The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Are you a lightning rod?

Thursday, 3 February 2011

The last time I directed you to the Hearth of Mopsus blog you were mostly pretty beastly about the writer, a clerk in holy orders who has the cure of souls in Swanvale Halt. Here’s what you said.

He’s actually a bit of a sweetie, and if you like reading clerics’ diaries (I do), then you might even want to follow him (as I do).

A year ago (I’ve been trawling his archive) he wrote this about funerals:

This week I’ve taken two big funerals at the crematorium, big enough to fill the chapel and some, attenders standing all round the sides and down the central aisle, and out into the narthex. The first was for a woman who died of an aggressive and nasty cancer in her forties, and naturally there was a lot of emotion. The second was for a man who was also only in his sixties, and carried a certain amount of intra-family tension; he was also a member of the ambulance service and so the local branch’s banner was carried ahead of the coffin and there was an honour guard of boys and girls in green Service overalls.

I was exhausted at the end of both these services. I feel increasingly that the priest acts as a spiritual lightning rod on these occasions, and that all the emotion present ends up channelled through you. The size of the funeral makes no difference: I’ve presided at big funerals where that sense of strain has not been present at all. Nor do tears, on their own, seem to be the deciding factor: some tearful funerals I’ve taken haven’t been charged in this way at all. There is something more subtle happening. It would be interesting to see whether humanist funeral celebrants have the same experience.

Do leave a comment either here or at the Hearth of Mopsus blog. I take humanists to include celebrants of all stripes.

10 comments on “Are you a lightning rod?

  1. Monday 7th February 2011 at 10:40 am

    If a good blog is one where the quality of the responses easily and consistently outstrips the blogger’s stimuli and own thoughts, then this is the best blog in the world. Full marks to Mopsus and, if I may say so, to all of you – and a huge thank you.

    Which does not mean to say that comments are closed! Please keep writing!

  2. Jonathan

    Sunday 6th February 2011 at 5:37 pm

    For me it’s about being able to love the people we represent, more than simply serving them. There is a love between human beings that can show itself for just a moment and then move from our sight. But it does not die; it simply reflects the process of living in a human body, which only happens for a little while but stirs the ethers with passion and so leaves its lasting influence.

    Then, actively loving those who are trusting you to take control so they can lose it if they have to, you can talk to the place inside them that is hurting. That is the joy of this work with complete strangers, the connection between souls who would have passed in the street without noticing each other at any other time. How to do this without getting hurt yourself? We all have our ways of getting close without getting personally involved; it’s to do with understanding the nature of love, and its many forms. (Also, I find Juniperberry essential oil keeps me confident and clear of others’ vibrations, and I’m lucky enough to have been trained in Reiki, whose symbols are powefully healing and protective of the healer.)

    And you’re right, GM, my own training was Humanist but not the humanest. That’s why I resigned from the humanist network, because I was fed up with being mistaken for a Humanist (though it still happens anyway – the humanists are like the Tesco of celebrancy).

    (Note that I refrained from saying the Co-op of celebrancy – there’s a decorum to be observed on this blog!)

  3. Sunday 6th February 2011 at 5:13 pm

    Correction to mine above, “minibrant” was I think Charles’, originally. Mine was “celebster.” Daft, perhaps, but nowhere near as disfunctional as “officiant.”

  4. Sunday 6th February 2011 at 3:17 pm

    Embrace it Vale, we’re priests, just not for Jesus. Death itself, perhaps?

  5. Sunday 6th February 2011 at 8:35 am

    Such clarity, Vale, thank you, I found this helpful and illuminating. I think you are right – whether they fully realise it or not, they are conferring on us a role that can have deep meaning for them – I mean the role itself, not just what we say.

    When I started, I was probably a bit too tight-lipped and impersonal (mostly nerves, perhaps); it slowly dawned on me that the audience can benefit from any way you can involve them there and then, even if you’re doing all the talking. This, it seems to me, comes from the way you talk to and not at them, the way you use their thoughts, feelings and stories, your whole style of address.

    Only then can come the moments of gravity and intensity, the “lightning rod” moments. So yes, we do – or can, and maybe should whenever possible – have a hieratic role. Some of around GFG berate ourselves for not being sufficiently shaman-ish, for doing all the talking, for doing a default “religion-lite” sort of crem ceremony instead of developing new rituals with each family. You’re making me think that none of this matters that much,it’s if and when we can take on the role fully that really makes it work.

    New ritual elements, more participation from others, a readiness to accept a messier, more spontaneous shape to it all – these things may or may not help us be the lightning rod, but that’s what matters, surely.

    The price? As Mopsus says, a certain exhaustion, and the odd, slightly bereft sort of feeling that comes from mattering a lot for a few days to a group of people, and then just dropping away, however close you all may have felt.

    The danger? We’ll try to short-cut, and either adopt a sort of pseudo-gravity, or we’ll try to be too chatty and phonily informal. But we know how to avoid that, don’t we? Just follow your heart.

    And yes, of course, there certainly is more to it that efficiency and following a professional code. The training I had was good in part, but no use at all on these matters. Actually, bloody useless on such matters, and I find I’m still cross about that, because it may be that’s why there is some fairly heavy and probably justified criticism of humanist celebrants to be found (just check with Rupert and Claire Callender, for example.) They train us to do a good, efficient job. Fine. And??

