A guest post by Caroline Doughty
It’s been a while since I updated my blog and my wonderful friend and celebrant teacher has inspired me with her own thought-provoking blog post, to share my experiences so far in my work as an Independent Celebrant in regards to Funeral Services.
So…where do I begin??? I have learnt so much.
I remember the first funeral I ever did up in Mossley. My celebrant teacher and her team were right there supporting me. They had faith in my ability to lead this service. I was petrified. After all, it’s a huge deal to be helping a bereaved family say goodbye and even though I wanted to do this work, I tended to develop nagging doubts about my own ability. But whilst I was feeling this fear, I just decided to walk straight into it. It felt very natural to be leading that special coffin through the crematorium. And once I was at the lectern and saw the family’s eyes looking up to me to be their guide, to be their strength, I stepped up. You have to. It is your responsibility.
Since that day I have gone on to develop a very lovely working relationship with a long established and well respected Funeral Directors in my home of Shrewsbury. I walked into their building on the Friday, spoke to the most lovely man about my approach and how passionate I am about what I do, and the following Monday I was booked for my first funeral in my local area.
It was a small funeral and I feel that maybe the FD was very sensibly ‘testing the water’. Seeing what I was about to get a feel of my work. I couldn’t have been that bad because they have been booking me for funerals ever since. And I am so very grateful to them for taking me on. In this business you can never take anything for granted and I have developed a very strong loyalty towards them. Each member of their staff is nothing but wonderful. They are gentle with their families, they are professional without being cold and they all have a good sense of humour! A strange thing you may think? I don’t mean a humour that is in any way disrespectful, but when things do get a little haywire and plans fall by the wayside, you do need a very good sense of humour…believe me! I have learnt that a good working relationship goes both ways. We respect each other and I will never be any less than completely reliable for them.
Now, the biggest learning curve takes place through working with the families. Each one is special, individual, hurting, in need of your guidance, in need of your open-mind and each one is in need of your love, no matter what their outward persona may be. And so my love is what they will always receive.
When I walk into the home of a bereaved family I never fail to feel honoured. And that is because they open the door to me, put out their hand to welcome me and usher me inside. Inside their home, their personal space, their grief and their memories. Let’s face it, they don’t actually want me to arrive. They don’t want to be arranging a funeral service at all. They’re desperately hurting. But they let me in and the first thing I always say is “Thank you for having me in your home.”
Some families are very gentle, some are quite tough externally but you’ll see tears being fought at every memory shared, some are bereft and will openly cry and then apologise for doing so. That breaks my heart and I always tell them that they must know that they can cry, that I’m in no hurry and that I can always come back for another visit if they’d like. We take it slowly. Some are of course heartbroken but are very accepting of what has happened. I’ve even made a visit to a family where we spent two whole hours laughing, and there were some tears too. The thing is, you must approach that house neutral and with an open-mind. You can never assume anything. A family that seem non-religious ask for Footprints to be read and a family that do seem religious want Queen played out loud.
I always ask what ‘feel’ they want for the service. They look at me puzzled sometimes so I explain that some prefer something more formal, some more celebratory, some want humorous memories and laughter, some want more reflective and poignant etc. (you can mix it up) and then all of a sudden, they know exactly what approach they’d like. It’s almost as if being given that choice to begin with opens them up to speak of their true ideas. With that one question they are gently being told that it is ’their’ choice. It is not about me and what I do. It is about how I can serve them. We then move on to discuss all other aspects of the day…the eulogy, if anyone would like to speak, music, readings etc. They are also sometimes surprised to discover that I am more than happy to sing hymns! I let them know that I am happy to do whatever it takes to make it right for them. Only yesterday I did two funerals. The first was a celebratory service with lots of poignant words but also lots of laughter. The second was a religious affair with a more formal feel, hymns, the Lord’s Prayer, but equally as loving.
I connect with the family from my heart. This is how I write the services. I try to absorb their needs and the personality of their loved one. Then I apply it to the wording of the service. I spend many hours perfecting the funeral, making sure each phrase is right for that family and that it suits the individual who has passed away. I offer the family the choice of reading the eulogy before the funeral for their own peace of mind. And on two occasions the family have actually wanted to read the whole service beforehand. But most families tell you openly that they trust you, which is humbling and honouring at the same time. But I have no problems with showing them my work before the day.
I worked with one family who had lost a lovely elderly gentleman. His daughter was obviously struggling and she asked to see the whole service. I knew in my heart that it was because in the two weeks before her father’s goodbye, it was all she could do to function. Taking control of the service as a project was what she had to do to cope with that space between his death and his funeral. She didn’t tell me that it was a coping mechanism, but I knew it inside. I understood it completely and it helped her immensely to be able to walk into that day knowing that it was right for her family, but most importantly, her dad. On that day she came and gave me a big hug and a kiss. She thanked me and told me that she’d needed that amount control in order to cope. I also had a lady who had lost her husband. She was a teacher…it was in her nature to want to check through my written work J This is all fine by me. If they want to change bits then I take no offense because at the end of the day I want them to never feel regret over their loved ones goodbye. My priority is that they can look back on it and always be able to say that it was right. There is no room for ego. To feel content over the funeral means that the very beginning of their long journey of healing has taken place. If the funeral isn’t right, how can they possibly move forwards?
What makes my job so worthwhile is knowing that I have done my best for a family. My family were once that grieving family. I treat every death as if it were my own mother, the family as if they are my dad…my siblings…myself. I have felt to my core that physical and excruciating pain of grief. Mine is healing and I am channelling it into something of use. What makes me cry every single time is the thanks you can receive afterwards. The letters, cards and emails I have received take my breath away because you never expect thanks. So when you get it from the depths of their hearts it makes me feel emotional and it makes me feel humble. I am the one who should be thanking them. Every family I serve teach me something new that I carry with me to the next family.
I get asked a lot why I’d want to do this job. People think it’s strange because I’m only 29. I know that families are surprised to see me arrive at their front door. One lady even proclaimed with a huge smile “Ohhhh they said you were young!!! Isn’t she young??” she said to her husband I’m also asked how I manage when the families try to speak at their loved one’s goodbye and break down. How do I manage when the music comes on and I can hear all the tears? How do I manage when it’s a mum that’s died and it awakens my own grief? My answer is this. It is very hard at times but I have to be strong; it is my heartfelt duty to the families. This job is not a job. It is not something I simply do for money. This work is serving people who are feeling as I once felt. It’s a vocation and it comes 100% from my heart. I manage because a beautiful family are depending on me, like I once depended on others when my mum died. I don’t lose my strength when I see other’s lose theirs, although it would be so easy to. This work holds my full passion and compassion. I will cry after the funeral on my way home. I will never forget the death that I have just served or the family. And if what I have done has made something unbearable into something a little less unbearable then I am content with that.
I love my work and hope I get to spend all my days doing it. I have learnt so very much and I am so very blessed in every single way. This work is special, but that doesn’t mean that I am special. I am just a woman that felt grief at an early age, and so I now have my whole life to apply that understanding to people who really need it.
I’d say to everyone out there to not settle for work that is unfulfilling. When you do what you love then life is a truly magical thing.
Lots of love
Find Caroline’s website here.