Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Rupert's manifesto

..for so I take it to be, and this posting is a response in gratitude, not a counterblast. So, if you haven't read Rupert's outstanding piece over on the Good Funeral Guide blog,Monday 7th June, then I suggest you go there right now, or this will make even less sense than usual...


And whilst you're about it, Jonathan's comment, which should be a blog on its own, is an example of the best of the thought and feeling that is going on with those who are seeking a better kind of funeral, and therefore a life-enhancing relationship with human mortality.


Stuff this good is what blogs were invented for.

It's all a lot of reading, and so will this be, but presumably all this matters to you, or you wouldn't have got this far.

So, Rupert: I can only respond to such a thoughtful and lengthy piece in numbered points, so in no particular order:

1. A simple enough point for openers: for people who help with/lead/conduct funerals (there's a whole debate right there...) who are not ministers of religion, I agree, there doesn't seem to be a good title yet. "Officiant" is neutral and therefore sometimes useful, but it's dry as dust and suggests something official. Won't do. "Celebrant" can sound OK, or can jar horribly. Perhaps a new title will emerge as funerals evolve into something more profound and powerful than they often are at present.

2. Rupert's powerful and distinctive insights come from a special and valuable position, since he is both undertaker and, er, celebrant. This seems to me like a very good way ahead for some people. I couldn't do the undertaker end of it myself, and without seeking to offend anyone, I think that most of the undertakers I have worked with would not be well suited to the role of celebrant. To the few who in my arrogant opinion might be suited, I'm tempted to suggest it to them - but they would need to change their whole approach to the Dismal Trade, I suspect, and the BHA might frown at me for encouraging "competition." Oh dear oh dear.....too bad.

3. Recently, two members of a family asked me to send them a draft of the script, and the other said he didn't want to see a word of it, he wanted it to be new to him, then it would work better. Respect to him. Yes, I think if we can reveal to a family something they hadn't been able to fully realise, we've done them a real service (pun intended) but it's a big risk, because they might not want it revealed to everyone there. But:

4. Jonathan's comment is an excellent one - we may on occasion be doing the right thing by colluding, because a funeral is only a stage in the grieving. Might they need less than the whole truth at this stage? More than once I've had the knowing glance and the euphemism "he liked a drink" or "the drink could be a problem." They clearly wanted it mentioned just like that, because everyone at the ceremony would know what it meant. How much help would it be to say that X was an alcoholic with a dangerous temper, though great fun in the saloon bar on a Saturday night? That was what one family "revealed" to me without realising it fully.

Euphemisms and oblique references are not necessarily to be privately sneered at or dismissed, they can serve a valuable purpose; judging how far to go in this is a difficult skill to acquire,.
The reverse, less frequently, happens - the person who said, in preperation for the funeral of a sibling, that their father was a truly horrible, cold and oppressive man...it seemed to me I needed to be very careful how I used that, if at all. S/he may have felt better saying it, but might well not have wanted to hear me say anything like so bluntly honest a view. Later, s/he phoned me to say just that -s/he told me not to burden the gathering with their scars, but just to offer some brief explanation of family circumstances. because their mother was still alive. Now, I may have felt that getting all that out in the open would be horrible for them, but maybe better in the long run - but the monster wasn't my dad, after all!

5.Some humanists are closer to anti-theists - maybe Rupert has been unfortunate in the company he has kept! Most humanist celebrants are atheists, who want to help provide funeral ceremonies for people who don't want a minister of religion and a religious funeral. They don't see it as their job to attack anyone's religion, I'm fairly sure they don't see much point to it, as celebrants, in funerals, however fierce they may get when they are down the pub. And of course, humanists might well be anti-theists if and when theism generates cruel and dangerous nonsense, but that sort of nonsense is surely to be opposed whatever its origin, and such issues are not likely to occure in your average humanist/non-religious funeral. If you ask for a non-religious funeral and you get a humanist, you shouldn't be getting a specifically anti-theist ceremony. If it looks as though you might, sack him/her at once and complain to the BHA! (I'm assuming accreditation with it.)

