When Judy contacted me to explore the possibility of creating a memorial service for her father, I don’t think either of us anticipated the journey that we were about to embark upon. We had connected, Judy introduced me to her brother Anthony and over the weeks that followed we jointly began to piece together the story of their father’s life. After the ceremony Judy contacted me with a beautiful piece that she had written about her experience which says far more than I ever could, sit yourself down with a cuppa and enjoy.
Learning to Accept
As his life drew achingly slowly towards its end, my father spasmodically addressed what might happen ‘’afterwards”. While never referring to his actual passing, he did talk in an almost sanguine manner about a time when he would be no longer with us. An understandable and characteristically theoretical approach, a slight distance from the practical and emotional reality. In his customary manner he was clearer about what he would not want in the way of a funeral and unforthcoming about what he did. “It’s up to you.” The ‘would not wants’ included a priest and any form of showy celebration. He added, “and don’t talk about me too much.” I agreed to the first two stipulations and openly and humorously declined the third using just one word, “tough.” Just as well as things turned out!
His approach to discussing his end was at one with his lifelong reluctance to talk about anything remotely emotional or spiritual and of course death embraces both. This was a challenge for me as a priority of the second half of my own life has been about addressing this area of my own development and of course part of that was learning to accept that I could not share any of that with him. I smiled inwardly when people commented on how close we were since in reality there was a sense of almost semi-detachment in our relationship where we were indeed close in the sense that I met all his specified needs but was not able to approach his unspoken concerns. On reflection I feel that this left us both lonelier than we needed to be.
It is strange how often this happens in families. The tie of blood is inexpressibly strong and yet many of us find closer and deeper bonds with friends who we meet through shared interests. I was grateful to learn that my father found it easier to share his concerns with his doctor and with selected members of staff. Maybe it is the very strength of family ties and the indescribable pain of loss that sentences us to silence and evokes a need to seek a compensatory connection elsewhere. It was at this relatively safe and superficial level that we talked about holding a lunch party in lieu of a funeral which would bring those of us from his family together with those of my stepmother for the very first time. “Make sure it’s a good meal” he said! His only other advice was to keep anything else short.
Faced with a sense of dissonance, I started a somewhat guilty search for a celebrant. Thinking back to the almost irrelevant ceremony come endurance test that marked the end of my mother’s life and anticipating the feelings of disablement that might accompany the loss of my Father, I was already on a path of preparation. I consulted the internet and discovered that just one person stood out from the rest. Her website spoke my language: “I will work with you to create a service which is personal and uplifting, respecting your beliefs and values and those of your loved one. Your loved one’s funeral service will be as unique and individual as the person themselves.”
Hallelujah. Further research into the furthest corner of her website led me to uncover her interest in deep ecology, personal transformation and the work of the celebrated author and Buddhist scholar, Joanna Macy. Relief flooded through me as I pictured the front cover of one of Joanna’s famous books, ‘Active Hope,’ which of itself formed a suitable title for my quest. I immediately experienced the warmth of connection, we were on a similar path. I had no idea what we would create and how we would go about it, but my sense of isolation lessened. We communicated by email and she totally understood and commended my need to have her in the wings. She also empathised with our current situation.
I felt as though I had at last found a toehold in the shifting sands of this situation, I placed high hopes on this woman, and I was not disappointed.
When my father slipped away, it was simplicity itself to send off an email to Liz, the celebrant, and she responded with an ease and a sense of professional and personal assurance that was deeply reassuring. In the back of my mind I discovered a half-drawn plan of the way in which we could celebrate the century through which my father had lived. It also occurred to me that this was the opportunity to revisit my mother’s funeral and pay her due honour. Furthermore, my stepmother’s funeral which took place only thirteen months earlier was also brief; my father’s primary focus had been his wish to walk like the soldier he once was unaided both in and out of the church which meant he pressed for something short. Indeed, the service was relatively brief and more devoted to doctrine than my stepmother. Here was our one chance to unite the different and meaningful aspects of his life and celebrate his most significant relationships and achievements.
Untying the Knots
I was buoyed up by this possibility but had yet to discuss it with my brother. To his great credit, once he understood the pre-agreed wishes and was introduced to Liz on Skype not only was he on side but offered to write and ultimately read an account of the first half of his father’s life, covering the period between1917 to 1971 when our mother died. It so happened that holiday plans relating to key players in this event meant a delay of four weeks. My father’s cremation took place much earlier without ceremony, reflecting his wish. As his remains arrived at the crematorium in Cheshire, I walked quietly by the River Dart in Devon, holding a slender twig in my hand. It was also the fifth anniversary of the death of our nine-year-old grandson, Charlie who was named after his great grandfather Charles. The sense of discomfort in my insides reflected my sense of loss, the older and the younger generation now united in the mystery of death. I cast the twig into the tide and watched it float away before walking quietly home.
