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Oct 31, 2012

An atheist in church: in propaganda, you can't beat God

Is it egotistical to want top billing at one's own funeral? Faced with the onslaught of propaganda in stained glass and frescos -- not to mention the sermon -- consider it lucky if you get mentioned at all.

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Church and graveyard

I am — at the very least — a third generation atheist. Religion to me is a foreign country. I sometimes describe my reaction to it as similar to that of a non-American watching gridiron football. I can see that it excites great passion and enthusiasm amongst its supporters but for the life of me I can’t see why.

Nevertheless, I recognise it is an important part of other’s lives and try to respond courteously on the rare occasions I find myself in a house of worship. Usually this only occurs at weddings and funerals. Most (not all) the church weddings I have attended have been relatively mild in terms of religiosity, but it is in the contrast between secular and religious funerals where this old atheist and advertising creative has been — not to put too fine a point on it — gobsmacked.

The secular funerals I have attended have all been bitter-sweet affairs. There has been much grief but, strangely, also much joy. They have felt more like a celebration of someone’s life and personality rather than grief over their passing. I have thoroughly enjoyed — even though often through tears — the stories told about the person who has died by friends, family and colleagues. I have heard tales of war and great suffering, but also of humour, courage and friendship. I have heard funny stories about the dead person’s quirks, weaknesses and foibles. Stories of battles with the bottle, lousy marriages and difficult relationships but all told with a love, affection and recognition of shared humanity that ultimately gave hope to the mourners rather than the opposite.

I have never heard My Way played, but I have listened to both very good and very bad music. While death is the reason for us all being there, secular funerals — despite atheism having been accused of being a death cult by some of the religious — are all about someone’s life. The person who has died is very much the star at their own funeral. They don’t share the limelight with anyone or anything else. Most of those secular funerals have been what I would call a good send off.

The religious funerals I have attended, with one shining exception, have been the complete opposite. At some, the priest officiating has called the deceased by the wrong name (this has happened more than once, I promise you) and then proceeded to make some anodyne remarks with all the individual relevance of a newspaper horoscope. An old workmate or golfing partner sometimes rises to relate a few short anecdotes. Perhaps a son or daughter gets to say a word or two, but then the proselytizing begins. In the sad, anonymous services at funeral homes this is usually mercifully short and formulaic but at a full Catholic service, I have sat through both barrels. And been shocked.

The two full Catholic funeral Masses I have attended were for the very devout mothers of two close friends and I don’t doubt for a moment that these were exactly the funerals these women wanted and were absolutely entitled to have.

My observations are those of someone who comes to the ritual as a complete outsider, someone who knows nothing about it in advance. With that proviso, it was the advertising practitioner in me that found the whole experience particularly disturbing. But, to be fair, there were some aspects of these religious funerals that were a vast improvement on the perfunctory funeral home versions. In both these funerals the priests knew the deceased person very well and so could — and did — add some affectionate anecdotes of their own. Children and grandchildren got time to speak and pay their respects, and we did get a real sense of the person who had died, their life and their passion for their faith.

But it was once the ritualised part of the ceremony began, no doubt a great comfort to those familiar with the rites of the Catholic — or even just the Christian — church that my inner ad exec started to get uncomfortable.

I began to recognise many of the techniques I have used in my business to persuade people to buy a particular product or service. It is not the first time that I have been aware of parallels between the ad business and religion. Visiting medieval cathedrals around Europe I have looked at the magnificent paintings, carvings and religious iconography and had the — no doubt blasphemous — thought that I was looking at the work of fellow art directors and copywriters. The artisans who produced most of the religious art we see when we visit ancient cathedrals are anonymous, just like modern advertising creatives. We are not artists, expressing our own vision of the world, we are professionals paid to express the vision of our clients.

Where some see sacred art, I saw propaganda. Brilliantly executed, powerful and meaningful propaganda, but propaganda none the less. I have no objection to it, mind you. I love great ads and I have a professional appreciation of the deft use of powerful human stories, brand logos, selling messages, brand benefits and clear market position that all the truly great advertising campaigns must communicate before they can persuade.

But it is the propaganda that was delivered over a cooling corpse that left me somewhat nonplussed. Although I recognised many of the techniques used in the sermons, it wasn’t that which bothered me so much. It was more the use of someone’s death to re-inforce the selling message that — I confess — somewhat unnerved me. I recognised the use of hope and fear to reinforce the brand message. Hope that fellow believers among the mourners would meet their loved one again in heaven followed up by fear that non-believers had lost them forever. And an even more fundamental hope and fear than that, of course, the hope that our own obliteration could be avoided by the promise of eternal life.

I accept that when we gather to mourn someone’s passing, we also mourn our own inevitable demise. Advertisers use hope and fear too. It is our stock in trade. Skincare, for example, is sold on the hope that using it will make you look better and the fear that if you don’t use it, you will look even worse. To be fair, parents use these two emotional drivers constantly too, as do teachers, employers and anyone in authority. They are sometimes characterised as the carrot and the stick.

I accept that the hope offered by the familiar and ancient rituals at religious funerals to those that believe can offer real comfort in times of grief, it was simply that I hadn’t expected the selling of the message to be quite so blatant. So when Archbishop Peter Jensen suggests that people who want My Way played at their secular funerals are egotistical, I don’t disagree, but I am left with a sense of the pot calling the kettle black.

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