An embarrassment of riches.

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.


Fields of Cold

This summer, I’ve mainly spent weekends in King’s Caple, Symonds Yat, Liphook, Petworth, Hurley, Henley, Marlow, Ludlow, Weymouth, Up Cerne, Lyndhurst, Cranborne, Fordingbridge & Shaftesbury. None of this makes me in any way unique, special or interesting, and no single trip has seen me leave my thoughts behind, as, funnily enough, they come with you, wherever you go. Who knew? At times, feeling unaccountably low on some rough-hewn track bashed through a field of rapeseed, I could almost see my unhelpful thoughts keeping pace with me as I marched solidly forward; almost see them playing their pipes and dancing, malevolently, alongside me in the manner of Monty Python’s troubadours who taunt ‘brave’ Sir Robin as he runs away from the prospect of battle in ‘Holy Grail’. ‘Brave Sir Markie goes for walks, thinks he’s fine – not on trial; ‘Brave Sir Markie stumbles on, thinks he’s brave – in denial.’

In Henley I hired a speedboat for an hour and parped up and down the Thames at a leisurely pace, getting sunburned and gawping at the sumptuous parade of millionaire’s homes and their equally sumptuous (if bewilderingly empty) gardens. For a few, fleeting moments I became something of a tourist attraction myself, as various people stopped to photograph me at the helm of my boat – ‘Jubilee Miss’ – who was resplendent in her Union Jack livery. As people pointed and grinned I smirked into the spray and pretended not to notice, one arm draped casually over the side, fingers grazing the surface of the icy murk as the sun glinted off my Police shades, imagining I was cutting some sort of a dash. Such was the shoreline fuss that was made of me that I started to wonder if people thought I was an Amal-less George Clooney ‘slumming it’ on the water, as he’s been known to do so often in beauteous Bellagio? But, no, it’s okay, it’s not him, it’s just some ginormous, British ponce attempting to prove there’s ‘more to him’ than paying bills, TV dinners and dry cleaning. Delete the photos you took of that guy, Mabel, as you won’t be needing them anymore. And me? I took my own photos… with my eyes.

The banks of the river play host to a smorgasbord of beauty, a cornucopia of nature’s finest sights, and although I long for a glimpse of the kingfisher’s iridescent shimmer, there isn’t enough bank to accommodate him. Instead, perched on a beefy log, a brooding, motionless cormorant dries his outstretched wings as an elegant, great-crested grebe slides past with two fluffy fledglings on her back. The hot, turquoise tarpaulin of the sky is scarred with the white lines of numerous jumbo jets, as dragonflies jink and twitch above the fat, white water-lilies and buzzards bask in the blue, scanning the hot grass for rabbits or panicking dormice. In the distance, fields of fresh, green sheaves dazzle the retina with their lush repetition as they swoon together in the breeze, a glorious, sage forest of identical stalks that will soon become someone’s breakfast.

To my right, a swan is upended, its torso poking out from the Thames like the tip of a paintbrush. Path-dwellers smirk and wave and I beam at them and doff my non-existent cap, almost disappearing over a weir as I realise, too late, that the boat has no brakes. It becomes clear that in order to stop you have to first glide to a halt and then engage reverse thrust, and there simply isn’t time to do this so I wrench the steering wheel as far to the left as it will go, shut my eyes and roar forward, narrowly missing the strategically placed, throat-high barbed wire that hovers above the weir and getting dirty looks from a drake and her nine goslings as I do so, who are no doubt weary of such boorish antics.

