Look what’s waiting to land in your e-book library…..

Adventures in Funeralworld

Fresh out of the box and ready for reading, here’s the e-book that is essential for the library of anyone with an interest in anything funereal.

Or actually anyone with an interest in life.

Enough said.

Published today.

Buy it here.


Eulogies are never the last word

“There is the official notice and ceremony, and then the long and agonizing process that follows … Eulogies are never the last word.”

That’s a quote from an article sent to me by a friend (thanks, Kathryn). In full, it’s even better:

“I had nearly forgotten how death plays out over time — not the biological episode that collapses it all into a nanosecond of being and nonbeing, but the slower arc of our leaving, the long goodbye — sorting through the mail, paying the bills, stumbling upon notes. It is like the decommissioning of a great battleship. There is the official notice and ceremony, and then the long and agonizing process that follows — the disposition of so much tonnage. Eulogies are never the last word.”

Never the last word, maybe, but eulogies are important to those who hear them because they serve a particular purpose within a particular context. The context, a funeral, is an event which attempts to restore order after the disruption of a death: to settle people’s minds and assure them that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”.

Hence the orderly format of a funeral eulogy. It’s customarily a story. The story form works best because, with its beginning, middle and end, it is complete in itself, as is, now, the life of the one who died. Much more comforting to think of a life being tidily complete rather than raggedly cut short leaving lots of loose ends.

But, however psychologically therapeutic, a eulogy is not, actually, the last word because, yes, “death plays out over time”.

And there’s more to it than that. Eulogies are written from the memories of others, and memories are not good places for archiving stuff.  In his autobiography, Matthew Parris quotes from the memoir of politician John Payton:

“Memory loses much that was important, and yet clings on to, and preserves, quite small things which, like stray, unconnected footprints, have escaped erosion by the winds and tides of time. [Much is] lost beyond recovery: of the remainder, some glimpsed like a fish in clear, still water, vanish as you move towards them; the outstretched hand comes back empty but for some bits of unmemorable debris from the bed of the stream.”

All funeral celebrants have suffered some of that when gathering material for their life stories.

Parris concludes:

“A life is not a story, any more than a yew tree is a bird. Topiary can make a yew tree into a bird, and a determined editor’s shears can clip a shapeless history into apparent significance; but the meaning is as illusory as a yew peacock.”

Or, in the words of the poet John Fuller in his poem My Future:

I am your memories. They are not me.
So it feels strange to be remembered by
These relics of my personality.

Although you mourn me, is it really me
You mourn, or thoughts of me that make you cry?
I am your memories. They are not me.

Let’s hear it for the killer anecdote

From The Times obituary for Walter Walsh:

Walter Walsh killed people for a living. He was exceptionally good at it. But unlike many in his line of work, he never shot anyone who didn’t need shooting. Both as an FBI agent in the 1930s and as a marine officer during the Second World War, he comported himself with unfailing courage, steely determination and, in spite of all, a modest, unassuming humanity.

On October 12, 1937, the Brady Gang, a murderous band of armed robbers led by the notorious Al Brady, were tracked down to Bangor, Maine, where they had negotiated the purchase of a quantity of automatic weapons. Unknown to the gang, the owner of the store had contacted the FBI, whose men were waiting.

Agents, led by Walsh, arrested James Dalhover, a three-time killer, the moment he entered the premises but a second man, Clarence Shafer, was close behind, gun in hand. He opened fire immediately. Walsh, standing just feet away on the inside of the glass door, took a bullet in his chest and another — a lucky shot — to his right-hand, rendering his Colt 45 useless. Without missing a beat, the FBI man returned fire with the .357 Magnum in his left hand, killing Shaffer instantly. Bleeding from his wounds, he then ran out into the street, where Brady was exchanging fire with other FBI agents, to deliver the coup de grâce.

Russell “Rusty” Gibson. Gibson was not a man to be crossed. Wearing a crudely-made bullet-proof vest and armed with a Browning automatic rifle, classified as a light machinegun, he was determined that he would not be taken alive. Walsh granted him his wish. When the two met in a narrow alleyway, they each opened fire. “He shot high,” Walsh recalled. “I didn’t.”

Walter Walsh, marksman, was born on May 4, 1907. He died on April 29, 2014, aged 106

Doing them justice

Over on the Mindfulness and Mortality blog, in a discussion about funeral eulogies, Gloriamundi asks a good question:

“Why do we seem to feel the need to sum up a life and pass judgement on it?”

He goes on: “The torrent of unqualified praise that falls on someone who has just died is an expression of sorrow and compassion, of course.” He wonders, though, if  “the only way to set the balance straight and strive for a more balanced, seemingly accurate picture would be to talk about the less angelic side of someone’s nature.”