6. The enemy of spontaneity and productive danger is the crematorium time-slot. A funeral that allows for unstructured intervention and unpredictable events is not very liberating and authentic for the next family kept waiting outside, feeling tense, cold and miserable. Hanging about in crem waiting rooms can be about as pleasant as waiting for an overdue train at Crewe station. Someone, somehow, has to impose a shape and a time-scale on the funeral, and to do so without cramping it into a one-size-fits-all model is surely the ambition of any good celebrant.

7. I'm impressed that Rupert is confident, and obviously successful, without going through any training. I don't know how many of us could manage that. My training had its weaknesses, but I was grateful to it for getting me ready and able to take on funerals. It was good to work through it with others and compare thoughts and feelings. Any good celebrant surely moves beyond his/her training, and uses it to make it obsolete.

8. The three paragraphs in Rupert's piece beginning with the Bob Dylan quote are absolutely invaluable and appropriately challenging to all of us. (You really should nip over right now and read it, if you have a serious interest in funerals, and our attitudes to death.)

He emphasises the value of including, early on in the funeral, the journey the family have been through with the dying of s/he who is no more.

This is, in effect, a really helpful tip. I have sometimes instinctively groped my way to the value of doing this, and it does indeed make a hell of a difference. I have probably shied away from asking too much about the dying process in some family meetings because I don't want to cause people distress. I may only occasionally have been right in this - it's actually something people often really want to talk about. People are stronger than we sometimes allow them to be, and we too easily confuse signs of emotional distress with emotional damage. I've let them talk when they wanted to, but that's not the same thing as helping them to do so. For many celebrants, I'd guess that only experience brings the necessary sort of calm confidence. Ordinary human compassion makes us swerve round things that are upsetting people - we want to comfort them when we can't - but actually, I suspect it was my own fears I was swerving round, not their own grief. But - this is difficult stuff, difficult judgements, high stakes.

9. I don't want to quote much from Rupert's piece because I'd rather you read it, but this bit is essential to my response:

"...changing the nature of the service from a public event concerned with social appearances with the family present, to an intimate ceremony constructed around the truth, to which friends are welcomed."

Estimable though this impulse is, I'm afraid I feel the statement is more of the binary thinking that bedevils so much public debate. Funerals are often both things, i.e. both a public event in which social appearances have some consideration, and an intimate ceremony. Some bits of a funeral can be the former, other bits the latter. I'm not sure it's accurate to say that if a funeral is not as Rupert aims his ceremonies to be, then it is a public event concerned with social appearances with the family present. Isn't that a little reductive? In any case, to some people social appearances matter very little, to others they are essential to a good funeral, and who am I to say the latter are wrong?

10. I am getting now to the bits of Rupert's manifesto that I feel a sense of danger about - and I don't mean productive risk. He writes of a "social mask that often needs to be . . .broken, for the real work of grieving to begin." As a general statement about a desired social change - absolutely. As a statement about family A - who says that the celebrant should break that mask?

His experience is much broader and longer than mine, but my big anxiety is - who is to assess that need? Although I've learned a great deal about grief, I'm not a bereavement counsellor or a psycho-therapist, and I don't think I'm copping out here. I think the most I could help family A to do would be to assess and then express how much of their pain they want to share. There's not much I can do, in my two-hour meeting plus phone calls, to prevent them deflecting or avoiding pain. A degree of safety on the day, when the switchback of grief is throwing them all over the place, is exactly what they may want.

Am I being cowardly or too modest? Seems to me there is a limit to my role, and to attempt, through one fairly brief ceremony, however good, to alter the nature of their grieving, rather than responding to it as it is, that sounds to me like risk of the too dangerous kind! The funeral, seems to me, should embody the nature of their grief as I find it.

But of course Rupert's right, in that there is a bourgeois (sorry, showing my age..) shallowness about some funerals that moves them away from anything that could mean much to those truly grieving, and is merely a formality to be dispensed with a.s.a.p.

Big questions, no easy answers, very helpful debates.

Next time on these fun-filled pages - the significance of the body in our funerals.


