Monday, 31 May 2010

Fruitless arguments about secular celebrants vs priests

There's been a good discussion, thanks to the indispensible GFG blog, around the relative virtues and powers of "secular" celebrants (those who help with a non-religious funeral) and vicars/ministers/priests. It's interesting enough, and helpful, to kick around, but it seems to me yet another of the ultimately futile binary oppositions that seem to bedevil public discourse. Charles (GFG) makes the point that there's good 'uns and bad 'uns in both camps. He extols the power of a good old church funeral - rightly in my opinion, but that's not much use to a non-believer! I'm going to weigh in with a few (or even grossly over-) simplifications.

1. Funerals aren't artefacts for our aesthetic assessement and judgement. We may, as celebrants and undertakers, have the experience to make very well-informed judgements, and consider what a funeral "should" be. These insights may help us to guide families, and valuable changes to funeral practice may originate in such guidance, as well as in the views of the more creative, thoughtful, resourceful and strong-minded of bereaved familied we encounter.

2. Funerals are for the bereaved and the person who has died. Do what they want as well as you can, and if they want the standard so-called "traditional"secular job, get on with it and do it well. If they want a priest, they should have one, if they don't, fine, and don't fudge it. I've met priests who have turned down funerals because they were asked not to mention God, ditto secular celebrants who guide a family back to a priest if the family is unable to let go of God and an afterlife. I also know of priests in retirement who will turn in what they call a non-religious ceremony on request. Hope they don't have too much trouble at the pearly gates, encouraging atheism like that.... Of course, the discussion is often more complex (eg differing family views) than that. And I find it unattractive, the way some of us BHA celebrants sneer at "mix and match" secular celebrants who will allow a hymn or a reading from the Bible. Don't do such ceremonies if you don't want to, but I'm afraid the real reason for sneering is that we are worried about competition, fame and fortune for the "brand."

It's the family, stupid. The rest of it is irrelevant. However much you do or don't get paid, if you're not in it to serve people in front of you on the day, rather than the cause and the cash, then bugger off out of it, whether you are priestly, secular or somewhere in the middle.

3. Funerals shouldn't be a vehicle for you to spread The Word. Any Word. Many are the stories of priests who distress the bereaved at a funeral by banging on about going to church, "didn't see enough of him, hope to see more of the rest of you," etc. Conversly, the BHA is keen on the way funerals spread the word, serve a movement. This may be for the best of motives, but I relate that to the "mix and match" criticism. We don't help with funerals in order to increase our "market share" (shudder) of funerals we can help with. The proportion of secular funerals to people who declare via census and occasional opinion poll that they have no religion, assessed as the number of deaths nationally that might be expected to result in a secular funeral, might arguably suggest that there is still a job to do to inform people about their options - but that's about secular funerals as a whole, not neccessarily BHA or Secular Celbrants or any other "brand" (more shudders.)

Here's the paradox: if you are an atheist, then the form of words used by religious people shouldn't trouble you - they don't, in one sense, mean anything to you! I wonder how many atheist celebrants are happy to sing Christmas carols once a year, but get very sweaty at the request for one hymn at the end of a funeral, "because he always loved it, although he didn't believe it?" Seems to me the only sensible argument about "mix and match" is that it is confusing. You wouldn't expect a Hindu priest to start reading from the Koran.

I really can't see we're going to provide better funerals by quarreling over faith/not faith. I don't like fudges, and I would guide a family back to a priest if they wanted prayers and so on. That's not the result of a metaphysical allergy, it's about what I can do without feeling phoney, inauthentic etc, and the gathering would soon sense it if I was. It would begin to sound like someone else's job. Funerals need to be powerful and effective ceremonies - rituals, if possible - and they need to be detatched from the business of a movement, spreading or defending the word, of God or of Lucretius and David Hume. (Enbodying the words of God or Lucretius in the ceremony is, of course, not the same as being a missionary for either of 'em.)

OK, that's all rather opinionated, but I worry that in our culture we sometimes do two mutually opposed and wasteful things: we over-sophisticate simple enough issues, and yet at the same time we bang away at binary oppositions that needn't exist, certainly needn't dominate discussion and practice. And looking at the best things I've encountered on the internet, happily they often don't, so maybe I'm just toning up for the next time I encounter a self-serving celebrant, be s/he priest or atheist! Maybe it's just my aversion to zealotry in these matters.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

GFG questions about secular celebrants

This posting is in response to a thought-provoking rumination from Charles on 26th May at

A valuable posting, Charles. I'm a humanist celebrant, so in response, in no particular order:

1. The BHA warns the celebrants it trains not to attempt to earn a living from it; a few try to. They are short-changing themselves and others. The BHA can't seem to stop them, because we don't work for them, they merely accredit us. You're absolutely right, it should only be a portfolio worker's or retired person's activity. What the BHA should do is not train them in the first place if they are clearly going to use it as a means of support. On a related but different point: it is may be a real advantage (if you see what I mean) to have been bereaved yourself, and to have arranged a funeral, if you are talking to other bereaved people.

