Sunday, 18 May 2014

In praise of divorce....but not sex

"In their day, people stayed together"

It's a phrase that we hear every now and again, and suggests that today we are too flighty, to quick to give up and if only we worked a little harder at our marriages then it would all be worth it in the end and bliss would surely be ours.

Yeah, maybe.

I'm not for a single moment suggesting that our relationships should be viewed as disposable, to be abandoned at the slightest difficulty - coming through tough times together is a strengthening and positive experience.

But having recently conducted ceremonies for people who have been unhappy in their marriages, I can also question the point of sticking together beyond all hope. If decades of misery is your thing, then go ahead, but please don't claim the moral high ground about it.

On the other end of the relationship scale:

I don't know if other celebrants find this, but people often seem to be in hurry to tell me how great their sex lives have been. Trust me, if I say in a ceremony "he was an active man", I usually mean that he liked sport.

My favourite example of this was the gent who stood at his wife's funeral and gave a lovely tribute, including a little about what a generous and sensitive lover she had been. Good for them, but I suspect that neither her children, or her grandchildren, wanted to hear it.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Shakes head and walks away muttering

I was at a local crem recently, one with a generous (!) 30 minute service time, rather than 20 min, but still the ceremony before mine over ran a little. It happens, it was a minute or two, no hole was punched in the space-time continuum and the family I was with hadn't even noticed.

The minister appeared a little flustered, however, and as he was disrobing in the vestry, he was complaining about the family he had just served. (Personally, I stay with the family, at a discreet distance, until they drive off in the big black car, but that's not my point today).

"Honestly", he said "They spent half an hour deciding whether or not they wanted the curtains to close. It's ridiculous. We should either have them closed every time or take them down."

I was rather stunned by this comment. I appreciate that he was flustered, didn't like going over the allotted time and clearly had somewhere else he had to be. I also gather that there was a lot of "me, me, me" when it came to the family members who have, no doubt got on his nerves. But really? The curtains? Some cannot bear to watch them close; it feels as though they are being severed from the person they have lost. Others, couldn't possibly leave the chapel if the coffin is still on view, walking away, leaving them.

That is their decision to make and if they take half an hour's debate, then so be it. We do enough clock watching at the ceremony, we certainly shouldn't be doing it when we visit the family.

Then just last month, I had a call from a funeral arranger, giving me details of a ceremony that I was to conduct.
"Could you let me have the order of service now, please?"
"But I haven't met them yet"
"It's just that I need it for the printers" (The ceremony was about10 days after this call).

To confess, structurally, many of my ceremonies are similar but they are by no means rigid and if the family wants to have the coffin carried in and the curtains closed around it before the family enters (that's only happened once, but it's happened) then so be it. We can advise and guide but, ultimately, we are only there to facilitate.

To try and appease, I emailed through my "recommended" structure. Quite what the panic was, I don't know, we had no idea about family contributions, music choices, poetry or anything else at that point.

After the visit, (luckily, the family had an idea of what they wanted and so we were able to finalise the structure when we met), I sent the revised version through to the FD.

I am aware that there are time constraints and deadlines. Printers need a few days to enable proofs to be prepared, sent and checked.

But in both of these cases, it felt as though the priority was lost and that the family's wishes were an inconvenience that may messed up neatly drawn plans.

Life is messy, grief is messier. Let's just muddle through and help each other.

And let us also remind ourselves of the mantra of all celebrants, ministers, FDs, arrangers, chapel attendants, bearers, etc, etc - all together now "It's not about us, it's not about us, it's not about us."

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Who is it for when there's nobody there?

A question often raised in funeral circles is "Who is the funeral for?"

Is it for the person who has died, or for their grieving family? Sometimes, you can look around the room when meeting the family and spot the one person that it's all for and about, usually a daughter, often a "Daddy's girl", but that, perhaps is a different story.

But who is the funeral for when there aren't any mourners?

