Uncle Arthur

Charles 7 Comments


Posted by Ariadne


For an altar there was the chest of drawers in the corner by the window.  Flowers, candles, drawings and sea urchin shells collected from the beach.  The bedroom had turquoise walls or perhaps they were white and it’s just memory doing the decorating.  When everything was right and ready, I made my parents and 10 year old sister file in and stand solemnly bearing witness, hands folded.  I may have bossed them around further, but from this distance the details are hazy.  I spoke and they did as they were told and so we all said our goodbyes to Uncle Arthur.  I count this as my first service.  It was my 8th summer.  

Uncle Arthur had come to live with us after the death of his wife Dotty, my Father’s Aunt.   In his eighties, he wore a collar, tie and waistcoat even at weekends and had fought in the First World War.  I was 6, wore an eager expression most of the time and fought with tying my shoelaces.  We had plenty in common.   He taught me the names of garden birds, trained me in shoe-polishing, button-sewing and cigarette rolling.  We’d watch Thunderbirds, Dixon of Dock Green and Z cars together on a small black and white TV.  I’d play my recorder along to the Z Cars theme tune.   This would put him in a bad mood.  We’d cheer together for Mick McManus or Giant Haystacks on Grandstand wrestling – One-AH!  Two-AH!  Some days I’d tip out my felt pens and starting at either side of the paper, we’d create what he mysteriously termed a ‘joint effort’.  Abstracts mostly, in our early period.  

We were abroad on holiday when the news came of his death; he’d been staying with my grandparents in Wales and I have no idea what kind of funeral took place as we stood remembering him in the afternoon heat of another country. 

It’s now about 40 years later and I’m still a novice celebrant, having recently trained with Green Fuse.  It’s early days.  Days during which I have become no less exasperated with inevitably having to explain what ‘funeral celebrant’ means.  Need to work on that one.  Keep wanting to say ‘oh you know, fake vicar’ or ‘someone who dances at the graveside  – for cock’s sake what do you THINK it means?’  and it won’t do.  

Dealing with those who can’t understand – for the life of them! – why anyone would be interested in doing such a thing is another matter.  The Persistent Vegetative State would appear to be a lifestyle choice for some people.  For me, caring about death seems as obvious or as basic as caring about life.    It’s been pointed out that everyone dies, but not everyone lives.  Despite this, discussing the subject or even simply acknowledging its attendant practicalities can still mark you out as a bit weird.  Apparently.  Even in London.  

 I’m not a believer in the afterlife, or any other kind of life apart from the one here and now and at times even that one’s too much.  I’m hugely drawn to the ideas put forward by Irvin Yalom in Staring at the Sun.  And surely everyone’s entitled to believe whatever they damn well please –  I love the fact that there’s no right answer and sort of expect everyone to defend their own views as robustly as I’ll defend mine.  Speak as if you’re right, listen as if you’re wrong, as Charles Cowling said to me at the London Funeral Exhibition recently.  I’m rubbish at listening as if I’m wrong, but it’s good advice.  I may add it to my To Do list.    

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gloria mundi
12 years ago

Lovely stuff about your uncle, Ariadne – you made an earlier start in “celebrancy” than most of us, sounds as though your 8-year old instinct took you to the right place. Yes, possibly, “for cock’s sake” isn’t a good opener (in one sense, at least) but I wonder if they really think you are a bit weird, or if sometimes people just feel a bit faced down by such a big thing? There you are in front of them, across the Pinot Noir and the barbecue, telling them you do funerals. Do WHAT? My usual social gambit is “The conversation… Read more »

12 years ago

I find a good opening gambit after ‘Sally who?’ is; ‘Have you ever been to a funeral you’ve really enjoyed, or thought was awful?’ I’m continually surprised how many have a funeral story they’re happy to relate, good or bad, and know that after waiting patiently while they tell me about a coffin made of grass, or a vicar who got the name wrong, the conversation will have warmed up enough to say, ‘Well I’m one of the ones who are changing things for the better: C-E-L-E-B-R-A-N-T.’

12 years ago

I think if I heard you speak about your uncle, I would listen to most anything else you had to say.
Even if I was scared rather than stimulated by the strength of your convictions.

PS. Around here we are hard pressed for celebrants with spice.
I (nearly) always want to recommend to families a celebrant or minister who is really going to ‘get hold’ of the life and the character of the person who died; a person who can put it out at the funeral with some gusto.
Great post.

12 years ago

Ariadne, if you can write like that about your uncle, you seem to have found your perfect niche. My teenage children plead with me before social gatherings not to tell people what I do. They’d rather I say I am a (rather unconvincing) pole dancer than admit to being a celebrant. (One kindly hostess has previously introduced me to a new group of people with a game of ‘guess what she does for a living!’) No, I suspect that embarrassment is not necessarily their main reason. What my poor offspring instinctively know is that, after an initial lull while people… Read more »

gloria mundi
12 years ago

Wisdom, sweetpea, wisdom. I think you’ve got our job exactly right – integrating with a family’s needs and so forth. Seems to me we have to try to tune in very quickly to a family’s culture, and work alongside that. And indeed the funeral that comes from that occult process sometimes may seem commonplace to the advertising agency that works for a well-known chain – but if it’s right for the family, it’s right. Some of the big things about this job are really quite simple, obvious even, but actually pretty difficult to do. It’s not about what I want… Read more »

Charles Cowling
12 years ago

You have, Sweetpea and GM, acutely (I think) touched on the iceberg nature of a good funeral. It cannot be judged (nor can the celebrant) by anyone looking in. Sometimes, celebrants are aware that the organist and attendant and FD are thinking, Coo, that was a bit flipping dull.

But a hallmark of a good funeral is that it doesn’t give a damn what anyone else thinks of it, neither does it in any way reveal the hours and hours that went into it.

Heck of a post, Ariadne. You’ve elicited some 24 carat responses!

12 years ago

Been away. Totally chuffed. Thanks peeps. Don’t have teenagers/kids myself but the pole dancing thing….too good.

I heart my new coffee house tribe

A – AKA – K