What Not To Say At Meetings

November 13th, 2014

By Mark Hayford

I discovered recently that I am mentioned in a book about grief and loss that was written by an American woman whose husband had died in a road accident. Aimee Dufresne’s extraordinary memoir about that awful experience is entitled ‘Keep Going’ and the book talks about what it is like to lose a father and a husband within the space of six months. The book’s main focus is Ben, Aimee’s late husband, and it is a grim read that details the sheer brutality of grief and the daily grind of remembering. I stumbled across it on Amazon and bought it as I thought it would offer me pointers in regards to the etiquette of dealing with bereaved families. It was only after I read the first chapter that it dawned on me that it was I who had conducted Ben’s funeral back in 2008.  As I read on I started to feel nervous: would there be any mention of the celebrant Aimee met and if so, what would it say?

I recalled that Ben was just 29 when he died and that he died in a motorcycle accident, and I remember I was worried about the family meeting because I rode a motorbike myself at the time, a motorbike I was intending to use to get to the family meeting. I kept reading. It wasn’t long before Aimee started to recount the ordeal of having to organise her husband’s funeral.

I’ll let her take up the story:

 

‘We were scheduled to meet a celebrant to plan Ben’s funeral. With my brother navigating the car we set off for Ben’s dad’s home. On the motorway, a strange feeling came over me like I was being smothered by a big blanket of sadness. I looked out the window and realised we were passing the exact spot where Ben was thrown off his motorbike. I took a deep breath and tried to ignore the elephant sitting on my chest. We arrived, and the family sat around making idle conversation that ended in stunted silences. I thought back to when I had asked Ben what he wanted for his funeral. He said he wanted no tears, only bright colours (no black allowed), and he wanted a big party to celebrate his life. ‘After all,’ he said, ‘I love my life. So people should celebrate that.’ Although his life celebration was happening decades earlier than I ever could have imagined, I was determined to fulfil his wishes. 

When the celebrant arrived I explained Ben’s wishes to him. He nodded through my explanation. When I had finished, he said: ‘Well, he’s dead and gone. It’s sad. It shouldn’t be too much of a celebration.’ His words took the breath from me, like I’d just been punched where my heart used to be. I excused myself and made it to the bathroom just in time for the tears to burst from my eyes. I had no idea how long I was there. I tried my best to compose myself quickly, and returned in time to see the man leave. I asked Ben’s dad to find another celebrant. Thankfully, he agreed.

 

I was, at this point, reading Aimee’s book at half-past one in the morning as I was unable to put it down. When I read what the celebrant had said I felt physically sick and I started to panic. That can’t have been me, can it? I don’t remember saying that – it’s not my style.  Even though I was quite new to the job surely I wouldn’t say anything as stupid as that? I read on.

 

‘The new celebrant asked if it would be okay, given the circumstances of Ben’s death, that the celebrant rode in on a motorcycle? I smiled. We had found the perfect man to lead the celebration of Ben’s life.’

 

As you might imagine I went through a range of emotions reading this but mostly I was relieved that I was the ‘new’ celebrant and not the old one. I remember, now, that when the arranger first contacted me she told me that there had been an ‘issue’ with the first celebrant, and she’d said: ‘Go and see this family and find out what’s happened.’ I went. I remember how nervous I was because I had no idea what I was walking into.

 

I remember that when I rang the doorbell Ben’s dad answered the door and just stood there, looking me up and down.

‘Who are you?’ he said, eventually.

‘I’m Mark. I’m a humanist celebrant,’ I replied. Ben’s dad folded his arms.

‘Before you come into my house,’ he said, ‘let me ask you a question.’

‘What’s my son’s name?’

At this point my brain went into a tailspin. His name? How can you not know your own son’s name? But hang on, maybe it isn’t Ben, and if I say Ben, which I’m about to, he’s going to punch me in the face? But it is Ben, and I know it is because just before I rang the doorbell, I checked.

‘Ben?’ I offered, feeling sick.

‘Okay,’ he sighed, ‘you can come in. The last one couldn’t even get that right.’

 

Strange as it may seem, re-telling this story is not an exercise in self-congratulatory back-patting. It’s possible, I suppose, that celebrant one had firm ideas about how funerals should be conducted and panicked when it became clear that a celebration was required? Not good enough. How did this person make it through training? If we’re serious about our desire to increase our share of the non-religious funeral ceremonies we conduct we have to resist the temptation to dictate terms and think before we speak, no?

We only get one go at this, so let’s make it count.