You say it best when you…

Charles Cowling

At yesterday’s funeral I invited people in the audience to have their say after they’d listened to tributes from the family. I tried to make it easy. I gave them time to think about it in advance, acknowledged that speaking in public is hard, invited them to speak from where they were sitting and reminded them that the only thing that mattered was getting it right for their dead friend.

Hardly anyone spoke. I had made an elementary error: I had supposed that their primary medium for expression is words.

Like many secular celebrants, I set great store by words. For me, they say it all. I also know that they often come over as so much blah-blah-blah – and that that may not necessarily be a bad thing. Blah can be just what people need so long as it is served soothingly warm – ask any Anglican vicar. “Death is nothing at all…” is warm blah. So is “Do not stand at my grave and weep”. To me, they’re blurry and worthless – but that’s my private problem.

For those times when words are likely to fall short, there are eloquent alternatives. There’s

· saying by doing.

· music

· dance

· saying by doing nothing

I remember planning a funeral with a family, fruitlessly trying to get them to tell me about their dead mum. Very little came until they explained that, as a family, talking was something they just didn’t do. Words, to them, were just so much blather. After some thought, I suggested lighting candles. They weren’t at all the sort of people who like lighting candles, I reckoned, but they leapt at the idea.

On the day of the funeral, I set up my stand, lit a tall candle in the centre and called people forward to light a satellite tealight. Normally, only a few come. On this occasion, everyone did – maybe thirty of them. The array of flames looked very pretty beside the coffin, where they spoke more eloquently than words.

Later in the ceremony, as I recited the solemn words of the committal, I heard a loud, alarming clunk, followed by chuckling in the audience. Afterwards, I discovered what had happened. The heat given off by the massed tealights had toppled the tall candle in their midst. Near-disaster for me but, for those there, the memorable, hilarious highlight of the funeral. It was typical, they said, of their mother to do that.

Words are unlikely ever to court disaster so long as they have been checked for precision and cleansed of ambiguity. Saying by doing, though, can be tragic-comically perilous. I’m thinking of the deplorable incident of the dove (symbolic of the soul of the dead person) which, when released, flew inside the crematorium for warmth, could not be chivvied out, and had to be shot. I’m thinking of another dove which, when released, was all at once attacked by a sparrow hawk. As the horrified mourners gazed up, bloody feathers fluttered down on them. I am thinking of the balloon which settled, miles and miles away, in the horns of a £50,000 prize bull. Enraged, the bull burst its fence, charged into a road, was hit by a car and had to be destroyed. These are all true stories.

A piece of music can be eloquent, but only when it is exclusively associated with the dead person. Music so often fails to be effective because those listening to it have their own, private relationship with it.

Dance could be eloquent, but mostly not in embarrassable Britain. Hippy-dippy. Toe-curling.

“It’s amazing / How you can speak / Right to my heart / Without saying a word” sings Ronan Keating. Silence can be defined as saying by doing nothing at all. Quakers do this very expertly, but hardly anyone else. If you invite people to sit in silence and contemplate, all they’ll do is wait. To remedy this, the custom is to fill the silence with music and invite people to do two things at once: think and listen. Doesn’t work. They still mostly wait.

Presently, funerals give the eyes little to do. Innovation is afoot. We now have Colourful Coffins, which I love. On its way, with us soon, is the multimedia review/celebration of the dead person’s life – words, music, slideshow, film clips. Louise Harris is doing pioneering work at Sentiment Productions. See her work here. I believe that the multimedia presentation is going to have a transformative effect on the way we do funerals once crems and other venues have installed screens, projectors and sound systems. I can’t wait.

Back in the here and now, I am chewing over the second lesson I learned from my mute mourners. I had wholly overlooked the fact that they had already done the most eloquent thing they could do for their dead friend. It was this: at some inconvenience to themselves they had made the effort to come to his funeral.

All the bells and all the whistles in all the world cannot speak more meaningfully than simply being there.

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