2."..except to say the stuff that others don't feel up to." I feel a bit short-changed on that one. There are skills developed by a good celebrant that not so many people can easily draw on, even if they are up to it at a funeral. This isn't necessarily only to do with the grief people feel, that they worry will stop them speaking.

3. Most funerals are at crems because people don't investigate funerals until they have to, and it's a bit late then - they get channelled to the crem not just for the cremation (essential, obviously) but for the ceremony too (most definitely not essential, as the GFG makes very clear!)So crems aren't the celebrant's choice. If we were better reconciled to our mortality we would have better (more varied, effective, "thorough") funerals. There's only so much celebrant A in conjunction with family B on a particular occasion can do about that. Meantime, all power to the elbows of GFG, Greenfuse et al.

4. I've never sucked up to an FD, or supplicated for referrals, and I don't intend to start. Take it or leave it, choose me or not. I try to get on with them, and I keep them informed, which just means I send them contact details and explain what I do. I like and respect most of the FDs I know. The other few, well, I button my lip and get on with it. FDs refer families to me, but I do what I do for the family and the dead person. The few celebrants I'm in contact with could say the same, I'm sure. There are two FDs I will never work with again (not that they have asked me...) because they were so casual and disengaged. You don't expect them to be in tears, but you do hope they won't behave as if they were watching telly whilst doing the ironing.

4. I worry about the uniqueness point. Of course the eulogy bit is entirely unique, but I say a little of the same (or pretty similar)at many ceremonies, because I believe it to be true, not because I can't be arsed or because I'm doing too many funerals. No-one has raised it (and yes, I have seen people at more than one of the ceremonies I've been involved with.)

5. I think we secular celebrants (BHA or otherwise)should work harder to vary the form and nature of our ceremonies, and see ourselves more as facilitators(much as I hate the word), only taking over proceedings when we are needed. We need to erode the default mode. This is very hard to do if you have too many ceremonies on! And it takes a lot of thought and care. Some people really do want "the usual," and it may unsettle them if you try to move them too abruptly away from it.

6. Yes, I'm sure many ministers expend much time and care. Others, as far as I can tell, suggest by their behaviour that they don't. But it is pretty obvious that with two hymns, a quiet bit and a prayer or two, they have to do less unique thinking and writing themselves, in the usual 20-30 minutes. In the end, "comparisons are odious." They do what they do, and so do I.

7. Will we "accrue ceremonial significance?" Not as a priest does for believers, because we are not mediators, we belong to no church, we have no parish or communion. Do we have ceremonial significance? Of course, at the time, just as a family member does who speaks, or a singer who sings. Do we have ceremonial authority? Only if we earn it by the quality of what we do. Ritual? That's a fiercer matter and harder to get to. But please don't assume a religious funeral has any real ritual power just because it is led by a priest. Convention doesn't necessarily = ritual power and effectiveness.

8. So: what's the max we should be involved in? (I try not to speak of "doing" a funeral, as in doing the washing up. I try to remind myself that the ceremony doesn't belong to me, it belongs to the people who've asked me to help.) I've been involved in three in one week, twice, and only then for specific reasons. I couldn't do the job justice if I did that every, or most, weeks. I've been at two in one day, three times - for specific reasons, again. That was, suprisingly, OK. It's not chiefly the ceremonies, it's the writing and thinking time that must be protected, for a good ceremony, and the time to talk through, check back, refine etc. On average and in general, I'm taking part in four and a bit funerals a month. I'm bringing that down to three, or even two, by referrals to colleagues, so that I can improve my practice. When I rule the country (only a matter of time) then no secular celebrant will be allowed more than three ceremonies in a month. But they would have to take more than six a year, to keep them on their toes and in practice. In practice, the demand for ceremonies and the supply of celebrants will never be so neat and tidy.

I hope this doesn't come across as too self-righteous, but it seems sensible, in response to Charles' questions, to describe what I do and try to minimise assumptions about what others do.

GFG never stops providing food for thought, I'm pleased to say, and if you chance upon this and haven't been to GFG (unlikely but possible) then I urge you to visit Charles without delay.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Carla Zilbersmith, thank you.

