The Work of the People

Charles 21 Comments

By Vale

Some words seem problematic for the secularist. There was a good to-and-fro recently about ‘ritual’ on the blog a while ago and, in Funerals Without God, Jane Wilson says (a little sniffily to my mind) that Humanists talk about ‘ceremonies’ rather than ‘services’ because ceremonies are about celebration and mutual support while ‘service’ merely implies something done for God.

‘Service’ is one way in which the old word liturgy is translated and, if ‘service’ alarms the secular cats, liturgy puts their ears flat and their fur on end. As far as I can make out there are (at least) two reasons for this. The first is that the word has always been a religious expression. The second is that liturgy implies a fixed order of service: words said and actions done in a prescribed way. And, of course, we celebrants aspire to the ideal of unique and individually tailored services.

I don’t want to spend too much time on the religious objections. It matters, but the argument that religion has – for far too long – been allowed to colonise and define what is important and intrinsic to each of us, or that part of our job here should be to insist on reclaiming it as a right (a sort of Arab Spring of the spirit), can wait for another day.

No, I want to think about liturgy as something that could be important to take into account in the ceremonies I (we) have been creating.

Sure, we do wonderful things – flowers, doves, candles, music and motorbikes – but, if we are honest, aren’t these memorable because they are the exception? I’m not saying that our ceremonies aren’t individual, that we don’t try to tailor what we do, or that the elaborateness of the ceremony is any guide to the depth of feeling but…but… is it just me or does everyone get tired sometimes of the sound of their own voice? Are we all sweating over words that try to bring out something more of the meaning and value of the ceremony we are creating? Do others lie awake thinking of ways to engage people more in what is being enacted in front of them?

Liturgy is also translated as ‘the work of the people’ in the sense that, in religious services, God is asked to do something, but the congregation are expected to work too – through prayer, repentance, and all the regular religious ducking and dancing. In this sense Liturgy is less about words than the expectation that, when you are in a service, you are expected to do something too. Quakers sitting in silence waiting for the spirit to move them are practising a liturgy.

Of course the religions have this nailed down now. People who take part in religious services know what is expected of them. Are we letting people down by not expecting ‘work’ from them in our ceremonies? They aren’t services for God but shouldn’t celebrations also be services for the support and comfort of the people gathered together?

Isn’t there work to be done?


  1. Charles

    “Isn’t there work to be done?”

    No doubt. Its clear from this powerful post that you’re doing your share of it. That is brave work.

    This is what I love about the GFG blog (and the work of others reflecting on death). It reeks of authenticity, a much needed quality in this world.

  2. Charles

    Work to be done? Oh yes. And I’d say ’embodiment’ is an important part of it.

    In losing the linguistic bit of the liturgy, secularists – and other non-religious – have diminished the access to the comfort and inspiration, the resonant poetry of the traditional texts: ‘dust to dust’, and so forth. But all too often what’s retained includes the pews in which people stiffly sit, their bodily behaviours censored, self-censored and constrained. Maybe there’s a moment to place a rose or crumble some pre-selected earth, but where’s the chance to rattle and roll in the grieving body?

    From my observation, Africa knows how to do this. Those here out of Africa via the Caribbean hold fast to their physically energetic tradition of backfilling of the grave, where the work of the men is energised by the chanting and singing of the women. The three-day funerals I’ve joined in Burkina Faso include many embodied processes.

    When early Christianity sought to distance itself from the perceived decadence of paganism, the embodiment of spirituality and emotion was disdained. This thoughtform is tenacious: seeing dancing at UK funerals in my lifetime seems all too improbable.

    Or is there hope? A few years ago I acted as celebrant at a funeral for a secular older man who was a jazz enthusiast. As people trickled into the crem, there was some very chirpy music playing and, standing at the front of that crem’s particularly wide aisle, I found myself spontaneously jigging. I suppressed it, feeling that it wasn’t MY place to set a pagan tone. But I did wonder, were we but a molecule away from the work of dancing our sorrows?

