Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Lives, lives, lives - celebrant's gold

Almost always, we celebrants/ministers are asked, or expected, to give an account of someone's life. One of the privileges of this work is that we learn about so many lives. Every life is a story to be told, of course, and each of them is unique. But  we have to be careful. On their own, the facts of a life may do little to bring significance to a funeral.

I well understand the paradoxical value to bereaved people of being told something many of them probably know  already. The real task seems to me to be using biographical detail to illuminate the sort of person s/he was, and looking for that smile or nod of recognition. That's surely what illuminates the meaning of a life for the people who badly need to take something away from a dreary old crem.

For me, writing  the script for a ceremony, it's always an imagined life. I like the challenge of using what I've been told and adding some imaginative resonance. "The vehicle weighted over a ton and a half, and when I tell you that he had to shove it back into the garage, on his own, we can understand just how strong and determined he was." 

Sometimes, I feel a life fact can stand on its own: "...and he fought his way from D-Day plus 2, to the banks of the Rhine," but nevertheless, an appeal to the congregation's imagination might help: "... and all that time, Emily didn't know where - or  how - he was."

Doesn't have to be dramatic or spectacular:  "..and he loved gardening. Many of us do, but how about this for dedication: Jill looked out of the bedroom window one night at two in the morning and saw a torch moving around the garden. She went to wake Bill, then realised it was him in the garden. Slug hunting. At two in the morning. In the rain..."

I've found it salutary to recognise, after hearing so many facts about so many lives, that an imagined life is more than the facts; yet at the same time, to accept that it is all too easy to over-extend the imaginative work and add something that won't ring true.

Well, there's no formula for these things. In we go to listen to a family, receptors tuned, looking to get it right every time. But getting it right is relative. Success is always limited; significant failure cannot be contemplated.


  1. Hmnn. I like this, it's got me thinking. And what I think I think is that the role of the celebrant is to contribute (quite a lot) to the process of mythologising the dead person. Any life story is only one of many versions (it depends on whose eyes you see them through), but a myth comes in only the one version. Yes, it's mildly idealised, airbrushed, edited -- and finally agreed to e definitive. And come to think of it, Hilary Mantel makes a living by doing this (I believe; I've never read her.)

    People are, after all, very fond of the l-word when someone dies: Granpops ur a ledgened.

    Yes, I think celebrants do need to bring their imagination to bear in the reconstruction of an insightful anecdote. Steinbeck said something about this in Travels With Charley -- if you're going to write a story, make it worth the telling.

  2. This fits in well with your point that we are who other people think we are, not the rigid constructions with which our egos defend themselves.

    Myth, legend, story worth the telling - we live by them and to them. Where but a funeral would we need them more?

    Just so long as don't whitewash, don't lie!

  3. It is myth making and storytelling. The thing that strikes me over and over though, is that these lives that look commonplace from the outside are so often genuinely heroic - in goodness or love or labour or wisdom. We walk unknowing amongst giants - what a privilege to be able to reflect that back to families. It's no exaggeration - grandpops was a ledgened.

    1. Yes, maybe there's no such thing as ordinary people, just people who think they and their circumstances are ordinary, because they don't see themselves as we are privileged to do. Our task is to discover the unique and as you say, to reflect it back.