Hugh Reilly: Dignity in death has bitten the dust

The 21st-century funeral has become little more than a catchy tune by Queen and a chance for a graveside selfie, mourns Hugh Reilly

A funeral for a Scottish soldier killed in Afghanistan takes place. Picture: Ian Georgeson

I wandered into the dimly lit bedroom. At only four or five years of age, I was dwarfed by my father and uncles who were standing in a circle, whispering inaudibly. Just 24 hours earlier, my teary mum – taking a break from cutting onions, I imagined – told me that gran was now with the angels but she was wrong. On being lifted up by dad, I saw that gran was sleeping, as large as life, in an odd-shaped wooden bed on stilts. My sixth sense didn’t tell me I was seeing a dead person.

This is my earliest memory of death. Growing up, I became accustomed to the traditional rituals that accompanied bereavement. The embalmed body sat in an open coffin in a living room or bedroom for a several days as trickles of mourners called in to pay their last respects. Drawn window blinds accentuated the gloomy atmosphere. At the impersonal church service, the priest or minister would talk of the loved one being in a better place, this somewhat subjective assertion undermined by the wails of the anguished family occupying the front pews. I imagine most widows found it difficult to heartily sing along to How Great Thou Art when robbed of their husband and breadwinner. However, back then, the church service was their last opportunity to bid adieu because, as a consequence of the macho stoicism demanded at the graveside, the interring of the deceased was a men-only affair.

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Being chosen to carry the casket was considered an honour, although I do recall one occasion when there was palpable pall-bearer resistance. It would be something of an understatement to opine that Aunt Margaret was a rather over-nourished individual (the word “obese” hadn’t yet been invented). I was part of a large group of anxious male grievers sitting in the lounge as her son, Jim, glad-handed potential guys to tackle the heavy lifting. Not wishing to slight anyone, he would surreptitiously place a card in his palm with a drawing of a coffin with six numbers, one of which was circled. Like some sort of black spot, on shaking Jim’s hand, one would feel either sweaty flesh or flimsy cardboard.

A thin post-handshake smile from my brother told me that he’d dodged a bullet. I wasn’t so lucky. Along with five other unfortunates, I foot-dragged my way along to the bedroom to shoulder my responsibility whereupon the undertaker invited the team to lift on the count of three. “One … two … three!” he said. Nothing happened; either someone had nailed the coffin to the trestles or Margaret’s bulk had been a tad miscalculated. In the end, we groaned our way down the staircase and later struggled manfully to carry the coffin down the seemingly never-ending church aisle, the trail of tears if you will. My earnest prayer for a Simon of Cyrene-type to come forth and share my burden was in vain.

These days, thanks to health and safety, holding the dead aloft is a rare sight. Funeral staff offer a trolley service or encourage pall-bearers to grasp the handles of the coffin.

But much, much more has changed. Dying is no longer a taboo subject. With the demise of religion, the majority of educated human beings realise that death is the final frontier and they wish their lives to be celebrated. Modern society is putting “fun” into funeral. For example, it has become de rigor, sorry de rigueur, for the living to announce which music they wish played on their departure. The favourite “choons” make interesting reading. For believers, there is We’ll Meet Again and Stairway to Heaven (not the Rolf Harris version as it creeps people out). To put a smile on the faces of those assembled, the impish demised opt for Another One Bites The Dust , Relight My Fire and Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. Fast-living sorts select Highway To Hell whereas the more conservative-minded cadaver prefers the crossover hit, Time To say Goodbye. Given the inherent vanity of humans, it should come as no surprise that the rather pompous My Way is number one in the Top of the Popped-Offs chart.

Instead of dealing with loss in a private, dignified manner, many people feel the need to express public outpourings of grief (some commentators would trace this phenomenon back to the death of Princess Diana). Glasgow is sprinkled with ad-hoc memorials to those who have died in violent circumstances. Given the sectarian tribal divisions that blight the city, I can’t be alone in finding it touching that Rangers and Celtic football shirts are pinned side by side to railings in a sign of sorrowful solidarity. For some grief-stricken mates of a fellow gang member killed in action, the profoundness of loss requires greater customisation of the shrine, perhaps by placing a tasteful bottle of Buckfast to sit alongside the “Gone Too Soon” floral tribute. In one such location, among the messages of misspelt condolences, there is even a “F*** the polis!” banner. A serving police officer told me that the former Strathclyde Police force employed a designated Shrine Management officer to liaise with surviving neds as to the size of any tacky memorial, lest it distracted motorists.

The advent of social media has accelerated news of a death. In some cases, the last warm breath leaving the mouth of the deceased is the starting gun in the race to be the first one to tweet a 140-character obituary or post a disconsolate comment on Facebook that garners lots of “likes”. In this world of the vacuous self-obsessed, taking a selfie at a funeral is not considered beyond the pale. Young women dress to impress in low-cut LBDs and towering high-heels while young gel-haired men arrive booted and suited as if auditioning for Ocean’s Eleven. The funeral, you see, is all about them, not the body in the casket.

The older generation despises what they perceive to be the lack of respect shown to the dead. Maybe that’s why, when I asked my mother would she prefer to be cremated than buried, she stingily replied: “I don’t know – surprise me.”