Once back on dry land I stumble upon a beautiful, 11th Century church with an elegant plaque on the outside wall remembering a pilot who died in France in 1917 one hundred years ago today at the age of 22. The inscription reads: ‘So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.’ This is magnificent, in that ‘the other side’ could be whatever you want it to be (assuming you believe in such things), and I love the idea that wherever he’s going he’s getting a fanfare – a hero’s welcome. I say his name out loud, as you are never truly dead until the last person on earth who knows you says your name for the very last time.


priest infection

I heard a priest addressing the mourners at Eltham Crematorium yesterday who asked them if they would be kind enough to ensure their mobile phones were switched off for the duration of the funeral. ‘I’d be eternally grateful to you if they were,’ he roared, ‘as we will be in the chapel for at least four hours.’ This unexpectedly dry line produced a chuckle from the crowd and when I heard him deliver it I smiled, but, later on, I wondered about the efficacy of sardonic remarks on such a sombre occasion? Is the beginning of such an occasion an appropriate time for levity? He got away with it because he is such an obviously pleasant and well-meaning man, but also because he’s something of a maverick who has had his (dog) collar felt by an Anglican bishop and is now operating as an ‘independent’. No-one knows the nature of his offence – it’s a secret – so in that sense he has got away with purdah. Obese, urbane, openly gay and with a tremendous squint he is a genuinely loose cannon, and yes I did think of that pun first (eight years ago), long before the advent of The Guardian column by that obnoxious imbecile, Giles Fraser. So, my question is, should priesty be jocular or shouldn’t he?                                                                                                                                                                               M, an Eltham-based Funeral Director, told me that he recently got hot under the collar during a family visit to discuss the arrangements for D’s mother. As M and D are talking D’s dad G wanders into the living room and sits down. G, M notices, is naked. G suffers from dementia so it is not altogether unexpected behaviour, but D ushers him out of the room, nonetheless. Five minutes later D’s brother J enters the living room. J is fully clothed, which is nice, but he is carrying a knife in one hand and a hammer in the other, which is not nice at all. He intends to use these, he announces, to make sure his Mum is actually dead and not pretending. (Mum is still in an upstairs bedroom, awaiting collection.) Earlier on he was opening her eyelids and shouting: ‘Mum?! Are you okay?!’ which is a little odd, but then J is somewhere on the autistic spectrum, apparently, so for him this is relatively normal.
In a way, his eyelid-lifting antics make some sort of crazy sense; with zero medical training and bereft of a ‘how-do-you-tell-if-someone-is-dead?’ guide, who can say if a person has actually died or not? The knife and hammer are a step too far for M, who leaves the flat immediately, telling colleagues he ‘didn’t feel safe in there.’ Quite. When he relates this story I notice that nobody laughs: there are limits to what even a seasoned professional can bear.
The next day, when I meet D face-to-face at M’s office he is tool-free and reminds me of ‘Compo’ from Last of the Summer Wine, as he is an untidy, unshaven pensioner with bad teeth who sports a woolly hat and a filthy raincoat fastened with string. He is loud, cynical and abrupt, but the more he talks the shrewder he proves himself to be. He can, for example, quote Shakespeare at will, a knack I wish I possessed. He rummages in a plastic bag for his handwritten instructions and hands them over. D has thought of everything, and, on the day of the funeral, he greets everyone as they enter the chapel, not as they leave, something I’ve not seen anyone do before.
Even though it takes a little longer to get everyone in and settled as a result no one seems to mind, and I find the spectacle of him hugging every mourner unexpectedly moving. ‘All right, tiny?’ he barks at a petite, blonde lady (while winking at her mum), at which point they both giggle and tut-tut him before giving him a peck on the cheek. Many other not dissimilar pleasantries are exchanged on the chapel threshold as D, plastic bag resolutely in hand, seeks to cheer the mourners with a little banter rather than be cheered by them. As developments go, this is unexpectedly fabulous. No, we won’t be in the chapel for four hours, but I suspect it will be a very long time before I forget how uplifted I was by D’s unexpectedly light-hearted levity.
Come back priesty, all is forgiven.

