Grief In Public
Apr 15, 2014
Allegedly there’s an old Chinese curse that says: “May you always live in interesting times.” If that’s true, the ancient Chinese certainly knew how to put a lot of meaning into a few words…
Recently we’ve witnessed the deaths of two famous left wing poster boys of their respective generations: Tony Benn MP and union leader Bob Crow. Both genuine losses to their families & friends of course, but they were also highly divisive figures: heroes of the left, but favourite bêtes noir for those on the right.
Alternatively we could look to the deaths of Hollywood actor Philip Seymour Hoffman and fashion designer L’Wren Scott, the girlfriend of Mick Jagger. Two deaths made tragic because they were ultimately avoidable. Yet in both cases their deaths were still afforded a final, thin veneer of glamour because they happened in the bright lights of New York City.
In contrast, the death of Peaches Geldof offered us a parable of our times: the death of a twenty five year-old mother of two small children was instantly eclipsed by the media’s obsession with her background as the precocious offspring of celebrity parents. Unfortunately, her parents are already defined as much by sadness and loss as by their show business careers. The media must’ve thought all their Christmases came at once with a story like that.
Over-arching all of it is the ongoing tragedy of Flight MH370. An airliner with over 200 hundred people on board disappears into thin air – an event which not only redefines the concept of air disaster as we know it, but also forces us to face one of mankind’s most ancient fears - that of the unburied, restless dead.
But what’s it like to be professionally involved with a high profile death? To begin with, “high profile” either means the death of an ordinary person who’s died in extraordinary circumstances – certain murder victims for example; or it will involve the death of a celebrity. There isn’t a funeral director in the land who might not one day be engaged to perform the funeral of a high profile person and because of that death in the UK is remarkably democratic.
The central London funeral firm who arranged Margaret Thatcher’s funeral had also buried two former leaders of the Labour Party too (Hugh Gaitskell in 1963 & Michael Foot in 2010). Death truly is the great leveller!
It’s a very peculiar situation, being the funeral director at the centre of a high profile funeral. There can be the media to deal with – everything from the local press wanting us to ask the family whether they’d be willing to be interviewed for a tribute article, right through to guarding against the cunning wiles of the national media, whose aims are rarely so benign. Often there’s a need to create strategies to ensure high profile families can have the same degree of privacy that any other family might naturally expect to have.
Then while all of that’s going on there’s still a funeral to be arranged. If it’s a private ceremony that’s one thing; but if it’s a large public event there’s all the extra planning to be done: parking, seating, staff resources, together with all the liaison between various parties ranging from the clergy through to the police. There’s only one chance to get a funeral right at the best of times, so imagine what it’s like when not only is it likely to be a huge affair anyway, but it might also be covered by newspapers and television too.
The other thing to remember is that you rarely, if ever, get any warning. I’ve been involved with a number of funerals concerning nationally known figures and more recently one internationally famous figure. Without exception these funerals all appeared out of the blue.
On one occasion we didn’t even realise whose funeral we’d been asked to arrange until we heard the media announce the person’s death on the radio in our office. My colleague slid the “first call form” across the desk to show me and we both just sat there in stunned silence for a moment or two.
That was a Tuesday morning we won’t forget in a hurry!
James Baker owns and runs Fred Stevens Funeral Directors of Nailsworth, Glos.