I’m often asked ‘isn’t being a funeral celebrant really depressing?’ and I’ve thought a lot about that over the years.
Of course, this job does put me on the frontline of people’s grief. As a Funeral Director wisely observed when I was just setting out on this career path, ‘we funeral directors dip our toes in people’s grief – you celebrants get in right up to the neck’.
And so it’s work that can be sad – sometimes (often) heartbreakingly so. But what I have noticed is that being in such close proximity to death on a regular basis is one of the most life-affirming experiences you could wish for.
Death as a taboo
In the UK, as in much of the Western world, death is not considered a polite topic for discussion in public, and that attitude has filtered down into private conversation too, with many people just not wanting to talk about it at all.
Taboo subjects are often linked with deep fears. After all, if we can’t talk about something, we might not be able to conceptualise it very well… And if we can’t ask questions or air something that’s on our minds, even with close loved ones, you can see how we might bury it deep (if you’ll pardon the pun…) It’s easy to see how many generations of children have grown up unequipped to talk about death with their offspring and so on and so on.
In the end, for many people, it becomes easier just never to talk about it so that they also never have to think about it.
Except – newsflash – almost everyone is going to have to deal with the death of a close person at some point in their life, and not having the vocabulary or inherited wisdom and experience to deal with it, makes the whole thing a lot harder.
But Claire, you said this was life-affirming…
It is! Because by speaking about death and being around it more than the average person, it’s pretty hard to escape the fact that one day, I’m going to die. After all, as Benjamin Franklin famously opined, “nothing is certain except death and taxes”.
Whilst the realisation of this might seem depressing at first, the opposite is true.
I have conducted way too many funerals for people who spent their whole working lives counting down the days to their retirement (when they imagined they would finally start ‘living’) only to die a few months in. And plenty for people who spent years in a very small comfort zone, living vicariously through the programmes they watched on telly.
I have conducted still more for people who had a big dream that they spoke about a lot but lacked the confidence to make any progress towards it, and further ones for folk who were stuck in relationships that drained both parties for decades…
All because we don’t really think we’re going to die one day, and we forget that our existence on this planet at this time is nothing short of miraculous.
We put things off as if we are immortal – one day we’ll do this or that – forgetting that not even tomorrow is guaranteed, let alone next year or old age.
I recently read an excellent book called Four Thousand Weeks, by Oliver Burkeman. I highly, highly recommend it. The title comes from the average lifespan of a human being at this time, and most people I’ve talked to about this have been shocked that it’s not missing a zero.
Burkeman talks a lot in his book about what he calls ‘finitude’ – knowing that our lives are finite and therefore we can’t put off all the good stuff to ‘one day in the future’. He used to write books about productivity before he realised that this too was relying on the idea of getting everything done so that, one day in the near future, we’d get to the end of our emails and our to-do list and have this imagined moment of freedom and bliss.
Except the emails never stop and I’m willing to bet that most people still have a ton of stuff on their to-do lists or bucket lists when they die.
But this is the opposite of depressing! It’s a shake-up to recognise the colour, richness and beauty of a world out there to be experienced – not when we retire, not only at the weekends, but in our lives now or we’re on the way to them.
It’s a call to us to find joy in the every day, in the connections we make and in the small details that make up our lives. It makes us realise that life is too short to stay in a loveless marriage and our time is too precious to waste on scrolling on our phones or trying to be liked by everyone. It’s also a reminder that ‘someday’ never comes and that if you want something then you can work towards it.
My own reminder
My good friend and business mentor, Philip, recently died too soon after a two-year journey with cancer. He knew all too well (as does everyone who has a terminal diagnosis) about the finitude of life.
When I was enthusing last year about the idea of walking the Camino de Santiago, I found myself talking about how I’d have to wait for several years because I was worried about taking five weeks out, on my own, away from my family and my business.
The truth was, I was scared of what people would think. I was scared about being away from my husband and my girls for that long. I was scared about the lost income. I was scared about whether I could do it.
Philip sat and listened, as he always did so well, and then reminded me that ‘someday’ would never happen because I’d always be scared, and then I might not be able to anyway. “Take it from me”, he said, “do it as soon as you reasonably can.”
I’ve booked it for next April. I’m still scared, but I know not even next April is guaranteed, so ‘someday’ certainly wouldn’t be. And it’s making me walk every day now in preparation, which is giving me an unexpected amount of joy in itself.
Embracing finitude, far from being morbid, turns up the brightness and the colour on the short flash we have on this planet.