Gloriamundi concludes: “Who are we to pronounce judgement upon the flickering, shimmering transience of a personality? The imperfect wonders of a human life? Let’s accept the limits of human judgement and not encumber a funeral with verdicts.”

Instead: “How much better to have people tell us, directly or via the celebrant, what the person meant to them. How much better to have anecdotes and stories that illustrate some well-known characteristics; they bring about the smiles of recognition and affectionate grief, they mean much more than generalised and abstract judgements.”

It’s a perennial question: what exactly is the purpose of a funeral eulogy within the context of a funeral rite?

Well, what are the expectations of the audience?  Do those who come to a funeral expect an evaluation of the dead person?

Yes, they probably do, don’t they? Religious people, for sure, believe that death is when we render our final account to God and receive, in awe and trembling, some sort of verdict on our life. As the Bible says, on the Day of Judgement, “who shall stand when he appeareth? for he [is] like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap.”

God is less like fullers’ soap nowadays, more of a mate, but nonetheless: there’s a widespread sense among the unchurched, too, that death is a time for totting up and taking stock. Unbelievers and those of fuzzy faith want their celebrant to deliver a final reckoning, albeit with a much massaged bottom line  – more soft soap than fullers’.

So perhaps Gloriamundi and her/his kind ought to view a eulogy as, essentially, an exercise in creative accounting.

But for a eulogist to try and meet the expectations of the audience if those buy cialis malaysia expectations are no more than a cultural hand-me-down is, some would argue, no longer useful nor necessary — it’s time, now, to set aside the traditional funeral in favour of a more apt vehicle. If so, what would that vehicle look like?

As it happens, the eminent humanist Harold Blackman designed one. He questioned the focus on the corpse and the usefulness of the public funeral ritual. He favoured a private, corpse-free (‘unencumbered’) funeral ritual – he called it a memorial meeting – featuring, in the words of his eulogist, Nigel Collins, a “reasonably full, frank and above all honest account of the subject – so, crucially, more a multi-faceted tribute than an idealised eulogy.” This looks very close to the Gloriamundi position.

In Blackman’s words: “Modern humanists should not make much of funeral rites, disposal of the body, attendance on it at the tomb; rather, they should encourage friends and relatives to come together to contribute from their memories and impressions to the creation of a new image of the person they knew, harvesting what was cultivated and produced in life.”

Again: “Even for the most private person, the unencumbered memorial meeting is the real tribute to the dead and the real admonition to the living, for it helps to redeem the loss in a living image and it asks for a life worth valuing. The concentration and collective contribution of the memorial meeting can raise and reinforce the image of the lost person with the sharpness of finality that survives dispersion. This should be a harvest ritual rather than a tomb ritual.

When Blackman first proposed these ideas to the Royal Society in 1967 he encountered “violent protest … Many of [the Fellows] at least could not tolerate the idea of not paying respect to the dead in the customary way.”

That was almost 50 years ago. Blackman died in 2009 at the ripe age of 105 and was accorded a memorial meeting according to his own model — here.  He would be interested to observe the waning of the focus on the corpse that seems to be under way today. And he’d probably like the cut of Gloriamundi’s jib.

The cairn at the end of the journey

The cairns along  a wilderness trail are built of rocks of various shapes and sizes. The memorial cairn at the end of a life is also a composite, but an experiential one. It is made up of the memories, the thoughts and the feelings of all who are gathered in the one place together. It is a recollection (a re-collection) of what was for a time together and now is scattered and scattering. Here is the one we knew. Here is how our lives were touched by that life. Here is what we think and how we feel. 

The words spoken in the literal funeral or memorial service are not themselves the marker. The words spoken are evokers of experiences — thoughts, feelings, memories — within the people of the gathered group. These experiences are the memorial cairn. 

At the end of a life we compose a symphony, an ordered creation, whose notes and themes are the experiences of the people gathered. Themes dark and bright are sounded to recollect and to order the impact of the the life of the one who has died — honestly, fully, tenderly — and in the spirit of thanksgiving for the quality of that life. 

Rev Roy Phillips quoted in Dealing Creatively With Death.

Killer anecdotes

A great funeral eulogy showcases a killer anecdote. Here’s one to die for from the Times obituary for diplomat Andrew Stuart:

Stuart won the Colonial Police Medal in 1961 when he overcame an escaped prisoner and self-styled prophet, Kigaanira, who was drawing a crowd by dancing with a spear on top of a 100ft rock. Stuart “chimneyed” up a 3ft wide cleft, and having prevented Kigaanira dropping a rock on him by addressing him with complex greetings in the Luganda language, leapt across the vertiginous gap at the top, tied Kigaanira up with his climbing-rope and lowered him to the ground to be arrested.

