Killing time

Charles No Comments

Wherever dead people go they are freed from time. It’s our apprehension of this that adds to our sense of their elsewhereness and convinces us that they will not be coming back. It adds to the mystery, too. It is difficult to conceive of timeless existence, much easier to explain death in terms of annihilation.

For afterlifer John Donne “there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends or beginnings, but one equal eternity.” I find that poetically meaningful, but I’ve no exact idea what it means.

Close friends and family of just-dead people can similarly find themselves existing in a different time zone, detached, surveying the rushing world around them with anything from bemusement to anger. It’s an idea that I try to incorporate into my funeral ceremonies on the grounds that it’s useful to hold up a mirror to mourners’ feelings. It used to take me far too many words to get my meaning across, and far too many blank-eyed responses impelled me to cut down. Now I say something like, “For the time that we are here this morning, time stands still for you, for a while, and this place belongs entirely to you and to [name of dead person].”

On Friday I went to the funeral of a former work colleague. I was there for her and her only, but it was, of course, impossible also not to backseat drive the ceremony.

The celebrant, a humanist, opened proceedings with a reading about time. I didn’t recognise it, and now I shall have to write and beg him to share it. It said what I have always sought to say.

He went on to conduct the ceremony in what I thought was an exemplary way. I would say enviable as well but I am too aware of my shortcomings to suppose that I could ever be as good as him.

His words were apt. He dressed the dead person in her best light, and why not, on this day of days? It was a happy likeness.

Outstanding, though, was his manner. It was utterly unhurried. In the context of a crematorium this was all the more remarkable because crems are tyrannised by clocks. He detached us from all sense of time even though he was on a tight deadline. What’s more, he detached himself from himself and came across as a person of no interest to us. To perform that well, ego free, unself-conscious, and thereby give the stage wholly to our dead friend, was an extraordinary accomplishment.

I am tempted to draw the conclusion that the hallmark of a memorable funeral is a forgettable celebrant, and the hallmark of a meaningful funeral is a serenity which derives from a sense of time suspended. It’s a bit pat, you’ll have your own view, and it may not do for every funeral, but I think there’s something in it.

The name of the celebrant I heard is Leslie Scrase. If you live close to Bridport, in Dorset, I commend him to you.


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