Fire & Water

Charles 8 Comments

Posted by John Porter

I am an archer. I am a funeral celebrant. The last funeral I facilitated was of Thelma, my archery coach. She used to coach the British archery team many years ago. The chairman of Tonbridge Archers led the tribute and, much to everyone’s surprise (he was renowned for “going on at length” at meetings) stuck to his five minutes – pretty important to avoid crematorium fines! When he had finished I said: “… even when Thelma was sick she used to come and watch us practice and she could spot a poor release of an arrow at a long distance – ‘what kind of release do you call that – pathetic’.”  she would often say about my performance. Some reacted negatively to her criticisms but I accepted them. She was right. My release was very poor.

Watching a scene from Game of Thrones provoked this blog contribution. Someone has died. He is laid in a boat garnished with sword, shield and kindred flag. Kindling straw and pots of some kind of accelerant are added to ensure it’s a good show.

A young archer steps forward, nocks a large black arrow bound with twine at the top of the shaft and dips it in the fire before drawing. It is a very dramatic and emotional moment. The arrow flies towards the dead person’s boat, now steadily drifting away along the water.

He misses. He shoots another lighted arrow with a deeper draw as the boat is further away. He misses again. My heart goes out to him as I too have missed the target many times. I know that look. The squint is to hide embarassment and ponder how to get it right next time – mind you he does have a king standing behind him. I had Thelma sat on a chair 20 yards away. It’s still scrutiny!

An older archer steps forward, snatches the bow from the young archer, lights the arrow and draws deeply and aims high towards the distant boat. He looks to the flag to see what the wind is doing before releasing the flaming messenger. The younger archer watches, still smarting from his two failed attempts to seal the ceremony.

The archer does not bother to see if it reached its target. He knew his arrow had found its mark.

It had.

I love the drama of this scene. I feel for the younger archer. I remember Thelma. I did my best to make Thelma’s event meaningful and positively memorable but, oh, how I would have loved to have stood on the dock and released a perfect arrow towards her dead body on a dressed raft of some kind. Fire and water. Life and death. Health and safety. The modern crematorium offers little opportunity for high drama. Sanitised and hidden. Pity. Flaming arrows aside, I know we can create better ceremonies. Let’s share ideas here.


  1. Charles

    I remember that scene in Game of Thrones. It made me laugh because it was so unexpected. There is a lot to be said for familiar ritual and words and these elements certainly have their place. But I like an element of the unexpected – perhaps the punchline to a story or a quirky piece of music. If the song is very unusual I suggest that its title isn’t printed in the OoS but listed as (e.g.) ‘Jack’s Choice’.

  2. Charles

    I wondered if anyone else had been struck by that scene. I was left reflecting on how many ship burials had ended with the ship drifting slowly out to sea still unlit. Being a belt and braces sort of a celebrant I’d have had a small rowing boat around the bend or headland to nip out and do the business.
    In my cowardly soul though, I’m quite glad that I am not asked to do too many complicated things at once when I lead a service. I still break out into sweats when I am juggling music, candles, curtains and family speakers against a crem deadline. So while it’s true that the unexpected adds savour to a ceremony, not too unexpected, please!

  3. Charles

    Speaking with my re-enactor hat on….you have no idea. Fire arrows that actually work are virtually impossible. We spent 2 weeks on formulas in preparation for a boat burning once. It does look spectacular though!

  4. Charles

    Your sentiment to want to do right by Thelma was touching John. I think like minded people in the funeral service sector will continue to press the boundaries when it comes to creative personalised rituals and the bereaved will become more empowered to not settle for formulaic standardised funerals dictated by those with little imagination or flexibility to find solutions to unusual scenarios or requests. Heard recently that someone had a micro-light aircraft land right outside the crematorium chapel window because that was the passion of the deceased. Memorable for all the right reasons.

  5. Charles

    In the 1980s series Robin of Sherwood, there was a similar ritual, where the outlaws would gather by the side of a lake when one of their comrades died, and shoot fire arrows into the air over the water as a farewell gesture.

  6. Charles

    Many years ago John, we did allow four brrothers to fire flaming arrows at a four ton pile of wood atop of which was a box containing their father’s ashes. The youngest son was five. He had help obviously; we’re not mad…..

  7. Charles

    Would you have any advice, or know where to go for such (having already trawled the internet), on a open air cremation for my beloved cat who loved to sit as close as possible by an open fire or my incinerator, or solid fuel aga, was partly the colour of fire, and who has facial cancer id somehow like im not sure about leaving his bodily remains buried if I move. I would probably use my incinerator, an old grill pan mesh, and the end of my garden away from houses aa far as poss. I know it’s possible and that the bones don’t have to turn o ash (which id prefer anyway) byt am veey unsure about how to do it right for…have yet to ask his majesty if this is,how hedr like to go, as one shamanic colleague suggested, but if he did….any suggestions/advice, of an open-minded fashion please? Thank you.

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