The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Variety’s the spice of death

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Secular celebrants congratulate themselves on delivering better funerals than ordained ministers. They think they do because people tell them they do.

They risk complacency.

A secular ceremony is often reckoned better than a religious one not so much for what it does as for what it doesn’t. Remove god and the dead person is free to assume the starring role; excise worship and you relieve people of the obligation to go through motions they’d rather not. The positives are all in the negatives.

The resulting ceremony often leaves the audience with nothing to do except sit like obedient puddings and listen to a stranger offer them consolation and tell them all about their dead person, whom the stranger never met. To say that celebrants don’t know who they’re talking about is the precise truth.

When one person speaks from start to finish, pausing only to play a bit of a contemplative Pink Floyd track, a funeral ceremony can soon start flat-lining. Secularists may be unobjectionable, but boy can they be dull. Religious folk, by contrast, get to enjoy great live music, great archaic language, a bit of community singing, a bit of mystery, a celebrant in eye-gladdening fancy dress and even remission from deep vein thrombosis as they kneel down to pray. It’s a far more interactive and sensuous rite.

We can’t blame celebrants when family and friends won’t step up to the lectern and do their bit. It leaves them with no option but to do it all. It’s this that numbers my days as a celebrant. The only good funeral, in my book, is a participative one.

For some time, I have looked to technology to lift secular ceremonies out of monotony. The multimedia presentation, for me, is the future, and Wesley Music, together with people like Louise Harris, are the people to deliver it. I phoned Wesley today to find out how fast things are moving.

They’ve installed equipment at Peterborough and Liverpool, but the funeral directors are being very slow to recommend it. Nothing new there; you’ll rarely find the dismal trade at the cutting edge. But a far bigger brake to progress is, it seems, the fraught matter of copyright. Scan in a wedding photo and you infringe the copyright of the photographer who snapped it. Play James Blunt and James wants a slice of the action. There’s a lot of patient negotiation going on about licences.

The plot thickens. You’ve got to weigh up the effect of showing, say, a video clip of the dead person last summer on holiday. Will that be more than people can bear? And if you show that wedding photo, will it reignite a family feud?

As Neil at Wesley wisely puts it, “You’ve got to try and give families what they want, but you’ve also got to warn them of the implications of what they choose.”

Fools rush in. I’m feeling foolish.

It’ll come, though. And it will make all the difference.

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