Four Weddings and THAT funeral… 30 years on

Freeman Brothers has been a funeral director serving Sussex and Surrey for almost 170 years. Because we see ourselves as not merely a business, but a part of the Horsham, Crawley, Billingshurst, and Hurstpierpoint communities we are based in, we like to discuss death and bereavement broadly- including when we see them in popular culture. […]

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Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors staff member Abi

Freeman Brothers has been a funeral director serving Sussex and Surrey for almost 170 years. Because we see ourselves as not merely a business, but a part of the Horsham, Crawley, Billingshurst, and Hurstpierpoint communities we are based in, we like to discuss death and bereavement broadly- including when we see them in popular culture. Here, Abi Pattenden, Manager of Freeman Brothers, discusses ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ as the film reaches a milestone.

Four Weddings and a Funeral (often known simply as Four Weddings) is thirty this year, so what better time to revisit the funeral of Simon Callow’s character, Gareth, and consider how it might be portrayed differently today. Even people who don’t know the film well will probably remember the part of the funeral where Gareth’s partner, Matthew (John Hannah), gives a moving eulogy to his lost love, culminating in reciting W H Auden’s Funeral Blues.

That’s how memory serves, but we never see the funeral itself and don’t know what form it takes. Matthew’s speech isn’t part of it. The minister announces that Matthew will ‘say a few words’ before the ‘service will start’.   It’s hard to say if there is no place for a eulogy in the denomination’s liturgy or whether Matthew is not included in the formal service because of the lack of acknowledgement of his relationship with Gareth- the minister describes him as Gareth’s ‘closest friend’. Earlier in the film, it’s apparent that friends know they are a couple, but it’s possible that Gareth may not have been ‘out’ to the elderly couple who we take to be his parents – although Matthew’s introduction, in which he claims that Gareth preferred funerals to weddings because ‘it was easier to get enthusiastic about a ceremony one had an outside chance of eventually being involved in’, belies this. It also sets the climate for gay couples at the time of the film. Section 28 was still in force; same-sex marriage, giving equivalence with heterosexual couples, wasn’t introduced until 20 years later – and, indeed, would have seemed unthinkable in 1994.

This is the first difference with a funeral today. Whether Matthew’s eulogy is excluded from the service on ‘sexuality’ grounds or because the service is taking place within a denomination whose funeral liturgy doesn’t have a space for it, this seems impossible to imagine this happening in funerals today, in many Christian services as well as non-religious ones. One of the most significant changes to funerals over the recent past has been in the personalisation of services and the involvement of family and friends in choosing music, reading poems, writing eulogies and even officiating themselves. Even taking the minister’s description of Matthew at face value, the idea that the personal tribute of the ‘closest friend’ would be excluded from the service would be unthinkable for many.

The second thing apparent is how traditional everything is. Every attendee in the church is solemnly dressed, virtually every man in a shirt and tie, many of the women in hats, most of the colours are muted. Charlotte Coleman’s Scarlett is the only one in something bright- and the ‘inappropriateness’ of this is underscored by remembering that throughout the film she has been portrayed as dressing incongruously. The flowers in the church and on the coffin are a splash of colour, but the main floral tribute is traditional in form, in the shape of a cross. The coffin is also traditional, being of a light wood or veneer. There is nothing to indicate the funeral belongs to ‘the most… jolly bugger most of us ever met’. It’s hard to think that this funeral would look the same today- it feels unlikely that it would be religious, but even if it was, there would surely be less formal dress in the congregation. Gareth’s collection of waistcoats, so renowned that Matthew offers each attendee one to ‘remember him by’, could have been represented on the coffin in picture form, been used to decorate it, or could have been worn by attendees and/or the coffin bearers.

The last thing is how incredibly sad this part of the funeral is. Matthew’s eulogy is incredibly moving – John Hannah’s performance is a tour de force. The reading of the poem provides a change of mood – shots of the congregation with wry smiles at his recollections of Gareth’s ‘legendary hospitality’ are replaced by attendees weeping at the expressed sentiment. There are plot reasons why the funeral needs to be sad. It needs to contrast with the weddings that precede it, and to act as a catalyst for Hugh Grant’s Charles to ‘seize the day’ and decide to tie the knot himself. And there is no denying that Gareth’s death is, within the film’s narrative, tragic and untimely as well as unexpected. However, I don’t know if it’s the lack of acknowledgement of his and Gareth’s relationship, or what I see as the impersonal nature of what we witness that makes it feel so sorrowful. There is nothing to show that this is the funeral for someone ‘joyful’.  So many bereaved people seem to have a wish for the funeral for be celebratory these days, at least in part; perhaps to balance the inevitable sadness at the death with fond recollections and happy memories. Many people choose cheerful exit music so that the congregation leaves with a smile. Of course, we don’t see the rest of Gareth’s funeral so there could be exuberant singing and the minister could be full of jollity. I feel, on reflection, that the changes we have seen in funerals towards integration of family and friends, combined with more personal services which reflect the preferences and tastes of the person who has died, make them feel different to this funeral, and only in positive ways.

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Written by Abi Pattenden

Manager

May 8, 2024

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