    A widower said to me out of the blue “you’ve found your vocation, haven’t you?” It made me blink. But he was right. And if it’s not a vocation, and we’re not trained properly, and we find it hard to realise that it’s a vocation, then shame on us, individuals and organisation.

    Sorry to bang on Charles, but what an excellently helpful post. Vale, thanks again. If you go on like this, I shall have to consult the committee about a possible Gloria award. And “minibrant,” by the way, was just my facile way of trying to suggest the sort of role you describe. I don’t like “celebrant” or “officiant,” and I never mind being called a “humanist minister,” but we’re not ordained, and that’s what “minister” tends to suggest.

  6. Vale

    Sunday 6th February 2011 at 12:50 am

    I am too new to celebrancy (minibrancy?) to be able to contribute much to the conversation – too few experiences to feel comfortable about generalising…although I do recognise the experience; have felt a sudden gravity, where the silence deepens and the words seem to gain weight and meaning. It happened at a service just this Friday, when, unexpectedly, the atmosphere became very charged (I know I struggled a little to keep my composure) and, after, one of the family came up and thanked me for ‘holding it together’ for them.

    What I did want to comment on though was the connection Mopsus made between the experience he describes and his role as priest. This feels like dangerous ground for a secular newbie but does anyone else feel that all celebrants play a similar hieratic role?

    Mopsus’ post crystallised this for me. I remember, when I did my training, feeling nervous and, well, unfit for the role I was taking on. My particular moment of clarity came when we did a practice tribute in Bedford Crematorium. Standing up in front of everyone I realised that it wasn’t about me and that, if I was going to be any use to families, they needed me to put my own self doubt to one side (just for the time being you understand) and get on with playing the role that they needed me for.

    In this sense, when a family accepts you as a celebrant they are conferring something on you. I think I’m suggesting that its a sort of time limited, conditional and very non-denominational priesthood. It’s a huge honour, but it comes with a price: part of which is that you can become that lightning rod for the energy and emotion of the event, and another part is that, once the role has ended you are – happily and properly – of no further use at all.

    I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone talk about what we do in this way. Celebrants learn to be as professional as possible but almost as a sort of customer service – with the codes of practice and charters that go with it. The job must never be less that careful and professional, but there’s surely more to it than that?

  7. Friday 4th February 2011 at 12:31 pm

    Yes, I hope there will be some more responses. I find that celebrants aren’t often all that good at confessional stuff. For example, those clients with whom you have had a very warm relationship who, as soon as it’s over, switch off the relationship at the mains. Very few are comfortable talking about that, preferring brave and cheerful talk about enduring gratitude and all my testimonals and cards of thanks. What HoM has pointed to is that peculiar Zone of Unaccountability that you only get in funerals. It’s a very rich and important seam – for those brave enough to go public.

  8. Friday 4th February 2011 at 12:14 pm

    ..whereas we all know she killed by a hasp.
    Thanks Charles, and in turn, you’re spot-on with those “bright but unreadable eyes,” and the uncomfortable self-questioning they inspire.

    Hope some more minibrants make a comment, it’s an interesting area and relates I think to the sort of funerals that for example Jonathan and Rupert want us to have.

  9. Friday 4th February 2011 at 11:21 am

    “The words you wrote in (more or less) calm and seclusion suddenly seem to crackle and burn as you say them. And that may be to do with the quality of a particular kind of attention from your audience.” Yes, yes. What oft was thought but ne’er…

    Thank you, GM, you have described in clear words experiences which I had not got a handle on.

    Yes, too, to that peculiar quality of attention you sometimes get – those bright but unreadable eyes can induce a most uncomfortable self-consciousness and self-questioning.

    What you say goes a long, long way to helping me understand what had previously puzzled me. Thank you.

    Glad you enjoyed narthex. I dug it, too. Yes, nost crem architects think that Cleopatra was killed by an apse.

  10. Friday 4th February 2011 at 9:26 am

    I love the idea that his crem has a narthex! Seems to me most crem designers wouldn’t know a narthex from a hole in the ground, judging by their works.

    H’m. I agree that the size of the congregation makes little difference. I suppose the ones where you’re a lightning rod include the ones when you find, unpredictably, that you have to be careful not to let your own sudden emotion swampp your delivery. The words you wrote in (more or less) calm and seclusion suddenly seem to crackle and burn as you say them. And that may be to do with the quality of a particular kind of attention from your audience.

    Perhaps a lot of it is to do with context. I found, for example, the funerals I’ve taken for women who leave young children can have a chanelling effect. (Well, they crease me, anyway.)

    Is it maybe the ones where the gathering is looking to you for some meaning in what has befallen them? Maybe for some consolation, or some help getting to terms with such a blow? And of course sometimes, as Mopsus says, plentiful tears don’t of themselves have the same effect. Tears can be shed at the funeral of someone who had a long and fulfilled existence, but that’s very different from tight-lipped pain at the death of a young person who has suffered.

    So maybe it’s context, plus the things you say derived from the family meeting, plus x – the mysterious and unpredictable bit, which probably includes a subjective response. For exmaple, on one occasion you might be particularly sensitive to audience response, on another occasion (more tired?) you don’t pick up so many signals.

    By the way – beastly to Mopsus? I wouldn’t wish to be, but far as I remember, I was feeling particularly thin-skinned that day, and what he wrote about humanist funerals seemed to me unfair and inaccurate – but I’m not going to wade through it all again. It is notoriously easy to be beastly to people on the internet without actually meaning to be so harsh.

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