Guest post by John Porter
My first job was in a local grocer’s shop. They boiled ham in their kitchen – hmmmm, I can smell it now – and would cut three special slices, carefully wrapped in greaseproof paper for Mrs Rogers who came in every Tuesday. She chatted for a while, nobody huffed and puffed if there was a queue. The shop was stacked with huge range of products – a small quantity of each. The tinned stock was kept in the garage and I would go back and forth with a wire basket to fill and line up the items like soldiers at Trooping The Colour! It was not a village, just a typical suburban town in the south east of England but you did not have to go far to meet someone who would say hello.
Wind forward to November 2014. The two crematoriums where I lead funeral ceremonies as a celebrant seem a million miles away in spirit from the town I grew up in. Despite the many souls that have been burned or buried there they feel soulless places. As hearses glide up each drive I have seen bemused faces, surprised to meet a stranger in black, donned with hat and cane. The family’s shock at seeing the coffin for the first time (the dead person was kept miles away) creates tears. With no limousine bringing the chief mourners the out of town funeral director tries to work out who the client is. They often have to ask. How different when the person who opened the door of the funeral home is the person who processes in front of the dead!
I’m not harking back to some mystical sense of community but death certainly magnifies the lack of cohesion and tensions within families and communities. Families meet almost as strangers at hatching, matching and dispatching ceremonies. As so many of us know the letters, cards and telephone calls dry up after a few weeks and those left behind can suffer from a crippling loneliness, often left to cope on their own. No wonder people die of a broken heart. Families may live many miles from each other or in other countries that can prevent them from attending a funeral ceremony. This is a fact of modern living, often for economic reasons. Economics (okay, the will) often attracts them back and not always for the right reasons! The worst indicator of lack of community is when someone dies and no-one knows until the smell of rotting flesh becomes apparent or harbinger flies announce the fact. How awful!
As a celebrant I am in a strange and privileged position. I will definitely spend at least two hours with a family, often more, and usually in their own home. I will also speak with them on the telephone and via email before the ceremony to finalise the ceremony script and let them know everything is prepared. I’m there on the day before the funeral director arrives so can greet people and close family if they are not in the cortège. I will offer to return for a chat and coffee – not grief counselling! It is, and is most definitely not, “my” show yet I’m the guy at the front leading and supporting people who contribute. All this, of course, assumes a typical (on my patch) 30min slot at a crematorium chapel – less if a burial. Of course I am still a stranger. I do not know the person that died. I come from a different part of the country. It is extraordinary that families trust me to create and lead a funeral service for their dead loved one. I’m part of their community yet am not. I nearly always decline to attend gatherings afterwards. Does this make me a contradiction? No, but it is something I ponder on now and then.
When I started I visited the funeral directors on my patch. I soon realised that what I considered to be my local area was not shared by all. Only twelve miles away I was asked “Why have you come down here?… we use local celebrants and have done so for over 20 years”. I’m not going to unpick that very loaded statement but I must listen to what was being said. Walking in the high street I could sense that many people knew each other and I loved the villagey feel. In fact when I watch a Christmas True Movie from the USA something in me longs for the cosy community and the history oozing from the roads and buildings. Sentimental twaddle or is something else going on? Local cemeteries are a wonderful doorway to a town’s history. It is amazing to listen to older people tell stories that have been passed down through the generations. Here I go again getting all starry-eyed and soppy but a little bit of me longs for it. I really struggle to answer this question: “where are your roots”. I am a sojourner. I have friends scattered across the UK and the Globe.
As our poppies crumple and fall and we race towards Christmas I know that many funeral directors put up remembrance Christmas trees, write to clients and are involved with activities such as carol services etc. Others support local charities throughout the year. This helps them to feel part of a local community and may be good for business. Close communities can be great for repeat business if the service provided is good. Many people go with what they know and do not usually buy a funeral in the same way they would a car – looking at the market and researching before buying – though, hopefully this will change. This is where the independent family business has an advantage over the corporates. It is also risky in sustainability terms when business founders die and children or other family are not interested in funeral directing.
You may ask where is this blog going? I really cannot answer that… yet. I would like to start a conversation about this theme and will close now with a final thought. One of Aesop’s fables, The Fox and the Lion is summarised as “Familiarity breeds contempt”. This is a well-known saying. There is truth in it. If a funeral director or funeral celebrant only operates in a way that they are familiar and comfortable with then both they and clients miss out in the end. I recently saw a minister lead two funeral ceremonies one after the other – same poems recited perfectly and from the heart without reference to the text, same welcome and closing words. The tribute was different but each had a familiar ring to it – maybe mine do too!? The problem is that dying, death, funerals and grieving are generally unfamiliar to us until we are forced to engage with it. The cosyness, that feeling of belonging, being familiar with and part of a local community may breed contempt but if we are watchful and motivated to serve then it is something, I believe, we should work towards.