Shooting the messenger

Charles Cowling


Posted by Nicola Dela-Croix


When I meet grieving families in my role as a celebrant, I always try hard not to judge them if their behaviour is less than polite. For example, the initial phone call where you gently introduce yourself, but are made to feel as welcome as a pre-recorded “Do not hang up… you have won a holiday in Bermuda..” Or when you are left standing in the hallway because no-one wants to offer you a seat. As someone said to me recently, “suffering can ennoble or uglify”. This is very true. So I, like many other celebrants, try to face these situations with a compassionate heart. Although sometimes you know that, grief or no grief, these people are just downright rude.

There is, of course, no getting away from the fact that our reasons for visiting are not happy ones. They would rather we weren’t there asking if they’d like to say a few words beside the coffin of their dead wife/brother/dad/daughter etc. And it’s made all the more difficult if their previous experiences of funerals have been memorable for all the wrong reasons, “her name was Sheila but they kept calling her Shirley”…

These negative ‘vibes’ are not the norm, thank goodness. But they are out there. And that sense of being unwelcome can come at you from all angles. The most interesting responses are often from people who enquire what you do for a living. A recent encounter went something like this:

And what do you do?

I write and conduct funeral services

(Horrified face) Could you bury a child?!

I’m not sure if that was a question or an outcry. It was as if I was actually responsible for the death, rather than being the person who would come to the assistance of the child’s parents (or any family for that matter) and help them with all the care, kindness and sensitivity I could muster.

I know this is all down to fear of loss, fear of death, fear of the unknown, bad experiences… I’m not really asking why this happens. It’s just part of doing what we all do. And for every person who reacts with horror, there is someone who finds it admirable. Like everything to do with dying/death/funerals/bereavement there is no ‘right’ way. We’re dealing with individuals who are as unique as they are varied.

Still, a cup of tea would be nice…


5 thoughts on “Shooting the messenger

  1. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    “Hanging on in there” is what we have to do, for sure, reading signals, feeling through to our best response, changing tack as needed, deflecting or exploring – no wonder after a really demanding visit it feels as though you’ve just run 200m. We have to be quick on our psychic and emotional feet.

    I suppose we are saying that being “professional” is demanding, in our job, because the more you open to the family’s feelings (essential for a good ceremony) the more open you are to the slings and arrows of etc.

    Of course, we could take refuge behind a degree of formality and impersonality, we could try to awe people with our supression of strong feeling, we could reinforce our stiff upper lips – trouble with the latter is that 1. it doesn’t deliver an effective funeral and 2, as Kenneth Williams once said, when asked by Hancock where his “my stiff upper lip” was, replied “just above my loose flabby chin..”

    It’s difficult, trying to help grief-torn people, but that’s what makes us keep doing it. Well, it must be, it’s not the rate of pay, God dammit!

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling

    Nicola, it’s refreshing to read about some of the murkier corners of our experiences as celebrants. And we expose them to the public gaze with trepidation, I know.

    I think one of the reasons we need to follow the hospice movement in considering ways to ‘care for the carers’ is precisely because of the repeated emotional wear and tear of our jobs.

    It takes an awful lot of compassion to work with most families, but especially those who are experiencing the very worst thing to have happened in their lives, or possibly that ever will happen to them. And sometimes it’s even harder to take their behaviour on the chin and come out still in one piece.

    How do we really differentiate between those who are lashing out through grief, those who are genuinely socially inept even in good times, and those who are deliberately arrogant and rude? We may get gut feelings, but it’s only by hanging on in there that we come anywhere near to finding out. And that’s the strain – only alleviated, if are lucky, but the support of non-judgemental colleagues who understand the grey areas to which we are exposed.

    It’s odd that each group of people reacts so differently – it’s a great truth that grief can ennoble or uglify – and for me the difficulties of working with the uglified are not yet outweighed by contact with the remarkably ennobled. It’s those people of which I stand in awe, and those who make the job the very best. One day the balance may change, but until then…

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling

    What, one wonders, would your interrogator do with a dead child’s body if not bury it, Nicola?

    I’m fortunate enough not to have encountered such rudeness in my work as you have on occasion. But it sobered me recently to realize how my own prejudices and attitudes to some of my fellow creatures – you know, the insults you shout mutely from your car seat at drivers, the criticisms you silently voice about passers-by – would evaporate if the offending person asked me to help with a funeral. I’ve viewed strangers with a slightly less censorious eye since then; I can even sometimes love them in their arrogance or ignorance or whatever, if I’m feeling particularly divine!

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling

    Ru, if it weren’t for you and yours people wouldn’t die.

    Worth reflecting gloomily that the corpsehandlers have always been shunned in all societies — Untouchables; Dalits. You’d think we might have moved on a bit since the dawn of time.

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling

    Firstly, this is Ru, not Claire, my computer is down.

    Yes, Nicola, we absolutely embody death for many people. You should try being an undertaker. Even here on these enlightened pages from time to time I feel the instinct from people to want to throw us far away like contaminated meat. Still, beats working for Tesco.
    Love that phrase about ennoble and uglify.

    Posted by Charles when this comment somehow lost itself.

    Charles Cowling

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