of both pastoral and missional opportunity that the Christian Church has historically been well equipped to meet. Yet today, in a multi-cultural, multi-faith, pluralistic and late-modern Western world, fewer people appear to be utilising these major Christian rites of passage to provide a framework through which they can discover meaning in life and death and all significant points in between. The church is now less often the first, or even the last point of call, to provide the ritual.

A new development is the introduction of a Civil Funeral service by the British Government through the Register Office, an undertaking originating in the Citizens Charter, and made more explicit in the so-called Dead Citizens Charter. This is an interesting departure from the State, which previously only substantially concerned itself with rites which carried some specific legal obligation or contract requiring registration; the civil marriage ceremony was limited in its scope by law and explicitly excluded any 'religious' elements. Now, instead of being limited to the registration of births, marriages and deaths, the State is providing associated rites of passage for not only marriage but death and birth as well. This is an almost unique initiative in world terms, Australia appearing to be the only other country to offer such state services.

One may wonder if this is a reflection of the Government's perception of the usefulness of the Church as a meaningful service provider in these areas or an even broader reflection of society's perception of the usefulness of the church. Is this merely a matter of pragmatism and consumer choice, or some other ideology?

Early indications suggest that the civil funeral ceremony is an eclectic mix of material reflecting a Life-centred approach. The liturgy is focussed purely in memoriam of the deceased, which has its origins in the work of Tony Walters of Funerals and how to improve them fame. It is not explicitly humanistic, as religious items may be included, but it is consumer led - 'what the client wants, the client gets'. The aim is to give a deceased and the bereaved a 'good funeral experience'.

The ritual is carried out by a celebrant who is introduced by the Register Office and who receives minimal training (3.5 days). This training consists mainly of how to enter bibliographical data into a computer programme which then produces the liturgy for the celebrant to use at the funeral service, and the mechanics of graveside or crematoria operations.

Help in the bereavement process beyond this is not offered.[4]

A further indication that the church is frequently not perceived to provide an appropriate or meaningful death rite is represented by the growing trend to decorate florally, or in other ways, the location of the death, especially where that death is perceived as premature, such as following a road traffic accident. Such a 'shrine' emerged 100 metres from my Church at the place where a young man was fatally injured in a road traffic accident. On a small public piece of grassed area on the roadside, a tree has been planted with a memorial plaque and a small grave sized plot around it weeded and decorated with fresh flowers every week. To all intents and purposes, it looks like a grave. Having asked the Mayor of the London Borough of Sutton (in which an increasing number of such memorials have arisen) what the Council policy was on such matters, after six months deliberation, a new policy was proposed which appears to confirm that such memorials had been and will continue to be dealt with in an ad hoc manner. The policy appears to be simply a pragmatic approach to the issue. In the perceived absence of any other meaningful ritual, the bereaved have invented, or at least adopted (as roadside memorials are commonplace in Southern European Countries), a ritual of sorts.

While these developments broadly meet the Governmental ideal of consumer choice, there appear to be three significant issues.

First, there is the question as to whether the bereaved are effectively left in a transitional state with no resolution provided to their grief and their sense of loss. Popular poems read at funerals attempt to reassure the bereaved that the deceased 'is only in the room next door.' One young widow took this a stage further and kept the urn containing her late husband's ashes in her bedroom; he was to her mind in the same room with her. Visiting her two years later, the situation had not changed, she had not moved through the stages of grief to find resolution and a new identity beyond that of being the mourning wife of the deceased.

Similarly, the decoration of sites of fatal injury increasingly are held as providing continuity between the deceased and the bereaved when in reality a radical discontinuity has occurred. Some further ritual appears to be needed to help the bereaved 'move on' in their grieving.

Second, there can be very little sense of communitas provided by some alternative rituals. Being largely pragmatic, there is no real or ongoing means by which the bereaved can feel supported by the wider community; the bereaved are afforded little or no recognition of their change in status, say from wife of Bill to widow of Bill. The time of publicly recognised mourning has been reduced substantially to the period between death and funeral only. This is further reinforced by the professionalisation of the role of preparing the body for burial or cremation; much of this task is now taken away from the family of the deceased and away from the supportive community around the bereaved and placed in the hands of paid 'Undertakers'[5].

However, some self-orchestrated alternative funeral rites can and do facilitate some sense of communitas, mimicking whatever sense of communitas the deceased had experienced in life. Music, sport or some other interest held in common between the bereaved and the deceased often provides a theme for the funeral rite. A memorable 'bikers' funeral saw scores of leather clad bikers provide a funeral procession and 'rev up' outside a crematorium in honour of the deceased. Words and music at the funeral service carried this common theme.

Yet there is also a third area which is often overlooked and that is of ontological security. Ontological security results from a person having a sense of order and continuity in relation to events in which they participate and the experiences they have in their day to day lives. Certainly, for a large proportion of bereaved people in our towns and cities today, there is a loss of hope and meaning traditionally found in Christian rites of passage.

Yet I would want to maintain that within the wider meta-narrative of the Christian story, these significant human points of transition are placed within a far wider and greater picture. Meaning and hope, order and continuity are given to our stories when we place them before a greater story outside ourselves.

