Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Beyond Goodbye: A Conversation with Jimmy Edmonds and Jane Harris

A video tribute to any promising and well loved young man is a touching experience that helps us to reflect on that which is most important in our lives.  Remembering Josh, a film by bereaved parents, Jimmy Edmonds and Jane Harris, is much more than that.
What Remembering Josh gives us, beyond an emotionally powerful montage, is a story of a family struggling to create a meaningful and appropriate service for their son, while dealing with their overwhelming and devastating grief.  The fact that this family is a very creative and loving one, surrounded by other creative and loving friends makes the service for Josh an incredible experience for all involved.  However, it is easy to see how even families without their capacity for artistic expression or their depth of support could take home a great deal of inspiration and practical lessons from the Edmonds’ example.  I am excited to share with you a conversation with these parents, Jimmy Edmonds and Jane Harris.  

Pat McNally: Thank you both so much for this important  film, and for sharing your thoughts on The Daily Undertaker.  It seems that you were clear from the beginning that a conventional service just would not be fitting, meaningful, or appropriate for your son.  I even got the impression that that kind of funeral would have been a disservice in your minds.  What was it about the conventional that was so clearly wrong for Josh, and what kind of experience were you hoping for initially?

Jimmy Edmonds: The main issue was our need to celebrate Joshua’s life as much as to mourn his death.  We had very little experience of  attending let alone organizing a funeral for one so young, and really we only had examples from television and films to go on.  But I think we knew what we didn’t want and I remember expressing a fear of having to let Josh go in what I considered to be a heartless and sterile environment of the local crematorium.  It felt like we would be delivering him to some anonymous, institutionalized ritual where strangers would take care of things.  Two young police officers had brought us the news of Joshua’s death and for his body to be committed by more unknowns felt just too much – you can’t hug a policeman, neither did I feel like hugging an undertaker – it felt like the only way to properly deal with this was to gather family and friends around and share our grief, and not just for half an hour at the “crem”.  We needed more time and we needed to fill that time by doing things that would help us all come to terms with our loss.      

Jane Harris: Ritual was very important to me and as our 18 year old daughter Rosa said "..Josh wasn’t just ours”. I wanted to be sure that the funeral was about Josh and I wanted  his friends to be a large part of that ritual.  I was worried that we didn’t know what form that would take but in the 11 days between our son’s death and the actual funeral it came together through a mix of our own ideas and those of our friends. And it felt right that it should take as much time as we needed on the day.  We couldn’t possibly have done it in an allocated time slot at a crematorium.  It had to be part of a longer journey of saying goodbye.

Pat: A point in the film that was very interesting for me was your family explaining how difficult it was to pour so much energy into creating this service at a time when you had so little to spare.  In several instances you express the fears you experienced that the whole thing would come off wrong or fall flat.  Fortunately, that did not happen, but I imagine that this is something everyone would experience if attempting to create their own service on this scale.  Creating a service like this must be very rewarding and meaningful, but also demanding and, in a sense, risky.  What would you say to a family considering something like this? 

Jimmy:  I’m not sure I worried too much about the funeral going wrong.  Jane did at the time and we found out later how concerned Joe was.  But without the help and advice of Su Chard, an independent celebrant who was introduced to us by some friends, the whole thing might well have ended up as a complete fiasco.    

The main problem was that convention, as we knew it, was telling us to hold a funeral first and then organize a memorial service at some later date – that was never going to work if only because we would have been unable to accommodate all the tributes from Josh’s friends many of whom we hardly knew.  I can’t remember now what the initial plans for the funeral were but what was always important was that it should be as much a celebration of life as it was a sadness for our loss and that Josh’s body should be present throughout that celebration.  Another important thing was that the event should represent a journey, for Josh and for us so we began to plan the day as three distinct movements of the coffin.  Loads of different ideas were flying around our kitchen table, but exactly what each section would represent remained unclear until Su reminded us what other people's expectations might be and our responsibilities to their own feelings of loss.

Jane: One of the most important and liberating lessons for me was that there are no rules and we could do exactly what we as a family wanted to do. For example  I know for me it was important to incorporate some kind of reference to Judaism into the day,  from a cultural rather than religious perspective. This represented one of many threads that emerged through out the funeral day. We were also very mindful to encourage people to honour Josh in ways that felt right to THEM…….we truly wanted to share the day with others, and that in turn offered us a lot of comfort. I remember feeling strong on the day despite having a broken heart and that was largely to do with the love and support of everyone present.

