What to say when someone’s history?

Charles Cowling



The job of the life-centred funeral is clear enough. It serves two purposes: first, to meditate on the now-complete life lived; second, to spell out all that has not been lost. While the dead person will no longer be an active presence in the mourners’ lives, their example will continue to be influential, and memories of them will continue to give pleasure — after a period of grieving when those memories are likely to give more pain than pleasure.

At the heart of a life-centred funeral lies, therefore, the treatment of the life lived. The composition of this treatment calls for extraordinary craft skills by the eulogist, who must judiciously select what goes in and what doesn’t  The audience hasn’t got all day. They know what they want to hear. They don’t want to hear all the stuff the person did, they want to hear about what made the person tick. This is best expressed through expertly crafted anecdotes which encapsulate ‘what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed’. A good eulogist articulates and illuminates the essence of the dead person — brings them alive — and accomplishes all that in around 7 unhurried minutes. It’s one of the most difficult writing briefs in the known universe.

Not surprising, therefore, that it’s oft done so badly. The lazy or inept eulogist opts for the cop-out of a flat-lining chronological narrative — a story which can only end unhappily. Up and down the land today crematoria will sullenly resound with the bathetic words “Henry James Barnett was born on…”

For a celebrant too busy to think (there are far too many of these), this makes a funeral script easy enough to write on autopilot. They would defend themselves by saying that this is what the family told him or her. Not good enough, pal.

The size and quality of a person’s character is not necessarily in direct proportion to amount of stuff they did. For example, the lives of many people are not defined by the jobs they do. But in the case of a family for whom the funeral eulogy is the first draft of the official biography, the agreed (likely enough retouched) life story, what is the eulogist to do with all the stuff the family wants in, but which simply either won’t fit or won’t hold an audience?

The answer lies in the document produced at some expense but all-too-soon dropped in the bin as of no lasting value, namely, the service sheet or booklet. This is the place for the timeline, the start-to-finish life story with all the house moves and career shifts and professional achievements — the CV stuff.

Such a narrative would complement the words of the eulogy — and might even repeat some of them. There’d be no time to read it at the funeral, of course, so people would take it home and peruse it at leisure. It’d be of lasting value, so they’d be far less likely to guiltily slip it with the recycling. All at once the service booklet would start earning its keep. 

10 thoughts on “What to say when someone’s history?

  1. Charles Cowling
    Lol Owen

    Jonathan, you misunderstood what I was saying. I have no problems with people providing me a chronological run down, it’s very helpful, I was merely pointing out that in some circumstances it means that is the type of service they are looking for. In fact if you re-read my post it is often used as a screen to hide their inability/unwillingness to express their deeper emotions to a relative stranger. I have had this very same experience recently with several families in Sheffield, the ones attended by large shaven headed gentlemen like myself who in many ways prefer the formality of a service based around a cv, preferring to admit their sentiments to themselves or close relatives only.

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    Lol Owen

    Part of the problem is how we view ourselves when it comes to giving information to officiants, and I have sat on both sides of the table here in the last two years. In years gone by if asked “who I was” I would have replied “Lol Owen, I’m a Production Manager”. And therein lies the problem, the job title hangs a nice little description round our neck that people can then immediately get a feel for us as a person from. of course I wasn’t born a Production Manager, so how did I get there? “Oh well I started off at…..” and so the trend continues after we have died. Our families, from their own perspectives, continue to trot out the same formula.
    I met a family on Wednesday evening who had their fathers bio sorted for me when I got there, and detailed out what he did and when, along with a few anecdotes. So right away they were after a CV chronological service. What I find these days is to try and get the “character” info about the deceased, but in line with the British reticence to express personal feelings and emotions to strangers, it can be tough going. Yes, good celebrants can get info by judicious questioning where the Stasi would have failed, and I often do, but unless clients are prepared to accept a different style of service then the progress is slow. Fundamentally it is down to education, us educating the public, but in such an emotive area progress will be slow. We can but do our best I suppose. I wonder though, are our clients happier giving them what they want as opposed to what they need? I suspect many are.

    Charles Cowling
    1. Charles Cowling
      Charles Cowling

      I wonder if the problem here is that the ‘secular’ funeral is too life-heavy for a good many bereaved people. Many are private, some are inarticulate, lots don’t know what it’s all about so they give you a timeline biog. Celebrants panic in the face of a clam-like family; in their desperation they hallucinate clamping electrodes their private parts. Perhaps there needs, for clamilies, to be an alternative to the life-centred funeral. Symbolic actions can rescue things nicely. I had a clamily once who found great meaning through articulating their feelings by coming up and lighting candles. The life-centred funeral is a very new invention and a lot people are unacquainted with the rationale.