Tread softly…

Every now and then I am asked to go and see a family who have already had a visit from a celebrant that didn’t go well. The situation I inherit today is about as bad as they come. ‘P’ was just 29 years of age, had four children and was pregnant with a fifth when she died. The arranger tells me that her husband, ‘D’, is very, very upset, and doesn’t want to see the previous celebrant ever again as she was ‘way too curious’ about the cause of death. An easy mistake to make? No: this is either colossal inexperience or monumental stupidity and either way it’s pretty damned inexcusable. In this line of work the one thing you do not ask is how the person died (no matter how curious you are), as it is a private matter.
When I get to the house D is nowhere to be seen so I sit down with P’s father and wave a greeting to the four young children who are politely arranged on the sofa like the Von Trapp family. There are no tears and all four of them are extremely quiet and still, seemingly fascinated by the smartly-attired stranger with his crisp suit and his pen and paper. By contrast, the family pet, Trojan – a beefy, chestnut brown Staffy – rasps and coughs and slams repeatedly into my be-suited legs, actions which make the kids giggle with glee. Father and I have been talking for at least five minutes before he asks: ‘Are you okay with dogs?’ I am. I love dogs and even if I didn’t I would mask my fear and concentrate on the job in hand. Brave? No. It’s what they pay me for: to cope with anything; to focus on what’s important; to give the family my undivided attention.
I assure P’s father that yes, I will read his tribute if he’s unable to on the day and no, the curtains will not close when the ceremony ends as it will only upset people even more. I do not point out that he has written trilogy instead of eulogy on his note as it is blindingly obvious what he meant to say. Instead, I try to keep my questions to a minimum and tell him I’m going to follow his instructions to the letter. After a good ten minutes have elapsed D finally enters the room and sits some distance away from me looking at the floor. He is pale and exhausted, as well he might be. It transpires that he has been in the corridor all along listening to the conversation to see what he makes of me, and it seems he’s okay with what he’s heard. Phew. He makes very little eye contact and chips in now and then with a name or the title of a song. Meeting over, I get to my feet at which point D jumps up and says: ‘I’ll walk you out.’
On the doorstep he pauses to gather himself before turning to address me directly. He cracks his knuckles and I begin to wonder if I’m about to be punched. ‘What I’ve seen of you, mate – the way you walked in here, the way you’ve conducted yourself today – I think you’re sound. The other one – that woman – was just… weird.’ How so? ‘She kept looking at me, leaning towards me and staring and not saying anything… what is that about? She kept asking exactly how my wife died and she wouldn’t leave it alone. Is that normal? Is that what they teach you? I told the arranger: ‘I don’t ever want to see her again.’ I bet you did. I tell D that I am as non-plussed as he is by this celebrant’s behaviour. I tell him that is it not part of the humanist training to get to the bottom of how a person died and that it is ultimately none of our business. If the information is volunteered, fine, but if it isn’t, so be it. ‘Yeah, yeah, nice one,’ he says, and shuts the door.
I do not tell D that this person was an ‘independent’ celebrant and not a humanist and that as such the arranger was taking a calculated risk in sending her round in the first place. Not all humanists are angels – ha- but there are some very bad ‘independent’ celebrants around, ‘independents’ who make bizarre decisions and are accountable to no-one. They undercut fees, cut corners and morph into any combination of faith and atheism you want – faitheism – and there’s nothing they won’t do to earn a crust. They wear what they want and say what they want and too bad if you find it inappropriate. Worse, most adopt a funeral voice when they speak – a ‘Sunday’ voice – which never varies in tone and which is designed to shield them from any emotion. It is something they have seen people do on television or in films it is and something they think equates to good practice: it does not. It is lazy, contrived and artificial. It is a disgrace.
These are the people who begin their ceremonies by making a (grumpy) plea for all mobile phones to be silenced – an idiotic piece of house-keeping that gets them off to a bad start. These are the people who never miss an opportunity to theatrically embrace a funeral director in a desperate attempt to drum up more business. These are the people who don’t mean a word of it, who coast through their ceremonies on autopilot and then saunter home for a cup of tea and a biscuit. And these are the people who have curious ideas about how to behave in the home of the newly bereaved, ideas which cause them to stare at people or ask inappropriate questions. Perhaps they were trained (if indeed they were trained at all), by an imbecile who suggested that they should ‘find out all they can’ about the circumstances of the death and ‘listen intently to whomever is speaking. Also, look as if you’re listening; make prolonged eye contact and lean towards the person and, if you think they’re being evasive, press for an answer. You need to know how the person died.’
No, you don’t. It’s none of your bloody business.
If you think about it, how someone died doesn’t actually matter, does it, because it is the loss that is insupportable, not how it came about. True, there may be an extra element of pain if the person took their own life or was murdered – and when I say ‘extra’ I mean, you know, absolutely gigantic – but you, the celebrant, shouldn’t be doing anything different. After a decade of doing this I’ve seen it all now and heard most of it, too, and the Golden Rule is that whatever the circumstances, the song remains the same: compassion, attention to detail, reassurance, calm.
I think grief feels a bit like being operated on and waking up to find you’re paralysed but you can still feel pain, and you have no way of letting the surgeon know. You can’t get away from it, this not-so-subtle knife, and you can’t bear its merciless edge as it tears your hope apart and you know that even if you do escape it, briefly, you have no idea when it might reappear inside you and stab you in the brain. In the immediate aftermath of bereavement every waking moment is unbearable, every smile you see turns your stomach, every attempt to sleep is futile, the drugs don’t work, nothing matters any more and no-one knows what to say or do. And if you must have a stranger in your house and must answer their questions you probably don’t want someone who is a repulsive mixture of Clare Rayner and Inspector Morse. If you do manage to sleep at all at night you may well dream that that fabulous person that you so adored is still alive and has just enough time for one last hug, one last kiss, one last ‘I love you.’
And if that’s the case, then you probably want someone on your sofa who knows what they’re doing, someone who will tread softly, for they tread upon your dream.