Jimmy: It's really all about accommodating a whole range of emotions that at the time feel out of control.  As James Showers puts it in our film, funerals like this are “a collision of grief and happy memories”.  Both he and Su helped us manage that risk by ensuring that we knew which moments were to be held as sacred and which were more celebratory.  

There was also the important consideration of food and the fact that many people would have traveled miles and would be tired both physically and emotionally.  So at the most basic level,  our structure for the day was organized around the living and their need to be well fed and rested.  Tired and hungry mourners are grumpy mourners and we didn’t want grumpy mourners, sad yes but not grumpy.

So if there’s one piece of advice for others planning to organise their own funeral, it is to give a very clear indication of what the order of service will be, to make sure the event has moments of solemnity and calm as well as opportunities for laughter and celebration.  And to build in very specific tea/coffee meal breaks.

Pat: A great many people participated in Josh’s service.  There were expressions of love and memories from a vast range of people who knew your son in different ways.  Were hearing new stories about your son a healing experience for you?  Was it a surprise to you?

Jimmy: A surprise and a delight.  Josh had moved away from home soon after leaving school and had made a whole new set of friends in London.  But there were still many of his school friends that we didn’t know that well, so its been a real eye opener to discover not just how well loved and admired he was, but how full his life was.  And getting to know those friends of his now, all of whom carry a little of Josh with them is a great comfort.  One of them as set up a website “Postcards to Josh” in which we can keep in touch with each other.

Jane: It was remarkable to be able to get to know Josh better through the loving and often hilarious contributions  of his friends.  I found it gave me a lot of strength to know how loved he had been in his very short life. I also find it helpful to know that as my memories fade the film will be there to help me recall the detail and nuances of my son’s life that I never want to forget.

Pat: There were so many ways that people were able to participate physically in the service, not only those who spoke or sang or carried the casket,  nearly everyone did something.  Did you intentionally create opportunities for participation?  How do you think these activities shaped the service?

Jimmy: Definitely.    I think we recognized the need that people would want to contribute in some way and that they would be able to use what ever they had to offer both as gifts to Josh, as well as part of their own healing process.  And that’s not just for those with talent as a performer.  It would have been physically impossible for us to organize an event on such a scale, and people do want to help, they need to help at times like this.  It was interesting how some traditional gender roles emerged.  The women attending to flowers and candles and decorating the hall.  The men helping to build the coffin.  Personally I found the male only environment of my friends workshop where we built Josh’s coffin very stabilizing.  When Josh died I experienced some very frightening and some very unfamiliar emotions, but I was somehow aware they were kind of different from what the women were going though, and being able to share these with my male friends as we planned and built the casket was probably very important.

Jane: The most central element of what we wanted to do was to share the day with as many key people from Joshua's life as was possible. I was also very struck by the different ways men and women grieve and how  afraid a lot of people were about being with us.  From the moment we started to organize the funeral I knew I wanted it to be a shared experience and though people were reluctant to do so initially I discovered that what they needed was permission to be themselves  and once that had been understood this was easier for them and us. The difference between compassion and pity didn’t take long to become apparent and we surrounded ourselves with people who understood this.

Pat: You decided against engaging a traditional Undertaker, but you did work with an independent one.  Could you share your experience of working with this man, and tell a bit about the role he played?

Jimmy: It happens that we already knew James Showers, the undertaker.  I had made a short film with him and got to know something of his work and his views about death and mourning.  James sees his role as, in his words “helping people to reclaim their farewell”.  Commercial undertakers provide a service which, in a time of great stress, we have come to believe is beyond our capabilities.  But in doing so they have also robbed us of one of life’s most important encounters.  What James did was to take care of the legal stuff, the administrative stuff, while supporting and encouraging us to concentrate on creating a ritual that would be meaningful and cathartic for us all.  In a sense he was very “hands-off” but always there in the background.  But Su Chard, the celebrant, was also important in the way she help us design what she called “a rite of passage” for Josh.  

Jane: James’ personal and accepting approach really helped. He was sensitive to our needs and priorities and didn’t once questioned what we were trying to do.

Pat: The process of creating the film seems to be entwined with the service and the grief experience itself.  How did this activity help or hinder your experience?

Jimmy:   In a way making the film was about hanging on to Josh for as long as possible.   On the day, I had asked a camera man and sound recordist (both friends) to record what they could of the event.  They are both professionals and went virtually unnoticed.  We then had to decide what we were going to do with the footage.  Who should it be for?    Who would want to watch it?

