I recently received a telephone call from a gentleman who lives quite some distance from me, who reminded me that I had helped his family say farewell to one of his two daughters a little over a year ago.
He called with the deeply sad news that his surviving daughter had also died. Consequently, he made the funeral arrangements with his local funeral home, asking them whether it would be possible to invite me to conduct the ceremony. To which they replied, “We have a perfectly capable celebrant that we know will look after you just as well.” At the time, the client rather disappointingly felt under pressure to comply and had convinced himself and his wife that the funeral arranger was probably right and that I lived too far away from them anyway.
The following day, he and his wife grew increasingly aware that this arrangement did not sit comfortably with them and to check their feelings, they contacted me.
After a long discussion about what had happened, the client popped the question. “Is it too far Steve?”
Under normal circumstances, when someone is merely enquiring, I would encourage them to use a local celebrant and I have very often put enquirers in touch with a celebrant from their area. But this was not a normal circumstance. I was familiar with the family and had a very appropriate pastoral connection with them.
Consequently, after juggling a few things around in my dairy, I called them back to let them know that I would be free to conduct the ceremony for them if that is what they wished. I encouraged them to contact their Arranger and instruct him or her to confirm the arrangements with me.
A few hours passed by. I then received another call from the client, stating that he had done as I had suggested, and that they were adamant that they had already appointed the celebrant they normally use to take the service.
Not wishing to add to their trauma and disappointment, I attempted to reassure them that the celebrant was sure to look after them just as well as I would have done and so, the conversation ended there.
There are two issues here:
1. Was the Funeral Arranger right to point the family towards using a celebrant in whom they clearly had a great deal of confidence?
2. Was the needs and requirements of the client being put first in this situation by the arranger? Or was it more a question of being loyal to their celebrant?
The answer to these two questions came a week or so later, when I received another call from the client but this time from his wife – utterly beside herself with grief. She had called to inform me that the funeral ceremony was, for them, a complete disaster. The celebrant had done a reasonably respectable job but had not fully understood the dynamics and the rawness of grief that already pre-existed within the family.
We must be careful when we are dealing with the fragility of grief. Careful that we do not allow our professional arrogance to get in the way of doing what is right for the family, and we must not make the mistake of undermining the value of pastoral care and the degree of kinship that exists between the client and the officiant. They are seen very often by the mourners as being representative their loved-one’s at the funeral.
Whether we are religious or not, we should perhaps be reminded of the Christian model for service and its significance here.
On the night of his betrayal, scripture tells us that Jesus girded himself with a towel and proceeded to wash his friend’s feet.
This is a powerful reminder to us of the nature of service. There is nothing at all arrogant about it. There is not a glimmer of professional pride or loyalty to anyone other than the person who is being served. It illustrates everything about putting the needs of others first, and this is precisely the model of service that resonates with me and is undeniably relevant to the work of those who deal with the bereft.
My biggest regret is that I didn’t insist, in the interests of the client, that I should take the service.
I wish I had.