  3. Charles

    We took a service today at a woodland burial ground where the equivalent of the committal was the 13 year old son reading the last few pages of the Roald Dahl he had been reading to his mother in hospital. All the family and friends filled in the grave while we blared out Ray of Light by Madonna on our portable mp3 player. Those not filling danced. We’re getting there! Agree with all you say Vale, and Jon and Katherine.

  4. Charles

    Wow. What a valuable post and set of comments. I share your unease, Vale, at the uninterrupted sound of my own voice, however pleased I am with what the family have given me and I’ve been able to write up.

    And it is a strain sometimes, trying to reach lift-off (the moment where the conceptual, the emotional and factual – if one can thus separate matters – fuse), the bits that make the people smile, weep, look at each other and nod. And that’s rewarding, but it’s not a lot of work/contribution.

    At our local crem, I witnessed from the wings a funeral that had a kind of dancing. It involved people who followed a particular set of neo-Hindu beliefs, though they weren’t Indian themselves i.e. they’d taken the road East many years ago, probably from Potters Bar and Cheadlehume. I was delighted at the way they took over the crem, moved around, had a big board of photos – and alarmed at the degree to which they over-ran!

    At same crem, they’ve had a live jazz band play the coffin in and out, but no-one danced. (I hope they played “Didn’t He Ramble,” wish I’d seen it.) So that’s a first to Rupert, I’d say, and to his liturgical co-workers.

    We (secular celebrants) tend to get excited when a family does most or all of the ceremony. But valuable though that is, you could say it is substituting one voice for another, still nothing active for everyone else to do.

    Burkino Faso sounds wonderful, but that’s their culture, ours hasn’t worked much like that for most of us, and we can’t change our culture overnight. And should we wish to? There may be a tension between what we think is good for people (more participation, expression, involvement)and the wish to serve people as they are, where they are. We can suggest and explore with them, but maybe we shouldn’t wish to choreograph them.

    I’m very aware that we could sound a bit self-righteous. “What you need, mate, is singing, dancing and grave-filling.” “No it isn’t. I want to sit quietly, grieve, listen and remember. That’ll help me.”

    The neo-Hindus had what suited them. Colonel and Mrs Chuffington-Thomas should have what suits them, i.e. well-known hymns, ancient church, etc etc.

    I think one key to this is singing. H’mm. More anon.

    ps What’s wrong with “service” anyway? It is, or should be, a service to all present and deceased.

  5. Charles

    Well, Vale, I’ve just got to wade into this one. Shallow end first:

    I too sweat over words, and lie awake angst-ing about how to get people doing something active to get more out of a grieving ritual. But the last two days brought into sharp relief for me how they’re often quietly doing the work already.

    Yesterday I gave a talk on celebrancy, involving an edited sample of words I’d once spoken at a funeral. I’d hoped they’d see it as a demonstration, but reading it to an audience who didn’t know the person who’d died felt more like I was recording it for a radio broadcast.

    Today, after days of talking with a family, listening and getting to know them personally, re-writing, re-accommodating till the last of the last-minute changes squeezed its way into the script like a frantic commuter between the closing doors of a tube train, and the schedule was timed to the last miserable second grudgingly doled out by the crematorium, I talked to the congregation in just the same fashion as yesterday. The difference was tangible.

    The difference? Audience feedback. They didn’t actually speak out, but I wouldn’t have been surprised, or fazed. The family and I had bonded closely over the lady who’d died, as we most often do. The other ‘mourners’ could feel it too, and they actively joined in with nodding agreement about her charisma, laughing at her endearing antics, sighing about her tragedies and smiling at me as I reflected what they’d given me, about not just their loss but what they’re left with for keeps. They felt fulfilled, and they responded by engaging visibly with me and each other, even by clapping in time to the exit music.

