The compost of ceremony
Why do people spend more on flowers than on celebrants for a funeral?
As I get further along in my training as a funeral celebrant, and explore grief, ceremony and endings both in the context of end of life and of other kinds of endings and beginnings, I am beginning to notice a real chance to shift the story.
There seems to be an emerging trend towards direct cremation, compounded by pandemic restrictions. And the narrative seems to be that it's the big chains of funeral directors leading people to direct cremation. I'm not sure that's the whole story.
In my (limited) experience, people are confused about how ceremony can work in the current settings and not clear about the long term impact of absence of ceremony in terms of grieving, transition, making an internal place for an absence to carry on with you in life. Or why a relatively modest outlay on an independent person guiding you through ceremony brings so much to the celebration of the person who has died, and the community of those who go on living. So I think there’s an interesting bigger story to be remade about what will get lost if we lose ceremony and how celebrants, as agents of ceremony, can have a profound positive impact.
I have been involved in a couple of funerals (unpaid) where the person organising has been wavering between Direct Cremation and a simple funeral, without any particular guidance from the FD on why you do which, apart from the price and frills. And then of course you have to buy your way out of trailing Victoriana (Hearse! Person dressed up walking in front of hearse!) by paying more to have less done. I think I've been able to help with some understanding of the place for, and value of, ceremony, rather than an unceremonial send off. But still working on it.
(In my day job this is part of an interesting absence of ceremony in work settings, compounded by an absence of awareness that it has gone missing and is doing hidden damage to the health of the workplace. So it’s part of a bigger story that I don’t yet understand very well, but am fumbling around it every day.)
This is also the thrust of the excellent 'This Too Shall Pass' report into grief and grieving - my underlining
...our ability to navigate the cataclysm that faces us today is complicated by the fact that we have lost many of the old stories and rituals that used to help us make sense of death and grief. This creates profound dangers, not just of deeper hurt, but also of fragmentation, polarisation, culture wars, and even violence.
The deferral of grief, of communal grieving has consequences we may sense, but not be able to name, a kind of stuckness. Don't lose the moment.
Some of the recommendations of the report include:
Embrace grief, realise that something is lost, move further into the pain and work through it, rather than seeking to avoid it. Grieve and mourn together. Learn from our ancestors grieved and invent new rituals and practices to deal with collective loss. Remember that loss is part of the natural cycle and ceremony can create a place temporarily out of the flow of everyday time that in which to understand loss as a form of renewal.
It seems odd that the flowers generally cost more than the celebrant, and I think there's a real opportunity to work together to make sense of and shift the story so that it’s not a rather reductive 'us and them', funeral directors versus celebrants, a matter of money and negotiation, but a bigger, generative, ambitious, collective story about grieving, transition, ceremony, space to mourn, rediscovering our myths and rituals, creating new sacred places in secular times, and how a qualified, creative and empathetic celebrant can make a real difference to the universal power and healing of particular moments.
Here's one take to close with.
What about thinking of ceremony as the better compost? Ceremony digs and composts the soil of living so that grief nurtures the seedlings and deep roots of future hope? Spend your money on the compost of ceremony and the gardening a celebrant can bring, not on cut flowers that end up withering on the compost.
While I'm here, I do want to give a small cheer for Grace Dent's marvellous article about that other key funeral ceremony - the funeral feast - 'British Grief centres mainly around making sandwiches' from last Saturday's Guardian.
Celebrancy and sandwiches, then.