Photos by Lucy Wallace
Posted by Ru Callender
I have taken funeral ceremonies for thirteen years now, and like all things done for long enough, I feel comfortable in the doing.
They can still scare me witless. I used not to sleep the night before, but there is a familiar feel to the ritual that I recognise. The seconds before they start are amongst the stillest and calmest points of my daily life. I feel my heartbeat synchronise with a bigger rhythm, I feel in the right place, aligned to my own spiritual equinox.
Weddings are a different kettle of bride.
A curious friend asked us whether we ever did them, and Claire launched off into her stock answer as to why not; the scary demands of manic bridezillas intent on the perfect wedding, the glacially long time spent preparing them compared with the short intensity of a funeral, the bad behavior that accompanies them so often.
One of the things that attracts my wife to our work is that bullshit is the first casualty of death, authenticity and realness just won’t be denied access to the feast, and this is what can make them so nourishing for those who conduct them.
Compare this with the often ludicrous rituals that a soon to be married couple put their friends through; the choking atmosphere filled with irony and the unsaid, the absurd cost, the bizarre taste, the will they won’t they make it whispered conversations and it is clear why we stay well away. I also harbour a secret fear that I won’t be able to cut the emotional mustard unless everyone is poleaxed by grief, that my words only function within the context of deep sadness, all good reasons to stick to eulogising the dead.
This reply has become almost a routine, so we were shocked when just after rattling this off our friend looked slightly downcast and said, “Shame, I was hoping you would both conduct mine.” Like many people of strongly held principle when faced with a faux pas of their own doing, we immediately backpeddled and said we’d be delighted too.
And so it was that this summer we found ourselves doing two ceremonies that were new to us, a wedding, though not our lovely friends; that glints away in the dream of next summer, but a wedding for a beautiful vivacious young woman whose uncle we had buried, and a baby naming for two of our dear friends.
Both parties were incredibly trusting in the freedom they allowed us. The couple getting married had done so legally and quietly the day before, no guests no fuss, and they placed themselves entirely in my hands for what we were to do. We decided together on what vows they would say, simple ones of committal to each other, but the context in which they were said they left up to me.
At the beginning of the ceremony, I had an empty chair placed by the family pew for the beloved uncle whose death had brought us together. Then I called down all of their ancestors on both sides of their family to symbolically join us.
I made it very clear that whether they believed in the continuation of the spirit after death or not, these people had preceded them, without them they would not be there and they were links in a chain that included their genetic ancestors, and their spiritual ones, all the people who had influenced and shaped them in their lives so far, and these connections stretched off into the future, a spreading web that linked them with their possible unborn children, and the people whose lives they were to shape and influence in their turn. It seemed to work, this fusion of the real and the imagined, the genetic and the social, much more so than an invocation to a god that so few there believed in. I was as nervous as I was at my first funeral, but pleased with how this ceremonial sidestep had gone.
The wedding was relatively simple, but with the baby naming ceremony things became more complicated. As it approached, Claire would literally whimper when I mentioned it.
It wasn’t just the newness of the ceremony that was frightening us, but the congregation; most of them good friends, all curious to see us strut our ritual stuff.
Young William was nearly a year old, and as well as formerly naming him, we were appointing what would in a Christian framework be called ‘Godparents,’ but the ceremony we were asked to do was by it’s very nature non-Christian. Luckily we had a precedent for this in our own lives.
Our girls, at a very tender age, had decided entirely on their own that they wanted one of these figures in their lives, and approached Claire’s dearest friend and asked her, and when she agreed, they created a ceremony by themselves to cement this new union.
We called her their ‘oddparent.’ When our friends heard this, they laughed and agreed that indeed, the motley crew of friends they were appointing could be described as just that, so that settled things semantically, but the ceremony our children created and enacted themselves wasn’t going to work here, consisting as it did of a long recitation of the full version of “You are my sunshine”, sung to their oddmother while wearing their flamenco dresses.
Creating new rituals from scratch is daunting, and many, most, fall at the first hurdle.
I have a horror of pick and mix ceremonies, plucking the most aesthetically pleasing bits from someone else’s belief system; a smidge of Buddhism here, a prayer from a saint there, a nod to some vague new age environmental sentiments and hoping that the overall effect cancels out the sour aftertaste that comes with inappropriate cultural pillage.
It can be seen everywhere, on the biceps of young men whose Chinese script tattoos spell out who knows what, to the religious icons hung around necks and wrists without even the pretence of adherence to those beliefs. It reaches its zenith in that video that went viral on the internet of a smiling Swiss couple renewing their vows on a beach in the Maldives by an ‘elder’, oblivious to the tongue lashing curses he is bestowing on them, heaped scorn and sexual insults blended with unfettered disgust; may your ovaries wither, I take thee infidel etc.
Only the flintiest of hearts would fail to feel sorry for them in their moment of global humiliation, but anyone who choses appearance over content when doing something as serious as committing for life to a partner deserves something of what they get.
So there is very little borrowing from other cultures or religions when you engage our services but sometimes, you just have to take inspiration from elsewhere, and do some adaptation.
A traditional christening involves welcoming the child into the arms of the church, annointing their forehead with holy water from the baptismal font, and getting the godparents to swear to forsake the devil and to steer the child towards Christ.
We weren’t doing any of these things, which nicely raised the pertinent question, what were we doing?
