One of the most challenging and rewarding areas in my role as a funeral celebrant is when I actually meet the person whose funeral ceremony I will be taking. It’s certainly not the usual way, as most often I meet with families after they’ve lost their loved one. Towards the end of someone’s life, however, it can often be too difficult to discuss a farewell ceremony with those closest to you, and it’s easier to do so with someone who’s not emotionally involved. That’s where I’m often asked to come in to sit with the person who’s dying and have a chat about their wishes: sometimes with their family in the room, sometimes just the two of us, and usually, this takes place when they only have a few weeks left.
So why might this be challenging? Well, for the person who’s dying, as I walk through the door of their hospital or hospice room, they’re coming face to face with the celebrant who will be conducting their funeral very soon and that’s an extremely emotional, and often shocking thing, for anyone to do. Every one of us understands the concept of our own mortality, but, in that moment, it’s far from just a concept! For me, I’m stepping into a very different situation from the normal ones I experience, and I have to go in prepared for those emotions, to hold a safe and quiet space for them to be in and with enough unspoken trust for the person to be able to talk to me about their wishes at such a delicate time.
Now, don’t get me wrong, not all of this meeting will be doom and gloom! It goes without saying that there will probably be tears, but there can be lots of laughter as we talk about some of their memories – the funny ones, the happy ones, the regrets, the risqué ones – and some which will NEVER be repeated to their families. Of course, we’ll also talk about practicalities of the ceremony; their beliefs, the music they’d like, any readings they love, and perhaps some little snippets of wisdom they’d like to leave for their families, to be shared during the ceremony itself.
And that’s where the hugely rewarding part of that role comes in: it means that when I conduct the ceremony, I know just that little bit more about the person who’s died. They know that the whole thing has been created according to what they wanted and that their families at least don’t have that burden at such a difficult time. And for the bereaved families, knowing that I’ve taken the time to sit with their loved ones makes the ceremony just that little bit more personal, for them and for me.