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.