Notes from West London

The funeral code

On Friday 13th it feels appropriate to write about funerals and obituaries.

The first funeral I went to was over 35 years ago, for the father of a family we knew from primary school. He had died at the age of 42, less than 18 months after a massive heart attack. (Around that time we learnt that heart attacks, like strokes, are usually “massive” or “mild”.) The funeral was at the Catholic Church we all attended, where most of us had been baptised and celebrated our First Holy Communion. Most, but not all, of the funerals I have attended have been for people I knew. The reason I have been at funerals for people I didn’t know relates to something only vaguely alluded to in my pieces during Lent, beginning with this piece (“Things to do in Lent”). There have been years when I have been able to attend mass every day between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. This often involves going to whichever Catholic Church is nearby and sometimes means that you turn up for the funeral of someone you didn’t know. Over the years I have turned up at churches in Hammersmith and Shepherds Bush to find a funeral about to begin, and instead of the usual 25 minutes or so the service has taken up to an hour.

This has happened often enough for me to see a pattern, a kind of funeral code, incorporating phrases that priests use to describe someone’s personality, without saying, for instance, “She was a dreadful old battle-axe, intolerant, argumentative …” The phrases that have come up surprisingly often include, “She was a strong-minded woman” and “She knew her own mind” and (my personal favourite) “She didn’t suffer fools gladly”, all of which imply that the deceased wasn’t the easiest person to get on with. One time the priest followed up “She didn’t suffer fools gladly” with, “She liked a drink … Whiskey was her tipple.” I looked at the picture on the front of the order of service (most of them have a photograph of the dearly departed these days) and realized that she and I could probably never have been friends. In contrast to that first funeral I attended nobody in the congregation was crying uncontrollably.

I have also been to funerals where it was clear that the priest had never met the person laid out in the coffin. In one case the celebrant wasn’t even sure what the man’s usual name was. In fairness to the priest he had only just been ordained and was new to the parish, and the man in the coffin was not a regular church-goer. “Jim, James, Jimmy” was how the priest referred to him throughout the homily and although he didn’t say, “I never actually met him”, it was clear enough from the way he spoke about him.

Many years ago I read an article (in a newspaper, not online, so I can’t link to it) listing some of the phrases that were formerly used in obituaries, a kind of obituary code. I already knew that “died after a long illness” meant that the subject had died of cancer but didn’t know some of the more nuanced descriptions: “flamboyant” meant homosexual, “vivacious” implied alcoholism and “died suddenly at home” probably meant suicide. Some of these descriptions and euphemisms still apply but there was a dramatic break in convention in The Times obituary of Tom Driberg in 1976. The former MP and Labour peer was described as a homosexual (and as “an intellectual, a drinking man, a gossip”, among other things). Up to that point The Times had never described anyone, alive or dead, as a homosexual, but its then editor (William Rees-Mogg) took the decision to break with that tradition. Phrases like “confirmed bachelor” and “He never married” would also have implied homosexuality, but Driberg was married. Maybe he “didn’t suffer fools gladly” either, but the obituary didn’t specify this.

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