Notebook

Libby Purves: What humanist funerals are missing

In the face of death, it’s always the old Prayer Book which rings through the heart (AP)

From the back of the church, striding, almost alarming, booms the celebrant: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” The service rolls on: full of awe, placing mankind’s fragility at its heart, laying it before the altar: “Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow …” Yet beyond the ashes and dust, the “sure and certain hope” pulses through it. Verily, there is nothing in rhetoric and ceremony to beat the Book of Common Prayer. Especially at a funeral.

Ours, recent and raw, was my eldest brother’s. But at funerals over recent years – Anglican, Catholic, humanist – it is always the old Prayer Book which rings through the heart. I do understand what lies behind every church’s updatings, popularisations and demystifications of liturgy; goodness, I ought to. I was a Sacred Heart convent girl when the Mass became vernacular. Mystery fell away after 1964, the priest turned to face us and worryingly chatty lines crept in (though retro words like “grievous” did help a bit).

I could see the point, although there was a period when the parish church was under repair and our vast school chapel replaced it. I never forgave some of the depredations of a go-ahead music-nun (“We must make it feel welcoming to the town”). The nadir of her regime came when during Benediction one Sunday, to which hardly any of the locals came anyway, we sang Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven followed directly by the Tantum Ergo, sung to the tune of Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven.

We girls seethed beneath our crumpled veils: we were raised on Gregorian chant, we knew our way round diamond-shaped notes, knew six different Agnuses. Many of us rather liked the magic of it all: it compensated for our incarceration and the woeful absence of boys. And although in my erratic post-school observance I never went Tridentine, I think we were not entirely wrong to cling to the old rituals. Nor are those of all denominations who, confronting something as ancient and universal and immense as death, ask the celebrant to roll back time to the age of saints and Shakespeare. Let the immemorial language speak the hard truths about our shadowy, short-blooming life and dusty death. It helps to make mortality bearable – even for unbelievers in an afterlife – to be reminded that death has always been there. It took our forebears, and will take us one day too.

Believers are lucky to have rituals anyway. I once went to a humanist funeral where a life was related, full of wartime courage, long marriage and happy family. Afterwards I asked the celebrant what on earth he said at such events if, not to put too fine a point on it, the deceased was horrible: criminal, brutal, widely disliked. Priests can blandly say that only God judges, and solicit prayers for the soul: what can a humanist do? He flinched. “Yes. Tricky. Had one the other week whose children hadn’t spoken to him for 20 years. They wouldn’t even suggest a poem.”

A side effect of this time is that I seem to have started singing plainsong in the car. I always sing as I go, often with the CD on, joining in with Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell as the humble Skoda proceeds obediently through a 20 mph limit, or giving my all to Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You and trying not to breathe any more often than she does. But recently I found chants from 60 years ago springing, not in any particularly pious spirit, to my lips.

I still know every word and note of the Salve Regina from those mournful winter-term evenings in the convent dusk; also the Regina caeli, laetare which replaced it before supper after Easter, and the Nunc Dimittis which always marked my February 2 birthday (gotta love that sudden jazzy swing into “lumen at revelationem gentium”! I think I do get some of the Dies Irae in the wrong order, though, because of wanting to get on to the soaring Rex tremendae majestatis bit.

My husband, who had no Catholic schooling, finds my love of liturgical dog-Latin strange. But whenever we travel in Latinate lands (where both our linguistic skills are poor) he realises that a good acquaintance with a tongue you might call Old Euro-Catholic is very handy indeed over street names. He mixes up Assunzione with Ascensione. I never would.

Libby Purves is a radio presenter, journalist and author