Viewing Cilla Black’s obsequies on television, I felt all the detachment of an anthropologist watching the Bushmen of the Kalahari. Not so much “Go forth from this world, O Christian soul” as “Celebrity Come on down”! One can understand a desire to downplay the pontificals, but there was surely no reason to ‘dumb down’ proceedings to the extent that any resemblance to a Roman Catholic Requiem Mass appeared purely accidental.
All of which is not to deny the salvific quality of humour. Paul O’Grady’s reference to Hell-raising with Cilla – plus penance of three Hail Marys from Bishop Tom Williams – recalls the story of a distinguished Anglican cleric who portentously reminded his audience “The Road to Hell is paved with loose women, wine and fast cars”, to which one of his auditors wittily retorted “O Death where is thy sting?”
No, it was fitting that the humanity of a classy and well-loved star should be celebrated. But not right, surely, that the nunc dimittis for this member of showbiz royalty focused on the Cult of Personality at the expense of solemn reflection on the merciful judgement of God. As Cardinal Vincent Nichols stressed when celebrating Requiem Mass for Richard III, the purpose of such an occasion is to remind us that “the entry to our heavenly home, its open gates and sweeping drive, the royal road of life, is none other than the person of Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
Given that this was a Leading Lady’s funeral, it is perhaps not inappropriate to recount the anecdote of the out of work actor in Stratford-on-Avon who got an audition in London and had to hitch to the capital. He fell in with the owner of a narrow boat which was heading to London with a load of manure. Each time they arrived at a lock, he was woken by the lock-keeper’s cry “State your cargo!”, to which the boatman replied, “Two tons of manure and an actor!” After four locks, the actor popped up to speak to the boatman: “Could I have a word about the billing?” One was troubled during Cilla’s funeral, similarly, by “the billing”, together with bowdlerization of this hugely important Rite whereby Catholics fulfill the profound and sacred duty of appealing for God’s mercy towards the souls of our departed brothers and sisters and towards ourselves.