Life stories don’t tell half the story

Charles 18 Comments

For the living there is much pleasure to be derived from surveying a person’s life  when the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and their work is done. Dead, in other words.

Works in progress – biographies of the living – just don’t cut it.

Death focuses the mind on existential matters. The human mind abhors cosmic chaos and seeks to make sense of it. Considering the immensity of the universe and the littleness of a brain, you could call that either intellectual bravado or heroic defiance. Up here in the Midlands a dying man recently designed elements of his funeral and had the words ‘What was that all about?’ inscribed on the cover of the service sheets. Brilliant. Unsettling.

The living respond to a death with versions of the life story which draw threads together, discern patterns, make connections, explain anomalies and draw conclusions. Most of us feel our lives to be somewhat of a muddle. Fear not. Just as our deathbeds will be smoothed and tidied when we’re gone, so will our lives be, also.

Which is why we love to read obituaries in the newspapers. In the broadsheets, they follow the same format. First, the life is summed up in a single sentence:

Scholar of Latin literature with an extraordinary gift for communicating his enthusiasm for his subject

Chindit veteran who led an exhausted company of Gurkhas in a victory against a far larger enemy force

Offbeat actor and poet who played a fragile Tarzan in an Andy Warhol movie

Poet and pacifist admired for his translations of Rimbaud and Apollinaire and a leading figure in Soho’s artistic scene in the 1960s

Then follows a paragraph or two containing an illustrative anecdote which epitomises the dead person. Sometimes, a photograph serves this purpose better.

Taylor Mead’s bottom was a legend in the film world. The 1964 film ‘Taylor Mead’s Ass’ was simply footage of his naked buttocks, for over an hour, recorded for posterity by Andy Warhol.

John Lucas could claim, although he seldom did, that he had returned from death or at least from pretty close to it. Contracting sandfly fever in deep jungle during the second Chindit operation, he had to be abandoned with a full water-bottle and his revolver. Miraculously, he came round after two days and managed to catch up his column and continue on the line of march.

One day in 2007 David West went by train from Corbridge in Northumberland to Sanquhar in Dumfriesshire, carrying a long axe for use in a friend’s garden. He put it in the rack. At Carlisle he found himself surrounded by railway police. “Offensive weapon, officer? Let me show you: there is no room here to swing an axe . . .” This event prevented his journey to Sanquhar, but displayed his enthusiasm for explaining what he regarded as obvious even when prejudice or fashion might see things differently.

There then follows a chronological account of the person’s life. The account of  famous person’s life seeks to tell the whole story, secrets and all, sex secrets especially. The narrative is shaped by the author’s verdict, which is normally foregone. It is this subjective element that belies the author’s protestations of of objectivity, and accounts for the great number of disparate biographies of famous people. Mrs Thatcher has already spawned half a dozen, pro and con.

The life stories of ordinary folk like us as told in funeral eulogies are altogether different. The element of verdict — whether we were a Good Thing or a Bad Thing — is diminished. As is the shock-horror revelatory element. The prevailing element, as in biographies of the famous, is the analysis of what made us tick. That’s what everyone wants greedily to know – or have affirmed.

When all is said and done, we will, when we are dead, as we do while we are still living, mean different things to different people. We each spawn a bunch of differing life stories according to how we affect people.

The version offered at our funeral will be very much the authorised version, the official biography, because it will be a narrative created exclusively for the front row. There will likely be plenty of soft focus. There may also be any number of edits. In the matter of our faults, there is likely to be explanation and absolution. Not quite a pack of lies — but a long way from the whole truth. Closer, actually, to myth-making. But that’s okay, because the mood at a funeral is normally magnanimous.

The creation of a pen portrait of a dead person by a celebrant is the outcome of a negotiation with the immediate family, and of family members with each other. The edits are determined by consensus.  Some families will go for a warts and all approach. Others will require the warts to receive expert cosmetic treatment. The resulting depiction, if it’s the work of good wordsmith who speaks well, is likely to be regarded as quite as marvellous and valuable as a portrait in oils. If it plonks the dead person on a rearing white charger and puts a sword in his hand — well, a celebrant just has to go along with that. Sir Joshua Reynolds didn’t complain, he just banked the cheques. It’s not the job of the portraitist to speak truth to she who pays the piper.