It’s been a bad day

These five words are said to me by a woman, L, whose husband died on 19th December. For the bulk of our time together she sits opposite me on the sofa bent double and clutching her stomach as if winded. I have seen people grieve before but this level of distress is new to me. I interact solely with D, who is a model of polite restraint, and he is the one who asks the questions that L, presumably, wants answered. After a few minutes L suddenly speaks, although her eyes never leave the carpet. ‘We need to be careful around C,’ she growls, ‘his son hanged himself this summer, so we need to be sensitive.’ This statement, coming from a wife whose husband has just ended his life in precisely the same way, is incredibly moving. Here, in her darkest hour, instead of self-pity she shows real concern for the feelings of others. ‘Oh and J can’t be in the same room as a dead body, so we’re not sure how to manage him, are we?’ There is a short silence before D replies: ‘Maybe it’s best if he waits in the limo?’ I’m feeling distinctly out of my depth and possibly a little superfluous to requirements. And then D asks L a strange question: ‘Is security in place?’

‘Security?’, I hear myself parrot, ‘can I ask what that’s for?’ ‘It’s for his parents,’ D replies, ‘as if they’re foolish enough to turn up they won’t be allowed in. We think they’ll be holding a memorial in Portsmouth at exactly the same time as the funeral, which means they’re unlikely to attend, but we’re leaving nothing to chance.’ Quite. This meeting has been set up by D with the sole purpose of introducing me to L so that she can decide whether I will be ‘suitable’ for such an occasion. As she hasn’t looked at me or addressed a single remark to me during the last fifteen minutes I’m a little confused as to how that judgement will be made, but perhaps the quality of my answers precludes the need to look at me? When I mention the wisdom of having copies of the readings emailed to me in case the readers are too overcome to read on the day, L splutters into life. ‘The readers are all experienced public speakers, so they won’t have any issue with reading aloud, as they’ve spoken in public many times,’ she says. ‘Not at funerals,’ I counter, and then instantly regret it, but she takes it well and nods. ‘Good point. Look, I’m sorry I’ve barely spoken to you,’ she says, ‘it’s been a bad day.’ ‘I’m sure,’ I reply, and then wonder if there was a better response I could have given. How to empathise without sounding trite?