Holding the line

There’s nothing new in a minister-naffs-off-mourners story, nor yet a Catholic-priest-bans-eulogy story. Some minsters are insensitive to the needs of their congregations, some insist on theological orthodoxy, some use a funeral as a conversion opportunity, some like to remind non-churchgoers that they will burn for all eternity in the fires of hell. Some clergy do exactly what their congregations want them to do, let’s not forget, but today’s story is not about them.

Today’s story is about Father Mike, a catholic priest in America who, at the funeral of a 29 year-old, was reckoned to have conducted himself in an insensitive, impersonal way which denied the congregation the comfort and assurance they sought. Below is an email one of the mourners sent to him:


Below is the reply from the priest:



Father Mike, like a lot of Catholic priests, believes that a funeral is no place for a eulogy. The do afterwards is the appropriate occasion for personal tributes, reminiscences and other life-celebratory stuff. A Catholic funeral has an altogether different job to do.

Father Mike’s heartless-seeming treatment of those grieving people is theologically defensible. Who are we to take issue with him for defending the integrity of the Catholic funeral mass and objecting to it being muddled by the intrusion of an anomalous element like a eulogy? Any faith group which is settled, fixed and confident in its beliefs prohibits the intrusion of anomaly. Atheists (Humanists) ban religious elements from their funerals, a practice reckoned heartless by some. In the words of one humanist celebrant, “Reverting to old comforting superstitions at a time of bereavement is understandable and will no doubt persist for a generation or two … I feel that celebrants, whether Humanist or religious should personally subscribe to the ethos and philosophy that underlies the nature of the ceremony.”

Whether or not Father Mike would subscribe to what this same celebrant goes on to say, we can only wonder: “I’ve met independent celebrants who’ve told me they can be whatever the client wants them to be but that strikes me as being the job description of an ancient but entirely different profession altogether.” (Source)

The question never debated by secular, semi-religious, call-them-what-you-will celebrants is whether a eulogy does actually belong in a funeral. If a wedding is analogous, we note that the speeches are made at the wedding breakfast, not the marriage ceremony — the happy chatter is kept separate from the solemnisation.

Eulogy clincher

One for you celebrants.

US Methodist minister Talbot Davis has written an open letter to fellow pastors on his blog urging them to make a better fist of funerals. He offers lots of sound advice and concludes by urging them to use his favourite line:

“[The deceased] is more alive now than they have ever been before.” 

Used at the end of a eulogy, he says, this goes down extremely well.

Tempted to try it?

(When I was a celebrant I had a favourite line. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.)

Greetings from the Isle of Portland, buffeted but unbowed.

When eulogies go too far

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

Mafia funerals in churches intrigue. Any congregation inevitably includes an eclectic mix of faces in the pews, but the mobsters and molls at a gangster funeral turn the nave into something else. They’re totally welcome, of course, and are likely to be behaving with perfect decorum, but you still can’t help projecting onto those grieving faces all the crimes they’re alleged to have committed. Hard eyes and mouths telling tales of violence, perhaps. Bling coffins and flash clobber as displays of ill-gotten gains. Burly security and watchful police. Onlookers can’t help a frisson of excitement when glimpsing a hidden underworld.

The expression and body language of the unworldly priest is something to behold, too. Some might be extravagantly warm, working hard to make out they feel at ease. Others might perform their duties with a poker face and a stiffness that reveals they’re beyond the comfort zone of being among their regular parishioners.

I recall attending the church funeral of a young journalist some years ago where the equally young Anglican priest’s demeanour stole the show for me. An endless eulogy performed in the pulpit by a friend of the deceased man was a string of gossipy anecdotes about promiscuous sex, drink and drugs binges and bitchy feuds with various acquaintances, all delivered with appropriately colourful language.

Intended as a fond tribute to a decadent and sometimes rather vicious rogue, it would have been a step too far as a raunchy best man’s speech let alone a funeral eulogy. Most of the congregation seemed to lap it up, laughing raucously at the most shocking outbursts of the stand-up comedian by the altar, seemingly insensitive to the view of some that it might be defiling a place of worship.

My eyes were transfixed on the priest who sat motionless, his expression, though deadpan, showing a hint of cool disdain. His lack of reaction to the speech—neither amusement nor embarrassment nor anger—seemed to speak volumes of his disapproval. The lunatics have taken over the asylum. Keep calm and carry on.

He dutifully stood at the door of the church shaking our hands as we processed out. When I said, ‘Thank you, Father,’ he nodded without so much as a smile. He seemed to just want out of the situation. Perhaps he was feeling remorse that he’d been naïve to allow things to go beyond his control.

What to say when someone’s history?

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.