We gonna celebrate your party with you… (Kool and the Gang)

Charles 11 Comments


Posted by Sweetpea


Am I alone in sensing a nasty niff?  The vague whiff, perhaps, of a fashionable diktat in the air?  I know it’s not really the done thing, but I have to confess to feeling a little oppressed by the phrase ‘celebration of life’.  

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m a celebratory kinda gal.  Some of the ‘best’ funerals in which I’ve happily taken part have been wonderful, sometimes exuberant, expressions of love and gratitude to the deceased.  Great, and if there’s much to celebrate it gladdens my heart to be involved.

But I’m increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of a ‘celebration of life’ becoming a lazy by-line for secular or civil funerals.  I see the phrase bandied about – sometimes in print and sometimes without much thought or insight – by funeral directors, celebrants and elsewhere.  But we don’t do lazy by-lines, do we?  We have a much more interesting role.  We meet people where they are, and much more importantly we make no assumptions about where that may lead us.

Have you examined some of the publicity material/information leaflets to which the bereaved are exposed?  Confident statements such as ‘I will help you create a ceremony which will celebrate your loved one’s life…..’   Isn’t that rather prescriptive?  And aren’t prescriptive notions what civil funerals, in particular, were conceived to counteract?  If we are going to put people in a box (literally and metaphorically) then let’s at least allow them to choose their own box and help to fashion it into something which actually suits them.

I’ve worked with nearly 700 families, and occasionally someone might say ‘we want a real celebration of mum’s life’.  They’ve heard the phrase, thought about it and mean what they say – and usually with good, sound reasons.  Sometimes, however, I get the sneaking feeling that they’ve heard that phrase and almost feel they should be saying it to me.  That’s the modern way, after all – we’ve chucked the vicar overboard, and this is what this civil malarkey is all about.  Celebration.

Well, no.  Not necessarily.  What about the many bereaved who have ambivalent or hateful feelings towards the deceased?  I went to visit a family a while ago, and the son’s opening words to me were ‘well, you might as well know the only reason we’re going to the funeral is to make sure that the old bastard’s dead.’  As I worked with the family over the next week or so, I could see he might have a point.  Their stated aim when I first met them was to pour their father’s ashes down the nearest drain.  I’m no magician.  We talked.  They were given a safe space to express themselves.  We fashioned a ceremony which even managed to acknowledge the one or two kinder moments that any of them could remember.  I hope that in 10, 20 years time, when they re-read the ceremony, they at least won’t be ashamed of what was enacted.  And possibly could even be proud of what they did.  

To have gone into that family’s front room with any preconceptions would have done them a grave disservice.  And how must such a family feel when they pick up an information leaflet, only to be told that a eulogy is central to a funeral, and that eulogy is a ‘celebration’?  Neither of which has to be true.

The reason I love my job so much is precisely this kind of variation in experience.  We help people find their way to saying whatever it is that needs expressing at THAT funeral.  It may be celebratory to the point that ideas for poetry, words of gratitude, story-telling, prayer and praise, dancing, singing, eating and drinking come pouring out.   It may be that only the hard-won clipped phrases, which feel like they’ve been chipped out of granite, can be elicited.  And anything in between, of course.  But, find the words we do, and it’s precisely that challenge which makes our job so interesting.  

So, a plea to fellow celebrants in particular.  Free yourself to the real purpose of what you do, and please shed the prescriptive wording and thinking.  You might surprise yourself.  

PS they didn’t pour him down the drain.


  1. Charles

    St.SweetPea, you excel yourself.I couldn’t agree more. (So you must be right…)

    If someone’s son has killed themselves six says earlier, they may indeed want to remember all the joyous things in that life, and have some of them referred to at the funeral. They probably don’t want a sort of emotional triple by-pass, to be directly or more subtly made to feel they should be celebrating, come what may.

    I began to realise this kind of instinctively back a bit, and found myself trying to describe the furious mix and welter of emotions many feel at a funeral (grief, anger, remorse, regret, just to mention a few old friends), and to say that amongst them may also be some of the good things that the life brought them, the sort of things “we may mean if we talk about celebrating a life.” (Sorry about the shorthand summary.)