    Yes, they did the work of the people, no question. Without them, nothing would have happened, obviously – the mourners ARE the ceremony. Letting them down? Ask them. Support and comfort? They shared it freely in the atmosphere specially created to do just that. They did, in their staid English middle-class way, ‘rattle and roll in the grieving body’.

    But of course it’s not always like that. Sometimes, watching people sitting silently in geometric rows of pews, avoiding eye contact with me, I feel as if I’m lecturing them about what they know much better than I ever could (though afterwards they say how good it felt – there’s nowt so queer as folk), and I yearn for something to invite them to DO.

    No, not sing a bloody pop song out of tune, that won’t do it. Put flowers on the coffin? Light a candle from the flame of the deceased for the next generation? Do those things Vale rightly calls ‘the exception?’ It’s surprising how reticent people are to do anything I suggest, let alone think of anything themselves, once they’ve been through the mill of the funeral director’s first (and often only) interview. Their imaginations are most definitely not stimulated, they expect the least and are satisfied to be satisfied with even less.

    Besides, much of what could have worked is now impossible within the constraints of the funeral director’s own arrangements. Lower the coffin? Fill the grave? “We couldn’t take the risk”, etc. Rupert, most people at a funeral would have a right to feel envious of others who have the (very rare) exceptions such as you and Claire encouraging them to make their own arrangements in their own family traditions that work for them. The vast majority are castrated by the funeral director’s guidance by the time they reach the celebrant, and all she can do is limit their feelings of intimidation.

    Yes, I’m sorry, I’m laying it at the door of the funeral directors. I’m not blaming them, they don’t know they’re doing it; it’s just how it is.

    I have (given the chance) helped people explore their responses to death and create a lively occasion in practice that matches them, which expresses them in active ritual that has nothing to do with ‘liturgy’ in the accepted sense, something that has never been done before nor will again. It’s simple, yet it’s so rare.

    I’ve conducted workshops that place people in an imaginary situation, where there are no funeral directors or crematoria or hospitals or celebrants or anyone to tell them what to do, when one of their community dies. They have to respond entirely from their own initiative and figure it out for themselves, and they come up with some ideas that blow the mind, not least because they don’t realize they’re almost always realizable in real life. I’ve found out this way that people instinctively know what to do when someone dies. They do, if only they’re encouraged to find out for themselves.

    “How does this way compare with funerals you’ve arranged?” I ask them. “It doesn’t!!” comes the invariable reply.

    Funeral directors are simply no good at ceremony, unsurprisingly because they’re only trained in repetitive liturgy. They shouldn’t be involved at all. It’s celebrants who should be in charge of arrangements about where, who, what, how, when, why, procession, proceedings, accessories, coffins, vehicles, ritual, involvement…all the stuff that makes for good ceremony that does its job. We’d be lifting a burden from the poor funeral directors once they’d cottoned on that all they need do is hand it all to us and get on with what they’re trained for.

    Call me an unrealistic revolutionary, but we’ve simply got to become the first port of call for the bereaved, because it’s the ceremony that’s the reason for the funeral.

  6. Charles

    Funny you should lay that out, Jonathan. I’ve been thinking for a while that the funeral business is upside-down. Of course it out to be fronted by ritualists: the opening conversation needs to be about the desired psychic environment and activities, not about coffins and cars. We need to stand the whole thing the other way up, so that the first person a client meets [NB terminology: ‘client’, because what’s on offer is professional judgement, as opposed to ‘customer’ who just buys things] is someone qualified to have a conversation about ritual.

    The ceremony is indeed one of the reasons for the funeral, but another important reason is disposal, the luxury of peacetime society in which a body is not just abandoned to the dogs in a ditch. The materialists therefore have a part, but the conversation about it should be downstream of where it is now.

    We can instigate this change little by little, led by geniuses like Rupert and Claire. And we can attempt something huge and radical. The time is now! Who’s up for it??