It is this third element which is both the most significant in terms of loss, and paradoxically provides us with a glimpse at the underlying reason for the contemporary move away from the rituals of the Church. The roots of this move are to be found in modernity. With the Enlightenment project came the sceptical deconstructionist thoughts of Emmanuel Kant and his colleagues. With the advocacy for the supremacy of rationalist thought came a reduction in the public credibility of religious meaning and the removal of religion from the public sphere to the private realm of life. Religious thought and praxis is confined to the subjective private sphere and not allowed in the public space ruled and represented by empirical objectivity. By necessity religious ritual was then seen as a private choice and not a public act.

Likewise, therefore, death, though not a taboo, was hidden or sequestered from the public sphere and this sequestration is manifest as the privatisation and subjectivisation of the experience of death, resulting in ontological disorientation. Berger and Luckmann posit that societies, in their view, are essentially systems of order, providing Nomos - a shield from the terrors of meaninglessness. Therefore one may conclude that such disorientation is a threat to socially constructed reality[6].

Anthony Giddens  develops this debate as he regards this disorientation, deriving from the discontinuity delivered by deconstructionist thought, as being culture specific, having late-modern distinctiveness.[7] He posits that such an unprecedented series of mechanisms which remove problems of meaning from public space, relocating them in the privatised realm of individual life and experience, has created a historically unique threat to personal meaning in that it has delivered to late-modern Britain a 'fundamental psychic problem' of personal meaninglessness. The finitude of human life is paramount amongst these problems and is the one most conspicuously unanswered, so that in a cultural milieu which offers unprecedentedly extreme dangers to the maintenance of ontological security, death is especially hard to deal with.

It could also be argued that in a culturally diverse society, where an array of cultural and religious resources may be drawn upon to deal with death, such diversity compounds the difficulties individuals experience when death is encountered. More diverse approaches to death make it more difficult to contain it within a communally accepted framework and thus limit the existential anxiety it potentially offers an individual.

Increasingly, though not exclusively, funeral rites are performed for the individual rather than the community.[8] Indeed death is hidden in hospitals and mortuaries, and funerals are expedited on behalf of the individual by the professional funeral director[9]. Critical and chronic deconstruction of communal frameworks for the containment of death is so extensive that individuals do not know what to believe and how to behave as prescribed rites of mourning are no longer perceived as being readily available.

In the midst of this uncertainty, the suggestion is that some of the discussion taking place in studies of social change might be relevant to the Christian Church as it considers its engagement with the community it is called to engage with missionally. This is no new venture, yet it may mean reframing rituals to engage with individuals and with the community in this social context. Rituals are, after all, never static but, on the contrary, more often subject to dynamic changes even if their participants continue to claim that they have been the same since time immemorial.

Don Handleman[10] argues for a form of 'Moebius' framing, allowing flexibility in the access points to the ritual by the outside world, yet maintaining a relatively closed ritual practice within the ritual itself. Travelling through a ritual, the participant is reoriented from one understanding or stage of reality to another[11].  This is set within the context of Handleman's understanding of rituals as 'models' and/or 'mirrors' of the culture in which they operate.

My observation would be that a large section of the Church has, in recent decades, stuck to a rigid framing of ritual which has become increasingly meaningless to a substantially unchurched community. For people who do not consider themselves 'religious', the church is not an attractive or necessary agency.

In the midst of this, self-created funeral rites seek to frame meaning for the bereaved in terms of some sense of continuity between the living and the dead, a sense of commonly shared experiences giving both continuity of shared experience, some communitas, and therefore some form of ontological security. There is to be found here some sense of meaning, if not a clear future hope.

So we must ask: Is there any place for Christian ritual in a post-Christendom world?

Is there any missional opportunity? Christopher Partridge would be pessimistic, seeing such 'occulture' as a hostile challenge to traditional Christian rites. Yet John Drane[12] suggests that we see these new expressions of spirituality as an opportunity to work with God in new ways, ways in which the missio Dei, the mission of God, is already at work.

Perhaps, as Handleman suggests, a more flexible and creative approach to access points for Christian ritual is called for. These access points will need to have contemporary cultural relevance, be helpful for those using them, and be theologically acceptable ways of bringing meaning, hope, and ontological security. They must also realistically be a means by which the bereaved may progress through the grieving process.

So we return to the question of whether or not to 'Fly him to the moon'?

Perhaps one may suggest that the New Testament Greek term Kairos would also be a helpful term as it indicates a time of special opportunity with which we may link both hope and optimism. These are Kairos moments, providing a new window of opportunity for the Church.

The Japanese character for crisis is a combination of characters for danger and opportunity[13].

Perhaps these sociological developments serve as an indicator that the Church in post-Christendom, and in a substantially post-Christian era, needs to reorient itself to reinterpret requests for rites of passage to include culture specific and personal references as an opportunity rather than a danger.

To this extent, Christian ministers representing the wider church, must indeed embrace flexible framing to essential rituals in order to engage people within a late-modern cluster of sub-cultures. Questions of syncretism arise and need addressing, yet we must ask what culturally relevant contributions can be acceptably incorporated in Christian ritual without compromising, undermining or negating the Christian Gospel.

