Thursday, 28 July 2011

A Surprising Family Funeral

Having said I'd offer funeral-related stuff to the Good Funeral Guide, I'd like nevertheless like to tell you here about a recent funeral I helped with. It surprised me. I hope I didn't look quite as baffled, during the ceremony, as this bloke, and I was (of course, of course...) wearing the old whistle and flute.

I met the family - the dead man's wife, son and niece. They were a little opaque from the start, I felt, but one learns (eventually, eventually...) to shut up and listen, and wait, and prompt gently. But there was more to it than natural reticence, or their grief, which was palpable, and of the numbing and deadening sort. I'm no shrink, but one might call it depressive grief, rather than expressed grief.

As we began to discuss the sort of ceremony they wanted, I was told that they didn't want a chronological account of his life (fair enough, that can get over-played on occasion), and wife said "We don't want a tribute to John delivered by someone like you." OK, one learns that bereaved people come out with all sorts of stuff, I wasn't going to take that to heart, but as the conversation wore on I began to feel that their unwillingness to go through a funeral was expressing itself as a kind of distaste for the whole business.

They said that wife and son would speak, and there might be others. I discussed how I might introduce and conclude the ceremony, they said they'd send me copies of what they were going to say because it was reassuring for them to think that I'd have it with me in case they couldn't manage. They chose some music, and home I went. Much of the ceremony had been left pretty open. But they had booked a double time slot at the crem, so I didn't need to fuss them about how long anyone would speak for. I suggested that son and wife come up front together, maybe with other friends or family, since they were clearly nervous about the whole thing.

Nevertheless I was worried about the funeral, because I began to feel there were unresolved issues in the relationships, which maybe were inhibiting the process. It was clearly none of my business. But a bit of one of the passages comfirmed my feeling that particularly powerful regrets were swirling around.

I was told, late on, that there would be one other speaker.

In the event, there were three other speakers, five in all. Wife's address was brave and intimate, son's was excellent. There was a group of five people standing around in front, exchanging quiet words, speaking in turn; wife and son had an arm round each other. They all spoke directly to the coffin some of the time. Wife's words in particular brought on a lot of tears amongst the gathering.

I watched people looking at each other, smiling, nodding, sniffing, sobbing - this, I thought, is going exceptionally well. She has created a space in which people can release their own sadness, they added their tears to hers, the place was full of fellow-feeling, emotional solidarity; son has captured a particular kind of gratitude to his dad, the other speakers' anecdotes were getting laughs. This really is, I felt, grieving over a loss and celebrating a life, all in the space of thirty minutes. And I read, as requested, five of the man's poems. A couple of them in particular were strikingly apposite and, because of the context, moving.

When they had all sat down, I asked, on the spur of the moment, for applause: for the man, for the people who gave such wonderful tributes, for everyone who loved the man, and it rang out most splendidly.

We sang a hymn, I said some words of farewell, built round one of his poems, but we didn't have the shabby old curtain, so that people could go up to the coffin and say goodbye on the way out.

So a funeral that I thought would be really quite tricky turned out to be a family-and-friends triumph. I think largely because the man was obviously, in a quiet way, a hell of a guy, and because the speakers, especially wife and son, were so open. That'll teach me to trust people, and not to rely on first, or even second, impressions. I was suprised, relieved and delighted by what they did.

Mind you, all she said to me afterwards was: "You did alright," and she sounded mildly suprised. I wonder what she expected.

As Fats Waller used to say, "One never knows, do one?"


  1. Fascinating. Is this an example, I wonder, of how every family is another country; they do things differently there? Inscrutable, for sure. Possibly uncomfortable at the presence of a stranger at its intimate heart? You seem to have made it possible for them to do and say what they needed to do and say -- that which they could not or would not articulate. And so well did they do it that they seem to have put more of that down to themselves than was entirely just -- not that that matters. Very brave of you to propose the applause, and a great vindication of your judgement that it was exactly the right thing to propose.

    Hmnn... I'm with Fats on this, too.

  2. Thanks Charles, encouraging as ever - yes, it was one to remember; all funerals are equally important, of course, but some, I find, act as a kind of benchmark, in that one remembers them for enlightenment and guidance in future.

  3. Well done Gloria, a tricky bunch to read. A lesser celebrant might have not been able to recover from the initial slight to your good self.

    It does highlight the need to hold your nerve right up to the line when it comes to what looks like a ceremony that is just too unstructured, shades of Michael Caine in Zulu.

    Last minute tributarians, the stuff of nightmares. Thank god/pan/thevoid for double slots.

  4. Thanks Mr C, valued comment.
    'Course, Michael Caine might well have got shot...still, he didn't.
    Double slots so good, and cost so little more. And still FDs book a single slot before they know ANYTHING about the sort of funeral ceremony/service it's going to be!