  7. Charles

    I’m up for it, Kathryn.

    I’d just like to raise a rather pedantic disinction between the funeral and the disposal of the body. Disposal by itself is just a legal and practical requirement, and not a reason for a funeral, which is to accompany the disposal with ceremony to try and make some sense out of bereavement and death in the moment when it’s right here with us. So, the method and style of disposal become part of a ceremony (or should do). The ceremony is the actual reason people turn up, not to make sure the body’s buried or burned. That’s why I think the ceremonialists should be the front line, and if the undertakers want a part of it, brilliant, let them work with us instead of hiring us to work for them.

    It’s us who should be recommending a funeral director, not the other way round; but to do that we’d need to be involved co-operatively in arrangements to collect the body that’s currently causing an inconvenience to someone who needs it off his premises or out of her home. A lot would need to change; notably the hierarchy, and the acceptance of a fundamental change in it by those currently at the top.

  8. Charles

    The Manual is being written here. I’m up for it, and Jonathan is a revolutionary but not unrealistic – in practical terms, putting the horse back in front of the cart should be simple enough, but HOW?

    I’m going to talk to an FD this pm as a try-out, ask her what she says at the first meeting, how she decides whether or not to suggest me, and a lot of other stuff I shall take from this posting and discussion. And since I don’t want to be a FD, I’m going to suggest to a couple I know that they should consider turning themselves into Ruperts and Clares, i.e. train up and do the whole thing.
    One practical prob – that first meeting, so crucial – how can we get in at that stage when neither FD nor celebrant knows if they want a religious ritual or what we’re trying to do? That’s why I’m trying to help a few FDs think more broadly about the first meeting – sorry if that sounds arrogant, but not enough time for thought and tact, gotta go and try it.
    What think’st?

  9. Charles

    I’m proud to say that I have ‘led’ a funeral at which there was dancing. Well, they danced in their pews – a somewhat cramped and confining space; fixed pews don’t half keep people in their place. It was very much a LGBT funeral. There was gorgeous turnout of transvestites plus the dead woman’s former boyfriend, a male stripper who bills himself Lethal Weapon. It reminds us, perhaps, of the impact the gay community made on funerals when the AIDS epidemic was at its height. The most effective subverters of convention are those who are least conventional.

    That ceremony-making got to be an ancillary service tells us something about the smart way the undertakers managed to create a business model which gave them primacy, but I think it tells us very much more about consumers’ expectations of a funeral. That they attach so little importance to the ceremony speaks of their rejection of the idea that a funeral is of any use.

    The task of funeral reformers lies, I believe, not so much in remodelling the dog so that once again it wags the tail as in demonstrating to the bereaved that a darn good sendoff can do an enormous amount to promote their emotional health by enabling them to grieve well at the best time for grieving.

    A few years ago the Funeral Service Journal published a letter I wrote in which I proposed that if undertakers didn’t start to assign greater value to celebrants, they would find themselves employed by them. I expected a reaction. Reaction came there none. FDs know their market.

    I hadn’t reckoned either with the readiness of celebrants to devalue their service by selling themselves so cheap.

    My belief is that only market forces will bring about change. Only when people can see what marvellous things a really good funeral can do for them will they assign full value to the event and assign primacy to the ceremony-maker. The logical development would be that FDs would find themselves in partnership with the best celebrants. There would be a much needed winnowing of those who aren’t up to it and a rise in status for all survivors.

    Let’s never underestimate the integrity and dedication of the very many excellent funeral directors there are out there. Things being as they are, they are the best it gets. But they too serve the cause of better funerals and the very best are capable of and eager for evolution.

    It’s things as they are that’s the problem. We need to make the case for better funerals, not better funeral directors, and talk to the public, not the industry.

    Do shoot me down.

