Mert Karaoglan

September 20th, 2013

By Ros Curtis

We get asked as funeral celebrants to help with all kinds of ceremonies, some very difficult, some less so.  Usually you have enough time to consider what to write and to consult with family and friends about the content. Ceremonies at very short notice are always a bit hair raising, difficult ones doubly so.

I was asked last week on Wednesday afternoon to help with a school memorial ceremony for 18 year old Mert Karaoglan, one of the students who, with his 15 year old girlfriend Charleigh Disbury, had committed suicide a few days before at Elstree and Borehamwood station.  The ceremony was to be the following day at Hertswood Academy and I had very little information either about the sort of ceremony they had in mind, or about the youngster himself.  The sixth form leavers, who arranged the whole memorial themselves, had planned a leavers ‘do’ for that day but of course felt that they couldn’t go ahead under the circumstances.

I put something together with a degree of uncertainty as I had so little information and set off the following afternoon.  The youngsters, some 70 of them, had gathered with their teachers in the school theatre; I was asked to begin and end the ceremony and to introduce the speakers and a short film about Mert.  Memorials need particularly careful handling under circumstances like these especially with youngsters but I had in my previous life been a teacher and Head of Sixth Form so I did have some experience to fall back on.

They were all shell shocked, many were visibly in deep distress, some were just blank.  Three youngsters had the courage to get up and speak, as did two of their teachers but I don’t think any of them found it easy and one broke down altogether.  It was wonderful to see how the young people responded to him, some rushed up to put their arms around him, some spoke words of encouragement.  Mert had been a student of film and a talented filmmaker and so they played the last film he had worked on. I closed the session and invited them all outside for a candle lighting and a moment of silence.

To some extent I had to change my words on the spot: some felt wrong, some were clearly superfluous or irrelevant.  Some didn’t fit with the occasion as it unfolded.  That was unnerving, but it is good practice to be able to change things if you need to.  The young people seemed pleased with what I said and a number made an effort to come and find me afterwards to say thank you, in spite of my deliberately hanging back.  The staff and head were approving too and I came away feeling that I had done some good.

As a learning experience it was pretty intense but a few points came out for me.

  • Always get as much information as you can.
  • Bear in mind that they may ask for a talk when what they mean is a ceremony, or part of one at any rate!
  • Ask what they envisage the ceremony to be.
  • Try to find out what ‘tone’ is wanted.
  • Make sure you have the facts right, especially sensitive ones.
  • Check who your audience will be and who is in charge of arrangements.
  • Double check the venue and timings both of the ceremony itself and how long they want you to speak for.
  • Be prepared to make changes on the spot if need be!

I am pleased that it was to a Humanist that they had turned for help rather than a vicar, even though that was probably because the school has a very varied mix of religious backgrounds.  Nonetheless I think it is a credit to all we have been doing to become more visible that we should have been asked to help, and I was glad to do it, in spite of it being a bit nerve-wracking!