Saying goodbye your own way


With society becoming increasingly secular, civil funerals can provide a more personal ritual for those who are uncomfortable with the pomp and dogma of church services, reports ARMINTA WALLACE

THE PHRASE “civil funeral” can conjure up many thoughts. It might, you suspect, be the kind where nobody gets plastered, nobody gets involved in a stand-up shouting match and nobody throws a punch. But it is none of the above. According to Ireland’s first fully trained civil funeral celebrant, Avril West, a civil funeral is an occasion full of warmth and humour.

“It’s an amazing part of this industry to be involved in because you see all sorts of people paying tribute to their loved ones in all sorts of ways,” she says. “Doing the funeral the way you want it is a major part of the grieving process. It has a lot to do with coming to terms with the death. What we do is celebrate the life, celebrate happy memories, celebrate whatever. It’s about giving the family a chance to say goodbye the way they want to.”

Civil funerals are still unusual in Ireland. But as more and more people drift away from regular attendance at church, the question of how to manage traditional rituals in a secular society is becoming more challenging.

There was a furore last summer over the burial of an atheist woman from Co Donegal. Her son was told that the county had no facility for non-religious burials, and she was finally laid to rest in a cemetery in Derry.

The sudden death of a young person, or the passing of an elderly parent who objected to a particular aspect of Christian doctrine, or who had simply fallen out with their local parish, can create a dilemma which adds to the uncertainty and trauma of an already difficult time. For those who are uneasy about the pomp and ceremony of a church funeral, the traditional alternatives – a speedy dispatch at the crematorium or a humanist burial – are often stressful.

West is a bubbly, chatty woman who worked in the advertising business until she was made redundant five years ago. Her new incarnation as a civil funeral celebrant is a job she clearly loves. She trained at a course in Cambridge, England, run by the Institute of Civil Funerals, founded in 2002. According to its website it was established “as a result of the need to drive upwards the quality of funeral ceremonies in the UK”.

ONE OF THE organisers of the course, sociologist Tony Walter, has run a number of postgraduate programmes in grief and death studies at the universities of Reading and Bath, and is the author of 14 books on the subject.

“The typical funeral in the UK of a non-churchgoer is in a crematorium, led by a priest who has never met the person,” he says. “Over the past 20 years or so there has been an increasing desire among families to have a funeral service that’s rather more personal, but it was very much hit-and-miss as to whether they actually could, because it depended on whether their local vicar would accommodate them.

“We’re also getting an increasing number of people who have a mix-and-match spirituality. They wouldn’t necessarily subscribe to the entire Christian creed, but have picked up bits and pieces of practice from a number of different faiths. We reflect that kind of spirituality in our funerals – and that’s something which both the humanists and the religious institutions would struggle with.”

For West, being a civil funeral celebrant isn’t about pushing any particular philosophical agenda, whether religious or atheistic.

“Even people who aren’t regular churchgoers sometimes want to include the Lord’s Prayer, or the 23rd Psalm, or even a hymn,” she says. “But if they decide they want all three of those, or a lot of religious content of some kind, I would always send them to a clergyman or a priest. A civil funeral isn’t meant to be a religious service. We’re not trying to take over from religion.”

THE ROOM WHERE West holds her celebrations has been specially designed and built by her employers, funeral directors Colliers of Bray. Stephen Collier says building it was easy, but naming it was a different matter.

“I don’t really know how you’d describe the building,” he admits. “A chapel of rest doesn’t sound quite right. The point was to have a room which would be able to cater for the numbers of people who might want to attend one of these services, but at the same time we didn’t want a building that would be like a hall.

“We designed it so that if there are a large number of people, some people can actually stand outside, under cover, and listen to what’s going on inside. We also have a garden area where people can sit and chat on summer nights.”

With its ring of windows at ceiling height and cream leather chairs, the room exudes a sense of calm. It’s the kind of place where you’d expect to find ordinary stuff happening, from a mother-and-toddler meeting to a yoga class. This, according to West, is how it should be.

“It’s all about the family,” she says firmly. “And each family is different. Some families know exactly what they want, and have a huge amount of input. Others are so shocked by the death that, more often than not, they haven’t a clue.”

At a time when words often seem inadequate, she adds, music can play a very important role.

“At one service for a lady who died suddenly, her partner and her daughter burned a CD of the music that she liked,” she says. “It was a marvellous selection – jazz, Frank Sinatra, all sorts. The daughter said a few words, I said a few words, they played the music, and it was wonderful. Another amazing service was for a man in his 60s. He had never married, but he had a lot of nieces and nephews who were all into music of all descriptions. They played, they sang, they told stories about him. It was incredible.”

It was, in short, a “good” funeral. But what makes a “good funeral”? This is the theme of one of the strands in the training course at the Institute of Civil Funerals and, from February 23rd to 26th, a new batch of trainees in Cambridge will address themselves to precisely this question.

“In the kind of society we’ve got nowadays, a good funeral is one where people are happy that they really have said goodbye to their uncle, or mother, or whoever,” says Tony Walter.

“That it really was a personal goodbye, it couldn’t have been just anybody in that box, and that the values expressed in the funeral were values that the deceased held.”

This is relatively easy to do in communities where traditional rituals are strongly maintained.

“For example, