Monday, 10 November 2014

Funerals: Give them what they want?

This is a "funerals" post, so if you'd like to side-step it, that's fine by me, though Andrew Marr's BBC Radio 4 programme this morning made it pretty clear that thinking about death - yours - from time to time is a positive thing to do for your life.

Anyway: as a funeral celebrant, I spend much time ensuring people - families, friends, mourners - get what they want. That is surely a large part of the rationale for a ceremony that does not need to follow the rituals and structures of an organised religion (for better or worse, of course. Come on, own up - which of us does not have a bit of an aching hole where the finer elements of those rituals used to live? Whatever we believe?)

So a while ago, that's what I did. He who had died was a big character, the crematorium was packed twice over. His family wanted to accentuate the positive, celebrate the life, didn't want it too sad and gloomy. 

After my customary warning that it would be sad, but that we would make sure it wasn't too sombre or gloomy, we went ahead and planned it.

It wasn't very sad, that's for sure.

The gathering loved it. Plenty of smiles, some big laughs. Off we went.

And I'm left thinking "was that "right?" There wasn't much mourning there, not much room for grief. Very few signs of grief. Not much acceptance or acknowledgement of the power and mystery of death to enrich our lives and help their grieving. And yet he was a greatly valued man.

Was I helping them to avoid the issue, skate in a superficial way over what had happened to them?

Maybe I still have a model of what a funeral "should" be, instead of letting it be what it is. I was pleased by how it went, but troubled by the thought that it may have lacked what many people see asone important function of a funeral - to help people through a physical loss, however much they want to enjoy memories of his life.

They got what they wanted, but probably not what what I wanted for them. I'm sure that's better than the other way round, but still...


Hang about Vicar, let me interrupt.

Having been full of life you say, I'd want a party.

Yes, but I'm full of death now and see things differently.

You say I wouldn't have wanted folk to grieve for long.

No - but with infinite death ahead of me,

a few months being alive and fed up

doesn't seem much to ask of my friends.

OK, some of you wear the bright clothes I admired -

but you lot with less taste, give us a break

and wear dark colours please.

No flowers? Donations only? Hold your horses.

I could never have picked one charity

and loved buying and looking at flowers. I'd like to give

my mourners that opportunity.

True I liked food, and would like to see most of you

tucking in. But I'd also like to do some good -

and some of you who could do to lose a pound or two

should surely be too upset to eat.

Smile by all means, remember my gaffes

and share a careful laugh -

but then it's my funeral, fuck it -

some of you ought to go home and WEEP BUCKETS.

                                                             Julie Deakin


  1. Hmmmmm. Good questions and no answers we can know for sure.

    One thing seems clear enough: when those who were present look back and remember his funeral, they will recall a feeling of warmth, community and togetherness. Death sits alongside life, obviously, and just because they smiled or laughed does not mean they do not also grieve and mourn his loss.

    Great post. Cheers me dear.

  2. I don't think you should worry Gloria, it's only the funeral...Seriously, I think we can inflate the importance of that public event in the process of grieving and coming to terms with loss. What matters is that it is consonant with the feelings of the people present. Under instruction I have presided over services that seemed inappropriately gloomy (because that was what a funeral had to be) and ones that were horribly cheerful in the face of something tragic, because the last thing people wanted to do was deal with how awful they are feeling. Both sorts feel so ghastly it's unmistakeable.
    Of course in a great cheery send off it's the one person sitting stricken in a corner that you have to worry about - but what, in the end can you do?

  3. Thank you, farsightful ones. I think, GiG, they probably will look back with feelings as you describe them. And I agree only too fully Vale, that we (funerealists) easily over-estimate the importance of the one event, perhaps because people are often in a bit of a state of nerves about it all before hand - I sometimes feel like saying "never mind the funeral, what about the week/s afterwards?"

    It seems more and more to me that ours is a highly uncertain, impure sort of work, in terms of the event, I mean. We can imagine that there'll often be someone sitting there thinking that what is happening is remote from them and not particularly helpful.

    It's my sort of neurosis - everyone said they loved the funeral, just right for him, gales of fond laughter, and I'm thinking "yes, but maybe it should've been different.."

    Maybe I should've been a lama (certainty about the right sort of ritual), or "a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas" (and not having to evaluate and think so much.) Or maybe I just need to drink more Guinness - now that's an idea....

  4. It's a difficult question, Gloria and one that has, no doubt, struck all celebrants at some point. There is the anxiety that in celebrating the life, all of the laughs, all of the fun, we almost seem to trivialise the death, the loss and the pain.

    When something jolly is requested, I often add in the phrase "today we will acknowledge the grief that is felt..." or something similar. In the same way that we sometimes give people permission (too strong a term, but you know what I mean) to smile, we also sometimes need to give them permission to be sad, while all around are laughing at the stories.

    And how far is too far? "Laugh at the little jokes we enjoyed together" is fine, but I do draw the line at "take the piss out of the deceased".

    Of course (and the other point of your excellent post), these things that I add or dissuade are only partly based on what I think will create the best funeral - they are about making me feel better, too.

    Ultimately, you can't please all the people all of the time and, as grief moves at such different rates, you can't help all of the people all of the time, either. Take care and happy Guinness drinking.

  5. Thank you for your wise words, XP. How far is too far, indeed - in any direction, I guess. So we work up what we think will be the best funeral; we are flying blind, or at least partly so at times. Perhaps flying on instruments would be a better analogy, the instruments of empathy, compassion and insight - and we hope they are accurate...

  6. Who are we to draw any sort of line? We listen, we interpret, we deliver... I try to do both, what they want and what I want them to want... at a ceremony today people were in floods of tears and peals of laughter - we covered the heart wrenching goodbye and we celebrated a life well lived, we looked back, we looked inwards and we looked forward... why is there a difference between 'what they want' and 'what we think they need'? You're not a vicar, you can't impose anything on anyone. The best we can hope for is to shepherd and guide and push and pull the clouds of grief into some semblance of order for a brief moment. The rest is up to them.

  7. As you say, it's ultimately up to them. Never hurts to ask the questions though, does it? Stops one being too complacent. I'm amused you think I might need reminding that I'm not a vicar! Thanks for stopping by.

  8. Just because there is no resolving it, it never hurts, GM, I couldn't agree with you more strongly. As for being all things to all people... well, that's never been a personal strength. I do like Vale's wry observations. Anon: I think I spot some self-contradiction - "what I want them to want ... you can't impose anything on anyone".