Why some funerals are better than others

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Date: 2 November 2020

Woman at funeral holding flowers and touching coffin

I have been to some terrific funerals. And some ordinary ones.

For me, the setting of the funeral and 'tea and sandwiches' afterwards matters little. Like a wedding, a beautiful venue and gorgeous weather is a great head start, but a funeral is all about the people who attend and the words that are said.

The core of any good funeral is the eulogy, or eulogies.

As someone said to me "You have 10 or 20 minutes to sum up a person's whole life, achievements, personality, and what they meant to you. Then it's over, you have some more music, and before you know it you are drinking tea and chatting to old friends and distant relatives and finding out how everyone is. That is the reality of how a life ends."

The eulogies that I remember, and that moved me, were the ones that gave a complete picture of the person, warts and all. None of us are perfect, so why pretend that someone was?

The audience can immediately recognise the traits and the stories being described, so everyone can think back to their own experiences of the person.

Relationships are tricky things. Some people may be coming to the funeral full of regrets about a relationship with the person who has died that was, in fact, awful. I think that is all the more reason to be honest, or to at least drop some strong hints if diplomacy is called for.

Sometimes, there is so much to say and not nearly enough time to say it. One family funeral that I went to solved that problem by dividing the day into two halves.

In the morning, we had a family-only gathering. Several of us, from all generations, stood up and told moving, amusing and memorable stories about Michael and all his antics. And we played his favourite music, including the theme tune to Dr Zhivago, which I will now never forget.

We allowed ourselves to wallow in family memories, without boring anyone else and without having to worry about being a good speaker. Once the first couple of people had said their bit, the rest of us relaxed when it came to our turn. Some of the younger kids had initially asked "What can I say about him?", but with a little prompting they soon came up with some lovely memories of things that Michael had said and done with them. Besides, no one had to speak if they didn’t want to.

The afternoon was completely different. It was like a normal funeral, although again we let more than one person stand up and speak about Michael and bring out different aspects of his life.

Those eulogies were a complete revelation for most people. They had had little or no idea about most of the things that were said about their friend Michael. I think that would be true for a great many other people, too, if traditional eulogies were not such rushed events.

A lot of us think that we lead ordinary lives and that there would not be much to say that is interesting. But everyone is interesting once you start to think about their opinions, their sayings, the films/TV/music/books/food/drink/holidays they liked and loathed, who their friends were, and so on.

So, when thinking about your own family's upcoming funeral, I would urge you not to feel constrained by tradition. Make the most of this rare gathering of the family tribe. Take the time to properly celebrate and appreciate the unique person who has died, warts and all.

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