Just perhaps there would be room for a favourite song of this couple now separated physically by death, and the suitably creative liturgist in us could use that as a point from which to communicate the timeless truths of Gospel hope and meaning.

In other words one may find some liberty to be flexible in our ritual framing by allowing what may be viewed as essentially secular elements which carry some sense of meaning for the bereaved. We can find biblical precedence for this approach as we note Canaanite life and death motifs incorporated into Hebrew ritual in, for example, the Wisdom literature; and New Testamental acceptance of various cultural practices and understandings gleaned from the wider ancient world, such as notions about physiology and even the provisional reuse of Idol Meat. Perhaps also helpful is the example of Paul at the Areopagus, where seekers after spiritual truth come even to an altar in honour of an unknown god. Here the apostle uses the opportunity, offered by the spiritual openness of those he addresses, to invite them to find the Christian God. The progression of the dialogue to be followed in a flexible-framing approach to rites of passage must lead to the same point to be authentically Christian.

'Fly me to the moon'? Yes, we heard it played, even if with tender humour we acknowledge that it is not to the moon that the departed is being dispatched; the deceased was remembered with tenderness, the highlights of the past affirmed, his story told. Yet this was put into the much larger story of salvation history which brings meaning to life and death; the hope of the Christian gospel was offered. The framing was flexible, the central ritual authentically Christian. Here there was an appropriate separating of the deceased from the bereaved allowing the grieving process to continue; there was appropriate continuing between the past, the present and a future hope; there was meaning to life even in death. This was a truly missiological event and one with which the bereaved could readily connect.




A. van Gennep,The rites of passage, Routledge, 1977.

Bateson, G., A Sacred Unity: Further steps to an ecology of mind, Harper Collins NY, 1991

(R. Donaldson, Ed.) Berger, P., Sacred Canopy, 1967

Boyle, N. Who are we now? Christian Humanism and the Global Market from Hegel to Heaney          University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame (1998)

Clark, David The sociology of death : theory, culture, practice, Sociological review monograph, Blackwell Publishers/The Sociological Review, 1993

Drane, J. Faith in a Changing Culture, CreatingChurches for the next Century, Marshall Pickering, London, (1997)

Giddens, A., The Consequences of Modernity, 1990;

Giddens, A., Modernity and Self-Identity, 1991

Roger Grainger, Staging posts: rites of passage for contemporary Christians, Merlin, 1987

Grimes, Ronald L. Deeply into the bone : re-inventing rites of passage, University of California Press, 2002

Jean Holm and John Bowker, Rites of Passage, Pinter, 1994

Don Handleman, Models and Mirrors, Towards an Anthropology of Public Events, CUP 2nd Ed, 1998

Jupp, P.C., & Rogers, T., Interpreting Death: theology and pastoral practice,  Cassells, London, 1997.

Kreinath, Hartung& Deschner, The dynamics of changing rituals: the transformation of religious rituals within their social and cultural context, Toronto studies in religion v. 29; 2004

Luckmann, The Invisible Religion, 1967

Newbigin, L. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, SPCK, London (1989)

Newbigin, L. Truth to Tell: The Gospel and Public Truth, SPCK, London (1991)

Walker, A., Telling the Story, Gospel, Mission and Culture, SPCK, London (1996)

[1]A. van Gennep, The rites of passage, Routledge, 1977.

[2] Roger Grainger, Staging posts: rites of passage for contemporary Christians, Merlin, 1987

[3] Jean Holm and John Bowker explores many of these in Rites of Passage, Pinter, 1994

[4] Personal interview with the Superintendent Registrar, Sutton Register Office at the introduction of the Scheme.

[5] Cf  work in this area by Jupp and Rogers, e.g. Interpreting Death: theology and pastoral practice, Cassells, London, 1997.

[6] Berger Sacred Canopy, 1967; Luckmann The Invisible Religion, 1967

[7] Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity 1990; Modernity and Self-Identity, 1991

[8] With traditional Roman Catholic liturgy, the funeral is at least in part for the benefit of the deceased, helping to send him on his way to his eternal rest with God. A similar exception is traditional Afro-Caribbean funerals which are still very much a community affair; but here I refer mainly to the small close family gathering for a funeral rather for the family and the wider community.

[9] cf Jupp & Rogers, Interpreting Death: theology and pastoral practice , Cassels, 1997

[10] Handleman, cited in The dynamics of ritual change, pp1-20; Handleman, D., Models and Mirrors: Towards an Anthropology of Public Events, 2nd Ed., CUP 1998.

[11](A Moebius  frame is a conceptual development from a Moebius strip which is a strip of paper with a half twist in it. To journey along the strip leads to reorientation, a Moebius sphere similarly has many 'access strips' all of which end in a common orientation).

[12] Partridge & Drane in dialogue in Transmission pp 3-9, Summer 2005

[13] Bosch, Tranforming Mission, p. 3

Mike Thornton

Baptist minister

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You are reading Meaning to Life in Death by Mike Thornton, part of Issue 40 of Ministry Today, published in July 2007.

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