Death in Canada

The funeral seems to be dying in Canada. It is not just the case that the funeral is becoming less religious, but that the actual concept is fading. This is giving Canadian secularisation a distinctive hue, and points one way in which nations with rapid religious decline may develop.

It is often said that in countries with a majority Christian heritage the funeral is the last religious rite to undergo decline in popularity. Many commentators identify the funeral as undergoing little secularisation, thereby signifying the resilience of an underlying Christian culture; religious marriage, baptism and churchgoing may fall, so the argument runs, but if the Christian funeral remains dominant then there is a distinct limit to how far people lose their religious identity. Charles Taylor noted in 2007 how religious funerals were doing better in Britain than in Germany and, drawing on the work of Grace Davie, suggested that this was a “Christian nominalism” that might sustain Christianity when all else is in decline.[1]

The slow, steady growth of non-religious funerals has been underway for some time. Data on this in Britain is not fully compiled yet; there are researchers at work trying to collect figures from funeral directors (aka undertakers) and their representative organisations stretching back many decades in order to construct some sense of the timing and pace of change concerning who acted as celebrants at funerals. Certainly, the rise of the crematorium, which developed in popularity very rapidly from the 1930s in Britain, but even more spectacularly from the 1960s, facilitated the incursion of non-religious celebrants when, previously, few families had the wherewithal or determination in the midst of grieving to find an alternative to the church for the conduct of a service.

But now, the Canadian example might suggest something different – and, indeed far more profound – is happening. Secularisation may not be just the displacement of one (religious) celebrant for another (non-religious) one.  Instead, the very manner of marking death may be changing, in reflection of how we conceive of the human self.

What is happening in Canada is this. More and more, people who die wish to have no funeral, with their body being interred or cremated in a very private event. Instead, there is “a celebration of life” held not just some weeks, but sometimes several months, after the death. It is characteristically held in a community hall, hostelry or a relative’s home, conducted by the family and friends who may offer readings and memories of the deceased. There may be pictures displayed of the deceased’s life, and, with food and drink, there is a distinctly convivial celebration.

This trend seems to be most marked in Canada. Reading the obituaries in yesterday’s newspapers in Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria BC, around 50 to 70 per cent say that there will be “no service”, usually by request of the deceased, and of these perhaps half say a “celebration of life” or “a gathering of friends” will take place in a house, a restaurant or a public hall. Even for some of those intimating “a service” will take place, it is often said it will be between one and three months hence. American newspaper obituaries, even in liberal cities like San Francisco and Boston, are rather different. A small proportion mention “a celebration of life”, but the vast majority say that a religious service will take place within a short date.[2]

Non-religious funerals are growing in mainland Britain; a rough estimate might be that 8 to 15 per cent are non-religious, depending on region. But the Canadian trend towards no funeral service at all is rare. The vast majority of British newspapers intimate a religious service (sometimes private, for instance at a crematorium, followed by a memorial service held in a church).  More telling is the continued tradition in Britain of having a celebrant of a specific life stance – whether of a church or of a humanist organisation – standing with the coffin at the “service”.

The Canada way of death may have taken a stride further on. The deceased no longer needs an event with a body present, in a prominent coffin spoken to by a celebrant in a pulpit-like structure, making a “committal” or committal-like ending to the proceedings. Moreover, the obituary announcing the death has become very long in Canada – often 700 to a 1,000 words, a mini-biography covering the diversity of the life.

So, death in Canada seems to have undergone a shift. The self has been reconceived as an independent entity that has lived a rich life deserving of note by friends and relatives, but not the handing over of the deceased from them to another power or place. The need for some burial or committal close to death has gone. A season may pass in Canada before there is a celebration of life. In such a way, the remembrance is slower, longer, and not an instant grieving that is done and dusted within a week. One obituary I viewed from the Vancouver Sun yesterday (late January) stated that, with no service, there would be a gathering of friends come the spring.  The further from religion the human life moves, perhaps, the less the death is ceremonially marked at the time.

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Harvard U.P., 2007), p. 520.

[2] The newspapers I accessed online in my brief (and very unscientific one-day) study were the Vancouver Sun, The Times Colonist, the (Toronto) Globe and Mail, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Boston Herald.

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