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.