The truth, the half truth and nothing of the truth

Charles Cowling

The dead man’s father, a Jehovah’s Witness, had been estranged from his funny, funloving, humanist son for years. Now that his boy was dead, he wanted to reclaim him and give him a proper Jehovah’s Witness funeral.

We talked about this, the dead man’s widow and I; we explored compromises. We wanted to include the parents but they fortified their position. We were compelled either be true to the truth and celebrate the life, or let the Witnesses repossess the body and recycle it through an alien theology.

When, outside, after the godless ceremony, the father emerged from a huddle of Witnesses and came for me, I knew it was going to be angry and ugly.

“I didn’t recognise any single thing of my son in that twaddle you spoke, you had no idea what or who you were talking about … disgraceful …shameful …how dare you…” and so on. It wasn’t a dialogue, it was a performance.

The abuse having expended itself, I walked back to the car reflecting wryly that, of course, he was right. The life story I had told was but a version. I’d never met the dead man; I had no idea who I was talking about. His friends happily told me I had hit the spot, got him bang right. But, as with the father, I only had their word for it.

This is the essentially absurd thing about being a secular funeral celebrant, and it’s exactly the same for religious celebrants when the dead person was not a member of their congregation. The celebrant, the only stranger at the funeral, is often the one who speaks with absolute authority about the dead person. Celebrants tell stories but can visualise none of the events we describe; we talk of what dead people mean to others, but they mean nothing to us. At the funeral of a scientist his friends appraised me with the cool objectivity of high intelligence; their eyes conveyed the message, “Who the heck are you?” I had to concur. I felt like an interloper. I was.

Of course, if we listen to what others say we can do a good job, write a good tribute, paint a pretty good word portrait. People like what we do. They’d do it themselves if grief and a horror of public speaking didn’t stop them. They are very grateful. We have our uses, our value. We help.

But I wonder how many artists would be able to make a visual likeness from a verbal description.

Warring families are difficult. So are private families and genteel families. They’re cagey. You’re an intrusive stranger and you’re not minding your own business. And celebrants are not fearless investigative reporters; we must work with what we are given. Sometimes that means telling a highly edited version of the truth and sometimes it means making bricks with straw.

Here’s a warm and delightfully written blog post which illustrates what I mean. All celebrants know what this feels like:

… the Senior Pastor had to be away and assigned me the task of conducting the funeral. Her family lived elsewhere and I had never met them. I spent a few minutes with them at their hotel room planning the service. They did not want it to be too long, but also they did not want it to be too short. They wanted it to be personal, but not too personal. They wanted some Scripture, but not too much Scripture. They wanted this, but not that. It was clear they did not really trust me, but they had no other option. I wasn’t even sure what was considered too short or too long. As I began to speak on the day of the funeral, I realized I had covered everything I had to say in the first three minutes, and was acutely aware this was definitely too short. I filled a couple more minutes talking about the fact that she raised rabbits, but I knew nothing about rabbits, so that ended rather quickly and awkwardly. It was at that moment I realized I really knew nothing about this family or the deceased. It was a disaster and the Honorarium I was secretly excited about receiving never materialized.

Read the whole post here.

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