Jane: The making of the film was a huge part of the grieving process.  I know that some people might think it improper to bring a camera into  such a personal arena but for us as a family what matters is that we will forever have a record of Josh’s life which not only helps us to come to terms with what has happened but that can possibly help others too.

We decided to interview key people in the weeks after the funeral and that was also very therapeutic (both for us and for them).  Hearing what Josh’s friends had taken from the day was heartwarming.  For example one of Josh’s  friends talked about it being a day that had changed her  life and another said he had realized that you have to experience death to experience life.

Jimmy: We have now spent the last six months or so shaping that film in the edit suite. At some point during the day, I've sat down at the computer and fiddled away with the material - making this bit work a little better, changing the order here or there, putting new stuff in, taking other stuff out, but all the time being with Josh and I guess stringing out and delaying the moment of really saying goodbye.  Being able to do this has been a really important part of coming to terms with his death.  But making the film is only the beginning of the life of that film – and impact it has for other people and the way it then helps me is yet to be seen.

Jane: I cannot begin to imagine how I would cope for the rest of my life without this record of Joshua’s life which I can look at whenever I like.  My grieving journey has been hugely helped because we have made a film. Our daughter Rosa has also found having a record of the event helpful.  If she wants to share it with people who didn’t know Josh she can do so and they in turn will get to know something about her beloved brother.  It was also very important for friends and family who could not attend to be able to share something of the day as well.

Pat: Some parts of the service were invented, some were borrowed from other traditions, some were perhaps traditions from your own cultural legacy.  Did you envision a multitude of messages, or perhaps one dominant overarching message from the service?  What was it like to mix these elements together?

Jimmy: That’s a really hard question.  Our family is not religious and I don’t think there was any conscious attempt to build on any traditional form of funeral.  That said,  in recent decades the AIDS epidemic has changed the way we as a society, approach death and funerals and they have become, I guess, more flamboyant.  In the UK the death of Princess Diana seemed to give people permission for a much freer and more public display of grief.  Nowadays unusual or more personal funerals are not uncommon.  So in a way I suppose we were building on current trends.  Of Josh’s funeral I think that the way we organized a sort of viral candle lighting ceremony at the end of the day was particularly special and something that was possibly “invented”.   It symbolized the way in which we had given a little a bit of Josh to each other which we could then carry away for the rest of our lives.     

Jane: Cultural legacy was important to me and I felt the accordian captured that beautifully.  I was so driven by the wish not to be afraid that Josh was dead but had no idea how to do that but by the end of the celebration of his life I somehow felt a lot less afraid than I had done. One of the most important elements of the day was that Josh was in the room …. He even received a standing ovation……which I think he would have liked enormously!

Pat:  What do you think you have experienced and accomplished through this process that you would have missed with a conventional service?

Jimmy:  It wasn’t so much a conventional service that we were trying to avoid.  More, the idea that it would be a complete stranger showing us how best to mourn for our son, felt wrong.  At the time we wouldn’t have thought of it this way, but we didn’t need professional help to manage our feelings.   But neither did we realize that creating our own funeral rite would be so valuable for the remainder of our grieving.  What we did was to respond as honestly and as intuitively as we could to how we all felt about Josh, how conflicted and confused we felt, how insecure his death made us.  We needed to construct a ceremony that was of our making and therefore personal, but that other people could recognize and join in with.  Its still too early to say but I think its that highly personalized but public sharing of grief in a ritual made possible by a collective will,  that has helped us get grounded again and to feel better about the life ahead.  

Jane: The day was very personal in every way and people had their voices heard …..we had no rules except honesty of emotion…….and no pressure of time.

Thank you both so much for sharing your experience, your work and your thoughts with us.  I know that many families, celebrants and undertakers will be inspired by what you have done.  The film can be viewed at the end of this post via Vimeo.   Also available, through Blurb, is Jimmy Edmonds' beautiful and compelling photo book about his experience with 
Joshua's death, Released.  Currently, the book may be viewed in its entirety online.  It is also available as a download and in hard copy.  I hope to have a post focused on Released one day soon. 

REMEMBERING JOSH from JIMMY Edmonds on Vimeo.

1 comment:

jenny le roux said...

So 'beautiful' and a wonderful memorial to Josh! I've just received my copy of the book, "Released" which I ordered from 'blurp'. I'm an Funeral Director in Pretoria, South Africa. My sincere condolences to the family and friends. Jenny Le Roux www.jennyleroux.com

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