We were able to use time given to us to work with Liz productively to design the ceremony and write our individual pieces. My brother faithfully charted his father’s life from his early days to his wartime army life and his return to find a ready-made family. He smiled as he referred to himself as the ‘baby who would not sleep.’ This time cannot have been easy for father and son. My brother had had his mother to himself for over a year and now had to share her with my father for the first time. My arrival no doubt escalated matters as apparently, I did sleep – provided I was given enough to eat! In those days new mothers were away from home for several weeks and existing children banned from visiting. My mother said my brother ignored her when we finally arrived back home together. No wonder. If bereavement is about untying the knots of relationships, my brother’s choice gave him a great opportunity to engage in that process.
A Colourful Tapestry
The content grew organically and no longer did I hold that sense of isolation, Liz just got it and provided all the freedom and support that I could have wished for. The shared document took shape in front of my eyes and I know and valued that this was part of saying goodbye to my father in the best way I knew. Finding a venue proved more challenging and it was thanks to the advice of the helpful funeral directors that we landed in the perfect place. My brother was able to lead this part of the proceedings and he did so with thoroughness and precision. Throughout the process I was truly grateful that we were able to put this all-encompassing event together without a cross word passing between us.
My Father’s Blessing
On the day itself the celebration started at 10.30 a.m. with visitors who were unable to attend the ceremony calling by for coffee. The fresh flowers, one arrangement for each lunch table and one to act as a focal point for the ceremony, arrived just half an hour later. The woman responsible for these works of art was a friend of my late stepmother. She lovingly placed the arrangements and shared memories of the time with her. We parted with a hug; she had transformed the room. As people arrived, we greeted them individually, gave them a drink and ultimately a lunch that would have received my father’s blessing. While the luncheon guests drank their coffee, those attending the celebration started to arrive. The most touching scene took place as six members of staff from my father’s nursing home arrived. Hugs and tears mingled as we greeted one another. Over lunch, I had an uneasy feeling that the success of the service of celebration was totally and irrevocably in the hands of someone who I had not actually met other than via the Internet. When she arrived, we met with a hug and my sense of responsibility evaporated in her direction.
A Moment of Connection
When everyone was seated, she played the first piece of music, strains of the clarinet, an instrument that my father loved. I felt the grip of panic in my whole being, how would I make it through this event? Then, with a soft out breath I relaxed into what I knew was the best that we could do to honour our father. I was fully present without the need to look out of the window. I knew and had complete faith in what was about to be revealed. The afternoon unfolded seamlessly, a testament to all the planning that had taken place over the weeks. Everyone read their own work beautifully, while Liz read mine. I knew that I would not be able to express myself fully if I had to stand and read my words aloud. Liz held it all together like the professional that she proved to be. We shared a moment of connection when, at the conclusion the Brahms, she held my eye and we waited together for sufficient reflective time to elapse before she stood up to draw the ceremony to an end.
A Sense of Fulfilment
We were left with a sense of real fulfilment. We had paid due honour to a long life, well lived. We had introduced parts of my father’s life to all present and celebrated his work, his army career and more importantly two long marriages and life as a father. The contrast between this event and the one which took place back in 1971 is best illustrated by my experience with the flowers. When I first spoke to the florist, she was very keen to be involved and took great care in ensuring that I was involved with choosing the colours and varieties to be included. When it came to cost, she suggested a figure and I added a fifty percent uplift asking her to make them as beautiful as she could. I had seen the enjoyment in my father’s eyes every time I arrived in his room with flowers, these were the last ones. Thinking back to the stark reality that we did not ever see the flowers sent for my mother’s funeral it seemed appropriate that these were enjoyed by all concerned. I was even able to give the arrangements away at the end of the day to members of my stepmother’s family, the daughter of my mother’s closest friend and my brother’s wife. The circle felt complete.
When I got home there was an email waiting for me, sent by my stepmother’s niece. She and I had had the opportunity to get to know each other well since my stepmother died. She kindly informed me that the celebration had ticked all of the boxes and more besides. Her message carried such warmth and understanding, it said it all.
Copyright Judy Allen ~ December 2018
None of us can ever know the impact that we make in this life, my Celebrant role brings deep connection and lasting memories, for the people with whom I work and in my own life. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to work with so many wonderful people, the bonds formed leave echoes that resonate for many years. I felt as if I knew Judy and Anthony’s father, a great man who lived his life so very well… Following his memorial service Judy contacted me to show their appreciation with a gift that I will treasure, but more so, I will treasure the lasting feeling of having met a kindred spirit. Thank you Judy ♥
Liz Thompson is a Family Celebrant based in Manchester in the UK and working across the North West of England, Liz creates unique and personal ceremonies and services for life events such as Weddings, Civil Partnerships, Baby naming, Vow Renewal and many more.