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A Funeral Story

Civil Ceremonies at the Cross Roads

by Mark O'Connor ( www.australianpoet.com )- Poet, Celebrant, Writer and Broadcaster - 22/1/08

"It was after Dad died in a car smash that my life went wrong. At his funeral the undertaker's man got his name wrong. His mates made jokey embarrassed speeches, and nothing sounded faintly like the man who had been the light of our lives.

When Mum got a chance to speak she just blubbered uselessly. Her idea of remembering him was to spend money we didn't have on a trunk of polished rainforest timber that went straight into the ground. I felt he had punished me by dying, and I pulled away from my mother and sister in a poisonous private grief. Nothing seemed to matter. Next year when a boy I knew from school suggested we knock over an empty house, I said 'Why not?' . . . "

I was trying to read the thoughts of a white-faced ten-year old boy, as he stood tensely apart from his mother and sister at their father's funeral. The mother had tried to describe what her husband had meant to the family, but seconds into her speech she broke down, and had to give over.

Luckily the celebrant was one of Australia's most experienced, known for her meticulous preparation, as well as her skills as a Funeral Celebrant. As the widow stepped down with a despairing gesture, she offered a tissue and continued smoothly - but not, as expected, with the formal eulogy or life-history that was her own responsibility.

Instead for the next ten minutes she gave the speech the widow would have given, complete with precise anecdotes. "I know Gail would also want to tell you about the time Jack took her and the children to Tasmania . . ."

Then she began to speak for the children: "Jason particularly remembers how Jack got him interested in fishing . . . He couldn't believe it when the policeman came that night to say Jack wouldn't be coming home . . . Tracey feels she has lost her best friend after her mother. One of Tracey's strongest memories of Jack is how . . ."

The children were far too young to have spoken about their feelings before an audience of grown-ups, but it was clear from their suddenly animated expressions that the celebrant was speaking accurately for them, and with their permission.

Later at the graveside she again spoke at length about their father. By now everyone's feelings had been fully recognized; and the mother and children were hugging each other in shared, not private grief. After warmly inviting all present to refreshments after the funeral, the celebrant closed proceedings and motioned to me, her understudy, to slip aside.

"Won't they expect you at the reception," I asked, "after what you've meant to them today". "I never go," she said, "From here on, the family are best left with those who are closest to them. They can't keep up the public emotional intensity, and neither can we." I later discovered that for this masterly professional performance, which had taken her the best part of a week's preparation, she had been paid less than the hearse-driver.

Civil celebrancy is a new movement, and one in which Australia still leads the world. Thirty years ago the clergy had a near monopoly on weddings and funerals, and to this day the churches do a valuable job of providing dignified ceremonies at minimal cost. Yet Australia is (like Britain but unlike the USA) islargely a post-Christian society, and for many people the old ceremonies no longer fit.

The words of the traditional Anglican wedding and funeral ceremonies are, it's true, near perfect for their purpose. Yet these are essentially one-size-fits all ceremonies: more about the fact that a soul has gone to God, or that another couple have been united in the eyes of God, than about the individuals involved. Australians today have begun to demand a more personal service. Even the churches are now increasingly forced to compete with the civil celebrants, and to allow couples or families to design their own ceremonies.

Bride and groom often want their wedding vows to be a deeply personal, not generic, commitment to each other. This means making the vows in their own words. Retaining lip-service to former religious beliefs, many would say, weakens that commitment. The subsequent behavior of many people - not just pop stars -suggests it is possible to go through a traditional wedding ceremony with mental reservations, treating its vows as mere formalities.

A wedding feels very different when a couple have designed their own words, as usually happens in a civil ceremony, so as to express their own shared beliefs and values. That leaves no room for evasion. And to know that you and your partner are both deeply committed to each other is a strength in any future difficulties.

Ceremonies other than births, weddings, and funerals, are now emerging. Our present society is one of the few societies on record to lack initiation ceremonies for adolescents. Such ceremonies provide goals and direction for those about to face the emotional storms of puberty; and can save many young lives being wrecked. The traditional 21st birthday party does provide an understandably welcome celebration of manhood or womanhood achieved; but it comes too late to help in the process. There is more point in the timing of the Jewish Bar Mitzvah; but non-Jews as yet lack such a tradition.