At the other end of this long, sumptuous living room a seven year-old girl plays quietly with her toys as we talk. She is smiling and seems content and preoccupied, but I suspect she has half an ear on what is being discussed. I am grateful for D’s presence, as his calm matter-of-factness and rectitude are as reassuring as they are helpful and his manners are so impeccable I begin to feel ashamed of my own. L’s brother (B) joins us and seems really quite uncomfortable for reasons I don’t yet comprehend, and perhaps this is what prompts his final, beautiful question to me, which is: ‘So, have you done this sort of thing before?’ There is a short silence that is soon shattered by a ferocious burst of laughter, laughter in which I join. ‘Has he done it before?!’, L splutters, shaking with mirth, ‘I should bloody well hope so.’ I’m grateful to B for this question because it has brought about a moment of levity that seemed extremely unlikely up until now. How strange it is that even in the midst of the greatest despair there is always, somehow, laughter.

When my father was on his death-bed I remember my mother opening his bedroom window on a cold October evening to ‘let some air in.’ ‘You might want to shut that again,’ he snarled, ‘I’ve got cancer, not fucking TB.’ It was no different when my grandfather was cremated in 1986. After the foul ordeal of having to sing All Things Bright and Beautiful, an undertaking which probably made me the atheist I am today, we watched helplessly as granddad’s coffin trundled through the doors into the furnace, cheesy organ notes barely covering the noise. By the time we emerged, blinking, into the sun-streaked torpor of Eastbourne we were desperately in need of some light relief. In the car park we came across the ninety-year old John – a close friend of my grandfather’s – who was waiting for a taxi to take him back to his hotel. Seeing him standing there someone shouted: ‘There’s not much point in you going home, is there, John?’ That was my grandfather’s humour and that is my humour, too, although I well understand that for many families such an outburst (at such a juncture) would be completely unacceptable.

Meeting over, D walks me to the door and, once outside, closes it behind him. He quickly and quietly fills me in on the details: T has a history of mental illness going back twenty years and he committed suicide by hanging himself in the house, which is where L found him. Is it important for me to know this? D thinks so. I walk away stunned and reflect on how petty and tiny my own sorrows are, and how someone, somewhere is in immense pain and suffering insupportable loss – give us our daily dread. This wonderfully well-off family living in this enormous house in one of the wealthiest parts of town with celebrity chums, huge works of art in every room, dozens of friends, holidays homes, a sweet young daughter and money to burn and yet all this crazy, dazzling abundance of comforts isn’t enough to make T want to go on living. What a wretched, pernicious thing depression is, as relentless as a rip tide and just as unforgiving. We live with our mind night and day and it can be our best friend or our worst enemy.

Seeking Asylum

You would not normally associate asylums with joy but The Asylum in Camberwell has been the setting for many moments of sheer and utter delight in recent years, as it is rapidly becoming the go-to, South London venue for Humanist weddings. The interior of this former chapel is a little untidy and it can get a little murky when the sun is obscured, but it’s structurally sound and rich with character, it’s glorious stained-glass windows and perfectly preserved, wall mounted shrines only adding to the sense of history. Although one hundred per cent of the weddings I have conducted here have been non-religious it must be of some comfort to those who have faith that the ceremony is conducted in such surroundings? I have never asked a couple if part of the reason they opted for this venue is to attempt to appease devout guests, but that might well be the case. Either way, this is one fantastic venue and everyone who gets married here finds it memorable and lovely.

Every wedding I have conducted here has been special but today’s wedding will have that extra edge as the bride is very unwell and her prognosis is poor. When she first got in touch with me she made it quite clear what state she was in and although I have heard of people who are terminally ill wishing to get married I never imagined I would preside over such a ceremony. There is a company that specialises in facilitating such unions and it’s called The Wishing Well Foundation. My bride found me via the British Humanist Association website, but  I was intrigued to discover that an organisation such as the WWF even existed. Some people might be forgiven for thinking that there is no point in getting married if you know you that one of you is going to die, but the reality is that we are all going to die some day, so why turn your back on what could be an amazing experience? I would always advocate a wedding in these circumstances, especially now I have been fortunate enough to have been at the helm of just such an occasion.