  1. As you say, GM, there is enough in what Rupert wrote to keep us thinking for a year. It is well radical. I am particularly interested in Rupert's assumption of an authority far greater than that of any other secular celebrant. We, the rest of, reckon it right to be self-effacing conduits. Yet the celebrant role has always, in religious circles, been an authoritative one. In the words of the great Tom Lynch, "there is someone who has quit breathing forever, some others to whom it apparently matters, and someone else who stands between the quick and dead and says something like "Behold, I show you a mystery" or "Do not be afraid" or "Goodbye."" That someone else has been there almost to broker the deal between the dead guy and god -- and between the living, in respect of this dead guy, and god. So I throw this idea into the mix/maelstrom: celebrants know about funerals, know what works, what's needed. Perhaps they should be less self-effacing, more inclined to give people the funeral they need rather than the one they think they want (Rupert's words from another communication). I think Rupert's got something here. But it's still a dangerous idea!

    On to trivial matters. First, I hope the BHA will learn to regard competition as something which drives demand. One good celebrant creates the demand for another...

    Second, there're an awful lot of, it seems to me, angry and scornful humanists about ("I'm right, you're wrong"). Honestly, I sometimes feel that absence of gentleness is the defining characteristic. I feel that this is an impression which may be widely shared. You are most decidedly NOT such as these. But I feel that Rupert was justified in taking a swipe. Rectitudinosity is never an endearing picture.

    I eagerly await your next fun-filled page!

  2. Thanks Charles. I love "rectitudinosity!" (The word, not the characteristic.) But the point I'm trying to make is that there may well be a lot of angry and scornful humanists (I think people may often have Dawkins and Hitchens in mind when they say that) but that humanist celebrants, in my experience, are mostly not such, certainly not in their celebrant role.

    Like you, I don't enjoy zealotry and self-righteousness, whether in humanists, Calvinists or whatever. But I also feel that the humanist movement deserves more credit than it sometimes gets from opponents of the BHA for developing, a long while ago now, a coherent platform for non-religious ceremonies.

    Part of the whole context of our discussions about the nature of funerals was formed by the BHA providing an alternative to a Christian ceremony. We had the crem vicar at my father's funeral - he wouldn't have believed a word of it, but we didn't know of any alternative, in those days. Nowadays, at least the ungentle and aggressive humanists have made sure that there is an alternative, one of many, and helped to open up the whole mind-set about funerals.

    I'm sorry, I'm getting bit ratty myself now, in defense of the care and compassion shown by so many of my humanist colleagues. I know few people more gentle and considerate than one of our co-ordinators. OK, there are some more intolerant and pompous humanists, as in any grouping.

    The view that some "progressives" (meant positively) seeking better funerals have, that the humanists have one rigid model for funerals, simply isn't true. Humanist celebrants vary widely, just as Christians and pagans do! And whilst I very much value the way you and Rupert exclude me from the generalisation, I am not the only humanist celebrant with my sort of beliefs and attitudes towards funerals and mourners. It seems to me reasonable to say that a humanist funeral won't include prayers and hymns - that's one of the things that makes it humanist. It doesn't necessarily make us angry and scornful.

    A priest might deliver a beautiful ceremony, and have views I'd despise, in his/her own sphere, but I'm only really interested in the quality and nature of the ceremony, if funerals are what we are discussing. To say that humanist funerals are anti-theist because some humanists are intolerant is neither fair nor accurate.

    The impression of humanist intolerance may be widely held, but I think it is not helpful, not useful and, in many cases, it's inaccurate. Maybe it's easy to mistake strongly-held views, and intellectual challenege, for an absence of gentleness. It's a sight easier to take a sentimental or cosy view of mortality and ceremony than it is to find one's way through these things for oneself, and of course humanists sometimes get angry about the wilder and more dangerous manifestations of religious belief.

    We do get tired of the way some (n.b. some) religious people claim a kind of unconditional respect for their views, because they are religious views. To an atheist or agnostic (crude labels, I know)that looks like a self-serving and circular argument.

