Ethos Education

Cowboys and Aliens: What is the point of a funeral?

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Learning Objective:

  • Understanding the hope of resurrection for Christians, and how this is reflected in funeral rites.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Reflect upon their own memories of attending a funeral (where appropriate).
  • Evaluate different attitudes towards the degree of ritual that should accompany the burying of a dead body, as expressed in a scene from the film Cowboys and Aliens.
  • Analyse Christian funeral rites to determine what they reveal about Christian belief concerning death and the afterlife.
  • Evaluate the level of comfort that Christians sometimes draw from funerals of other Christians.
  • Synthesise learning by writing brief sentences describing the purpose of each part of a typical Christian funeral service.


Ask if anyone in the class has ever been to a funeral. If anyone has, ask what they can remember about it. Whether or not you are aware of any recently bereaved members of the class, this is a subject that may require sensitive handling. Broaden the discussion out (to include those members of the class who have never attended a funeral) by asking the class to brainstorm the different things that they would expect to happen at a funeral. For example:

  • Prayers
  • Songs/Hymns
  • Cremation or burial of the body
  • Bible reading
  • Sermon
  • Someone saying what the deceased was like

Explain that this lesson is going to be focused on funerals – what purpose they serve, and how they reflect Christian belief about what happens after death.


Introduce the following clip from the film Cowboys and Aliens (Paramount, 2011, Certificate 12). Click here to buy the DVD online.

Explain that a posse is tracking a wounded alien who was part of a raiding party which abducted a number of townsfolk. This scene occurs shortly after the posse has encountered the alien. One of their number, the local preacher, was killed during the encounter.

  • Start time:       0.50.49 (beginning of chapter 9 of the DVD)
  • End time:         0.52.09
  • Clip length:      1 minute and 20 seconds

The clip starts with a shot of Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) sitting and smoking, which cuts to a shot of Doc (Sam Rockwell) completing the task of burying the body. The first line is Emmett Taggart (Noah Ringer) calling out, ‘Dog! Come on boy. Where are you?’ The clip ends after Jake says, ‘Good words’ and he and Doc walk away from the grave. Please note that the clip includes one character, played by Harrison Ford, describing some of the men as ‘Goddamn cowards’. If you feel this to be inappropriate language for your class, you might prefer not to use the film clip.

Ask the students why Doc and Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) disagree about having some kind of ceremony – taking time to ‘say some words’, as Doc puts it – before leaving the preacher in his grave and continuing their pursuit of the alien. What are the arguments on either side? Which point of view do the students have the most sympathy with?

Read out the following transcript of Doc’s impromptu funeral service:

Lord, if there is such a thing as a soul, this man had a good one. Please protect it. He made me feel better; the world was a better place for having him. Dust to dust, amen.

Do the students agree with Jake’s assessment that they were ‘good words’? What was good about them? What, if anything, was lacking from them?

The Church of England’s website includes Anglican funeral liturgy. Click on the link below for a copy:

Photocopy the first page (the outline) and give it out to the class. Draw their attention to the prayers section, and ask who each of the prayers are for. Students might be surprised to notice that although the first of the four categories of prayer is ‘thanksgiving for the life of the departed’, all of the other prayers are focused on the mourners rather than the deceased. Christians believe that once someone dies, the funeral arrangements make no difference to the deceased, or to what happens to them in death. Rather, funerals are much more about helping the living in the process of grieving and moving on.

Ask the students to compare this funeral outline with Doc’s words. Which parts of the service can they recognise as corresponding to what Doc said? What other elements are included that didn’t feature in Doc’s improvised service?

Hand out the second page from the funeral service outline, the one which includes a selection of Bible verses for the ‘gathering’ part of the funeral (the final quote, John 3:16 is partly cut off onto the next page). The missing words, which the class can write in, are ‘…who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ (We are assuming that you won’t be able to justify photocopying a whole page merely for the sake of a single line of text). Ask the class (either working individually or in pairs) to write a sentence for each passage identifying how they might be a source of hope for Christian mourners.

Explain to the class that many Christians report that they experience funerals of other Christians to be very joyful experiences, despite their sense of pain at losing a loved one. For example, when the entertainer Roy Castle died from cancer in the late 1990s, his wife Fiona said that she didn’t want people to be sad because Roy was now with his maker, his Lord and saviour, where he wanted to be and where she knew he would be happy. She asked the mourners not for tears, but for joy at his funeral.

Give everyone a copy of the Funeral handout, which contains a genuine first-hand account of a Christian funeral. Read it through with the class and ask for their comments: do they think that they would have found the funeral to be as comforting and positive an experience as the writer? What seems to be the most significant factors in the writer’s experience?


As a final exercise, ask the students to go through the outline of the funeral service and to write at least one sentence for each part of the funeral, stating what purpose it serves in the service, and whether this might be a source of hope and comfort for the mourners, particularly if the mourners are Christians.


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