Jun 3, 2014
Federico Fellini’s oddly-named 1963 film “Eight And A Half” was described as being “…about the struggles involved in the creative process, both technical and personal, and the problems artists face when expected to deliver something personal and profound with intense public scrutiny, on a constricted schedule, while simultaneously having to deal with their own personal relationships.”
Those words could’ve been written for just about every Civil, Humanist & Independent funeral celebrant across the country. “Eight And A Half” later inspired Woody Allen’s 1980 film “Stardust Memories,” the opening scene of which is an almost comedic reversal of a uniquely difficult position my friend – a Humanist (non-religious) funeral officiant, once found himself in.
Allen’s film starts with a man sitting in a stationary, silent train carriage, surrounded by very odd-looking people. It’s a depressing situation. The man looks at another train through his window. It’s full of glamorous folk, laughing and having the time of their lives. The man is confused. Suddenly, his train lurches into motion and he realises he’s on the wrong train. He pleads with the conductor to let him switch trains, but it’s no use.
My Humanist friend once told me of finding himself at a venue hired for a non-religious funeral. The family didn’t want sadness and gloom – they wanted a celebration of the deceased’s life. Everyone was asked to wear colourful clothing. The hall was decked with flowers and even the chairs had coloured ribbons tied on. At centre stage stood the brightly decorated willow coffin.
It all went rapidly downhill from there. The mourners, almost to a man & woman, stared tearfully at the floor or looked out the windows, unable to bear the sight of the brightly decorated room and the flower-festooned coffin, let alone take in my friend’s carefully prepared words. Every consciously upbeat element of the ceremony hit the floor like a wet rag. My friend said it was without question the worst funeral he’d ever done.
The problem was that everyone was expected to ignore the fact that alongside the coffin there was also an elephant in the room: the funeral was for a woman in her thirties, stolen by terminal illness and leaving behind a husband and two young children. Her family had watched her fall ill and eventually succumb. Her husband was now a widower and their kids no longer had a mummy.
Whichever way you slice it, that’s an unremittingly tragic situation for a young family to be in and that’s exactly how all the other mourners felt. But they couldn’t dare admit it because it was supposed to be a “celebration.” They’d all lost someone too – a friend, colleague, neighbour or whatever, and they didn’t want to be there celebrating her life; all they wanted right there & then was to cry and be sad about her death. But instead their grief was disenfranchised by the family’s understandable desire to skip to the good bit; to short circuit the sad bit and celebrate a life instead. But barely a week after the death? Who would really feel like celebrating that soon…?
It’s usually only later – for some folks not until very much later - that perfectly natural feelings of sadness subside and they suddenly find themselves remembering happier times. A little chuckle after “remembering that time when….” “Oh, and what about when… remember the look on everyone’s faces?!...It was hilarious!...” The chuckle then becomes a laugh. That’s always a good sign that it’s become an appropriate time to put the sadness to one side for just a little while and celebrate the good times too.
To ensure healthy grieving, the modern trend towards celebrating lives must be balanced with the need to allow ourselves to be sad too. After all, the reason everyone’s there in the first place is because someone’s died. I was reminded of this while watching television coverage of the pre-funeral vigil for charity fundraiser extraordinaire Stephen Sutton at Lichfield Cathedral.
Everything about the ceremony was, to my mind, a fine example of how to balance celebration with grieving. But then, young Mr. Sutton has rather cornered the market when it comes to setting an example for the rest of us, hasn’t he?
James Baker owns and runs Fred Stevens Funeral Directors of Nailsworth, Glos.
He is the author of “A Life In Death – Memoirs Of A Cotswold Funeral Director”