The phone rings. I answer and immediately wish we had bought a phone with caller ID. It’s my mother-in-law. She means well and is just concerned about me, she says. She’s worried I won’t be able to cope. “Why give up a great career in Television to conduct funerals of all things; how will I deal with the grief day in day out and, more importantly what will she say to her friends ?!”. I attempt reassurance, but when I put the phone down I wonder who I am trying to reassure.
That was 8 years ago, and my Grandparents had recently died within 2 weeks of one another. Lost in grief, my family had been thrown into 2 funerals that could not have been less appropriate. I left the second funeral of my Grandad feeling empty, and more distraught than I had been before the funeral. I made a decision there and then that there had to be more to a funeral than 20 minutes of impersonal hyperbole.
There are precious few regulations governing the way we say goodbye to our loved ones – anyone can take a funeral service if, like me, they are mad enough to want to do it. Personally, I was glad of the support and guidance gained through my training with the British Humanist Association, they did a great job, although I now operate independently.
Just last year I stood before 300 people to conduct the service of a 42 year old friend. I was shocked to find I was actually very nervous – even after 7 years in the job. How will I deal with this grief, a grief so intense I can almost touch it. It is also my grief.
As the coffin arrives, a wave of intense emotion spreads through the room. In silence, the pall bearers gingerly place the coffin on the tressels, and respectfully bow before taking their seats. And then we begin.
Initially, there’s time to acknowledge our grief, and the loss of this Special Man – a wonderful Husband, Father, Son, Brother, Friend and Colleague; I acknowledge the great shock we are all feeling at his loss. I talk about the importance of our grief as a mark of our love and respect, and then the extraordinary happens.
I am getting used to this now, it happens in every service I take, almost without exception. No amount of training ever prepared me for it – it’s what I call The Phenomena. As I begin the tribute, the grief begins to fade – it doesn’t disappear, rather it is put to one side – the air in the room feels lighter, it’s easier to breathe as we turn towards a celebration of life.
This is not to sweep away the importance or the depth of our grief, -rather it allows us to focus on the joy of having shared the same world as our Special Man.
As family, friends, and colleagues come up one by one to share their memories and readings with us all, I know he is with us. For that time, in that moment, we truly honour his life. As the children come with their friends and parents to tie ribbons onto his coffin, they too are part of something that’s important – they are not merely voyeurs of adult grief – they are an integral part of this moment.
Tears of sadness mingle with wonderful memories of good times spent, and experiences shared. This is not to say that grief will not return or sadness never felt again. However, this process of a collective acknowledgement of loss, followed by a celebration of life, and a collective farewell is, in my opinion crucial to allow us to move on with our own lives.
As the ceremony draws to a close, the pall bearers come once again, and our Special Man leads us out, and then he is placed in the hearse. 300 people spontaneously clap and cheer as the car leaves our sight on route to the Crematorium.
Being a Celebrant is a tremendous experience. It is an extra-ordinary job, and I am very privileged to be doing this work. Each ceremony is different; each one represents a life. Not everyone will have 300 people at their ceremony, not everyone will be loved in the same way. We don’t all live a chocolate box life. I work with families – whatever the circumstances – to help them create the most appropriate farewell. I help families hear the words they need to hear. Say the words they need to say – or I am their voice if they are not able to speak themselves.
Primarily what I offer is choice. There are, of course, wonderful vicars who take great religious ceremonies, but for those of us who live our lives in a secular world, an appropriate funeral is just as important.
The funeral industry is changing. It’s slow to change, but it’s happening. As more families request a secular ceremony, there are more celebrants responding to this need. You can choose from Humanist, Civil, Inter-faith and Independent Celebrants, although it is still often the case that the Funeral Arranger will steer you to their person of choice. Having the time to research this is preferable, although not always possible.
I meet families who are feeling very raw, shocked and feel totally at sea with all the decisions they are being asked to make. Additionally, there is often a pressure to “do the right thing”. A “good” funeral can’t change the situation, it can’t bring someone back. However, it can help us all to move forward with our lives, content in the knowledge we have truly honoured with feeling, and said goodbye with love and/ or respect.
As to my mother-in-Law, she’s mellowed over the years. I am sure she would still rather I worked “in Telly” – and she still can’t bring herself to “have the conversation” about her own funeral – but in those quiet moments after Sunday lunch she’ll ask, with genuine interest, if I’m busy and I know she is proud when I tell her I am.