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Celine Dion At The Crematorium

(For the next several days, I’m not going to be able to post any new topical material, nor shall I be able to interact with your comments. However, I am going to repost some old pieces that once appeared on my now defunct website at http://www.davefaulkner.co.uk. I hope you enjoy them.)

The curate from the Victor Meldrew School of Theology had turned down this funeral. Which was a good job. She never should have been asked. The daughter of the deceased was an occasional worshipper at one of the churches I served.

Like many people at the time, she wanted Celine Dion’s love theme from the film ‘Titanic’, ‘My heart will go on’, to be played at the service. It’s the sort of music that brings me out in a rash, but hey, it was her wish.

We were ready to begin. The congregation was seated in the crematorium chapel. I was outside with the pallbearers from the undertaker’s. I gave the nod to the crem attendant. He pressed ‘play’. Well, it was Celine Dion, it was ‘My heart will go on’ … but it was the dance remix.

As a thumping drumbeat massacred the gloopy song, one of the pallbearers turned to me and said, “So are we meant to take the coffin in at this pace?”

“No,” said one of his colleagues, “it isn’t a drum, it’s the deceased knocking on the coffin, trying to get out!”

It became one of the challenges of my ministry to maintain dignity and not burst into hysterics during the funeral.

The next day, the daughter phoned me to thank me for the service. I thought it prudent to ask her about the music.

“Did you notice the music at the beginning of the service?”

“No.”

“You didn’t notice that it was the dance version of ‘My heart will go on’?”

“No.”

“Only I just thought I should ask, in case any of your relatives were upset.”

“Nah – anyway, my mum was a bit of a goer, and she’d have loved it!”

Embarrassing moment over, I breathed a sigh of relief when I put down the phone.

Now I’ve seen a funeral or two in my time. I’ve made friends with the crem attendants. One says, “Don’t wear trousers with turn-ups, or you’ll bring your work home with you.”

I’ve seen inconsolable grief at the crem, and I can understand that. Without the hope I gain from the Resurrection of Jesus, I can see why Paul in the Bible said that people “grieve without hope”.

I’ve also seen overbearing, unnatural joy. I don’t mean the way Christians (with the hope of the Resurrection) can look forward, I mean a kind of forced joy that psychologically is a denial of bereavement’s true pain. Most grief is nothing to be guilty about, whatever our feelings tell us. It’s an expression of our love for the deceased, love we can no longer give them, because they are not with us.

Maybe then my offering is to say that the healthy thing – the Jesus thing – is the gift of grieving with hope.

Sabbatical, Day 75: Re-Imagining Persecution; Funeral Music

Two different blog posts today show how two different communities wrongly thought they were victims of persecution. Firstly, Michael Spencer shows convincingly that evangelicals were not killed for their faith by the two teenage gunmen at Columbine. Nor was it about video game nasties, atheism or the occult. The information has been seeping out for years, he says, but a major piece in USA Today has put it all together. Yet because many of the victims were related to local churches, a quick assumption was made. A mythology grew up, books were published, songs were recorded.

Secondly, there has been outrage in recent days over the removal of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender books from Amazon’s best-seller list. Search for #amazonfail on Twitter and you’ll find thousands of upset tweeters. But today comes the news that it wasn’t the consequence of anti-gay policies. It was a technological error. Clay Shirky, himself strongly in favour of gay rights, reports the truth in detail.

Here, then, is an issue where the evangelical community and the gay community (if both are truly communities, but that’s another issue) have something in common. Both have reasons for presupposing that opposition is persecution. Evangelicals are fuelled by church history and parts of the Bible; gay people have very recent history that predisposes them to the assumption.

To speak personally about this, I remember a few weeks after the Columbine shootings seeing a report on BBC television’s Newsnight which cast doubt on the martyrdom theory. At the time, I just assumed it was simply the BBC’s liberal bias against conservative Christians and dismissed it. I found the testimony of Cassie Bernall‘s family to her faith as a reason for her killing as more persuasive. I am not remotely suggesting they were insincere or dishonest at all, but now it seems I have to admit the BBC was right. They were modelling good reporting rather than showing bias. 

Isn’t it true, though, that Christians – even in the West – are facing more opposition? Yes, it is, and I have argued frequently that our best posture for shaping our witness today is that of exile. It is a view eloquently given biblical and historical precedent in Patrick Whitworth‘s book ‘Prepare for Exile‘. However, there is a vast difference between that posture and that adopted by the wider Christian community in the wake of Columbine. Exile requires humility. It embraces the fact of being a minority in a ‘Babylonian’ culture. In contrast, according to Spencer, American evangelicals interpreted Columbine as part of the disastrous ‘culture war’. That meant taking a stance from a position of power, not of weakness. Ordinary people in society often have little sympathy for those in power.

And power seems to have been one of the mistakes in the pro-gay protests against the Amazon error, according to Shirky. Amazon is now seen as a large corporation and thus not worthy of sympathy. 

Of course, it’s ironic to suggest evangelical Christians and gay people are or have been in similar positions. There is mutual suspicion, if not worse, between the groups, although Tony Blair thinks that situation is softening with younger evangelicals. It may even be the traditional Christian position on sexuality that helps send the church into exile, given recent trends in legislation. I’m thinking about laws that prevent discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and the way they have affected organisations such as Catholic adoption agencies. Not that all Christians are agreed on this matter, as we know so painfully. I still hold the traditional conviction, much as I would sometimes like to believe differently, because it would ease my tensions with today’s society. However, quite a few friends who read this blog disagree with me. That is just a microcosm of the bigger picture. 

What, then, if there is opposition? One thing’s for sure: a ‘culture war’ power play is just not the way to react. Whitworth suggests new attitudes, spirituality and approaches to mission in his book that I cited above. With regard to attitudes, he cites the Beatitudes and Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon as decisive for Christians. That means humility, the acceptance of persecution and a willingness to hunker down for the long haul (contrary to certain prophecies of revival, I wonder?).

Might we have a more Christlike witness if we took this approach?

…………

Co-Operative Funeralcare have done another survey on popular music and hymn choices at  – er, funerals. Church Mouse has the chart rundowns and some commentary. This would be the excuse opportunity for me to re-run my favourite funeral music story.

About ten years ago, a woman asked to have Celine Dion’s (hideous) ‘My heart will go on’ played as we brought her mother’s coffin into the crematorium chapel. When the undertaker, pallbearers and I were ready outside the chapel doors, I gave the nod to the crematorium attendant.

The music began. It was Celine Dion. It was ‘My heart will go on.’ Only trouble was, it was the dance remix.

As drums thumped all over the melodramatic Canadian warbling, one pallbearer looked at me and said, “Do we have to take the coffin in at that tempo?”

“No,” said another, “It’s the deceased knocking, wanting to get out!”

How I remained calm and dignified to take the service, I’ll never know. It was all I could do to suppress laughter.

The next day the bereaved woman kindly phoned me to thank me for the service. I thought I ought to raise the issue of the music delicately. “Did you notice it wasn’t the normal version of the song but the dance remix?”

“No.”

“I just thought I ought to mention it in case anybody was upset by what happened.”

“Oh no,” she said, “it wasn’t a problem. Besides, my mum was a bit of a goer, and she’d have loved it!”