"We're not here to mourn a death," someone inevitably announces. "We're here to celebrate a life."
Miss Manners squirms ever so slightly when she hears this new funeral cliche'. The squirm is slight, because she knows it is well meant.
But still she does squirm, because the denial of mourning -- the natural reaction to the mysterious outrage of death -- seems to her to be based on the unreasonable premise that happiness is the only proper emotion, and sadness something that ought always to be disguised, even at funerals. She also knows that true mourning inevitably consists of focusing on the life that has ended, as well as venting the feelings of deprivation of the bereaved.
Despite this reservation, Miss Manners generally approves of what is rapidly becoming a standard format for funerals.
She still believes that the traditional funeral, at which the deceased's clergyman speaks knowledgeably of that person's life in addition to offering religious ritual and comfort, is an excellent one. But this depends on the departed's having spent a good part of his lifetime in the same parish, which is now a rarity.
All too often now, the deceased and the clergyman may hardly or never have known each other, either because one of them was a newcomer or because the family sought religious affiliation only at the time of death.
The result is a particularly awkward form, in which presiding clergymen are wont to cover the gap by such statements as: "I never actually had the privilege of knowing her in life, but I have heard so much about her from her family that I wish I had. She was someone who, above all, loved life" -- as if the rest of us don't love life.
In the new format, not without its own religious antecedents, the clergyman does the sacramental part, and the person's life is depicted by those who actually did know him.
At best, this presents an intimate and vivid picture of the qualities for which the deceased was valued, and can be a moving and memorable tribute.
At worst, it is an awkward or even boring program, at which one learns more about the vanities of the speakers than about the subject of the funeral.
Planning such an event should be a job of honor for someone close to the deceased, but not in the immediate family. In general, the spouse, parents and children should also be discouraged from speaking, which is apt to be too heavy an emotional burden for them.
A few friends and colleagues who can talk about different aspects of the person's life should be selected, briefly interviewed so that the talks are not repetitive, and given a time limit, depending on their number. Sometimes there is a general invitation to those present to come forward and say something. The service, which may also include prayer and music, should last about an hour.
Show-business practices, as if the departed were being "roasted" at a jolly party, are particularly offensive. One person may make brief introductions of the others, but references to a "master of ceremonies," or applause for talks or music, are highly inappropriate.
Speakers should be identified by their relationship ("We grew up together," "I was his boss for 17 years"), not their own achievements. Any temptation to show how important one was to the deceased, rather than the other way around, and any stories of which the speaker turns out to be the hero, should be ruthlessly suppressed.
One should talk of the person's laudable qualities, using anecdotes that make these vivid. Throwing in examples of the person's foibles is acceptable if done affectionately, and some humor works, but this should be judiciously and sparingly selected. The customary closing is a succinct statement of a general or particular way in which the person will be missed.
A subdued social gathering after the service, which is an adaptation of the old preburial wake, is another innovation of which Miss Manners approves. But participants should remember the occasion and use it to talk informally about the departed and to comfort one another. General conversation, especially when it is heralded with cries of "Great to see you!" is inappropriate.
And don't argue with Miss Manners that you know your departed friend would have liked nothing better than for you to have a jolly time. Sure he would -- but only if your thoughts, jolly and otherwise, are focused on him.
No one wants to be forgotten at his own memorial service.