The bitter spice that sweetens the dish

Charles 4 Comments

Posted by Jonathan



A celebrant said today:


“Even when funerals are designed to be a celebration of life, I nearly always begin by acknowledging people’s grief and sadness.”


Jose (see his thought provoking blog post of 19th September), ever enquiring and studiously leaving no stone unturned, wants to know about incorporating grieving and celebration of life in the same goodbye ceremony.  His tenaciousness is stimulating for us celebrants, who must every day question our way forward.


His query:  “Which are the elements that you use afterwards to move the mourners and their emotions to a more positive feeling?” is not an easy one to answer.  I never thought of it in terms of involving ‘elements’, and I never thought of grief as being any less positive than celebration of life.


Grief has to do with sadness, not unhappiness.  There’s a big difference between the two. Unhappiness is isolating and unattractive and faces towards depression.  We’ve all been there.  It’s not grieving, it’s self pity.  Sadness, particularly about death, is beautiful even when it’s unbearable.  It’s feeling sorry not for yourself but for your loss – loss is not separate from you, but it is not you; it encompasses you, and it’s helpful to share it with others. We’ve all been there, too.  It is a noble feeling, and one I certainly wouldn’t want to be deprived of after even a tragic loss.


Following the last funeral I conducted, when I was trying to ‘let it go’, I found I couldn’t do so until I’d understood what it had taught me.  I was feeling uncharacteristically sad that it had ended, but I didn’t want to stop feeling sad because I knew if I did I’d miss something very important.  So I sat at the pavement table outside a café, watched the human beings go by with all their inner concerns showing or not showing, had a fag and a double espresso, and I thought deeply and wrote down what these last ten days of ‘funereality’ had given me.  Why was I reluctant to release it, this recent experience that my sadness was holding so close to me? 


It was only then, after I’d understood just what I was losing, that I was prepared to say goodbye to it and feel glad I’d had it while I did.  That’s what a good funeral does, too.  You could say it bequeaths you with a greater energy, a wisdom, as this did for me.  It crystallized into a poem, which I kept to remind me why I do this (and incidentally why, unlike some bereavement workers tell me they feel, I actually find myself energized rather than burnt near the furnace of recent death).  It also approaches the matter of our relationship with, and our role in, others’ grief, so I can happily share it with you here:


‘The funeral nourishes me
by embrace in the humanity of strangers.


I relieve them of their bewilderment
and reveal them to themselves in the majesty of their pain,
with words, with voice, with actions.


I touch their hurting hearts
to know they are not in isolation;
that their own grief is universal;
that healing lets love in and does not banish it;
that anguish is their invited guest;
that tomorrow will still come.


And then I leave.’


OK, I was only losing an experience, not a real live person, but the principle is the same; you have to be aware of what and whom you have lost, and the desirable pain to which love commits you, to move you on from just the raw feeling of pure loss before you can celebrate what you did have and what you still will have.  The pain of loss doesn’t go away with celebration of life.  It just becomes less overwhelming and more manageable when you’ve identified your loss, and understood that you still have something real and priceless, yours to keep.  And it brings to your attention that we are all human, and that this is the deal.


If a bad funeral damages you by making you unhappy, that detracts nothing from the healing value of a good one, even a good sad one.  And I think there’s something to do with loyalty where grief is concerned.  We can’t in good conscience abandon our dead by just getting intoxicated at a hooray party, any more than we could by indulging in the misery of a self pitying orgy, or going through the motions of an irrelevant tradition. 


Our dead leave us through no fault of their own.  We have to include their absence in our funeral for them, painful as it is, and I believe we owe them our mourning as much as our appreciation.

Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
gloria mundi
12 years ago

Such clarity, such eloquence,such usefulness! I shall, unashamedly and with or without your permission Jonathan, use a version of some of what you say here in ceremonies I lead, when I get the chance. Without your permission, because I know you’d agree that insights such as these must move into our common consciousness if we are to learn how to live and die well. How could I not use such light cast into the human heart?

12 years ago

Beautiful words and again, like gloria, I shall take from this poem strength, humanity and a huge dose of energy for the work we do. It will be like a new battery for when mine needs a re-charge. Thank you.

Belinda Forbes
12 years ago

If you cannot grieve, you cannot celebrate. The saddest funerals are where there is no grief and no celebration of the life that was.

12 years ago

Jonathan. Too often I think our training as celebrants is focussed on the ‘nuts and bolts’ of making a good funeral, and not on understanding and interpreting the wider context of grief, and the part that we play in helping people through such a painful process. It think what you have written should be required reading for all celebrants, new and experienced. Great insight. Thank you.