Wednesday, November 9, 2011

How to Create a Meaningful Service: Rubber Boots

There is no formula for creating a meaningful funeral, but the recent service held at Cheltenham Crematorium for 39 year old Gloucestershire nurse, Lorna Grant offers some very instructive guidelines.

A powerful and healing message is communicated through these 'mourning garments'

Ms. Grant was a great fan of music festivals, and especially the famous Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts, where people of an independent and alternative bent enjoy tromping about in the mud and listening to music in great numbers each year. In Ms. Grant's service, her fun loving and independent spirit and interests were acknowledged in ways that created a meaningful and loving tribute to her life, along with a healing and affirming experience for her friends and family. Here are some elements of her funeral that we can all bring to our own services...

Undertaker in wellies leads procession to crematorium

The Procession:
If any feature of a funeral sums up our feelings and actions in a symbolic way, it is the procession. The procession lends itself easily to personalized ritual. In Ms. Grant's case, the procession to the crematorium was given added meaning by the vehicle used to transport her remains. A special vehicle and a special pace, marked out in this case by the undertaker, tells us visually and emotionally that this is a special journey, not like any other. It reminds us that we are accompanying a special person on the last leg our their journey.

In the procession we say "Your life and your passing is important enough for me to go with you as far as I can". The special vehicle used for this journey can be a hearse, a horse drawn carriage, or a cart. I have seen processions with motorcycles, hot rods, and milk trucks. In this case the vehicle is special to the memory of the deceased because it is a camper van fitted out to be used as a hearse. We see it and know instantly that it is special and personally meaningful.

Ceremony and innovation

Mixing the old and the new:
There is great value to both traditional ritual and personalization, and when the two are combined, we get fireworks. Ritual provides us with the comforting rhythms and reassurances that allow us to deal with the overwhelming and unknowable. On some level we need to be reminded that this individual and that we ourselves belong to a culture and a tradition and a community. Traditional rituals like the use of pallbearers and processions also communicate emotional messages that are beyond words.

Tradition is cold comfort however, if it is not relevant to the deceased. This is where personalization enhances traditional ritual. In this case, a pink casket that appears to be made of renewable resources is carried by pallbearers wearing the wellington boots that remind us of the muddy music festivals, guests and pallbearers were all invited to wear their 'wellies' to the service. Rather than a traditional floral casket spray, sunflowers are used. I have seen an all female group of bearers carry their former basketball coach into church, clowns carrying a fellow clown, and bearers with a variety of other special attributes. The floral spray for fashion icon, Isabella Blow, was reminiscent of the fabulously edgy millinery she wore. For veterans, a flag often drapes the casket instead of flowers. For race fans, checkered flags can be used. Most importantly, the combination of familiar and novel, makes the messages of both more apparent and meaningful. The pallbearer's work is highlighted by the pink casket and the boots they all wear. The meaning of the sunflowers is emphasized by their placement on the casket.
This is Participation

I'll close with a photo very similar to the opening shot because the wellie boots convey the most powerful message for the mourners and for us as more detached observers. Participation was the key to this service and the most important lesson we can take from it. Just attending a funeral service is a form of participation, and sends a wonderful message of comfort and acknowledgement it its own right. Enhancing and increasing the level of participation brings those messages out more clearly and makes the experience of the participant so much more healing.
Participation can take many forms, from eulogies to carrying the casket, to riding in procession, to bringing a hot-dish to the reception. Whether we realize it or not, what we wear to a funeral involves participation too. I am often asked what appropriate clothing should be for funerals and my response would now be to look at the photo above for the answer. A funeral is a special day set aside from other days to remember a special person. When we wear something special to that event we are participating in the funeral. No one expects you to go out and buy a black suit or dress for a funeral, but do take the time and effort to participate in acknowledging the importance of that life and that death by making a special effort. In the case of Ms. Grant, that effort did not even involve suits for anyone other than the pallbearers, it involved wearing rubber boots. By wearing the boots, guests made a visual expression of love and loss in the fun - loving spirit of their friend, and realized on a more profound level why they were there.

We cannot expect to create a meaningful service just by wearing wellies or picking out a pink casket any more that by releasing doves or having an 'open mic' session. A meaningful service is the result of a series of participatory decisions and creative actions. Hopefully what we take away from Lorna Grant's service is a lesson in the importance of ritual, personalization and the creative expression of love.

The photos and information regarding Lorna Grant's service were found on The Daily Mail, This is Somerset, and This is Gloucestershire sites


Linsey said...

My name is Linsey Filby and the service you have written so beautifully about, is the one I organised for my beautuful sister Lorna. Every detail was planned so carefully and I was so touched to read your article, many thanks.

Patrick McNally said...

Dear Linsey,
The love and care you put into this remarkable service is evident in every photograph. I am sure that your sister's service will inspire others to remember their loved ones in special ways. Thank you for your comment. My thoughts are with you. -Pat

gloriamundi said...

Unbounded admiration for Linsey, and deepest thanks to Patrick for writing up the funeral so beautifully - it should go straight into any training manual or course for celebrants and FDs. I hope Linsey gets some comfort from knowing how a wonderful ceremony has been written up into a really useful passage for all of us by a wise head. Thank you so much, both.

Related Posts with Thumbnails

Contact Me

My photo
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.