Look at Life: Funerals

7th June 2019

Doing it Your Way

By Kathy Walton

After the deaths of my parents, I received many messages of condolence, but the one piece of advice for which I will always be grateful is this: there are no rights or wrongs in bereavement; when it comes to grieving, we all do it in our own way.

One man who did it his way was the singer David Bowie. His death in 2016 started the trend for ‘direct’ cremations: the body is taken to the crematorium, alone, while mourners mark their loved one’s passing separately, typically with as little fuss as possible.

More recently, journalist Colin Brazier wrote movingly in a national paper about the untimely death of his wife, which left six young children without a mother. Unlike the minimalist approach chosen by Bowie, Brazier gave his wife a full Requiem Mass with all due solemnity.

However, Brazier didn’t quite do it ‘his’ way, but let the priest take charge. In fact, he expressed his distaste for the sort of funerals where family and friends get involved and share their memories, arguing that the modern obligation to be upbeat or to make in-jokes could hinder, not help, his grieving process. He knew that he risked appearing ‘insufficiently ostentatious in his grief’ by not speaking, but insisted that the ceremony should be ‘the priest’s gig,’ not his.

Yet, in my experience, it’s the personal funerals that really stand out. A tribute that comes straight from the heart of a spouse or adult child can be a real privilege to hear. Wistful, funny or surprising; whatever the tone, it is almost always deeply moving.

Eulogies for women can be particularly revealing. How easily we assume that a woman of a certain age, who married young, did very little in life other than raise her family – only to learn from a loved one’s tribute that she served during the War or that, post-children, she founded a charity or was active in local politics. This is what I want to hear at a funeral; not the sort of platitudes I once endured, when the most illuminating and consoling thing the vicar could find to tell the mourners was: ‘And nobody made scones like Barbara*.’

It is so uplifting when the family has considered every detail, from the readings and music, to the flowers, sandwich fillings and nominated charity – each element chosen because it was a favourite of the dead person.

I know from my own experience that planning and participating in a thanksgiving service that celebrates a person’s character and achievements, does not remotely detract from your sadness at losing them, but actually helps you during the dark days of early bereavement.

Of course, we have all sat through funeral tributes given by relatives who were unsuited to the task of summing up the dead person’s life, whose jokes fell flat or whose private anecdotes should have stayed private, but does it really matter? What counts is that they said their goodbyes in the way that suited them, just as Colin Brazier chose to hand over to his priest, when that was what he needed to help him through a heartbreakingly sad occasion.

When it’s my turn, I’ll do it my way and I hope I have time to tell my family what I’d like for my send-off – and no, it won’t include a certain song of Sinatra’s. My nearest and dearest will no doubt have their own ideas, but one thing I will tell them now is this: beware the priest who makes it too much ‘his gig.’

I recently attended the funeral of a man in his late 80s, who had led a very colourful life, both personally and professionally, details of which would have delighted the congregation. The service was at a crematorium with two chapels and the duty priest, who hadn’t known the dead man, clearly hadn’t done his research. In fact, he made the service so much ‘his gig’ that he barely mentioned the deceased at all. Instead he saw his address as an opportunity to plug his church’s services, so much so that one latecomer, creeping in beside me at the back and fearing she had picked the wrong chapel, whispered to me half way through: “This is Brian’s* funeral, isn’t it?…”

* Names have been changed.

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