      Charles Cowling
    2. Charles Cowling

      For me it’s different, Lol; I rejoice if a family brings out a written Order of Life Events, I say ‘great, thank you, that’ll help hugely and I’ll study it in more detail when I get home if you just give me the gist in a minute – now tell me, what sort of man was he, what was he like as a father, tell me about his sense of humour, he cheated at golf! really?? fantastic, what do his opponents say about that now? who was his first girlfriend and why did they split up? what was he like with women generally? he bought a season ticket and gave you his car as a wedding present did he, well you must have been SO touched?…’

      Just because a family writes a biog doesn’t usually mean they want the funeral to be like that, nor that they must be ‘prepared to accept’ something different; it’s only that they want to do something they hope will be useful while they’re waiting for you to come. Congratulate them for it, phone them about its details later, use it as a scaffold for your account of the person it relates to but never, never assume a family knows in advance what they want for a funeral, even if it turns out to be true. They’ve never done this before, and even when they’ve been to a ‘humanist’ funeral they still won’t know what you need from them, and they’ll be delighted when it turns out so much better than they’d hoped. Surprise them.

      Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    chris the trainee

    I don’t think it’s a problem writing the biog stuff for the OOS. I know what you are saying Charles and I agree, but I still like the security of a chronology to give me some idea of where a person came from. With said chronology, most of the biog stuff for the OOS falls into place.
    No, the big problem for me is persuading family that a) they should put what they think is the tribute (the biography) into the OOS and b) having the courage to know I can write the tribute from what I have left (ie: the heart of the tribute)
    Jonathan, I quite often help people with their order of service (just a simple template but it really helps) so I don’t see another disbursement. Having said that one of my local FD’s have a lady that ‘does’ OOS for their clients.
    I would like to write the stuff that matters, I really would, and from now on (yes after Charles’s excellent course) I really think that I may be able to make a difference to my tribute.
    But I don’t call all people out there lazy who write the straightforward chronology, just ill-informed or not very talented maybe ?
    And by the way Charles, I have already started putting the death ‘up front’ so it does not appear again later in the ceremony

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    Where a biographical anecdote epitomises an attribute, GM, use it, I say. But you’ve got to be selective, so there’s always going to be some good stuff left on the cutting room floor. Shove it in the service booklet.

    Good and interesting point you make, Dave. Yes, I think the testimony of a hurting heart probably trumps anything a celebrant can say. Or complements it — perhaps that’s the ideal.

    Very good point you make, Jonathan. It’s fascinating, isn’t it, this negotiation of the official biography that can go on, especially when one side says he was a Good Thing and the other side a Bad Thing? And, yes, it can still be a work in progress by the time of the funeral.

    Can there be any more agonisingly difficult task than composing a eulogy for a difficult person?

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling

    I like the idea of writing a biog leaflet, whether or not it was the same document as the order of service thingy. But sometimes facts are eloquent, and help us to recognise the person’s presence/absence.

    “Jim served in the navy during the war.” Uhu. Along with thousands of others.

    “Jim served on HMS Corvette, protecting the North Atlantic convoys from relentless U-boat attacks. Corvettes were terrible in heavy seas, and the crew got wet almost anywhere on the ship. Jim would have had many months of extreme discomfort as well as danger. Perhaps that’s where he learned that stoicism his nephew told me about, the sort that the family commented on as they took him to and from the clinic, the sort of courage I’m sure we all respect…” I’m making up this nonsense, as you can tell, but it’s about what you do with the facts that surely counts.

    I’ve not heard family members do much biography when they speak; I agree that the big thing is that it is them doing it, but isn’t it often they who simply speak from the heart, and give us the anecdotes?

    I particularly enjoyed the bloke who said that every time his dad farted he said “twist,” which meant that if he played pontoon with anyone anywhere, he’d start sniggering to himself. (Er…that anecdote only works if you’ve ever played pontoon, sorry.)

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling

    I agree with this to a point – a professional celebrant of course needs to provide a quality service and a ‘lazy’ eulogy just isn’t good enough.
    But I would like to make the distinction between this and a family member or friend providing the eulogy. These aren’t professional speakers – and so often just standing up there will be a huge accomplishment. What they actually say seems almost irrelevant – the fact that they say anything at all is what matters.

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling

    A nice thought, Charles, and an idea that could catch on… but who’d write it? Often as not there’s disagreement between acquaintances even on biographical facts, even assuming there are enough of them willing; and though the celebrant is best placed after diligent research to represent all viewpoints, he or she has run out of time long before the undertaker is hassling him or her for the order of service, if he or she had time in the first place.

    A case for another disbursement?

    Charles Cowling

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