Below is a small part of the final blog posting of Carla Zilbersmith. I urge you to read it, and more of her blog.

You will probably end up in tears, and you may laugh out loud, and you'll learn a lot - I did all of those. Carla died 18 May, from ALS. Thanks to Charles Cowling for signposting her blog for me.

"In my conversations with Mac, my dad, and others, I’ve realized that there’s actually nothing for me to be upset about. Everything I fear and dread is going to happen in the future and it’s not happening now. Therefore, I’m doing what I call “pre-emptive worrying.” The reality is when all of the things that I dread come to pass, I won’t exist but my other loved ones will have to deal with their grief, loss, etc. I won’t be conscious and I will be blissfully ignorant of the wreckage left behind. So I could spend time worrying about things that aren’t happening right now, or I can enjoy and love the people in my world and accept that no one (not even me) is indispensable. Those I love can grieve without my help. I think that’s my thought of the week: suffering is dramatically reduced when one opts out of indulging in preemptive worry or grief."

If you are of a genteel frame of mind, be warned that Carla's language can be pretty ripe. If I were dying of a foul wasting disease, I expect my language would be pretty ripe too, and nowhere near as lucid and rewarding.

Carla Zilbersmith - beyond praise.

A Unique Funeral Song

Celebrants will give a family whatever music they want; crematorium staff will play anything (legal) you want. No matter how much some of us may tire of, or hate, "My Way" or "Time to Say Goodbye" we will keep our traps shut and arrange for it to be played. It's not for us, our preferences are irrelevant.

But - when something truly unique happens, how great it is for all present.

Recently, I was told that the Dead Person's daughter had composed a tune to a poem often heard at funerals, "Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep." Fine, thinks your heard-it-all-before celebrant, hope it works, but it's hardly deathless verse. The daughter told me yes, she would get up to sing, though she couldn't guarantee that she'd get through it.

I said that everyone would be on her side, and that if she needed to stop for a gulp or a sip of water, not to worry. But of course, when she came to the front, turned round and stood there quietly, I felt pretty tense on her behalf. No guitar, no mike, no accompanist, about 75 people in the place, her father in his coffin just behind her.

She paused quite some time, breathing deeply and audibly, pressing her palms downwards in front of her, taking full possession of her space and time. Then she started her song in a strong contralto. It was a simple, coherent tune; she reached the highest note OK, reached the end, breathed deeply, laid a hand on her father's coffin for a moment, and then walked back, sat down, and allowed herself to weep.

It was one of the most powerful and moving things I've witnessed in a hundred ceremonies. It was an unrepeatable event, unique to a dead man, his daughter and that time and place.

How privileged we all were that morning.

The Good Funeral Guide - book

This post may be superfluous, since more people read the blog and website of the same name as the above book than read this blog, by a factor of, ooh, I dunno, 20? But I'll risk superfluity (possibly not for the first time) in order to celebrate and widely recommend a really outstandingly good job.

It's full of practical information, it's strikingly fair-minded, and it is sometimes witty and amusing in the style of the excellent blog - how dare he? Knows he not that Death is a Serious Matter? I think also it is, in its way, a book of implicit philosophy, since reading it can help change your attitude towards the immediate circumstances and the meanings of death; changing one's attitude to death means ditto to life, and if that isn't philosophy, what is?

But of course it is above all a practical help to people who are trying to decide on a funeral, their own or someone else's. I urge you to take seriously Charles' warnings that some sections are not for the squeamish. If you don't stop and think about this, but swagger in with a macho disregard for knowledge about the realities of dead bodies, you may creep out deeply and disturbingly unswaggered...but these are only small areas of the book, in any case, and if you can manage them, they are useful and interesting.

The Death Industry is on the move; the book, website and blog are part of that move. It's a fiercely competitive industry in a strangely submerged way, and it's full of strong opinions, unexamined assumptions and sometimes, obfuscation. The book is an exceptionally good guide through all this. It's also very well structured (form follows function.) It will undoubtedly offend some people, which only goes to show that it's invaluable, truly independent and a great job. So bugger off and buy it now!

Friday, 14 May 2010

to bury or not to bury?

Sorry if anyone's been wondering where I am - took a holiday from blogging to do very many funeral ceremonies, and if there's anyone out there who might be interested, here's a couple of thoughts arising therefrom.

Burial is allegedly greener than cremation, we're told. Cremation: huge quantities of fuel, small concentrations of nasties in the, er, emissions (well, they don't actually smoke, do they?)and so on. Those favouring the combustion route point out that with new regs coming in, "scrubbers" to get rid of mercury etc there may not be much in it - I'm told that over time, graves seep a little methane, which is a much worse greenhouse gas than... look, am I putting you off your supper? Sorry. But a corpse isn't a person, it's what a life leaves behind, so it's a purely practical issue, disposing of The Dead, isn't it? No? Aha! So how do you want your remains to be remaindered?

