Lesley Close explores the changing face of funerals and why so many people are choosing funeral celebrants rather than traditional church ministers.
My role, that of funeral celebrant, is still relatively new and many people have asked me what, exactly, my ‘job title’ involves. The best explanation I’ve given so far is that it’s a bit like being a non-religious vicar. You might find my name on a list provided by the undertaker or my name might appear when you search for ‘funeral celebrant’.
As your celebrant, I have the privilege of spending time with you when someone you love has just died. Understandably, the first few days after a death are stressful and you may still be in shock or denial when we meet. The role of information provider can be very difficult for some newly bereaved and deeply distressed people to undertake. But it’s worth going through it with me as a kind of magic happens if I ask the right questions and you feel able to answer them. My task is to stitch together the information you give me to form a ceremony, a patchwork quilt of words whose pattern flows from edge to edge in a seamless narrative, and the ‘magic’ starts to happen as soon as I form a clear mental image of the deceased.
There are as many approaches to non-religious ceremonies as there are people: that’s what distinguishes a ‘ceremony’ from a ‘service’, in this context. A ceremony is a deeply personalised, bespoke set of words that cannot be repeated for another family whereas a service is a more-or-less ‘insert name here’ template. As a writer, the joy I get when I’m creating a ceremony comes from the freedom it gives me to tailor every element to fit both the deceased and the bereaved.
Of course, there are some elements which will recur between ceremonies because there are a limited number of excellent poems which have been written to bring comfort to the bereaved without talking about ‘hope of the hereafter’ and using similar, inappropriate metaphors. At the heart of a good funeral ceremony, for me, lies the acceptance that this life is all there is. I’m happy to join in if the bereaved want to say the Lord ’s Prayer or to sing a hymn, but religious elements like that are as often more for the comfort of the familiar than for any spiritual value they bring.
That word ‘comfort’ is important – a good funeral ceremony will bring comfort to the bereaved. The very best funerals are those at which people say ‘Wouldn’t [the deceased] have loved that?’ If you get to the end of the funeral feeling that it has been a helpful experience, then I will have done a good job. A well-constructed funeral ceremony does not try to deny the pain of death but finds a way to make it less unbearable.
The days after someone dies will often be very painful for you – it’s the normal human reaction to losing someone you love, after all. And, if their death came after a prolonged period of suffering, you might feel relief. That will usually be accompanied by guilt – How can I feel relieved that my dear loved one has died? To have me, a stranger, come into your home with the sole intention of asking searching questions about the person who has died might feel intrusive and can be quite hard to deal with. That’s why I try to be as perceptive as possible, to match my tone to yours and to lead the flow of questions as naturally as possible. And, all the time, I am taking copious hand-written notes and making mental notes as well. I hear your question: handwritten and mental notes in this day and age? Yes, and for two reasons. The first is avoidance: if someone is aware that their words are being recorded they will consider their words more carefully and to be more guarded in what they say. The second is enhancement: the physical act of writing means that, even though your words are all I write, handwriting records more than just that. When I read the page back to transcribe it – probably within an hour of reaching home after the interview – my notes bring back memories of what I saw when I was writing when you said this or other sounds I heard when you said that. And then there’s the inestimable value of the attention to detail that handwriting brings: my focus is you and I listen to what you are saying, hearing the meaning of your words rather than just the sound of your voice. There is no ‘technology’ to worry about and the flow between ear and page, the conversion of sound to script in my notes, happens without flashing lights or beeping battery failure alerts.
As we talk it’s important that you don’t feel restricted to just answering my questions, that you volunteer memories of your loved one as they occur to you. Tell me about their favourite holidays, books, music, poetry, hobbies. If you can summon funny stories at this difficult time, they will be valuable. And the more people who can help to tell me about the deceased’s life the better: that way I’ll get a fully rounded picture. Show me photos of the deceased at different ages, if possible, and send me a copy of the one you’d like to use for the order of ceremony cards (if you decide to have them). We’ll agree a timeframe for my task of creating the ceremony, including writing the elegy, and I promise to send you a first draft on time. In the day or so following our meeting, you may remember things you’d like to add: feel free to do that, up to the agreed cut-off point, as those esprit d’escalier moments can be very helpful.
So when I deliver that first draft of the elegy which I or one of the mourners will present during the ceremony it will be written in turns of phrase that are familiar to you. It will be filled with details of the deceased person’s life, and will have your love for them – and theirs for you – running through it like a bright ribbon. The entire ceremony will be individually crafted, personal, meaningful and carefully constructed whose purpose is to help you move from grief at your loss to pride at having known such a wonderful person.
In short, engaging a good celebrant to help you plan a funeral can lighten the load you carry in the period between the death of someone you love and the moment when you say a final goodbye to their body. A good funeral ceremony, conducted by a celebrant with compassion, understanding, diplomacy and just the right amount of what I can only call ‘showmanship’, will leave you at peace with the world and feeling that you have started that essential journey from grief and pain towards healing and acceptance.