I'm not talking about the war veterans who appear to be friendless and whose funerals have a large attendance thanks to social media campaigns, I'm talking about the people who choose to be alone.

A few years ago, I was talking to a bearer, who was telling me about a "council" funeral, where there were no mourners. In many cases, the bearers will stay in the chapel and hear the vicar's service, paying their respects, not wanting anyone to be alone on that last journey. On that particular day, sadly, it being wintertime and busy, the bearer had to go to another crematorium for another ceremony and the vicar was on his own with the FD.

This stayed with me for a long time. What would I do in such circumstances? For a start, I don't have a "standard ceremony" that I could fall back on, like those little hardback books at the crem. Of course, something would be written and delivered, but it would feel a bit "cobbled together".

And what would I say? If there really was nobody able to tell me about the deceased, what tribute could I pay?

This still hasn't happened, but I came pretty close, just recently. My dealings were with Bert's solicitor as there was no known family. There was a neighbour who had chatted to him casually, but that gent was on holiday until the day before the ceremony.  The solicitor had only met Bert twice, in the local hospice, while sorting out his affairs.

When I spoke to her, she said that she was going to Bert's bungalow to see if she could find an address book. Risking cheekiness, I asked if I could go with her and, thankfully she said yes.

It was the only chance I had to find out anything about Bert but, my goodness, it felt weird. I didn't want to go rummaging too deeply but wanted to find out a bit about the man that he had been.

It was not a comfortable experience, rifling through someone's music collection to get a find out if they were more into Mantovani or Meatloaf. Glancing along their bookshelves, hoping for clues of their interests. And as for the DVD collection? Well, Bert was a chap living on his own...not all of the films were Hollywood Blockbusters.

Sometimes the hints are small. I switched on his kitchen radio, just to see if it was tuned to Radio 4, local commercial radio, or Jazz FM.

The trip to his bungalow helped but there was still a lot of guesswork. Yes, we could play music from his own collection, but is that enough? I have a vast CD collection, but I'm not sure that anyone would guess from it, what tracks I'd like played at my send off.

We did find an address book and a cousin was identified. Bless them, they travelled over a hundred miles to come to the funeral. For someone they hadn't seen in decades, I thought that was a very good show.

I did actually say "John Donne famously said that 'No man is an island', but Bert made a good attempt at it" during the ceremony. I talked about the things that we knew (it was Radio 3, by the way). We played some music. We tried our best. I suggested that although we are, usually, social creatures, we cannot assume that Bert's life was unhappy or lonely; he made his choices and we must respect them.

Yet still it plays on my mind.

Who was the ceremony for and why did we have it? Well, certainly Bert wanted one - he'd left instructions about it but only scant details.

The congregation was the solicitor and her assistant, the neighbour, the cousin and spouse and the FD. I didn't go on too long; it didn't seem right. But the whole thing felt oddly incomplete.

This may be about our very human need for ritual; our dislike of seeing someone friendless at the end of their life (there but for the grace of.....)

Maybe it's just about being human.

In Memory of Anyone Unknown to Me by Elizabeth Jennings

At this particular time I have no one
Particular person to grieve for, though there must
Be many, many unknown ones going to dust
Slowly, not remembered for what they have done
Or left undone. For these, then, I will grieve
Being impartial, unable to deceive.

How they lived, or died, is quite unknown,
And, by that fact gives my grief purity--
An important person quite apart from me
Or one obscure who drifted down alone.
Both or all I remember, have a place.
For these I never encountered face to face.

Sentiment will creep in. I cast it out
Wishing to give these classical repose,
No epitaph, no poppy and no rose
From me, and certainly no wish to learn about
The way they lived or died. In earth or fire
They are gone. Simply because they were human, I admire.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

I'm gonna wash that man right out of my hair......

A couple of months ago, I blogged about a problem with a new candidate.

A few days later, things took a turn. "Michael" put in an official complaint about me. (I thought he'd read this, identified himself and that I'd been rumbled, but I soon found out that this wasn't the case).

