The soft bigotry of low expectations

Charles Cowling

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Posted by May Andrews

“If we can just get through this, then we can get on with our lives.”

I’ve heard it so many times, in so many different ways, but it all boils down to this: many families perceive a funeral to be something they must endure, an unpleasant trial, which they must ‘get out of the way’ before the real process of healing can begin.

And we can’t really blame them. There remains a taboo around death, such that, when called upon to confront it, people still feel a sense of existential discomfort, as if they have stepped onto forbidden soil. As a celebrant, I see it almost every day: the apprehension in the faces of the guests who have just entered the chapel. What is going to happen? To whom has our loved one been entrusted? How should I behave?

If I can break through that dreadful self-awareness and allow each guest to experience a personal journey of memories and acceptance, both of the death and of their grief, then I have done my job.

Yet there are days when I feel I struggle against another great barrier – one that has developed out of this sense that, in a secular world, funerals are no more than trial and tribulation. And that barrier is low expectation.

I meet often with families who shrug and say, “oh, he’d have been happiest if we’d just wrapped him up and chucked him in the ground.” “He always said, once you’re dead, you’re dead.” And other such comments in this vein, usually suggesting that the family are enduring the funeral out of a sense of appropriate etiquette. The ritual has ceased to have meaning and, as such, I am often asked to ‘get it over with as quickly as possible.’

If that is what people want then that is what I shall give them, but more often than not, I find that, once we begin, families find solace, not only in the ceremony itself but in its creation and planning. Seeing them discover this very often gives me a renewed faith in what I do.

On the other hand, I am aware that, if the public continue to have a broad belief that the content of the ceremony is of less importance than getting it done, then our industry has a problem. If the public expect empty ritual, then on the occasions that they ARE confronted with empty ritual, they are far less likely to complain. As such, unlike any other industry, the funeral industry has less motivation to change, evolve and improve. One only has to look at the sharp increase in direct cremations to see where this might lead.

There are celebrants out there who use cut and paste services and only change the name of the deceased. There are celebrants who don’t even take the time to visit the family. There are also excellent celebrants who go above and beyond. But while public expectations from a funeral are low, there will remain little incentive to weed out those of a poorer quality. By way of example, I can paraphrase from a private online group (luckily this celebrant was in the US, so I can but hope they are not representative of the UK): “I always write weddings from scratch, but funerals? I don’t have time for those. I just change the name.”

I use this example because it points to a vast divide in public attitude to tradition and ritual. People rarely just want to get weddings over and done with! They are an important rite of passage, and a time of celebration.

…Which brings me back to my very first quote, “If we can just get through this, then we can get on with our lives.”

The key is in these words, which upon first glance, seem so negative, so lacking in expectations. Yet they are key to understanding, not only what people need from a funeral, but the standards to which the industry needs to aspire, in order to rid itself of the idea that what we do is merely proper etiquette.

As celebrants, we have a responsibility to show people that they need not be passive observers of an empty ritual, but if a funeral is done right, they will be active participants in the very process that allows them to ‘get on with [their] lives,’ by helping them to manage and accept the changes that the death of a loved one can bring.

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VicRu CallenderCharles CowlingChris PriceJonathan Taylor Recent comment authors

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Vic
Guest
Vic

Great comments…who can argue ? I have struggled with F.D ‘s using their ‘ regulars’and there is always an adorning worship of them when they describe how good they are. Yet , I have witnessed what they do and believe that the F.D ‘s are caught in the trap of feeling safe , using someone tried and tested. There is a problem with tried and tested though…it becomes monotonous and mistakes can happen . When this occurs , no one feels able to criticise as they have used the celebrant for so long it’s like a deteriorating marriage. I always… Read more »

Chris Price
Guest
Chris Price

Goodness me, there’s a lot of doom and gloom about us celebrants isn’t there ? I know a lot of good celebrants and that in itself should be a cause of celebration. Let’s not kid ourselves: it’s a difficult job. If you’ve done it right, you’ve spent time and hard won cash training yourself and then done the inevitable rounds trying to convince FD’s that you are good enough for their trust. And taken the trouble to join an association like the IOCF that means extra paperwork and thought. I try and make my ceremonies as individual as possible, but,… Read more »

Jonathan Taylor
Guest
Jonathan Taylor

As you say, David, “…the busy FD, is often just trying to get the job done, if someone is available to take the service, then during busy periods, you can see why it happens.” You can indeed see why it happens, though that’s no excuse. A good or bad funeral can be extremely influential in people’s mental and emotional health, as much as a medical intervention can, and for a hospital or doctor to offer inferior care to cover busy periods would be completely unacceptable. The “Can we please just get it over quickly [any old how]” mindset needs challenging… Read more »

David Holmes
Guest

I have seen too many cut n paste celebrants. Perhaps funeral directors should take more responsibility when booking them, as in endorsing their services? The trouble is, the busy FD, is often just trying to get the job done, if someone is available to take the service, then during busy periods, you can see why it happens. I agree, many of the families I deal with see a funeral as a job to get done. We do of course try to enlighten them as to its value to them and the people left behind. As Bill Bryson says in his… Read more »

Quokkagirl
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Quokkagirl

I agree totally May. Getting the message out there and potential customers to understand the subtleties is difficult, however. I believe this is a quiet revolution for the most part. Funeral by funeral, more and more people are seeing an alternative way. A good funeral should move the grief process from one place to another and this is happening more and more in the hands of good celebrants – and ministers for that matter. My worry is that there are some very poor celebrants out there – some who quite clearly work from a template and rarely vary their spiel;… Read more »

Ru Callender
Guest
Ru Callender

What Quokkagirl said..