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What Ceremony Else

The Times, May 15th 2004


We might as well begin, as Sally Emerson does, with the idea of impossibility - 'The very time we feel at our worst, when we have just lost someone we love, is also the time we have carefully to plan a funeral'. Racked with grief, exhausted, confused, angry ... you are required to think of readings (and music perhaps) for a ceremony which will adequately represent the interwoven tapestry of the life that's gone. How much easier it is easier to use traditional liturgy, to call in the minister to 'take care of the words' - as in Anne Stevenson's ironic:
He doesn't have to make them up,
he doesn't have to say them well,
he doesn't have to like them
so long as they agree to obey him.

Yet for many people the old forms are cast too narrowly, even if 'dust to dust' retains an incantatory power. If a religious ritual is no long adequate (or is too hypocritical) to express our mourning, then some substitute must be found - because to have none is a pitiful option. Horatio's 'What ceremony else?' expresses that fundamental need for appropriate forms to honour the dead.

People turn to poetry in time of need, since loss can be mediated by language, and thus given access to universality. The words of others give utterance to our wordless grief, shaping it into a syntax we can start to comprehend. Sometimes comfort comes with the almost-blandly familiar, like Joyce Grenfell’s, ‘If I Should Go Before the rest of You’ or ‘Fear no more the heart o’ th’ sun’ from Cymbeline. But often people yearn for fitting words and don’t know where to find them. Over the years I have frequently been asked to suggest poems for funerals, and once even wrote one specially, the more precisely to encapsulate that particular life. The problem comes with the essential ambiguity of the ritual. It marks a rite of passage - the transition from one state to another: life with and life without the person mourned. Is it a celebration of the life or a formalisation of anguish at the implacable power of death? Should it express the misery of those bereaved, or ignore that and offer pat consolation? How to find two or three readings which will unsentimentally honour the dead and give comfort to the living, as well as remind them that all things must die, including themselves?

June Benn's classic collection, 'Memorials' was invaluable, but last year I lent it to a man in extremis and never saw it again. The excellent CRUSE anthology, 'All In The End is Harvest' (complied by Agnes Whitaker) is in its nineteenth printing - and now two useful new collections join Neil Astley's strongly humanistic 'Do Not Go Gentle' (2003). Julia Watson's somewhat unimaginatively titled 'Poems and Readings for Funerals' contains one or two Biblical passages amongst a sensitively chosen selection, but the most comprehensive of these anthologies perceptively looks two ways at once. As well as offering a wide-ranging selection of readings, Sally Emerson's 'In Loving Memory' offers a whole section of hymns, prayers and readings - presumably in recognition of the fact that even in this secular age people's hearts move to ancient blood-rhythms, suspecting that that 'on the stroke of midnight God shall win.'

Bereaved people understandably rebel against the schematisation of their pain (Astley prints Linda Pastan's sadly bitter 'The Five Stages of Grief') nevertheless similar themes and patterns do occur - reflected in the structure of these collections. inspirationEmerson moves from 'Rage' through 'Missing' to 'Finding Peace'; Astley and Watson make similar journeys, perhaps because there is nowhere else to go. After all, if you don't accept the enormous ordinariness of loss, if you go on raging (Freud defined this condition as 'melancholic mourning') you might as well join the dead, since the living will make no place for you in the end. Along the slow crawl towards the light, certain poems inevitably provide signposts for more than one of the anthologists. Favourites include Dylan's Thomas's 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night', Christina Rossetti's 'Remember' and 'So many Different Lengths of Time' by Brian Patten, not to mention Robert Herrick's agonising 'Epitaph Upon a Child That Died'.

When somebody dies young most of the congregation will feel outrage, not acceptance. My daughter and I went to the cremation of twenty year old friend of hers who died after a lifelong illness, and I'm afraid the anodyne homily and Bible readings seemed as pat as the rain on our umbrellas. There is a time for weeping and gnashing of teeth, and readings which express what Elizabeth Bishop called 'the art of losing' - the greater to acknowledge the angry anguish of the bereaved. This is the equivalent of the hired mourners at a Greek funeral - the ululation of strangers standing as tangible testimony of private pain. Auden's 'Funeral Blues' found a permanent place in the national consciousness after 'Four Weddings and a Funeral'. 'Stop all the clocks' he orders, and the flat statement, 'Nothing now can come to any good' is a recognition of the fact that when things are 'changed utterly' by a death, nothing seems to have meaning or purpose, not even the love of those who remain. Not everybody wants Kindness to come snooping round, offering counselling and consolation. Both Watson and Emerson choose Edna St Vincent Millay's magnificent rejection of easy philosophy, 'Dirge Without Music':

Down, down, down they go into the darkness of the grave
Gentle they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

But the most popular poems do offer solace and there are plenty here (though curiously not W.Cory's much-loved 'Heraclitus') - especially when we hear the voice of the dead giving permission to move on. 'Do not stand at my grave and weep' they say, and Christina Rossetti offers more than one variation on this theme, reminding us that the dead no longer feel the rain. With characteristic wistful wit, Noel Coward says he wants to be 'missed a bit', Henry Van Dyke reassures that 'I have slipped away into the next room', and Leo Marks promises,

A sleep I shall have,
A rest I shall have,
Yet death will be but a pause,
For the peace of my years in the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.

In an era which lacks the promise of reunion in Paradise the sense of becoming one with the rest of the universe, a part of the endless cycles of seed time and harvest, can seem meaningful. 'Golden lads and girls all must/As chimney sweepers come to dust', yet the short step from dust to fertile earth is not to hard to make. Simon Bridges ('Tomorrows' chosen by Astley) tells his dead wife he hears her voice in the sigh of the wind, and Emerson picks Elinor Wylie's 'Farewell Sweet Dust' - which is a beautiful contemplation of the implications of scattering ashes. Watson offers Brendan Kennelly's joyful 'Begin'......and it goes without saying that the driving conviction which gives each of these collections is energy is that we can, and do, achieve immortality through love.

There is no reason to stash these books away for the dark day. All three should be by the bedside, and I would prescribe a poem a day to help you get by - and get ready. This is the opposite of morbidity; it is to accept Jung's dictum that 'waxing and waning make one curve.' And you could celebrate your own life by opening the champagne and watching the bubbles disperse in the air as you take a notebook and choose what you want read at your own ending. Make sure they get it right. That way you will help them move from mourning into morning.




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