My former employer was probably better known for being an entertaining public speaker than he was for being a funeral director. Whether it was the WI, Rotary, Probus, U3A or numerous other groups, he knew just how to weave a spell over his audience with his tales of the lighter side of undertaking. It was widely accepted that the majority of his stories were exaggerated to the point of being virtually fictitious, but nevertheless his Wogan-like gift of the gab was such that people were simply content to know they were in for a hilarious half hour’s entertainment.
He always opened with a story of how he’d once given a talk to the Ebley Silver Threads Club, during which a recently widowed member of the audience was delighted to learn that the superintendent of the local crematorium would, by prior arrangement, be willing to conduct a discreet guided tour to allay the lady’s anxieties about the cremation process. The story becomes steadily more embellished and ends with a cortege from the Co-Operative Funeral Service having to pull over whilst two coach loads of enthusiastically curious pensioners begin disembarking outside the doors to the crematorium chapel.
But isn’t that what guest speakers are really there for – to entertain? In village halls up and down the country all kinds of organisations are crying out for good speakers to enliven their calendar of events and undertakers are surprisingly high on the approved list. Why sit through Mr. Desmond Stafford’s slideshow of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land when you can have your own real-life version of Midsomer Murders instead?
Early in my career my boss began taking me along to his speaking engagements and it wasn’t so very long before I found myself being sent as a solo act in his place. It all began with a dual effort where we were invited to join the local coroner in delivering an educational slot to a group of junior doctors. The experience is still burnt into my mind nearly 30 years later and remains the reason for the rather low esteem in which I hold junior medics. The coroner talked about the finer points of the death certification process; my employer followed with an illustration of how those protocols impact upon the bereaved; and my job was to explain about embalming. I felt like a performing monkey and in that moment I discovered what it was like for a teacher to face a classroom full of unruly students…
That’s not to say that talking to the Women’s Institute is necessarily any easier. If you think the WI is just a cosy mix of flower arranging and getting your kit off for nude calendars then think again. I learnt the hard way that guest speakers are expected to judge the monthly competition and on one occasion I was asked to decide who should win first prize for the best Christmas table decoration. Controversy ensued after I concluded that Marjorie Phelps’ rather creative use of an orange trumped Irene Cook’s attempts with some holly and a small log. The fur and feathers were still flying long after I’d left with a thank-you and something towards my travel expenses.
The vast majority of my public speaking engagements have been exercises in entertaining and enlightening. My strategy is to keep it real and talk for 20-30 minutes on the evolution of the modern funeral, right from the Woollen Act of 1600-and-something when it was made it illegal to bury someone in a shroud which wasn’t made of English wool, through to the body snatchers and the Anatomy Act of 1832 and finally the social impact of two world wars, the creation of the NHS and the rise of cremation. You’ll have to trust me when I say it’s not quite as dull as it sounds and there’s invariably some humour injected into the proceedings. But after the main presentation I make a point of taking questions and it’s that bit which invariably takes longer than the talk itself.
On other occasions though, I’ve been asked to deliver ‘professional’ presentations. That’s a whole different ball game and in many respects very much easier, because I’m on home ground and I don’t have the added pressure of trying to be entertaining and amusing. Well, not intentionally at least… Speaking in a professional capacity usually involves explaining the funeral arranging process to bereavement groups, palliative care workers and nursing home staff, although on one occasion I was invited to be part of a group of speakers addressing a hospital conference set up to explore the impact of rising obesity.
I spoke about the massive cost implications to the NHS and the private funeral sector in having to upgrade mortuary facilities and body-handling equipment to accommodate morbidly obese people; and the dilemma obesity presents to mortuary and funeral staff when trying to balance dignity with safe manual handling techniques. The room was packed with senior nurses, ambulance service managers and hospital executives and you could’ve heard a pin drop after I’d finished. Like the other speakers, I’d managed to reveal a whole host of hidden implications that no-one else in the room might ever have had reason to consider before. The event ended up being a uniquely sobering and enlightening experience for all of us who attended. It was a relief to get back to cup cakes and nude calendars after that.
James Baker owns and runs Fred Stevens Funeral Directors of Nailsworth, Glos. www.fredstevens.co.uk
He is the author of “A Life In Death – Memoirs Of A Cotswold Funeral Director” www.amazon.co.uk