He felt that because I had not given the reasons for failing to endorse his application (because I wanted him to speak to me) then I had not worked in a supportive fashion and had therefore breached the code of conduct of my particular "firm".

I won't put here my initial reaction but it involved reference to a game a soldiers after an expletive detailing men's reproductive organs. I was annoyed, of course, but it did rather prove my concerns about suitability.

The complaint was answered and not upheld (XP - 1, Michael - 0). But this left me with a problem - how the hell do I work with someone who would put in a complaint before speaking to me. And, rather more crucially, how on earth would I say to a funeral director "this is my colleague, Michael, please feel free to call him if I'm not available."

There have been meetings, discussions, efforts made etc but, ultimately these problems are insurmountable. Assuming that Michael starts practicing as a funeral celebrant, (or even if he doesn't, he still does weddings etc), I am stuck with a colleague who would take up time and effort complaining when I didn't put his name forward. And, to be fair, later complaints would be justified; I couldn't recommend him, so would be a naughty girl and breach the code.

In the end, there seemed only one way out and that is to leave the firm. I am now an independent celebrant.

I have joined another firm (low key, done to sort out the public liability insurance as much as anything) but essentially I'm out there on my own. It's scary but feedback so far has been positive. More than one FD has said "it's you we book, XP, not your accreditation."

We'll have to see how this pans out. I think that I've probably kissed goodbye to weddings and namings, as most of those enquiries came from the firm's central website, but at heart I'm a funeral celebrant. The other ceremonies are fun, but they are not the core of what I do.

I feel really sad that this has happened and also quite cross. The whole situation has taken a lot of time and effort and absolutely none of it has led me to have a better family meeting, write a better funeral or deliver a better ceremony.

Many years ago I used to have to put up with office politics, cliques, departmental squabbles and people throwing their toys out of the pram. It was irritating, but I also got paid holiday, paid sick leave, tea and coffee on tap, a Christmas party.....

As a self-employed celebrant (whatever the affiliation) there's really no need to put up with that kind of b.. (nearly mentioned those men's bits again!).

Rant over. Love and peace to all.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Dealing with the problem of stiff upper lips

The wonderful Charles over on the Good Funeral Guide recently posted a very thought provoking post: about the lack of ritual around dying when it comes to secular funerals.

I will be honest - this was not comfortable reading for me - I am a celebrant who quite often delivers the "eulogy sandwich" - for many people it seems to be what they want but it has also been what I suggest and they don't have anything better of their own to top it.

The following may sound like an exercise in self-justification (and maybe part of it is), but I wonder how much we can do, while remaining British (or, at least, English).

How many funeral directors, arrangers, bearers, ministers and celebrants have said "No, it's fine" because a family member has apologised for "being silly"; as if crying in grief is as daft as putting coffee in the same cup as the teabag, or tucking your skirt into your knickers.

How many people have passed up the chance to speak at the funeral of someone who meant the world to them, for fear of "embarrassing themselves"? We try to reassure them that there is no embarrassment; that grief is a sign of how great the person was.... but they decline, worried about somehow imploding.

It's a fine balance - we encourage people to be as much a part of the ceremony as they want, but without putting pressure on them. Ay, there's the rub.

Seeing this article about how well Irish people deal with bereavement may hold the clues. There is a culture of accepting death and knowing what to do when it happens. There is a lack of embarrassment when someone is bereaved, an openness to talk and a willingness to offer practical help.

Cultures do not form overnight but there are many positive things happening at the moment; Death Cafes, organisations such as The Natural Death Centre and Dying Matters are helping to raise the profile of discussing death. And the Good Funeral awards (couldn't go as I was conducting a wedding, but hope to be there next year) all help to get people talking about the inevitable as well as acknowledging those who are making the strides forward.