    One of the difficult, fascinating and rewarding parts of this job is reading the situation and the nature of the family’s responses, and then edging your way towards what might be appropriate for the tone of various parts of the ceremony. How can you do that if the cliche “celebrating a life” is stencilled across your imagination?

    Here’s an imaginary family meeting situation I look forward to happening, to me or anyone who forgets themselves and retreats into adspeak shorthand:

    Celb: “So this will be a celebration of Algernon’s life?”
    Fam: “We’ll decide that. Now. Here’s how I want you to run it…”
    ‘Couse, if they were so encouragingly assertive, they’d probably do all, or almost all, of it themselves!

    Hey, thanks, sweepea, right on the nail.Let’s destroy the leaflets.

    We could quote your penultimate para in The Manual for Celbrants.

  2. Charles

    I feel chastised, Belinda, looking at my leaflet now!

    But in my defence I do point out that: “Celebrating a life doesn’t mean being happy at a funeral. It means embracing the person’s memory, wanting to cry and bear the pain, and feeling glad you had the time together when you did.”

    True, it assumes some love in there somewhere, and I realize that when what you’re celebrating is that the bastard finally died these words must be irritating. But we’ve got to explain the word ‘celebrant’ somehow if we’re going to continue using it…?

    My mother’s funeral wasn’t a celebration of her life. Frankly, she was… well, that other awful label ‘loved one’ didn’t fit either. A friend commented that the saddest part of the funeral was that no-one was sad that she’d died and that we didn’t have a lot to say about her that was nice. Though it was honest, which is what made it work, and it was crucially important that we did what we did; if not for her then was it because of her?

    You’re absolutely right, Sweetpea, and often I pull back when the answer to my question, ‘what does this funeral mean to you?’ is ‘we want it to be a celebration of his life’ – where, I wonder, did they get that phrase from?

  3. Charles

    Thank you for your comments – I would expect nothing less of you, Belinda…

    But GM, I really don’t want to get rid of my leaflets – they were printed by a lovely man called John who liked the idea of a civil funeral so much he asked to extract one from the print run to lodge with his will! I suppose I just want people to have good information – and not to be told how to experience their own bereavement.

    You’re right, Jonathan. When I turn to my trusty Chambers, ‘celebrate’ is defined as ‘to mark by solemn ceremonies, as a festival or event; to perform the proper rites and ceremonies, such as a mass, the eucharist, marriage, etc’. I think that in the popular mind, however, the ‘celebrating’ aspect might have slightly jauntier connotations! But at a funeral I reckon it might even be a pretty restrained acknowledgement of someone’s worth and still manage to qualify under the Trade Descriptions Act.

    ‘Celebrant’ is another one which is confused by modern notions of partying. Of course it might refer to someone actually attending a celebration, but when it’s wearing its ceremony hat, it’s ‘the principal person officiating at a rite or ceremony’. No mention of shakin’ your funky stuff in your leopard skins winklepickers. Which is, perhaps, just as well.

    Can anyone think of a better title?

  4. Charles

    If someone CAN think of a better title, after all this time racking our brains together over the subject, may I take the liberty of suggesting he or she be awarded not one but two Glorias, GM?

  5. Charles

    Yes, anything beginning with ‘off…’ doesn’t have the happiest start in life. Apart from an off-licence, of course.

  6. Charles

    Or possibly a Gloria in Excelcis, Jonathan, because terminology is so often difficult and leads us away from what we’re trying to do.

    This has been a useful discussion, because amongst other things it’s reminded me of what “celebrate” actually means.

    I think “officiant” sounds cold and dictatorial, though I know those qualities are not inherent in its derivation.

    “To minister” means “to attend to the needs of..” which is what I hope we are doing, so I quite like it when someone calls me a “humanist minister” – but it won’t really work, because as a noun, the two dominant meanings are a head of a government department, or a member of the Christian clergy, especially of a nonconformist group. I’d hope in vain for it to mean “one who attends to the needs of people at a funeral…”

    So looks like we’ll have to go with “celebrant.”

    I appreciate that we are hoping to assist in the birth of a good funeral, but “midwife..?” Can’t see it, I’m afraid…

  7. Charles

    Brilliant piece, Sweetpea. I like funeral midwife, personally. Still find the word celebrant sticks in my throat a bit….

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