Charles Cowling


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.    

7 thoughts on “Uncle Arthur

  1. Charles Cowling

    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

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling

    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!

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    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 to happen in a funeral, it’s about what they want to happen in THIS once and only funeral, and my job is to help them find it.

    And we are, individually, variously good at different things, less good at others. I’m not a natural barnstormer, others may be. That’s why ideally we need a lot of celebrants available to choose from. But – we all need empathy, emotional literacy, and on the day, authenticity.

    “Guess what she does for a living?” Jaysus. And yes, you’re right – we must talk about our work as if we regarded it as normal, and people usually do accept it and use the space to talk about Deep Matters.

    I found your comment thoughtful and very encouraging.

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling

    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 digest the information, the next 20 minutes is likely to be dominated by Talk Of Death, as people grab the opportunity to ask those questions they have always wanted to ask, followed perhaps by quieter individual conversations about their own experience of bereavement. This bores my children rigid. It’s no weirder than any other job, and far more fascinating than most. As Gloria Mundi’s GP friend understands, it takes balls to do the job. Just talk about it! If we don’t accept our work as perfectly normal, we can’t expect anyone else to.

    James, I’m interested in your comments about celebrants with spice. I think the celebrants who really excel at what they do have a more important, subtler role, and something far more difficult to achieve than just the showman aspect.

    We have seamlessly to integrate our thoughts and actions with a family’s needs, and produce a ceremony and delivery style which chimes in with their own tastes and expectations. As you know, these vary hugely with each family and situation. Our work beforehand should gently push at their boundaries to offer them as much opportunity for expression as they are comfortable with.

    The best celebrants can do spice. They can even do bawdy or outrageous if called upon to do so. But they can also do restrained, devout or quietly humourous, to name but a few. Anything, in fact, which is required for conveying what a family wishes to say. This is why successful bespoke ceremonies can mean the world to families, who truly experience the funeral and its preparations as a positive experience.

    To all the outside world – FDs, organists and chapel attendants included – that delicate process is occult, and the resulting funeral may even, occasionally, seem commonplace to them, not knowing the process by which it has emerged. However, to those more intimately involved, a good funeral is priceless, spice or no spice. I’d rather listen to a family than a funeral director any day. Let’s hope you get to hear one where a family has asked for something more to your taste!

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling

    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.

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling

    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.’

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    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 may take a bit of a dip at this point, but since you ask, I…” And actually probably the majority of people I tell about it are reasonably or very interested. Or maybe just very polite. But I think talking about it does a little towards eroding the mortality denial syndrome that clutters up our culture, don’t you?

    A close friend of mine who is a doctor (GP), has worked in S Africa, rural clinics, dying children, inner city Britain, the whole bit – I mean, he has fought to keep people alive and had to watch them die, which would probably finish me off for good, and the consequences of arror in his job are dire. He;s very calm and growen-up. So I thought my job seemed a bit of a doddle compared to his. If I screw up, people are unhappy about it. If he screws up, people are – in need of my services, perhaps. Whereas I talk and listen to the people left behind, and then…well you know what we do.

    So I asked him what he thought about someone he knew doing the job, to try and tease out a reaction beyond “Oh, how interesting. Er…” He thought a bit, and then said “Actually, I’m in awe of you for doing it.” Which made me blush and wish I hadn’t asked because I really don’t feel awesome about it.

    But then us celebrants have gradually got used to the idea of the role and its potential meanings, through training and thinking about it for some months, I guess. Whereas most people haven’t.

    Right with you on Irvin Yalom, main man. And shrewd advice from Charles, may have to call him Uncle Charles if he gets any saner.

    Enjoyed this, thanks.

    Charles Cowling

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