It takes me a while before I realise that the family I’m meeting today have been anxious about meeting me, anxious about my coming into their home. This, I now realise, is for two reasons: one, they are hoping I won’t ask too many questions and two, they are hoping I will be happy with the role they wish me to play. I sit with C’s Mum and Dad and his daughter and she, in particular, is extremely fragile and is constantly on the verge of tears. Her voice is raw from all the weeping she’s been doing and she seems alarmed at the prospect of my being here, as well she might be. Family meetings with a celebrant are often tense encounters for both parties because here is a total stranger in your living room who didn’t know the deceased and who is an unknown quantity. What does he want from us? Does he realise we’ve never done this before? Does he need tea, coffee, water, biscuits? Will he be officious or gentle?
I remember being told on my first day of training: ‘No tea, no biscuits, and don’t sit down until you’re invited to sit down. Oh, and don’t ever tell them you’re sorry for their loss, in case they ask you why you’re sorry.’ Harsh? Not really. I didn’t think it was harsh at the time and I don’t think it’s harsh, now. It makes sense. You cannot write anything down if you’re drinking tea. If someone has to leave the room to make it you have to wait until they come back before you can make a start, which is poor. Similarly, expressions of deepest sympathy will either be misguided or seen for what they are: some sort of bonding technique you picked up in training to ‘get families onside’. The quickest way to bond with families is to sit up straight, listen and write everything down. Everything.
This family eventually got around to asking me if ‘it would be all right’ for me to say nothing about their relative, save for the mention of his name during my welcome? They were relieved when I agreed to simply emcee the funeral rather than preside over it. During wedding training I was told: ‘Weddings are not an opportunity for you to shine,’ and the same applies to funerals. Stick to your brief, triple-check everything and slip away afterwards so as to afford them as much privacy as possible. As C was relatively young (he was 53), I was curious as to what had happened to him, but I didn’t ask. I never ask. We’re not reporters, we’re humanists, and what difference does it make to us how the person died? That sounds cold-hearted but what I’m saying is that there are no ‘levels’ of awareness that can help us better deliver a funeral, as we should treat every family with the same respect – you cannot differentiate between suicide and cancer in order to decide which is the most hurtful. They both hurt, hurt like hell, and that’s pretty much all you need to know.
As I got up to leave, the Dad, who had said very little, put his arm on mine to bring me to a halt. ‘It will be all right, won’t it Mark, I mean… it won’t go wrong? We want it done right, you know… for him.’ And there it is: the crux of the matter. Are you going to do what you have promised or will it be a bloody farce? We haven’t done this before and any number of people will be watching this, some of whom will have something to say if it’s not done.. ‘properly’. I’m tempted to come out with a cliché – ‘You’re in safe hands’ – but I don’t because it won’t reassure them. In safe hands – says who? Instead I look him in the eye and I say that I will do everything in my power to ensure that this ceremony goes according to plan. Instruction will be followed to the letter. I mean it, and he can see I mean it. As I get up to leave the daughter says: ‘I have a good feeling about you.’
Trust, faith, belief. Whatever it takes, I will not let you down, but, most important of all, I will not embarrass you.