    So yes, we get angry sometimes about human cruelty and aggression in the name of a set of religious beliefs. I don't feel particularly gentle about people who advocate the stoning to death of female adulterers, or who refuse to allow females to run for election - in the name of a religion. I doubt that's a uniquely humanist position! And it doesn't make us angry about the beliefs and wishes of bereaved people.

    Rupert was of course entitled to take a swipe, and anyway he has qualified his comment. I think he and you are mistaken in your generalisation, and I think that may come from the breadth of your approach to funeral ceremonies. Many humanist celebrants may have a narrower set of beliefs and ceremonial behaviours - that doesn't make them ungentle or scornful.

  3. I'm really glad you said that, because it really needed saying. Salutary. Not un-chastening. Thank you. Read. Marked. Learned. On its way to being inwardly digested.

  4. You are the most generous of correspondents, Charles! No chastening intended. It struck me after I'd posted my comment that it was only just this side of rectitudinosity, and I nearly scrapped it. But I'm pleased if it made at least some sense. It was posted late in the evening after a large glass of Shiraz/Pinotage, always a risky platform. OK, maybe it was two such glasses...

  5. ...and in any case, it is the first part of your post that is really the more important bit, about the role of the celebrant, following on from Rupert's stance. That is the bit to chew over and reflect on, I think. Will do.

  6. GM, it did make sense. Even more now that I myself have regaled myself with a nice little French number.

    But I'll just throw this into the mix. There are lots of horrible religious people. The evangelist tendency is especially trying. But I have met a number of holy folk who are truly spiritual beings, serene, wise, lacking all sense of self -- holy men and women in the best possible sense, beautiful people. I love them. And I am dismayed to see them dissed by the Dawchins tendency as dupes and fools. And I was about to say that my limited life experience has not brought me into contact with any humanists of like stature, but I can already think of Ludovic Kennedy. And I am sure there are many more. And yes, sometimes stridency is absolutely called for. And yes, religions have so much to answer for.

    What am I saying? You are right to make a passionate defence.

    And now I really must go to bed!

  7. Indeed,Charles, the things I respect Dawkins for include his ability to make me see the true wonder of the physical world - see his writing about rainbows in "Unweaving the Rainbow" - and where I think he went seriously wrong was to insult people by dismissing religious beliefs as superstitious nonsense. He is good at pointing out where and when religious beliefs result in absurdity, cruelty etc, he is good at reassuring me that having no religion can be a positive and liberating thing and not just defined in opposition- but he really didn't need to jeer!

    "Whether one believes in a religion or not and whether one believes in rebirth or not, there isn't anyone who doesn't appreciate kindness and compassion."

    Apparently the Dalai Lama said that - can't find out where or when. Nice and simple, and true. Now I can't call him His Holiness because the title doesn't mean anything to me, but I certainly think he is a profoundly interesting and helpful man, strong, calm and worthy of respect.

    And yet some of his beliefs are what Dawkinians might call superstitious nonsense. I think they are rather beautiful and interesting, though I don't share all or most of therm.


    I wrote back a bit that the religion vs atheism argument was pretty much played out by now, and so I think it is, in broadest terms. But if I can push this blog on from funerals (whilst never leaving them behind, oh no!)to address more of mortality, belief and behaviour, then maybe I should have another try at sorting through the characteristics of confrontational argument about religion, the need for atheists/agnostics to define themselves positively and not just in opposition to other beliefs - and indeed the poverty of most of the terminology we use, such as "atheism," "agnosticism," "religion" and "science."

    Shouldn't take too long...

  8. Too much I want to say, so if anyone cares, here are my thoughts.


  9. So if you've got this far, yes, do go over to XPiry's log, it's as clear and honest as all of her writing. And that is not because she seems to agree with me sometimes! (That of course makes her eminently sensible...but not necessarily clear and honest - which she is.)

    And of course, XP, I can't leave funerals alone, I've just posted the first of two parts about The Body. It's entirely Charles' fault - well, and Rupert's...and Jonathan's..and yours too...

