Friday, 6 January 2012

For the one life we have...

A while ago I announced I had decided to train to be a funeral celebrant for the British Humanist Association. Well, here I am several months later, accredited and having conducted my first funeral. And what a humbling and deeply moving experience that was, too. There is something profoundly stirring about human dignity in the face of grief. Celebrants are in a very privileged position. An enormous amount of trust is placed in us.

A celebrant will very often be given the life story of the person who has just died. It's a raw time for families and friends. What is the sum total of a person's life? It's not the sort of thing we think about in our day-to-day existence. How often do we stop to consider in such depth the people we love and care about the most? Perhaps the act of recollection is in itself a kind of shock. Why didn't I take time to acknowledge the achievements you made when you were alive? Why didn't I take the measure of your life when you were there to share it with me? So many times I've heard people say 'We should have had the funeral when s/he was alive.' I've said it myself.

The truth is, we don't live in the moment often enough. We don't make space in our lives to value what matters most. The only time we do this is when something big happens, like a birth or a death, or the break-up of a relationship, or a car accident, or falling in love, or changing a job or moving to a new place. When something big happens, I think we're actually living on the edge of ourselves. We gift ourselves with a peculiar objectivity.  We're able to feel what it means to inhabit our bodies. We can more easily explore the width and the depth of our feelings. That's why grief feels so distant and unreal and so visceral and present at the same time. You can feel numb and you can also have a pain like a heavy stone growing in the pit of your stomach.

I'm glad I've had grief. I'm glad I've had pain and desperate sadness. I know who I am. I know the yardstick to measure my joy against. I know how delight can throb in the veins, how a laugh can bubble up and explode unexpectedly. A teacher once wrote in my end of year report that I was 'vivid'. The word comes from the Latin vivere, to live.

Which brings me back to humanism. I am a celebrant for the very reason that I celebrate life. However long or short it is, however we fail and succeed and fail again, there is nearly always something to commend us, something we can be proud of. The simple act of telling someone's life story and asking that their life should be remembered is a way of leaving a lasting legacy.

One of the most surprising outcomes has been how a little bit of each legacy leaves some indelible trace of itself in me. I have only just qualified, but already my foot is on the mountain. I have seen so much and I have barely left ground level. I've heard and spoken words of farewell in Fijian, I've listened to a wealth of Namibian music, I've found out things about the town near where I live and I've gone back to a time when my mother was not even born.

And there is so much more...

Click here to see their website

And click here to see my celebrant's web page


  1. I'm so glad to hear the progress of this ambition of yours, Pat... and it sounds as though it has been an incredibly moving learning curve. I admire you and the dedication this takes. And I'm sure that what ever you learn through this it will inform every single aspect of your life.

  2. A remarkable post, Pat. So original and life enhancing. You have a great voice. W

    1. Hello Wendy. Thanks for this. I feel enormously privileged, really. To be there at the end of a life, to help families and friends mark the enormous value of that life...The funeral is nearly always the most difficult step for people. It's the beginning of coming to terms, the beginning of acceptance. People are sometimes in deep shock even when the death is expected. To be able to share human warmth and poetry and music is life-affirming. I hope to give nourishment. The odd thing is, I'm nourished too by the experience. We are the sum-total of ourselves and each each other perhaps. Does that sound fanciful?