Apart from anything else, such a ceremony gives the couple the opportunity to say things to each other in front of their friends and family that might otherwise remain unspoken. Yes, the marriage vows are part and parcel of the ceremony, but the other components that go to make up such a day are equally important and assume a much greater significance if either partner is known to be unwell. When you publicly declare, as this couple did, that they would be together ‘in sickness and in health’, it has a resonance way beyond what you would normally expect. On the day in question, everyone knew what the situation was and, taking their lead from the couple, treated the day as you would any other wedding day, ie, with laughter, joy and celebration. I marvelled at the way the small stuff was definitely not sweated by anyone, least of all the bride, who waved away any petty concerns that were brought to her with a magnificent equanimity.

When the time came to meet the bride face-to-face for the first time I was apprehensive, as I wasn’t sure just how ill she was and whether she (and her fiancee) would be sanguine or emotional? I needn’t have worried: they were both completely brilliant. Yes, she mentioned a recent operation, and yes, you could see that she was unwell, but on the whole her health wasn’t mentioned and we just got on with the planning of the ceremony. What a relief chores are when times are tough. I’ve always believed that whether you are preparing for a wedding or a funeral, if you have a long ‘to do’ list it’s a bonus, as it keeps your mind occupied. Most prospective wedding couples would probably disagree – who needs the stress? – but not this couple, who were a wonderful blend of pragmatic and jocular. We laughed together when we met, and this was not a fake amity that we superimposed on the situation, it was just a natural phenomenon. As I made my way home I wondered whether I should have made more of the bride’s condition or acknowledged it in some way, but then I thought – what for? Knowing the truth doesn’t change anything and unless there’s a reference to it in the wording, just get on with it and keep quiet.

On the day, the ceremony was dazzling, simply because the sun came out, the bride was feeling well and everyone came determined to have a fabulous time. The ceremony featured live music and a number of readings, all of them rendered superbly, and there was relaxed laughter from start to finish. Of the 150 people there, only one guest was visibly upset when it was all over, and it struck me that it was the effort of having to ignore the reality of the situation that had got to her in the end. In a way, the braver the couple are, the more moving it is for the spectators, who know the truth but feel duty bound to suppress it. As for my part, I sensed that the bride just wanted me to treat this as I would any other wedding, not in an attempt to ignore or deny her state of health, but simply because there was nothing to be gained by referring to it. What fantastic, uplifting day it was, and how grateful I felt to play a small part in it. I have no idea how long this couple have got together, but I sincerely hope it’s a surprisingly lengthy period of time.




Caroline Garden’s Chapel
London SE15 2SQ

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Humanist funeral eureka moment

Funerals are unique in that they are always tense affairs, just as tense or perhaps more so than the average wedding, as even though the deceased person is not (consciously) there the mourners (and the immediate family) are, and, very often, their number one priority is to avoid embarrassment. Everyone who wishes to be mentioned should be mentioned; names should be correct (and correctly pronounced) facts checked and music played at the right time (and in the right order.) And the tone must be right, too. If the family have asked me to ‘keep it light’ I will do that, and do my best not to depress them by speaking in a ‘Sunday voice’ or looking sad. That said, grinning is definitely out and open to misinterpretation, so the aim is to try for a compromise that satisfies everyone.

If possible, the ceremony should go exactly according to plan and should be devoid of glitches and the Minister should be a calming presence who does precisely what he or she has been asked to do with the minimum of fuss. No-one should feel confused about what will happen next and no-one should have to worry about protocol or decorum either, because the Minister will reassure the family and friends by his or her control of the situation, thus allowing them to concentrate on saying farewell instead of worrying about how wrong it is all going. Inevitably, from time to time, there are blips and unforeseen circumstances which mean that the Minister has to think on his or her feet. I used to dread this sort of thing; now I welcome the occasional hitch for two reasons: 1. It helps me guard against complacency and 2. It means I have to problem solve – something I love doing.

I have my own take on the acid test for a Humanist Minister at a funeral: if they notice you, you’re not doing your job properly. What this means is that if your tone is wrong or you misjudge the mood or you get someone’s name wrong they notice you, and people are unforgiving, especially those in grief. If they have to come out of their grief to deal with your inefficiency they will not be best pleased and neither will their friends.

