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Grave Matters

Life is never boring when you’re a sociologist studying culture and society. But it’s particularly interesting when there are big cultural shifts under way. That’s happening at the moment and funerals aren’t exempt. In fact, they’re central to the changes, because the way funerals are conducted is bound up in people’s most important beliefs.

When we die, is there an afterlife or an eternity of nothingness? When we plan a funeral or design a memorial, should we follow tradition or choose our own path? Today, more and more people want to choose their own path and have funerals that reflect them as individuals. One obvious sign of this is to be seen – or heard – in the music they choose. They don’t want hymns any more but songs that meant something to them during their lives and that send a message  to their loved ones. “My Way” is a popular choice, as sung by Frank Sinatra or Shirley Bassey, depending on whether the departed person is a man or a woman.

Another popular choice is Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”. It’s a beautiful song and as its soaring notes fill the space of a church or funeral parlour, many mourners will find themselves overcome by emotion and in tears. But in a good way: their tears won’t sharpen their sorrow but soothe it, leaving them calm and at peace, secure and warm in the memory of their loved one. Other popular songs, like Sarah Brightman’s “Time to Say Goodbye” and Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable”, may also bring healing tears, because they’re a final message from or about the loved one.

But sometimes people don’t want just tears at their funerals: they want smiles and even laughter too. Humour is another big change that sociologists and other researchers are observing in funerals. Eulogies are no longer simply listing the good works and good qualities of the departed loved one. They can include funny stories and family jokes, reminding the mourners of shared laughter and happy times. Tears and laughter can be a potent combination, helping the mourners to release their grief but also prepare themselves for the return to ordinary life, when happy memories of the departed will be strong again and it won’t be so painful to remember their loss.

Despite these changes, funerals aren’t necessarily losing their spiritual side: it’s simply being expressed in different ways. Beliefs about life and death can change both for the person who is facing the end and for those who love them. Many people who have no formal religious beliefs will nevertheless report that they have felt the presence of their departed loved one. It can be a comforting experience, lessening the ache of loss and filling the heart with new courage and strength, as though the departed person is saying goodbye or lingering on earth to watch over the people who meant most to them during life.

Whether or not bereaved people have these experiences, they will generally want a place of memorial for their loved one. The most common, of course, is a gravestone or memorial plaque, but the words that chosen today are another way in which funeral customs are changing. In the past, there might have been verses from the Bible or messages about a life to come. The language would have been formal and traditional. Today choices are wider and language is becoming more colloquial and more reflective of the individual person who has passed on.

These changes are gathering strengthening not just in Britain but across the world. Will they last? Who can say? The only thing that seems certain is that we will continue to need ceremonies and rituals to mark the passing of our loved ones. That’s one tradition that doesn’t change.