Rookie Celebrant in Baptism of Fire

December 11th, 2013

by Bryan Tully

The FD wanted a very much short cut funeral service.  No need for any family visit or contact.  Eulogy would be handed to me and all I had to do was “wing it” and pocket £60 in cash for my trouble.

I wasn’t so sure I could “wing it” and my instincts prompted me to ask the FD if it might be a good idea for me to speak to the chief mourner on the telephone at least briefly.  She agreed and provided me the phone number of the good  friend who was the organiser and payer of the funeral.

It was as well that I did for she (the CM) told me right away that she was going to call me.  First she hadn’t yet been able to get in touch with the deceased’s sole remaining relative on earth, a brother from whom he had actually been estranged for many years.  She had written something, in her first person, but didn’t want to deliver it herself, so I reassured her that is what I was for.

She told me that the last humanist funeral she had attended was awful, with the celebrant reading in a swallowed fashion from cards in his hand.  She thought I sounded very experienced and “wonderful”.  I swallowed as silently as I could.  CM told me that there had been other funerals in the family where the circumstances turned out to be unfortunate such as returning home and finding the home cordoned off by police because of a major burglary.  Very unfortunate.  If you think that was a kind of harbinger for things to come, you would be right.  CM hadn’t exactly decided on the music yet.  She would let me know.  I reminded her that she or the FD must bring the music.

I customised her script and she added bits after she spoke to the brother.   Actually she had been very resourceful, and had put together something of a life story from the deceased’s own blog and Facebook.   Never heard of that before.  CM and husband were tech savvy and arranged for the ceremony to be set up on Skype.  There was some problem of a signal.

I made sure I asked the crem staff gentleman if the cross could be removed.   I didn’t actually watch what he did with the cross, but as I was to find out, he put it on the floor right next to the catafalque.

On this bright and cold morning, then, we all gathered at the crem: all bar the FD, the coffin and the music.  They were late.  This is the first time this has happened to me.  They were coming from North London and I don’t suppose they could speed up on a clear bit of road, even if they could find one.  I had noticed there was another funeral immediately after our slot.  Five minutes and then nearly 10 minutes in, I spoke to CM and put to her a choice of starting now and understanding the coffin would arrive at some time, or waiting longer and facing a hastily and dramatically reduced ceremony.  She chose the former.  I reassured her I would mange things and not to worry!

Duly, half way through my tribute a member of crem staff popped his head around the door to indicate the coffin had arrived.  There seemed to be some further delay and odd noises and then a FD and crem staff wheeled in a low slung trolley with the coffin on it.  It clattered and bumped and moved without much dignity.

I was told later by crem staff that when they do choose to use such a trolley, they like to do that before anyone comes inside.  I now understand why.  Now three guys raising a coffin up onto the high catafalque is not the same as four or more gently lowering from their shoulders, when they have carried the coffin in.  You understand I am sure.  First time for me again.

The organist was a trouper.  We were supposed to get a film score as entry music which was called Ave Maria, but since he didn’t have that, he played an alternative Ave Maria which sounded rather more religious.  I was just grateful for his improvisation.  Then after the tribute, we had Danny Boy, which he knew by heart – but even he couldn’t imitate John McCormack, which had been expected.

At the last moment CM had asked for a mercifully short additional poem to be read, and on the day it was requested her teenage son read it out.  It was called Afterglow, a piece of drivel if ever I heard such.  I was so pleased this young man wanted to read it and not I.  He rather rushed and garbled the words (thus disguising nicely its facile meaning) and I found myself standing there with an unworthy thought crossing my mind “…this is making me sound good”.

Well, what could go wrong now?  I had the committal all worked out and moments after I pressed the button for the curtains, I heard that cross on the floor knocked right over with a bang and a clatter.  Now some in the audience were neighbours of the deceased who I had discovered were Roman Catholics and lived close to my old school.  They had told me earlier that the Jesuits were leaving the school and parish as there weren’t enough of them now.  I tried not to look too cheerful at this news, but their faces when the metallic cross was knocked aside were not too cheerful either.

Well, nobody (including me) really noticed what the organist was improvising for exit music as we left.  It sounded religious but I was beyond caring.  CM was really angry with the FDs for ruining “her funeral”, which she had paid for.  The chapel attendant said they were a “fly by night company”.  I said I didn’t know them.  When CM left a member of staff pressed an envelope in my hand, and indeed it had three used £20 notes.  Somehow it didn’t quite feel right.

Angela had asked me earlier if I would like more of these “charity” funerals as she calls them.  Just turn up and “wing it”.  My instincts turned me away from accepting, though in a case of urgency when no-one else can be found, I said I could be phoned.

Now I feel like a real member of the celebrant club.