On Friday at Eltham Crematorium I had the biggest test I’ve yet had to face in terms of impasse and eleventh-hour hitches. Ask any professional what their greatest concern is when delivering a funeral and they will all give you the same answer: the music. If the music doesn’t work for some reason the funeral will be ruined. For this reason, we beg families that have had CDs burned to test them at the chapel, first, in case they won’t play on the day. If we can’t play your recording of their favourite song there is no contingency or fall-back plan and we’ll have to have silence, instead. The family in question have a recording of their Dad singing a particular song saved on a memory stick and want to know if they can plug it into the Crematorium’s system? They cannot. The chapel attendant is polite but firm: memory sticks are forbidden because there is a risk that they will contain a virus, which could wipe out not just one song but the Crematorium’s entire library. This is bad, because we now have the son standing in front of the attendant with his eyes full of tears, holding the memory stick forlornly aloft, hoping that grief will allow him, for once, to circumvent ‘the rules’. It does not.

Standing in the attendant’s room we make an awkward quartet, the four of us, us being the son, the attendant, the funeral director and myself. The attendant looks glum but will not budge; the son is crushed, but stands his ground; the funeral director is sweating and I’m wringing my hands and worrying, wishing I could think of a solution to this extremely knotty problem. Outside, 100 mourners are shivering in the cold, wondering what the delay is and we really must make a start otherwise there will be serious repercussions. The son is talking and shrugging and putting the memory stick back in his pocket, and it makes me feel sick to realise that the one thing they wanted above all was this song, sung by their Dad, and now they aren’t going to get it. And then the son says something about the clip and the sun comes out in my brain. He says that the clip they have was downloaded from YouTube and saved to this memory stick. Good: problem solved. I fumble in my jacket, produce my mobile phone and turn it on. All three men turn to look at me and probably wonder what I’m doing. As they stare, I start to speak.

‘If the clip is on Youtube,’ I begin, ‘then I can probably find it on my phone. Why don’t I simply sign in to YouTube, find the clip of your Dad, and, when the time comes, hold the speaker up to the microphone on the lectern and play it? That way, we may not get to see him doing it but at least we will get to hear him?’ The attendant nods, the son smiles and the funeral director claps me on the shoulder and says: ‘Nice one, Mark.’ At the appropriate moment in the ceremony I do indeed hold the phone right next to the mic and press play, and, joy of joys, the song can be heard loud and clear and people weep and smile with gratitude. Hurrah for modern technology. It is only afterwards that I realise that this plan was deeply flawed: I could so easily have lost the signal, run out of battery or received an incoming call, but fabulously, none of those things occurred. It did make me ponder, however, on the danger of patting myself on the back too quickly without quite thinking it through. This time, for sure, Lady Luck was a lady.

Hello, this must be a humanist wedding

There’s no doubt about it, if you were an accredited wedding celebrant and also a huge Strictly Come Dancing fan and you unexpectedly got the opportunity to conduct the humanist wedding of two of its star dancers – Kevin Clifton & Karen Hauer – you’d be pretty stoked, as they say in America, and would probably run round the house screaming every time you remembered you were doing it. Unfortunately, I’m not a fan and have never seen the show, so when they opened the door to me for our initial consultation I had no idea who they were and didn’t react at all. This, I suspect, is why I got the job. Yes, they were comfortable with me and we hit it off immediately but I’m convinced that if I had been a gibbering, star-struck fan our meeting would have had a very different outcome.

When they told me that the entire wedding was being paid for by Hello magazine I did feel slightly uneasy, as I wasn’t sure what implications that would have for the day? Would it be some hideous, star-studded circus with my part in it reduced to that of a walk-on? Would I stick to what we had agreed over the phone or instantly revise my fee upwards so as to milk Hello for every penny? (I did not, even though some said I should.) So many known unknowns and not much wiggle room in which to resolve them, but hey, you know, just be yourself and… be true.

