Here, Ruth Valentine, a celebrant, explains her positive approach to arrangements and delights in the choices available.
Twenty years ago, I was considering an eventual deathbed conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church. Not for its doctrine; I knew very little of that. For the funerals.
I’d been to one in the Russian Cathedral in South Kensington. The music was wonderful; years back a Jewish friend had put non-belief aside for the privilege of singing in that choir. There was the open coffin, the congregation lining up to kiss our friend goodbye, then hug her children. There was the priest, newly arrived from Russia and, we heard later, anxious about his English, who stood beside her and spoke, not to us but her: ‘You had a long and eventful life… In the past few years walking was painful for you…’ Later, after more unaccompanied singing, he turned to us, the mourners: ‘You think today that you’ll never forget G, but soon there’ll be whole days when you don’t think about her.’ The combination of the matter-of-fact and the personal, the sublime and the physical, struck me at the time as the perfect acknowledgment of a complex life.
What do people want when they plan a funeral?
The simplest answer I think is choice. The immediate aftermath of a death can feel like the worst time to have to make choices; but finding it hard doesn’t mean you don’t still want it. And choice is perhaps the most controversial topic in the funeral trade today; or more positively, it’s the trigger for change.
Fewer people nowadays want the done thing simply because it’s done, or because everyone in the family always has, or because someone in black says so. Some examples that in the past dozen years have become accepted: a cardboard coffin; the favourite music of the person who’s died; a child’s poem.
Choice doesn’t mean not having the horse-drawn hearse, only that you could equally have a motorbike with the coffin in the side-car. But if you don’t know about motor-bike hearses, how can you choose one? This I think is the challenge to funeral directors and celebrants: to help the bereaved use all their creativity and intimate knowledge of the person who has died and come up with something that exactly matches them.
At my end (I’m a celebrant and occasional funeral director) this involves time, patience and empathy. Because the second thing I think that people want is to deal with an ordinary human being: not an efficient bureaucrat (though that’s useful), not a customer service adviser, but a person. I’m fortunate in working partly in people’s homes. They don’t have to put on their best clothes and ring at the door of a shop-front with net curtains. Instead they’re in charge, on their own territory; they can offer tea, and explain the photo on the mantelpiece and we can have an ordinary conversation about planning this extraordinary occasion.
So what are the choices?
Infinite, probably, at least within the limits of law and the rules of the crem or graveyard (and if those rules seem too tough we can shop around). For instance:
- You don’t have to have a ceremony at all. You can sit in silence, or just play music, or chat among yourselves about the person. You can have a simple cremation, with no-one present and hold a memorial later in a hall, or a pub, or your own home.
- You can ask Uncle Fred and Cousin Dinah to talk about the person’s life; and friend Mavis and grand-daughter Chloe and neighbor Stan. Then have a space where anyone can come up and tell a story, or one of the dead person’s awful jokes. (You can definitely laugh). If all that is likely to take too long, book a double time-slot.
- You can tell everyone to wear purple, or Arsenal shirts.
- You can carry the coffin; and you here isn’t just six strong blokes of the same height, but men and women and teenagers, holding it not on their shoulders but in their hands.
- You can delegate as much or as little as you want to the funeral director and/or the celebrant. There’s no law saying you have to use anyone, except the staff at the crem or the cemetery. You can tell the celebrant about the person’s life and ask them to write the eulogy (a good celebrant will give you the draft to check); or write it yourself and ask him or her to read it; or both write and read it and use the celebrant as a kind of MC. Or get Step-brother Pedro instead to run the thing.
- You can film the ceremony or take photos. In some crems you can webcast the funeral so that Mo and Roshan in Argentina and Auntie Vi ill in bed at home can watch it and hear their messages read out.
- You can scatter the ashes just about anywhere (of course you need permission from the landowner). So you can say goodbye in a park, by the river or on a hill.
The funerals I’ve felt most privileged to work on have been the most surprising and personal. A poet reading her own poems to her mother; a jazz musician playing for his wife; an elderly woman leaning on the lectern to say what an old stickler her good friend was; the congregation singing The Lambeth Walk as a pearly king and prince led the coffin in. I’ve never met the dead person, but feel I know them.