Funeral Article - Changing Funerals

The Guardian - Tuesday 24 March 2009
by Lucy Tobin

Changing Funerals

A team of researchers is investigating the changing social trends displayed at modern funerals

Prof Margaret Holloway and research fellow Sue Adamson from the University of Hull
Picture of a funeral director and two researchers










Sue Adamson looks surprisingly cheerful considering she has attended 18 funerals since October, and she expects to attend another 30 this year. Thankfully, Adamson had not seen uncommonly large numbers of friends or family struck down - in fact, the University of Hull research fellow had never met any of the people whose funerals she attended. Adamson, along with four Hull colleagues, is researching the changing shape of modern funerals.

The idea came from Margaret Holloway, professor of social work at Hull and the project's principal investigator, who realised that although she often read articles about funerals in the media, she rarely saw reference to them in academic journals. "I kept seeing newspaper reports on people opting for more personal funerals, but couldn't find any research into these trends," she says. "I wanted to investigate how people use rituals and search for meaning when faced with death."

Funerals began to change when the role of religion in society shifted. "Once, most people went to their local church to organise a funeral, or left it all up to the vicar," says Holloway. "But now that would be alienating to many people's lifestyles."

She gathered an inter-disciplinary team, including Vassos Argyrou, a social anthropologist, Peter Draper, a senior lecturer in nursing and an Anglican priest, Daniel Mariau, a theology lecturer, and Adamson, whose previous projects have focused on social policy and crime. She received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. But it still wasn't easy to jump from idea to implementation.

The first step was to persuade local undertakers and funeral parlours to co-operate. "Luckily, the professionals involved in the industry have been really interested in our work," says Holloway. "They're central to the project's aims - to increase public understanding of funerals, and to help the professionals who work around death to be more sensitive to mourners' needs."

Tastes in funerals do seem to be changing. Alongside live jazz and a bagpiper, the academics have heard a lot of Abba, the Beatles, Elvis and Barry White. Only three of the funerals so far included hymns sung by the congregation. One family chose Red Red Robin, says Adamson, "because the deceased had been a Hull Kingston Rovers [rugby] supporter, and at the funeral mourners wore the red and white [team] colours. Another family chose Walk Through This World With Me because it had been the ringtone on the deceased's mobile phone."

Increasing humour

Humour in services seems to play an increasing part. "The bereaved families welcomed this as a lightening of the proceedings. It usually came about from a family anecdote," says Holloway. "One [interviewee] said that the things she remembered most about the funeral were the fact that '[it] got a laugh' and 'the fact that everybody was crying'."

But Holloway admits her work can be upsetting. "I guess we wouldn't be doing this research if we hadn't done a lot of thinking about death. Working closely with bereaved people, you have to face some of your own fears, and painful memories. Our job is to conduct the research in a sensitive manner and to be alert to the meanings people are trying to find and convey, but there have been occasions when personal memories have been stirred, and I'd probably avoid doing an observation if the date coincided with the anniversaries of my parents' deaths."

The researchers have attended burials and cremations, and ceremonies officiated by clergy from the various Christian churches as well as the British Humanist Association. The team is talking to members of the Jewish and Muslim communities, although logistics are more difficult since these burials normally take place within 24 hours.

At the ceremonies, essential academic work has to be carried out sensitively. "Sometimes, it simply wouldn't be appropriate to take notes." When there is a balcony they can sit in, the researchers feel less inhibited.

A week after each funeral, Adamson contacts a family member to ask for an interview. So far, all except two of the families have agreed. "I go and see the family - it's much easier face to face," she says. "It can be distressing for them to relive the funeral, so you need to be able to turn off the recorder and have a cup of tea."

These days there seems to be a move away from a focus on grief - and from religion, says Holloway. "The centrepiece is now about remembering and celebrating the life of the person who has died. There's definitely a sense that if people don't have religious belief, they now feel it's OK to say so and to create meaning in different ways, rather than just following convention."

Another emerging theme has been a lack of what Holloway calls "spiritual literacy". She says: "Some mourners say that they categorically don't believe in religion, but then give quite tangible examples that the person who has died is with them. One man said he didn't believe in any kind of afterlife, but then described feeling an arm on his back giving him strength."

But the team believe that funerals in their current format still provide crucial rituals to help deal with death. "Although today's society has largely let go of old traditions, the funerals we've seen all suggest an enduring need for ritual, whether that's bagpipes or the case of one 96-year-old woman who had planned the outfit she wanted to wear in her coffin. Human beings still seem to want to find new ways to give death some kind of order."


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