Friday, 2 July 2010

An unexpectedly honest funeral

In what Rupert Callender called recently "this movement" (hope it is!)there have been views expressed concerning the specific gravity of people's mourning at a funeral. The movement's imperative seems to be: ministers and celebrants should encourage people not to skate over the top of their grief, not offer emollient words, not be inhibited and "traditional" yet not to be trivial and jokey either.

Whilst all this seems eminently sensible, I think there may be a lot of interesting subtexts and hidden preferences here, about: disdain for what's seen as outdated middle-class English inhibitions and reserve; a fascination with the way other cultures do death and funerals - maybe even a kind of exoticism; a desire for colour, drama, ritual in an increasiongly (some say...)homogenised culture.

We've discussed: honest vs dishonest funerals; neatness and order vs spontaneity and the untidyness of grief, of life itself; a funeral as an artefact vs a funeral as a self-defining event; audience vs participants, and so on.

Given quite a lot of agreement around the idea that our culture, outside of those with powerfully-held religious beliefs, has a dysfunctional and psychically dangerous relationship with death itself, much of the discussion has been about the role and responsibility of ministers (oh, OK, celebrants) and undertakers in leading the people to the Promised Land of funerals that are better at helping people to grieve.

I thought today's funeral was going to be one of the dishonest ones. I couldn't meet the family - I don't think any secular minister in our area could have done - and that always troubles me.Funerals can be prepared over the wires at a distance, but I think there's the risk of generating something a little etiolated, albeit efficient.

The lengthy tribute written by a daughter was affectionate, acknowledged that her dad liked a drink, and emphasised his love of comedy, comics and jokes, as well as his obvious strengths. Had just a couple of fairly conventional expressions of loss. They didn't want the curtain drawn, they wanted it to be "positive." The musical choices were relentlessly upbeat. This, I thought, will be an avoidance job, causing more pain and grief later on, perhaps. (My arrogance - how can I possibly know what is the right way for them to grieve?)

So I did what I could to balance it. I pointed out what a funeral was for - to say goodbye to a body, to enter a new world without X's physical presence, a world in which all that he means to you etc. I included a couple of poems that offered a little ballast without being "gloomy", and they seemed to go down well. The daughter's tribute went down a storm - lots of smiles, laughs, knowing looks. They really wanted to hear about his life, his jokes, rehearse family memories. For once, the cliche "to celebrate a life" seemed true.

I explained that we wouldn't be drawing the curtain but we would have a few words of committal and farewell. That went in respectful silence, a few sniffles. Final cheery song, I stepped down. They went over to the coffin. The little granddaughter touched it slowly and gently, in a thoughtful sort of way. The widow hugged her son and they sobbed for a minute or so, lots more tears, then outside - more smiles, cheerful chatter.

They got it absolutely right for them. There wasn't any avoidance going on. They wanted, and got, what is so often a lifeless cliche - smiles through the tears. There was a lot of affectionate recognition of the sort of bloke he was. They knew what a funeral is for, OK. They weren't avoiding anything. They laughed when they wanted to, they cried when they wanted to. It was, for them, an honest funeral. I'm absolutely certain of that.

I learned a lot today. The point that it's them not us; the understanding of what "a unique funeral" really means - it extends to ways of mourning and of showing grief, as well as what's said and done; the unpredictable nature of an authentic event; the uselessness of cultural generalisations when we're faced with life's lack of tidy geometry; the usually futile nature of my anxieties and preconceptions - all underlined for me.

And if it appears a family wants to avoid grief and skate over the thin ice of their loss, is it my role to break the ice? In any case, as I learned today, I may well be entirely wrong - they may be having a merry time, then crack up for two minutes, then laugh again. Wish I was more like that myself!

There can only an honest funeral for this family, and then the next one, and the one after that...and it always has to be searched for, and we have to help them find it. Maybe that takes more cultural self-effacement from us than I'd realised.

I may be an expert in funerals in one sense,(I've done a lot of them) but I'm not an expert in next week's family's needs. They will be the experts in what they need. I have to find it with them. My views of authentic funerals, honest funerals - they don't really matter very much! I have to make my own position and performance authentic, or I'll lose them. The rest is not silence - it is theirs.


  1. You are right, and proper in my view.

    Funerals are for them and not for you.

    I'm glad that you are a thinking person and not procedural, and that you question, and analyse what you are doing.

    Not enough of us do that.

    Glory of the world to you.

  2. Well, you've certainly got my brain working again, GM!

    Did you see that interview with Dorry Bless over at The Daily Undertaker? Very interesting. It addresses some of these themes.

    Perhaps the really significant thing here was that the family undertook the writing and delivery of the tribute? If you like, they did the meat and left the garnish to you. So they really did it their way, they did the 'shoulder and shovel work', they didn't outsource that which, arguably, should not be outsourced.

    I think that families are very private and inscrutable places. In this case, given the degree of self-reliance they displayed, the email correspondence was enough, and the finished product very difficult for an observer to analyse beyond a recognition that, to all appearances, it worked. Who knows what sub-texts there were in that tribute!

    That Brits are not a demonstrative people has more to do with resolute holding back than being innately downbeat. They either go on a rampage or they express themselves in elegantly, highly disciplined, repressed ways, through irony and self-deprecation and understatement. No wonder we are a mystery to so many other cultures - we are a mystery to one another! Perhaps there was quite a lot of that going on here?