1 Great George Street is an opulent venue in Parliament Square and this, together with the highbrow nature of the wedding meant that security was tight. Most of the famous faces from Strictly were in attendance (and looking radiant), although Sir Bruce wasn’t, which wasn’t entirely surprising. Kevin was wearing foundation to offset the fierce studio lights and there were cameras and microphones everywhere so as to capture every second from every conceivable angle. I wasn’t overly nervous about all the cameras and lights although Kevin was, partly because there was such an air of expectation in the room. Here were the great and the good of one of the BBC’s most popular shows sitting side by side with his close relatives and some of his dearest friends, and it’s a tense situation, actually, because no-one is quite sure how it will go. As Barbara Streisand so memorably sang: ‘Spirits rise and their dance is unrehearsed,’ and although Kevin’s spirit has undoubtedly risen this is one routine with which he is strictly unfamiliar. He doesn’t know me, either, really, the guests have never heard of me and in a few seconds time they (and he) will be powerless to intervene should I emerge as some sort of garrulous oaf.

As Karen is imminent our String Quartet decide to play a series of very short pieces, presumably because they think that if they play long ones they’ll have to fade down mid-number – no easy task at the helm of a cello. The flaw in this strategy is that each time they stop playing the room falls silent and all eyes turn to me: is she here? No. The Master of Ceremonies will give me the nod when she’s imminent (as we discussed, remember?), and then I’ll give you the nod to play Karen’s entry music. As the silence deepens (and conscious of the guests’ unwavering scrutiny), I give the musicians my fiercest stare, a stare that says: ‘For pity’s sake keep playing,’ which, mercifully, they do. Eventually, Karen appears, Kevin beams, the cameras roll and off we jolly well go. In the end, it is a deeply moving ceremony with wonderful readings (delivered adroitly), each speaker being hugged or kissed by Kevin and Karen once they’ve spoken, which makes it even more touching and personal.

Despite being elbowed out of the way at one stage by the stills photographer so that he could get a shot of the exchange of rings moment, I managed to get on very well with the video crew, so well, in fact, that the boss asked me if I would be prepared to conduct his wedding next summer in Cornwall. Yes please. In the end, as luck would have it Karen couldn’t get Kevin’s ring on his finger and this played into my hands as it meant the ice was well and truly broken and we were able to coast through the affirmation on a wave of ebullient mirth. I was relieved that people laughed and went with it, and I was especially pleased when someone mentioned my diction, afterwards. I was so glad I had found a disused room in which to declaim a sonnet or two prior to the ceremony, as there have been occasions where, having failed to warm up properly, my voice has cracked mid-sentence, the frog appearing in the throat at the worst possible time. No such trauma today, however, and, due to the vastness of the room (and the distant ceiling), all my consonants are as crisp as a February frost.

Out in the main hall I made sure I was among the very last to grasp a flute of Prosecco and stood on the periphery, smiling politely and trying not to gawp at Deborah Meaden. I was then approached by a delightful couple who seemed fascinated by proceedings and we were well into our conversation by the time it dawned on me that they were devout Christians. I wondered when things would turn nasty but I needn’t have worried, as they really were the most marvellous people – so open, thoughtful and easy-going – and their interest in ‘the Humanist approach’ was genuine. I think they could see the joy in the room and it seemed to give them food for thought: rapture comes in many forms.

Once the wedding appeared in the very next edition of Hello friends and family began telephoning and texting me, raving about my being ‘famous’ and asking me why I hadn’t said anything to anyone about this? Well you don’t, do you? I wasn’t sworn to secrecy at any point but I instinctively knew that I should a. Not say anything, b. Not take any photographs, c. Not talk to any Celebrities, d. Be careful to have just one glass of fizz and e. Be careful to slip away after a decent interval of about twenty minutes. I’m not sure if I am the first and only Celebrant to appear in Hello’s hallowed pages but if I am, I am. All that really mattered to me when I read the piece was that they said it was a Humanist ceremony, and they did. We needed them to do that, not because of who they are but because of who we are. It also helped that in almost all the images of Keven and Karen at the altar they are of them smiling or laughing, and this will hopefully give people the impression that Humanist weddings are not just moving ceremonies but fun ceremonies, too…                                                           MH