In the last few years, I’ve been to more funerals that I ever could have imagined when I started my adult life as an electronics engineer back in the early 80’s. Give or take a few, around 800 in total and of these, I’ve conducted about half as a celebrant or helped the family create their own service.
There is a common theme to all funerals, of whichever faith, humanist or secular form. And that is of course the fundamental reason why we’re all gathered there as friends and family. It’s to share the memories of the individual who has died.
And I think what I’ve found along the way is that, contrary to most faith-based services and indeed many civil celebrants, the most heartfelt and genuine funerals are those that revolve around the family left behind.
Not a well-rehearsed and slick routine; music to play on arrival, celebrant’s welcome and introduction, and brief history of a life from birth to death, music for reflection, a poem or two perhaps followed the by the final farewell and curtain closed. A final piece of music to play as we all trundle out of the crematorium chapel to stand in the car park.
I read somewhere, I think in the Natural Death Handbook, that the best funerals are planned backwards. Start by talking about how the bereaved family might like to feel as they leave the chapel. How would the deceased want them to feel?
In most instances, this brings a smile and a change in the atmosphere to the room as happier memories are brought to the fore. We talk about some music to play that would lift the spirits. Big Ernie’s family for instance, immediately grinned and chose Benny Hill’s Ernie – The fastest Milkman in the West.
We then spent the next hour recalling all his exploits as a younger man and all the stories of his travels and adventures.
The end result was a funeral service that consisted of a very brief welcome and introduction before handing off to the family who then took turns sharing stories of ‘Big Ern’ and all the laughter and love that he’s brought into their lives.
And instead of a committal, everyone left their seats and spent the last few minutes around the coffin saying their own goodbyes as Benny Hill’s comedy song played him out. My job was just to make sure we kept to time and act more as an ‘MC’ than a celebrant.
After all, it’s the Eulogy and tributes that we’re there for. Not to have the focus on the one person there who had never even met or spoken to the person in the coffin.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some brilliant celebrants out there who do a fantastic job helping a family devastated by loss to create a meaningful and beautiful farewell. The first step in their healing process. But there are an awful lot who for whatever reason, see themselves as ‘The Celebrant’. They become the centre of the service. They can sometimes take over, becoming the centre of attention, performing to their audience. And to be fair, sometimes that’s what’s needed. Someone to take over and ‘run’ the funeral on what for many, might be the worst day of their lives.
The best celebrants can intuitively pick up from their first meetings how to approach the arrangement of the service and gently guide the family through the myriad of options and choices to create a farewell that’s both meaningful, unique and celebrates the memory of the individual whose died.
I saw on TV the other day a show with Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse, who had both had serious heart problems and decided to go fishing. In the closing part of the last episode, they each wrote and read out their eulogy for each other. What really stood out was that although only a few lines long, probably no more than a paragraph, the sincerity and feeling that came through was so genuine. And it summed up their character and attitude to life so completely.
Maybe we could all do with stopping for a few moments and thinking how we would pay our tribute to those we love when the time inexorably arrives.
Perhaps we could even write down a few words. Perhaps even read them out loud?