  10. Charles

    From a news story today:

    “THE husband of a woman who died in a car crash has spoken of his “incalculable” loss. Liz Meechan, 45, died after her silver BMW hit a tree near her home village of Bampton at 2am on Monday. She was returning home after an evening with friends. No other vehicles were involved. Her husband Mike, 47, said: “The loss is incalculable. I cannot properly quantify it. It will not kick in until after the funeral, the big things and the small things.””

    In other words, he can’t start to deal with it til he’s got the funeral out of the way. Says a lot about the value people assign to funerals as events which can be transformative of grief.

  11. Charles

    Yes, it says the funeral is the obstacle to grieving. And yes, we celebrants undervalue ourselves as long as we go on trying to sell ourselves to the wrong market, the one that undervalues us. Going through the FDs is the easy way, but it’s the one that ultimately keeps us powerless.

  12. Charles

    … and anyway, how did they succeed in business by marketing their product as something their customers don’t want?

  13. Charles

    So Vale starts a really very useful discussion about the nature and quality of funeral ceremonies, we get some excellent contributions, and now we are back here talking about structural matters, and grumbling about FDs. Oh well, I’ll try a bit of cack-handed thinking aloud meself in this area:

    So we are too cheap – so I put up my prices, and I get used less. I make as much or more money, help fewer people. I’m not doing it to make much money. Even I can do that more easily than by celebrancy.

    Or, I make an alliance with a small number of FDs – interesting idea – and again, probaly charge more. So, my alliance’s funerals cost more, and we become the wealthier person’s route to the grave (market forces…)

    How can we get primacy given to the ceremony-makers? How can we talk to the public? (Other than the excellent GFG?)How do we not go through the FDs?

    Going through FDs is not a choice we make, it’s not the easy way, it’s surely the only way, about 80% of the time, at present. It’s the structure.

    And that structure is part of our culture’s attitudes towards death. “We need to get Granny’s body out of the house/car wreck/hospital ward. So I’ll just talk to that Gloria M about what happens next.”

    Not very likely at present, I suggest. Gloria M doesn’t deal with bodies, and she’s too bloody old to start doing so now! So the present structure is corpse-led, not driven by a search for ceremony and meaning.

    The few ceremonies that come to me other than via an FD’s phone call are either from personal recommendation or prior attendance, or from the much-criticised (by you lot) BHA – their website.

    But anyway, I’m most interested in making the funerals I do now as good as possible, however they come my way. And that means giving the people in front of me what they want, even if it’s someone who says he can’t grieve until after the funeral. Yes, a good funeral can and should be be transformative, and that man may find it so – I really hope he does – but in any case, I’ll attend to him. Just as he is. Even if he wants “My Way.”

    I’m next most interested in HOW to move forward – I mean, the Commentariat seems to me to be broadly in agreement, with interesting variations and degrees of difference. If we all keep agreeing on what’s wrong, we shall all soon ignite in a pyrotechnic display of righteousness.

    What is to be done?

    I’d like to work myself into redundancy by getting a few “suitable” FDs I know to work up to celebrancy, with help from me as necessary. In other words, we want more Ruperts and Clares (maybe others of the Commentariat and readership are also both FD and celebrant, I wouldn’t know)

    I also think we’re part of a big push that is changing public attitudes towards mortality and accompanying rituals and activities.

    That’ll take quite a time.

    My feeling at present is tending towards local action – local alliances, local initiatives. Think globally, act locally.

    My discussion (see above if you’re interested) went pretty well, but it was only a start.

    Meanwhile, back to the next ceremony. What will work best for these particular people?

  14. Charles

    Wow! This feels like throwing a paper dart at a venture and watching it grow wings and fly off on it’s own. Charles is probably used to the sensation, but for a first time blogger it feels like an immense privilege to be part of this conversation.

    It seems to me that, if there is work to be done we are each in our own way already engaged in it. The most exciting part is that it has already gone beyond thinking and is moving into practice – Ruperts beautiful service, Gloria’s friendly challenge to her local FDs, all our services as they arise.