This being so, I find it hard to understand the practice of those celebrants who treat a ceremony as if it were a present to be unwrapped in front of the family. To do so misunderstands, it seems to me, the nature of the commission. It’s also far too risky. A funeral is no place to misspeak. 

But there are two sides to this, I am sure. I wish I could see the other. You’ll probably point it out to me. 

What will be the one-sentence summary of your life, do you suppose? 


  1. Charles

    This is a one-sentence summary (from Sky News) of James Gandolfini who played Tony Soprano in the BEST television series of all time.
    ‘The cast of hit television series The Sopranos have led tributes to James Gandolfini, describing him as a “giant” and “the most humble and gifted actor”.’

  2. Charles

    Interesting piece, Charles. Sad about James Gandolfini, Kitty.

    Agree that any speech or piece of writing should set out its stall early on, not ‘unwrap’ slowly.

    Dread to think what my one-sentence summary would be.

    The NY Times recently got flack for beginning a description about brilliant rocket scientist Yvonne Brill be saying “She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children”.

  3. Charles

    Richard, that’s a hideous NYT howler. they deserve to be closed down.

    By unwrappiing, I meant presenting a family with a portrait they haven’t seen and signed off on.

    We are all in grief for James Gandolfini. Desperately young.

  4. Charles

    Common sense agrees with you Charles, families sometimes don’t. “No, I’d rather hear it for the first time during the funeral.”

    (Celebrant then spends four phone calls checking facts, tone etc…)

    Most terrifiying of all is “no, no, I trust you to get it right.”

    (Cewlebrant then spends ten phone calls etc.)

    There is probably too much summarising judgement in all of this, all of what we tend to say about people in their funerals. Of course it’s good to praise what people have done. I am hatching an ideal (and also no doubt idealistic) approach which would change the nature of the biographical element.

    1. Charles

      Ah, how very interesting, GM. Do let on when you’re ready. Family expectations can really get in the way of a good eulogy. And there’s nothing duller than a flatlining chronological narrative, which is often asked for — and is well-suited to poor-quality celebrants.

  5. Charles

    Thank you for this post on a subject I have thought about often in relation to my professional role.

    The vast majority of families wish to check, check and check again the wording for services from celebrants in my experience and rightly so; there’s only one chance to “get it right”.

    In addition to the variation in wishes between one family to another there can be so much variation even within one family As you say, every person has a unique and different relationship with the person who has died – a service that rings true on some level with everyone present can I’m sure be quite a challenge.

  6. Charles

    Well Charles, I can’t resist rising to the bait, because you know I practice the unauthorised eulogy version. Yes, perhaps it might look like a misunderstood commission, but I don’t think so, at least with our families. Having spent so much time with them, they trust me to say the right thing. Our argument is that too much cross referencing with the family turns it into a performance that is for everyone else rather than a ritual that can surprise and move them. We always think that the greatest gift we can give a family is to show them an aspect of their relationship with the dead person that they didn’t think they had revealed. Of course, this only works as a gift if the aspect is loving. To reveal otherwise would be cruel. Unauthorised, yes. Monsters? Not yet.

    1. Charles

      Ru, I feel guilty. My reasoning is that a blog has to be onesided if it is to allow room for comment. Provocation is also invitation. I have to declare that I am with you absolutely in spirit — but I don’t think I’d ever have the nerve to try it. You’ve got to be very good at what you do to pull it off, and that I am not. Only the best celebrants have the calibre and even they, most of them, do not get to spend the necessary time.

      Thank you for defining your position. It makes a powerful case for the undertaker-ceremonymaker.

  7. Charles

    It has been my experience, albeit limited compared to others, that whilst I hate having to forward my eulogies to a family because I want it to be a wonderful surprise to them, and feel pride in all my clever little wordsmith gems I can shower them with, prior approval by the family is an absolute necessity. Simply because you would, or maybe wouldn’t, be surprised how many families get names, the chronological order of events etc wrong and they have to be amended after initial submission.
    Only once have I had a service approved on first submission without alteration, having said that a family once asked me to remove a comma!

