by Greg Spearritt
It may resonate with many SOFiA members when I say that I’m “of an age”.
From its earliest days our Australian SOFiA network has been at least mildly geriatric. I don’t find this surprising. An interest in philosophical/intellectual/spiritual reflection arises for many people only after prolonged experience of life. It’s when we get our breath back after charging through our formative, career-oriented and reproductive years that many of us start to notice our surroundings.
I was younger than the average SOFiA member at the outset of our network, but I find myself now 20 years older. (Yes, SOFiA was 20 years old at Easter 2019!) Family funerals for my parents’ generation have been in full swing for some ten years, and they’ve given me much to reflect on. Two things stand out.
First, terminology. For a long time I dismissed the language of “passing away” as an unnecessary euphemism or even a kind of dishonesty, a refusal to look the true nature of life in the face. Why not just say “died”? I’ve changed my mind. Don Cupitt has been instrumental in persuading me that life is indeed a passing parade. We arise, we perform and we fade away. Cupitt’s image of the fountain is a beautiful one: from a distance the fountain seems solid, but closer inspection shows that it’s composed of individual drops continually coming into being and passing away. That’s life. The solidity is a beautiful illusion. In the words of Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn, “Take your place with grace / And then be on your way”.
Second, a reflection on funeral services. The trend seems to be away from religious ceremony, unless you wish to be one of those who define ‘religious’ so broadly it practically loses all meaning.
I’ve been to two contrasting ceremonies recently. One was ‘progressive Christian’, the other quite secular. I much preferred the latter, though funerals are of course about the wishes of the living as much as the departed, so compromises are sometimes necessary.
The ‘religious’ ceremony petitioned “Divine Love, Wellspring of our existence” and “Compassionate Spirit of Life” to “build us into a loving community” and “lift us to find another meaning in life’s circumstances”. It’s inoffensive stuff and it means well, but for me it’s too motherhood-and-apple-pie wordy (apologies for the American reference), and it has the serious flaw of assuming the existence of some Entity that gives a b*gger about human life.
The secular funeral, however, had me captivated at times. Full of well-chosen poetry and music which truly reflected the life and interests of the departed, it really did lift my spirit. A couple of examples:
From ‘Everyone Sang’ by Siegfried Sassoon: 1.
Everyone burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark green fields; on – on –
And out of sight.
From ‘Everyman’ by John Whitehead: 2.
And I who hoped for nothing, am most grateful
For every hand that did not wound, for every
Moment that was not sadness. Though I came
On to the earth bare-handed I shall take
Beyond the night a swag of memories,
A seasoned heart, an acquiescent mind.
Both ceremonies brought a level of comfort in sad (though inevitable) circumstances. In the latter commemoration of a death, however, I found something to take away to help me live. It was about ‘passing on’ to those still living, a gift of the departed to those who are still in the process of passing away.
- The Albatross Book of Living Verse, ed Louis Untermeyer (London: Collins, 1948)
- Murmurs in the Rose: Poems by John Whitehead (London: Fortune, 1951)