"I want to be buried/cremated/have it done like this or that/have my ashes made into a diamond and hung round my beloved's neck/made into cufflinks so I can keep an eye on her/him..." etc. Surely the only kindly question is "what would suit best those who will mourn me?" (Let's assume "me" is not a complete shite and someone will actually mourn her/him.)

Well, my view currently, for what it's worth, is that when I finally pack it in I want to be.... no, sorry, that should be: what I think would suit my mourners best is - burial. I used to think cremation, because I don't like the Cult of the Dead Body and its Resting Place. I hate polished granite, industrial tombstones that are trying to last For Ever. "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings..." (good poem, worth looking up, but you probably know it already.)

One's death will itself fade and die.Tombstones should furr up with lichen, fade, tilt, be part of the passing of ages, unless you are truly great. In a corner of Westminster Abbey there is a modest slab that says only "O rare Ben Johnson." Wonderful, despite mispelling his name. All around are thundering great mansions of stone memorials to over-inflated egos, good luck, ruthlessness and power. I hope rare Ben is there in 1000 years.

Where was I? Ah, yes. The meaning of a life stays on with the people who matter, the body is - residue. But that's me, not them. And it's two recent burial ceremonies I've been involved in that have changed my mind about burial.

The first was in a rough sheep-grazed field up a very steep hillside track, 15 minutes hard slog from the road below by foot or a tricky drive, even in a Land Rover. The body to be buried, on this private land, had belonged to a man who had bought a ruined stone bothy and used it as a holiday home for many years, having restored it but kept it very basic. (No running water or electricity.) When I arrived to meet members of his family, his son was digging the grave with a small mechanical digger.

The family members were spirited, grieving but enjoying some laughs. Generally, they were quite inspirational about the man's life. When his son sent me through notes he had prepared with input from other family members, I knew this would be a memorable ceremony. So it proved.

His widow read his favourite poem, "Fern Hill," by Dylan Thomas. You may remember the last line, "time held me green and dying, though I sang in my chains like the sea." She read it well, and wept a little when she had finished. She was still able to laugh at some of the anecdotes. I thought her entirely admirable.

The illustrative anecdotes I had been supplied with generated knowing nods, affectionate laughter and some more tears. An old family friend read a brief but very effective tribute of her own. I ought to mention that by then the gale had stiffened and we were battered by hail and sleet. This added an indescribable power to the whole occasion, which was true, raw and deeply moving. Towards the end, I was almost howling "And Death Shall Have No Dominion" into the sleet.

We trudged back through the inch or two of snow into the bothy; we all really needed the hot drinks and cakes that were on offer, it wasn't the usual polite funeral tea, it was very necessary.

I felt I had been educated in how to say goodbye to someone. Of course, we haven't all got the advantages of a beautiful hillside with a view of mountains, and a handy bothy. But although the ceremony would have been less powerful in a more conventional setting, it would I think still have been a splendid funeral because of the attitude of the bereaved family.

The second ceremony was actually not dissimilar, although it was a beautiful day. It was set in a council cemetery, but it was the council cemetery to which all such might aspire. This too was in an elevated position, with magnificent views out to sea. A family friend sang an unaccompanied folk song most beautifully and once again I had been given so much lovely material with which to write a tribute. The man's oldest friend read one poem and was clearly deeply moved to do so; I read the other two. This oldest friend did a very sensible thing and took a photo or two of the gathering and the grave.

Since the man whose body we were burying had lived and worked in London until he retired, and since he had a reasonably high-profile and successful career, there will also be a memorial event in London so we did not have to worry about trying to cram too much into the usual fairly brief burial ceremony. The daughter asked me to include, if nothing else from the Anglican burial service, the words "ashes to ashes and dust to dust" at the committal; I added a few more Anglican words besides, without turning it into a quasi-religious pastiche, and it seemed very suitable to me.

What I learned from these two burials is that if it is possible to bury someone in a place that means something to the family and that meant a lot to the person who has died, then the freedom of a graveside ceremony compared to the constrictions of a conventional crematorium, the focus a grave gives to the bereaved, and the elemental nature of lowering a coffin into the ground seem to me preferable to a cremation, and to hell with the methane. Burial is, in England at least, generally more expensive than cremation, but if the family can afford it, what price on getting such things right? Especially if you don't waste money on a revolting polished granite slab.