Thursday 1 May 2014

Funeral judgements: the story of a life

"Some day I'm gonna write, the story of my life," sang Michael Hollliday way back in my childhood (OK OK, youth) - but usually, the life story for a funeral is written by family+celebrant.  

There's been useful discussion on the Good Funeral Guide website about the relative value of the potted biography "sandwich" in the middle of a ceremony. 

Leaving that question aside for the moment, and accepting if you will that a potted biography is exactly what some families want, another and possibly more important issue arises.


 Why do we seem to feel the need to sum up a life and pass judgement on it? "He never lost his temper." Really? "He would do anything for anyone." Maybe. "Everyone says he was a true gentleman." Well they would, wouldn't they - he's just died, and they liked him.

I'm not being cynical. The torrent of unqualified praise that falls on us when someone has just died is an expression of sorrow and compassion, of course. But the only way to set the balance straight and strive for a more balanced, seemingly accurate picture would be to talk about the less angelic side of someone's nature.

"He was usually very even-tempered, but would occasionally throw things around the room." "He was a true gentleman, except for the time he got drunk at Christmas and made a pass at Auntie Ethel. Well, and the time....." H'mmm. Tricky. Could make 'em laugh; could go horribly wrong. "Warts and all" is not usually what people want at a funeral, I think, though it might be what the old rogue would have enjoyed himself.

Occasionally, you get a lovely useable judgement, such as "he was a grumpy old sod, but he was my grumpy old sod. I miss him and I'm proud of him." Poignant, rings true.

So I think the problem is not the biography as such, it's the illusion that we can make useful summary statements in judgement upon someone's character. 

Who are we to pronounce judgement upon the flickering, shimmering transience of a personality? The imperfect wonders of a human life?

How much better to have people tell us, directly or via the celebrant, what the person meant to them. How much better to have anecdotes and stories that illustrate some well-known characteristics; they bring about the smiles of recognition and affectionate grief, they mean much more than generalised and abstract judgements.

Sometimes events in someone's life need to be given straight. "She was a radio operator in France for the SOE during the last year of the war and had to escape..." If there are people who didn't know that in the congregation, they need to. "He worked for twenty years as a volunteer for The Samaritans, and hardly mentioned it to anyone." Ditto. Statements can be made to speak for themselves, even at the more domestic level. "He belonged to the RSPB most of his life, and raised money for them when he could."

Let's accept the limits of human judgement and not encumber a funeral with verdicts.

Here's Michael Holliday, for nostalgia freaks.


  1. Brilliant insights here, GM. Perhaps the missing words preceding these expressions of unqualified praise are 'At his/her best s/he was..." Is it not that on certain occasions, not just funerals, there's a tacit agreement that we'll regard a person in a flattering light? Perhaps there's an element of bargaining, too? If we're nice about the dead, people will be nice about us, too, when we're dead. Perhaps, also, there's a missing "On balance, he was..." a bit like a points victory in boxing, which takes account of the knockdown in round 5 when declaring the dead guy the winner but doesn't need to include it in the victory announcement.

    It's all about versions, is it? The version appropriate to the occasion? The verdict agreed by 2 or 3 late at night after a succession of whiskies might be more brutally truthful, but possibly skewed too much towards debunkment (neol).

    In short, there's no final version, no unanimous verdict. The version suits the mood the occasion, the people present. We all present ourselves in different versions according to circumstance and who we are with. And we all mean different things to different people. As you say, "Let's accept the limits of human judgement and not encumber a funeral with verdicts."

    I enjoyed M Holliday. It predates nostalgia in my case, but then I am very young.

  2. Yes, a mere slip of a lad, Charles - but as always, a source of productive thought and comment.

    I think on reflection it may well be impossible completely to leave out comments that are verdicts, but I'd rather reach them via anecdotes, stories, facts, that illuminate a life, rather than risk the grand summary. We do indeed all mean different things to different people, so it is an odd thing how ready we seem to be to accept a centralised, as it were, summary judgement, at least on ceremonial occasions.