  8. Charles

    Lol, the way I get around this is by avoiding the autobiographic element almost completely. I agree, on the few times when I have been specifically asked to do something more biographical then a name date check is certainly necessary, but on these occasions, I am usually pretty much reading what the family have written. When left to my own devices, I concentrate on things I am sure about; how the person has died, what their death was like, often surprisingly absent from the feast, and what I have learnt from the family in the time between their death and the funeral. The real risk is getting so gonzo with it, in Hunter Thompson’s phrase, placing one’s self firmly in the middle of it, but I feel and hope that what we have seen, can usually clearly see about the dead is the last impression they have made and no less relevant than any throughout their life, maybe more so. It is also about believing that a eulogy really is about all of us, that there is an opportunity to say something real because people are listening. Risky and dangerously close to paternalism? Yup.
    And Charles, don’t be so daft. I respond to your beautifully presented dry fly as greedily as any fat trout..

  9. Charles

    Ru, kudos for being brave, and perhaps it’s a cultural divide/ignorance but oop North often they want the autobiographic approach as it is their view of their own and each other’s “identity”. I will however admit to including observations on character gained from information gleaned and always, where possible, bring into it their final stages. So far this literary alchemy seems to work and families are often glad of me including the derived relationships and feelings without them having to express it to me directly. Funny old game, ain’t it?

  10. Charles

    Lol, there is definitely a north south cultural divide on this, though not as you might expect a class one.
    We do have an advantage due to being keepers of the body and spending a lot more time with the family than is feasible for a celebrant, so have access to more information and a chance to form a relationship with them. When it’s like this, doing it slightly differently feels way less risky, as we have all formed quite a firm impression of what we are all about. The surprise is much less.
    Besides, we do always say early on that we don’t really like doing straight autobiographical accounts so if this is what a family really want then we decide between us how it will go. It always feels weird standing up and telling a bunch of people about the life they shared and know well of a person we never met. Far better to stick to what we know about them, leave the autobiography to the family to deliver.

  11. Charles

    ” Most of Ru’s energy was equally expended on two areas; the urge to be funny, which more often than not backfired causing him to be hoisted skyward by his own petard, and the equally strong desire to be seen, at whatever the cost, as the enfant terrible of the British funeral world. “

  12. Charles

    I think we should beware of thinking that Dragonland (Totnes, Stroud, et al) is “the South.” I reckon there’s plenty of biographing going on the south too – certainly amongst southerners and, especially, Midlanders who retire, live and die round ‘ere. (I’m not in the South)

    What a useful and important thread and discussion – it actually relates to all those basic questions we often dodge – what is a funeral for, why do we have them, what are we trying to do, what helps, etc.

    So Ru, you imply that there are biogs in “your” ceremonies, but it’s usually the family who deliver them? You must do well at encouraging and supporting families so they feel confident to get up and speak. So many don’t. They get cremitis, poor things – it attacks the nerves and the knee joints.

  13. Charles

    ..and I think my default situation is probably closer to Lol’s than Ru’s. It would be good, wouldn’t it, only to mention a fact from someone’s life if it said something about why s/he is being mourned? I mean, the fact that someone moved from the Altricham to the Knutsford branch of the Alliance and Leicester is not, of its own, much to do, IMAO, with a funeral. But if, at the interview, she was so fiercely on the case that the area manager said “you’d better go to them in Knutsford, you’re wearing me out!” we are saying and applauding something about her, something we’d miss.

  14. Charles

    I think part of the reason the autobiographical approach is attractive to many people is this: firstly it is a “validation” of their life, that their existence counted for something beyond the obvious personal relationships people form through life but, at the time of writing the service, are often forgotten but surely on a human level count for more than any job they held.
    Secondly, it is the family sharing the deceased’s story with everyone else, which in itself has an element of “validation” to it.
    Thirdly, I am still surprised at how many widows/widowers are reluctant to share personal feelings and memories about their loved ones.
    I tend now to make my mind a blank slate (not hard!) and let the family “write” on it as they feel fit 🙂

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