Friday, October 3, 2008

You Say it Best When You..

Sharing memories during a funeral service has become very popular. It is a way for family and friends to participate, to personalize the service, and to make the service reflect the happy memories of a person. Sometimes, though, it is difficult for people to stand up and share in a public place in front of a lot of people. I often suggest that if a family wants this as part of their service, that they have someone agree ahead of time to be the first to share. It's easier then, for others to share. Here are UK celebrant Charles Cowling's experiences and thoughts on the subject.
You say it best when you...
At yesterday’s funeral I invited people in the audience to have their say after they’d listened to tributes from the family. I tried to make it easy. I gave them time to think about it in advance, acknowledged that speaking in public is hard, invited them to speak from where they were sitting and reminded them that the only thing that mattered was getting it right for their dead friend.
Hardly anyone spoke. I had made an elementary error: I had supposed that their primary medium for expression is words.
I remember planning a funeral with a family, fruitlessly trying to get them to tell me about their dead mum. Very little came until they explained that, as a family, talking was something they just didn’t do. Words, to them, were just so much blather. After some thought, I suggested lighting candles. They weren’t at all the sort of people who like lighting candles, I reckoned, but they leapt at the idea.
On the day of the funeral, I set up my stand, lit a tall candle in the centre and called people forward to light a satellite tealight. Normally, only a few come. On this occasion, everyone did – maybe thirty of them. The array of flames looked very pretty beside the coffin, where they spoke more eloquently than words.
Words are unlikely ever to court disaster so long as they have been checked for precision and cleansed of ambiguity. Saying by doing, though, can be tragic-comically perilous. I’m thinking of the deplorable incident of the dove (symbolic of the soul of the dead person) which, when released, flew inside the crematorium for warmth, could not be chivvied out, and had to be shot. I’m thinking of another dove which, when released, was all at once attacked by a sparrow hawk. As the horrified mourners gazed up, bloody feathers fluttered down on them. I am thinking of the balloon which settled, miles and miles away, in the horns of a £50,000 prize bull. Enraged, the bull burst its fence, charged into a road, was hit by a car and had to be destroyed. These are all true stories.
A piece of music can be eloquent, but only when it is exclusively associated with the dead person. Music so often fails to be effective because those listening to it have their own, private relationship with it.
Back in the here and now, I am chewing over the second lesson I learned from my mute mourners. I had wholly overlooked the fact that they had already done the most eloquent thing they could do for their dead friend. It was this: at some inconvenience to themselves they had made the effort to come to his funeral.

All the bells and all the whistles in all the world cannot speak more meaningfully than simply being there.
This story is from Celebrant Charles Cowling's blog The Good Funeral Guide.
To read the rest of this story, and other thoughtful pieces, visit

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Funeral service faces a crisis of relevance, and I am passionate about keeping the best traditions of service alive while adapting to the changing needs of families. Feel free to contact me with questions, or to share your thoughts on funeral service, ritual, and memorialization.


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