Love Actually: Joanna’s funeral – what would it look like today?

In a previous blog post, Freeman Brothers’ Manager, Abi Pattenden, talked about Love Actually’s funeral scene. As the film approaches a significant milestone, she re-examines it through a different lens – how might this funeral be depicted now, and what this tells us about how funerals have changed in the meantime. As with many films […]

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In a previous blog post, Freeman Brothers’ Manager, Abi Pattenden, talked about Love Actually’s funeral scene. As the film approaches a significant milestone, she re-examines it through a different lens – how might this funeral be depicted now, and what this tells us about how funerals have changed in the meantime.

As with many films which have become institutions, Love Actually feels as if it’s been around forever. Nevertheless, I was slightly horrified to realise it is celebrating its 20th anniversary – it feels like only yesterday I watched it for the first time. Some parts have undoubtedly aged badly – as writer/director Richard Curtis recently acknowledged (you can read his comments here, via an interview with his daughter, Scarlett). Nevertheless, it remains a beloved film for many of us and has become a staple at Christmastime.

A key part of the plot is the funeral of Joanna, which many of the characters attend – although the focus is upon Daniel and Sam, her husband and son. I decided to watch it again and see what aspects struck me as out-of-date or might have been portrayed differently had the film been made today.

The first thing that surprised me, which I think I took for granted previously, was the setting of a church. Daniel is southern Irish and so I suppose this would make sense if Joanna was Catholic, but the church is not Catholic (the minister is female). The church setting is practical in immediately denoting the ceremonial nature of the event we are witnessing, but the prominent coffin and lack of preamble mean this is unnecessary. Church funerals were more common in the early 2000s, and do still happen for people who don’t attend regularly. It’s a slight stereotype, but Joanna is quite young – Sam is meant to be 10, and there is a couple in the congregation who I take to be her parents, and having both of them alive suggests a person below a certain age – this adds to my sense that this setting would be too traditional for her today, even if it wouldn’t seem so, then.

This feeling is added to by the playing of ‘Bye Bye Baby’. This is one of the film’s big punchlines, although it is depicted as shocking within the narrative. Daniel’s introduction to it makes it clear that he isn’t happy about it, and Emma Thompson’s Karen is one of the only characters who is shown to find amusement within it. Having this kind of non-religious music at a funeral, even considering the nature of the song, would be far less shocking today, even in a religious service. One of the major changes that I have seen in funerals over my sixteen years in the industry has been the increase in the personalisation of funerals- and use of music has been one of the most significant changes. Many ministers are happy to include popular music, and many churches now have music systems to facilitate this – while in 2003, organ music would have been much more likely in church and I think many ministers might have raised an eyebrow at the Bay City Rollers – and some would probably have said ‘no’. If Joanna was a regular churchgoer, I’m not sure she would have felt this appropriate to play – although the supposedly inappropriate nature of it is part of the joke. In contrast, the visual tribute feels modern, and would have been unlikely to happen 20 years ago – even today, many churches don’t have video-playing facilities. This adds to my expectation that Joanna’s funeral would take place in a crematorium chapel today, or I feel that she might have been buried in a natural burial ground and have her funeral in the service hall there.

I won’t dwell on the lack of weight in the coffin, having discussed that previously, but this is another place where I feel client choice has altered. As with the setting for the funeral, Joanna’s coffin is traditional in both material and shape (it looks to be made of panelled oak, either solid or veneered), and so is her floral tribute, which is a simple white spray. Daniel makes it clear that she has been unwell and has discussed her funeral, and the portrayal of her as a vibrant young mum, willing to shock mourners with a controversial song choice, feel (to me) at odds with these conventional options. Of course, not all unwell people express their preferences for every detail and so she may have left it to her family but even if that was the case, I think it more likely that today, the choice was a willow coffin – or a decorated wrapped one like this. Even with a traditional coffin, I’d expect colourful flowers – I think white ones are far more associated with weddings than funerals, these days.

The mourners are a broad group, clearly meant to span generations, but everyone is dressed in formal, dark clothes. We know the funeral is in the weeks before Christmas and so the weather is meant to be cold but even the hats are formal rather than practical. This is somewhat of a stereotype, taking into account the little we know about Joanna, but I wonder whether today there might be a dress code requested for her funeral – whether that be to choose bright colours, or to wear something in her favourite colour. This would possibly have seemed disrespectful in 2003, but is commonplace today.

One part of the funeral which seems to be ‘out of time’ in the opposite way is the inclusion of Sam in the congregation. It’s not that long ago that it was thought that children definitely shouldn’t attend funerals, and I think a young person of his age being ‘allowed’ to go would be unusual in 2003 – although the fact that it’s the service for his mum makes a difference to this. In contrast, many people today would accept that even much younger children should be included in the mourning of someone close, while decisions about attending funerals would be more likely to be judged on an individual basis, considering the child in question and the relationship between them and the person who has died, rather than the blanket bans of the past.

In conclusion, like Love Actually as a whole, some parts of Joanna’s funeral seem to have aged better than others. It’s a bit of a strange combination of things that seem dated, and things that wouldn’t be out of place today, but perhaps might have been when the film was made. There’s no doubt, though, that it’s a fundamental scene and a powerful one – I still feel sad for Daniel and Sam when I watch it, and ‘Bye Bye Baby’ still makes me smile. Without Joanna’s funeral and the sympathy it elicits for Sam, his love for his classmate (undoubtedly the story at the heart of the film) would perhaps lack poignancy, and so the film as a whole is undoubtedly better for its inclusion even if – like many parts of the plot – the specifics haven’t aged as well as its overall sentiments have.


Written by Abi Pattenden


November 22, 2023

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