What to say when someone’s history?

Charles Cowling

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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. 

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Lol OwenCharles CowlingJonathanchris the traineegloriamundi Recent comment authors

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Lol Owen
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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… Read more »

Lol Owen
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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… Read more »

Jonathan
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Jonathan

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… Read more »

chris the trainee
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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:… Read more »

gloriamundi
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gloriamundi

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… Read more »

Dave
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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.

Jonathan
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Jonathan

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?