    But lots of questions too. The issue of where meaning and symbolic action resides in our culture is crucial. And here, you can’t get past the fact that all of us here are a little peculiar. We are not safe guides to popular feeling or where our culture resides. If we were, my guess is that we’d be devising rituals in modules to be played on the Wii – probably using dramatic incidents from a range of soaps for people to enact.

    I also want to understand better the necessary motions of the heart and spirit that might, invisibly, give structure to a service and help us all ensure that grieving and celebration are – as often as possible – the gateways they should be to the possibility of renewed life.

    I think Tom Lehrer makes a good start here – is this how services might work…?

    The Vatican Rag

    First you get down on your knees,
    Fiddle with your rosaries,
    Bow your head with great respect,
    And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!

    Do whatever steps you want, if
    You have cleared them with the Pontiff.
    Everybody say his own
    Kyrie eleison,
    Doin’ the Vatican Rag.

    Get in line in that processional,
    Step into that small confessional,
    There, the guy who’s got religion’ll
    Tell you if your sin’s original.
    If it is, try playing it safer,
    Drink the wine and chew the wafer,
    Two, four, six, eight,
    Time to transubstantiate!

    So get down upon your knees,
    Fiddle with your rosaries,
    Bow your head with great respect,
    And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!

    Make a cross on your abdomen,
    When in Rome do like a Roman,
    Ave Maria,
    Gee it’s good to see ya,
    Gettin’ ecstatic an’
    Sorta dramatic an’
    Doin’ the Vatican Rag

  15. Charles

    “…all of us are a little peculiar..” says Vale. How dare you, sir! I refuse to settle for less than “distinctly odd, moving towards crackers.” It’s a sound point.

    And Vale’s para “I want to understand..” through to “..renewed life.” goes on the title page of The Manual. Beautiful, quotable, true. That understanding, in whatever structures we have to endure, is our vocation, surely.

  16. Charles

    This is all fascinating stuff, but I fear that most of us will have had our own funeral before real changes are made.

    Just this week I met a family; the man who had died loved popular music, but we’re having classical because “that’s what we should have” according to his daughter; something conservative, something safe. People fear being thought of as too quirky and it being interpreted as “disrespectful”. Until we can convince them otherwise, we are stuck with the old ways.

    But also, let’s not underestimate how much comfort people have with the old ways – it should always remain one of the options.

    I don’t mean to sound like the voice of gloom, and I’m also up for a different approach. It’s through people seeing something as wonderful as the funeral that Rupert put together, that they realise there are choices.

    So, even if we’re fighting our battles for those who come later, it’s worth having a little go now and then.


  17. Charles

    The family put the funeral together, we just gave them the courage to do it. They too struggled with ideas of what was ‘respectable’ but very quickly overcame that when we talked it through. What is needed is time to allow it to evolve and develop properly, space to change your mind or mull things over for a day or two, in this case it took 11 days. I would like to add that this family had never done anything like this before, or known anyone who had.

  18. Charles

    Wise words XP,well-balanced view, good to hear your voice .And Rupert’s comment about space and time to change your mind reinforces my view that we need more FDs who are also good celebrants and can work the whole thing right through from that crucial first meeting. Like him. I don’t generally get contacted until after the FD has already booked the bloody crem.

  19. Charles

    Which tells us a lot about the quality of people required to en-courage people to follow their hearts and put all other considerations aside. We live, after all, in a stifling culture, funeralwise.

    To answer your question, Vale (it seems a long time ago), YES.

    GM, point taken re prices. I think the joined-up R & C model is very attractive. Given the skills to be spanned they may be the exception, if also the ideal. Until they become general (well beyond XP’s lifetime and most certainly mine), I wish FDs would work more closely with celebrants and take some damn interest in what they do. The jobs may be different but the ‘pastoral’ work is definitely the same for both.

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