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First Fun, Then Funerals

You can learn a lot about a society by watching what happens at its funerals. A hundred years ago, half way through the First World War, funerals were much more religious and much less varied. Old traditions were still being followed. The service was held in church. Mourners wore black. They sang hymns and listened to a burial service just as their ancestors had done for centuries.

But the First World War itself helped to change all that. The huge and unnecessary loss of life during the war made people question tradition and authority. Changes in Britain weren’t as big as in Russia, which began the war as a monarchy and ended it as a revolutionary state, but there was a feeling that the old way of life needed to be overthrown. The 1920s were the jazz age, when Bright Young Things set out to enjoy themselves in a way that scandalized and disturbed their elders.

They didn’t want to take life seriously, but in time they found themselves forced to: first came the Great Depression, then it became obvious that another world war was on its way. Some young people returned to Christianity, while others became communists. The Second World War would be even more destructive and deadly than the First, but unlike the First it didn’t leave young people with the feeling that their elders were cruel and foolish. Defeating Hitler and Nazism seemed a worthy cause, something that Britain could be proud of.

But Britain was exhausted by the war: as the days of peace began in 1945, it was a poor and devastated country. Another great national effort was needed to rebuild bombed cities and start the wheels of industry turning again. The late 1940s and early 1950s were not a new jazz age, full of bright lights, parties and fun. Old traditions were still strong and funerals were still being conducted in ways that would have been familiar to people at the beginning of the century.

But changes were on their way. America invented rock’n’roll and exported it across the Atlantic. There was a new cult of youth that reached its height in the 1960s. That’s when you could say that the 1920s came back with a vengeance. Rock and pop music were the new jazz and groups like the Beatles and Rolling Stones achieved levels of fame that had been previously reserved for actors and sportsmen. Traditions were challenged again and this time a lot of them were swept away. Attendance at church reached its height in the 1950s, then began to decline faster and faster. People turned away from traditional religion or began to re-interpret it in ways that seemed best to them.

But funerals didn’t reflect these changes immediately. After all, the new fashions and ideas were being embraced by the young, not the old. For obvious reasons, most funerals in the 1960s were of people who had been born long before, sometimes even as far back as the nineteenth century. It wouldn’t be until the ’60s generation became old itself and beginning to pass away in large numbers that ’60s ideas would influence British funerals.

That time is now: the so-called Baby Boomers are much near their hundredth birthdays than their first. They are passing away in large numbers and their ideas about individualism and doing your own thing are influencing their funerals. Mourners don’t feel the need to dress in black, services don’t have to be held in church any more and all kinds of music are acceptable, from rock’n’roll to electronic pop. When young people embraced new ideas in the 1960s, it was obvious in the music they listened to and the clothes they wore. Now those young people have become old and those ’60s ideas are obvious in their funerals too.