Of course, at a time when we encourage more choice, this can add to the pressure and dilute the rituals. For every family who wants to look after their loved one at home, dig the grave themselves and decorate the coffin, there are many families who want someone else to do all of that stuff and are left feeling guilty about it. What would be helpful and useful to one person would be intrusive and painful for others.

At the bottom line, talking about death and feeling more comfortable with it have got to be the way to go; only then will anyone feel that they can offer or accept help and they will feel equally comfortable if they say no, wanting to either do things themselves, or hand the tasks over to someone paid to do it.

If we ever get to that stage, we'll have done well.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

A new twist on an old problem

Ah, the thorny issue of recruitment. It's been talked about before, but this is a problem I didn't expect to have. It's not about letting everyone have a fair crack at the work, it's not about "keep off my manor", it's about something a little more delicate - suitability.

What makes a good funeral celebrant? There are some obvious skills needed; writing, speaking in public, time keeping, organisation. Most of these are about the ceremony itself. What about meeting the family? How many celebrants have come away from a family visit hearing "thank you, I was dreading this, but I really enjoyed talking about her". Again, there are skills involved; listening, questioning, picking up on the body language etc. But to me, the most important thing that a funeral celebrant should have isn't a skill, it's a trait, and that is warmth. I'm not talking about gushing sentimentality, but just good old fashioned warmth and part of the problem is that it's not quantifiable.

Someone (for convenience, we'll call him "Michael") is a local celebrant for other ceremonies. With everything other than funerals, people choose their celebrant, they meet us and decide which one suits them best. (This could happen for funerals but usually doesn't. A subject for another day, perhaps?)

I don't have a problem with Michael on a personal level; we've got along fine in the past, but he lacks the warmth needed for funerals.

Michael asked me to support his application to become a funeral celebrant. I said that I was unable to do this. Interestingly, he has never asked me why (I was happy to have this conversation, but wanted him to ask - the fact that he didn't rather backed up my view). This means that either my opinion doesn't matter to him (except for furthering his own wishes), or he is making an assumption, probably based on protecting my workload. This is absolutely not the case. I am running at capacity and often pass work on to colleagues.

Other local celebrants have also been unable to support Michael's application but, if the jungle drums are correct, celebrants from elsewhere in the country have said yes, and his training is due to begin.

I really hope that I'm wrong about Michael. Because if he passes his training (and he is technically competent, so no reason why not), then someone, somewhere will give him work and there will be families who have him sitting in their front room, drinking their tea, and asking about their dearly departed.

Please let me be wrong, because nobody should ever have a bad funeral.

So where does this leave me? I am supposed to support colleagues, help with promotion and, when I am unable to take a ceremony, suggest them in my place. And that is not something that, in all conscience, I could do.

It's a dilemma and one that I'm working through but, at the moment, if the jungle drums are correct, then I'm really not sure what do to.

Love and peace to all. x

Monday, 15 July 2013

Because we can't be nice all the time.

I'll keep the language simple
'Cos she wasn't awfully bright
I'm trying to find a poem,
As she goes to that "good night"

It's hard to find one written
In the canon of verse and rhyme
The words are hard to come by
I'd be better off with mime!

So where is my problem?
Why am I in a mood?
Unfortunately, it's because
She didn't do any good.

That's harsh, I know and not quite fair
She never broke the law
But she did nothing with her life
And her ceremony's a chore.

I'm trying to find the good stuff
The friends she made, and such
But these were thin upon the ground
She really didn't get out much.

"Not everyone climbs Everest"
It's a line I often say
For many the value of their lives
Lies in the everyday.

The work they do, their family life
It all adds to the mix
But this one just watched Jeremy Kyle
That's why I'm in a fix.

I'll find some point of focus
They were sad to see her go
And I mustn't impose my values
on a person I didn't know.

So back to the web and the files
As I look through the readings and rhymes
Some ceremonies write themselves
Some take a devil of a time.

So fare thee well, sweet readers
Thanks for passing by
I'll do my best for this simple maid
As her loved ones say goodbye.