    Hmnn, I don't know. I've got to clean the house now. I've got lots to think about... Thank you!

  3. 'Garnish' was ill chosen. You contextualised and enriched, and provided form and structure. My apologies for that carelessness!

  4. Thanks R and C for comments. And as usual Charles absolutely no need for apologies!

    I agree with you, we are not innately downbeat in these cash-strapped islands, and our response to being cash-strapped may well be not in the least downbeat!

    In any case, in our rapidly-changing times I have less and less confidence in ideas of national characteristics and generalisations about typical behaviour. Though I note that a transatlantic friend of mine finds our funerals strangely subdued and "stiff" (no, not stiff, no - dignified and restrained, I tell her....)so maybe au fond there is still some mileage in these generalisations. But your one about families being inscrutably private mostly rings true, I feel. Or maybe that's just because I am in sympathy with the privacy of families and individuals and writhe when people seem to feel the need to destroy that privacy by telling us stuff we Don't Want To Know.

    Will look at Dorry Bless more carefully - I think underneath the rhetoric, which simply reflects cultural differences and perhaps a more energetically market-aware position than mine, she looks to be saying useful and interesting things. Maybe I suffer a slight rash from some kinds of US semi-public rhetoric because it is so close yet so far from our (?my?) own.

    Case in point: she speaks of helping people to "access" their emotions. I think I know exactly what she means, but I (we?) would say "express." "Access" seems to me a leaden contemporary cliche. But the difference is unimportant. Perhaps I should access a little more tolerance when I access my keyboard and access my blog...

    Yet there is a difference. I think our job is often to help people find, generate and express an emotion. So a good ceremony may help the bereaved generate feelings and express them, whereas before they were inchoate. Whereas "access" suggests the feelings are already there, they just need a tap to pour out of, fully matured and realised.

    Seems to me you often don't know fully what you feel until you start to express it, then it defines itself as/whilst it is expressed, whether by you or for you. That is why people can't predict when part of a funeral will, quite unexpectedly, catch at their throats. They may be solemn and dry-eyed at the committal, the moment of goodby, and then afterwards some cheesy song will cut them in half just as they thought the worst was over - because the song expressed an emotion they hardly knew they had till it was expressed for them.

    Maybe. I dunno. We have to keep making meanings out of all this, don't we?

  5. Did you ask for some spoof Beckett?

    You mean like this:

    Thyme watches Tarragon scooping earth from the grave with his bare hands.

    Tarragon: Won’t you lift a had once in a way?

    Thyme: Someone has to keep the ledger, keep a ledger of events, an archaeology of what you achieved.

    Tarragon: You mean it’s worth taking notes on a man scraping at the ground with hands for a lifetime? You think this is a noble history?

    Thyme: It’s the only history you’ve got.

    Tarragon: And what about your history? Who’s jotting down that little lot?

    Thyme: I am; I’m just notes n the margins of your glorious work.

    Tarragon climbs out and sits on the edge of the grave.

    Tarragon: So what ever happened in this shithole that was worth writing down? Give us a butcher’s.

    Thyme: This is a private work. Not to be pawed over by a breathless man with mud on his hands.

    Tarragon: Well that’s very least you could do. You think my scraping has just been a performance for you and your quill? That’s my existence not yours.

    Thyme: I was standing here right beside you every scrape of the way. That’s got to be worth a little acknowledgement, a little intellectual property at least.

    Tarragon: There’s nothing I’ve done that’s been worth your pencil I’m sure. Nothing but scraping

    Thyme: And sweating

    Tarragon: And spitting

    Thyme: And grunting

    Tarragon: I feel depressed. I’ve achieved nothing but dirt under my finger nails.
    Thyme: Aha, but that’s not true. What about the child who fell into your grave? You comforted him.

    Tarragon: I wiped his eyes and nose

    Thyme: Used your own handkerchief

    Tarragon: Stopped him crying.

    Thyme: Lifted him up out of the grave.

    Tarragon: Chucked his football after him

    Thyme: Waved him bye bye

    Tarragon: Run along now

    Thyme: Adieu

    Tarragon: Until we meet again

    Thyme: Dosvidania

    Tarragon: He’s gone. . . . .

  6. Class, Ark, sheer class. Thanks. How nice to get some homework out of you at last....!
    Be well.

  7. Tarragon: Won’t you lift a had once in a way?

    Obviously should be

    Won't you lift a hand once in a way

    Fingers lagging behind the brain or the other way round. I can never tell which.

    I saw Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen performing Godot fairly recently.

    Really fantastic. I loved that play the moment I started reading it. At the interval Clare said "This is your life really isn't it?" and it is.

    Glory of the world to you.

  8. Time is only one measure.
    I may be having a moment gestalt.
    Maybe I'm wrong?

  9. Great post, Gloria (sorry I'm a few days late coming to it).

    You speak truth. I often fear that I don't put a family "through the wringer" enough, but all we can do is give them the funeral that they want - and if that involves laughter, then great.

    Well done on your ceremony. I'm sure that your balancing poems were perfectly chosen. After all, not everyone there would have wanted to laugh, even if those you had met were determined to have a giggle.