Sometimes, when I am faced with a blank piece of paper, it’s a terrifying experience. As I sit here to write this month’s piece, I have decided to go with this. It’s how many of my families feel when we first meet.
If you don’t have a faith or life belief, how do you create ritual in a Secular world? How do we construct ceremonies that matter in this context? Sadly, many of us are faced with these questions at a time when clear thought is, at best, elusive. The structuring of a funeral ceremony can feel out of reach, and this is where a good Funeral Director and Celebrant can be worth their weight in gold.
Aside from the logistics and timings of a funeral, there is the format of the ceremony itself. I support families to make the most appropriate decisions – what feels right for the deceased and for the family and close friends, and there are many elements we can incorporate to help personalise a service. I feel strongly that Funerals should be inclusive events in all our lives and the congregation should be part of the event, not merely voyeurs. I thought I might just list a few ideas to get you thinking.
We spent over £90 million pounds on candles last year alone in the UK. It’s clearly a British habit, but one people rarely ask for in a ceremony. However, lighting candles is a lovely way to mark the opening of a service. Time permitting, I often suggest lighting candles within the ceremony, as we listen to music that was important to our loved one.
For some people, music is key to their lives, and incorporating live music into a funeral is a great way of adding light and shade to a ceremony. Singing together is also fantastic, if there are enough people to belt out a tune, and if the right song is picked. I can recall singing the Labi Sifre song – something inside so strong – at a service for a high profile disability rights campaigner, and it raised the roof.
Readings: poetry/ prose
As I sit with a family and I mention the word reading, I often get a totally blank look.I encourage people to talk about whether the deceased read a lot – what type of books; poetry or prose? Or perhaps the lyrics to a song they enjoyed.? Readings are a way of building structure of creating an arc within the ceremony. The first reading can be a good opportunity to set the tone of a service. Again, a good Celebrant armed with knowledge about the deceased is often in a better position to provide some ideas.
Tributes can be written in many forms. A chronological approach is the most obvious way, but not always the most appropriate. Many people have lived through difficult childhoods or experienced challenging times, and we don’t always want to focus on those parts of our lives. In these cases approaching a tribute can seem daunting. However, aspects of a person’s character, their hobbies, their likes and dislikes can often steer a tribute.
I first experienced an Open Forum within a Quaker ceremony. I loved the idea of being able to stand and speak if you wanted to. I began incorporating this element in my ceremonies, and where it is appropriate it works so well, not least because the focus in the room shifts to a conversation between ourselves – it encourages people to begin sharing their memories, and to feel involved. I usually suggest we find a couple of people we know will speak – and in my experience this encourages others to say their own brief tribute. Spontaneity is fine within a ceremony – you just have to plan it !
How to say Goodbye:
Ultimately, we all attend a funeral to say our goodbyes, and yet we often resist this moment. Curtains are left open or we don’t want to lower the coffin, and some families don’t attend the burial part of a service. Here, I return, again, to “what is appropriate?” What would our loved one have wanted if they were here to tell us (if you already know what you want – please tell someone !)
I believe “The Goodbye” is crucial, it is a bookend to the beginning of a ceremony – the time where we stand together and acknowledge our loss. “The Goodbye” is why we are all here. Steal yourselves to face this moment. I do believe we benefit most when we truly face why we are holding a funeral ceremony.