Obviously, Billy’s parents wanted to invite some significant adults in their lives to have an input into his raising, that much was obvious, and they had reasons for choosing who they had, and they wanted their son to have his name recognised in some formal way, but doing this without the inclusive feel of the traditional religious service was going to be tricky.
The origin of the word Religion comes from the latin ‘ligare’ meaning to bind.
William Blake knew what it meant to him: “..priests in black gowns were walking their rounds, and binding with briars my joys and desires,” but modern scholars like Joseph Campbell have a slightly different take, seeing it as re ligare, meaning to reconnect, and this is what religion at its best used to do; it connected us. In abandoning this complex intermingling of social and spiritual belief we have inevitably distanced ourselves from each other, meeting on common ground less and less, and when we do, it is often at ceremonies that fail us.
Funerals are one ceremony that have shifted. The battle to make a funeral about the person who has died rather than the church has been well and truly won. Very few people, even the religiously devout, find the type of service in which the dead person’s name is simply inserted into a ritual acceptable anymore, but in winning this battle, we have taken some serious casualties.
I think that funerals actually need to recalibrate themselves again, to make them not just about the person who has died, but about us all, because really, unless something is actually about us directly, we find it difficult to fully pay attention. I don’t think we should feel judgmental or guilty about this, its just the way we are hardwired. After all, empathy means actually feeling someone else’s emotions yourself, not just understanding them.
So with this thought foremost in our minds, we set out to create a ceremony that didn’t seem phony, and didn’t leave everyone present feeling like an audience at an indulgent, solipsistic piece of nonsense.
We were helped by our location; a beautiful semi-secret campsite on a clifftop near us affectionately known as Totnes-by-Sea. Near to a great pub, and run by a velvet gloved iron fisted farmer, all who were invited were invited for the weekend, and as it turned out to be one of the few nice weekends of the summer, everyone arrived in good time on Friday afternoon.
We asked the four oddparents in waiting to bring something significant that could be burnt. They all brought some wood, some more seriously than others; driftwood, a small wooden idol, a coffee stirrer from a caffeine-addicted oddparent in waiting, all very welcome and appropriate, and along with some other bits and pieces; some grass from the field we were in, a fragment of a log that burnt at our wedding, a bit of shell from a favourite beach, they were burnt in the firebowl as we sat around, drinking late into the night.
Billy’s parents come from Torbay, ringed with distinctive red sandstone, moist and crumbly, and we asked them to bring a handful with them, pulled from the cliffs.
First thing Saturday morning, we took a symbolic pinch of the previous night’s ash, put it into a mortar with the ochre like stone, and within minutes, had something which would not have looked out of place sprayed around an outstretched hand onto a cave wall in Lascaux.
I felt a connection to an ancient lineage while mixing it, the presence of innumerable figures from the past, spiritual ancestors who tended fires, ritually grinding pigments and ash and blessings together for their community. I felt part a prehistoric priesthood that had been marking important moments since the dawn of time, a priesthood whose rituals morphed and branched off into Hinduism, making the mark of Shiva’s footprint between the eyes, or Catholicism, smudging burnt palm fronds onto the forehead of the faithful on Ash Wednesday, even the gaudy third eye psychedelic adornments of the counterculture. They all seemed to flow from the same source.
The first thing that needed to be done was for us all to formally come together.
What we all had in common, was Billy’s lovely parents, but we all represented different areas of both their lives. We pointed out that in being here, we all formed another tribe, brought together in the flesh for one day only, a tribe centered around Billy, one made entirely out of love.
We are of course all part of many overlapping tribes, but it is easy to stop seeing this, to lose the feeling of being bound together, for better or worse. Every so often, we need to be reminded we’re not as alone as we fear, we need to feel solidarity, human warmth, companionship. Gathering around a new life is a great place to do this.
Having drawn some sort of a ring around us, we talked about each oddparent, what they meant to Nigel and Cassie, and what they hoped they would bring to young William’s life.
It was a chance for the oddparents to hear a little bit about how their friends saw them; part acknowledgement, part thank you, part invitation, flattery with insight, a bit of gentle teasing with a soft finish. They looked embarrassed, thrilled and moved, but above all, they looked involved.
When it came time for the naming, we produced the mineral and burnt offering paste. We welcomed Billy into his tribes; our gathering, his family, the wider human community. We welcomed him into life itself, scary, relentless but filled with moments of joy and connectedness. We daubed him with the puja, “the blessing”, then we marked his odd parents. Then his odd parents marked his parents and us, and so it continued until everyone present had been anointed with the mixture.
It dried like blood above our eyes, and as it dried, it stitched us all together; the living and the dead, the unborn and the never-may-be’s, the babies, the kids, grandparents, friends, even the dogs. The moment itself was acknowledged, welcomed, defined and celebrated.
Then the tribe broke bread, and drank and laughed and danced all night around the fire.
We name this boy William Jacob. We welcome him into his family, we welcome him into our tribe, and we welcome him into the wider human race. We hope that his life is filled with rich experiences and emotions. We hope that he has the strength for battling with his demons whatever they may be, just as we hope that he can feel the whispered reassurance of his angels. We wish him the sensitivity to give neither too much sway, to come to an awareness of all aspects of his personality, however long that takes, and for the patience of all who love him as he finds his way there. We wish him the strength and courage to deal with the trials of life, and the senses and inclinations to enjoy it’s pleasures. Above all, we wish him love and laughter and joy, the most important things in this life.