When people ask me how I can dare do stand-up comedy, assuming it must be terrifying to regularly risk humiliation in front of a crowd, I always say it’s nothing as frightening as officiating a funeral.
For a start, nobody’s going to cry if you get their name wrong at a comedy gig, or have a fight with the ex-wife/current wife/unexpected gay lover over who sits where, or give a heartfelt eulogy lasting 20 minutes in a 25-minute crematorium slot so you’re in danger of going over time. (That one is a cardinal sin for funeral ministers as it’s deeply disrespectful to the next group of mourners.) Nobody’s going to set fire to the curtains with an ill-placed candle; nobody’s going to jump into the grave with the coffin; and, as a general rule, nobody’s actually dead.
All of the above have happened to me in my 20 years as a minister. In addition, I’ve been asked to wear pink fairy wings to facilitate a pink angel funeral where the deceased’s daughter sprayed so much aromatherapy I had to stay behind to apologize to the staff, clergy, and mourners attending the next two services. Worse, I’ve been groped by the deceased’s husband and asked not to allow a coffin to be burnt until I had personally checked inside it to make sure the chief mourner’s late brother truly was dead.
For that one, I went downstairs to the cremator area after the service and made the request (you have to do what the family ask when they are that afraid). The crematorium worker in charge looked at me long and hard and said, “First, it’s illegal to open a coffin once it’s sealed. Second, I don’t have a crowbar. And third, he’s been screwed into an airtight box for three hours. If he wasn’t dead before he went in, he is now.”
My bishop taught me a wonderful phrase: “There are lies and there are bandages for the soul.” I told the lady that I had checked as she asked and her brother was definitely dead.
Another problem with being a priest or minister is that you have to attend funerals of your own friends facilitated by others who may not have taken any time to get to know the deceased. It can be a challenge not to critique their work, which is extremely bad form, particularly when you are meant to be focusing on celebrating a loved-one’s life and mourning their death. But hey, I’m human. I’ve only heckled out loud once, when the minister kept calling my late friend’s even later husband “Brian,” when his name had been “Barry.” Afterward, most of the other mourners avoided me, as did the vicar, because the British psyche is still wired in the “politeness at all costs” mentality with follow-up complaints only when it’s safe to make them.
For future reference, please note that if a British person tells you, “That was brave,” it really means “That was rude, exhibitionist, or a dismal failure.”
I wouldn’t have done it had I not, at the age of 17, had to sit through my grandmother’s funeral hearing her called “Margaret” when she was “Margery” with no one saying a word, during or after. That wasn’t the worst thing about Grandma’s funeral—the gravedigger had been told it was a burial of ashes so we got to the cemetery in pouring rain to find we had nowhere to bury her.
I remember the funeral director crying after that debacle. No one said anything to him, but he was deeply ashamed.
“It’s all right,” I said, bandaging his soul. “Grandma wouldn’t have minded. Grandma would have understood.”
“That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me,” he replied.
In truth, Grandma would have murdered him.
Humor Can Help
I do think it’s important to embrace humor at a funeral. Telling the deceased’s favorite joke or a lovingly funny story about their life lifts the service for everyone. You do have to draw the line, however, at processing to Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” but I have known “Bat out of Hell” to elicit roars of approval! After all, the job of the minister (or “celebrant” as we are now called) is to make a funeral as bearable as possible. I believe that the facilitator should also appear to be invisible—the oil that makes the event flow elegantly, not the star of the proceedings.
Nowadays, we call the funeral a “celebration” of the departed’s life. That’s important, appropriate, and sometimes even magnificent. It’s certainly all that humanist funerals can do, as no belief that there’s any future for the departed means the soul itself is never addressed or guided onward.
Okay, I think this article was going pretty well up until now, but the rest may weird you out. My apologies.
The whole tenet of a humanist funeral is that there is no afterlife, and sometimes—just sometimes—when I’m the next celebrant up, I can perceive a mislaid soul hanging around, needing a helping hand. (I’ve never yet come across a celebrant training school where this is addressed, by the way.) In this modern, secular world, people don’t generally think much about souls and what happens to them when the body dies (apart from television programs about ghost hunters and psychics). But the original idea behind a funeral was to ensure that the dead person did not become earthbound.
I’ve worked as a hospice chaplain and as a journalist in war zones, and when you do either, you start to realize that some folks simply don’t leave this mortal plane when their body surrenders to death. As in the movie Ghost, they can miss the light that comes to fetch them. This may be for all sorts of reasons. Perhaps they don’t realize they are dead, or maybe they are concerned about loved ones. Generally, whatever you may think of the words of a religious funeral service, a phrase such as the well-known “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” will be inserted to alert the departed soul and send it onward. That—to me—is the officiant’s primary job: to ensure that the next docking stage (as it were) is achieved.
How can you tell if a soul hasn’t moved on? Often you can’t, but there are prayers you can say and visualizations you can do as a precaution—including a wonderful meditation called “The Chapel of Liberation” that I will happily email to anyone who wants it. And sometimes, you just know.
Crashing His Own Funeral
When people scoff at this idea, I tell them about the blue suede shoes man. I’m not a psychic, so this one was pretty weird for me too.
Gary died two weeks after his mother. He had a heart attack while asleep, so his daughter, Judy, was comforted that he hadn’t suffered. But it was still a deeply sad time for the family. Judy questioned me long and hard about life after death and whether her dad would be reunited with his mum, and I did my best to answer.
Gary had been a huge Elvis Presley fan, and his coffin featured the best rendition a florist could make of a pair of blue suede shoes. They were more extraordinary than realistic, but it was a lovely idea and certainly eye-catching.
While reading the eulogy, I somewhat reluctantly became aware of a susurration of energy by the coffin. It seemed to form into the image of a man staring at the blue flowers. You’re imagining things, I told myself. But the problem with being a vicar is that you can’t not assume there’s the possibility of a soul present. Better you make a complete fool of yourself than miss a lost one.
I announced the hymn and, while we were singing, sent a mental query over to the presence. I felt a pulse of energy move toward me and “heard” the man say, “You can see me? Why can’t other people see me? What’s going on?”
“Are you Gary?” I asked.
“Yes,” came the response.
“I’m afraid you died. This is your funeral,” I told him.
“Oh! I thought it was my mother’s,” he said.
Then his whole beingness swelled in concern and he exclaimed, “Judy!” before moving over to where his daughter and her family stood.
I went down to the cremators after the ceremony, as I often do as a possibly strange mark of respect. Even if you aren’t burying them, there’s still a sanctity about being there for the final committal, and I can’t tell you how loving and gentle the downstairs staff are with their charges. I worked at several crematoria in London as part of my seminary training, and I never met an operator who wasn’t an angel of love. “There you go, Sunshine,” John at Hendon Crematorium used to say to everybody he met in a box. “Don’t fret; it doesn’t hurt a bit, I promise.”
I sensed that Gary was there, and we figuratively held hands while his body burned. He stood beside me and said, “It doesn’t hurt, does it?!”
I went home wondering if I had finally flipped, but the next day, Judy phoned.
“Maggy, please tell me: Was my dad at the funeral?” she asked.
“Yes, I believe he was,” I answered. She gave a big sigh and told me that after the wake, she had gone back to his house alone. As she opened the front door, Gary’s jukebox turned itself on and played the Elvis record of “Judy,” the song after which he had named his only daughter.
This article appeared in Unity Magazine and was a finalist in the 2023 Folio: Eddie Awards.