  10. Hi GM and co. Rupert here, like a dog returning to his vomit, unable to stay out of the great debate.
    Firstly, thank you for the generous and open way you have faced my criticisms. If all Humanist celebrants were like you we wouldn't be having this good natured back and forth. It seems to me that our common enemy is the forced twenty minutes at the crem, the ceremonial compromise we are all forced to make. When all funerals were religious and the crematorium an adendum to a church service then they worked well, but in a post-Christian society, which we undoubtedly are, by default they have become the main ritual space, and on this level they are failing us miserably. It is this that has led us at The Natural Death Centre to support Davender Ghai's attempt to re legalise outdoor pyres, to create an acceptably authentic ritual that will appeal to the religious and secular alike, something honest, uplifting but deeply practical. It is not intended as a swipe at the good people who work in crematoriums, 6 of which we use on a regular basis here in the West Country, but crematoriums should be leading the way in reinventing the way we burn/freeze our dead, or inevitably people will long to return to dancing around a bonefire.
    I digress, inevitably.
    I thought I would wade back in to clarify the impression I may have given that our funerals are like the climax of an American soap opera, with all manner of closet dwelling skeleton's being ushered blinking into the limelight. Our client's emotional well being and ability to grieve freely is our main priority, not creating a show-stopping denouement.
    A funeral we did recently was for a woman who was 101. Her lifetime had spanned almost unimaginable changes, she had experienced all that a life can encompass and had become a strong, loving matriarch to her extensive brood. In her eulogy, as well as celebrating all of her triumph and joys, I mentioned the child she had lost to cot death eighty years previously, as well as her painfully recent divorce, a mere twenty years earlier and the recent tragic loss of her grandchild, something she had borne with the stoicism we associate with her generation, but which must have broken her heart. I didn't dwell on these incidents, just aired them. After this her seventy year old daughter and her brothers carried their mother's coffin up the hill, and between them they lowered her into the ground. This is what I mean by honesty.
    Our template for how we approach a funeral ceremony stems from the third funeral I did, which both simultaneously called my bluff and initiated me. It was a seemingly inexpicable extremely violent suicide, and I was as out of my depth as I have ever been. His widow taught me more in 9 days than I had learnt in the whole of my life leading up to that point. She took the service herself, and managed to strike just the right balance between refusing to allow the manner of his death to define the rest of his life, but also not shying away from the truth of how he died. She used the occasion to teach a room full of people about our fragile nature, the enormous pressures modern life puts us under, how suffering can happen right in front of us to the people we love the most and we don't see it. She was by turn angry, forgiving, baffled and serene, and the bravest human being I have ever had the privilege to meet. The only piece of music that was played was the track from Pink Floyd's album Dark Side of the Moon called Time. It begins with the sound of lots of alarm clock's going off at once, and contains the lyrics, "Digging away the moments that make up a dull day, fritter and waste the hours in an off way..hanging on in quiet deperation is the English way, the time is gone, the song is over, thought I'd something more to say."
    I cannot undo this experience, nor ignore its message, and it taught me what a good funeral can and should be.

  11. Thanks Rupert, as valuable as ever. I'm with you on honest funerals, and I can feel the difference sometimes. Also the crem problem. Maybe we need an alliance of "progressive" crems, FDs and ministers to work directly on people's understanding of these things.

    But here's an ethical problem - what to do when a family asks you to be dishonest, usually by omission rather than comission? twice now a family has said that the dead person was an alcoholic.

    No, they didn't say "he liked a drink," they used the A-word. But they didn't want me to mention it. In one case they said everyone there knew it anyway, so why drag it up?

    Now, I think it would have been better for them to put it plainly before everyone (because it would be better for me were I in their shoes?...h'mmm, impure motives as usual...)The alcoholism affected all their lives. It will have taken a lot away from them all. It is a cliche but true that we mourn for what wasn't as well as what was when someone dies. Alcoholism is generally regarded as an illness these days, not sinful folly or foolish self-indulgence. So what did I do?

    I didn't mention it, of course. I did try to suggest the value of doing so, but very gently, I hope. No go. So I did what they want. They were bereaved, not me. It's their ceremony, not mine.

    Dishonest? Kindly? Pragmatic?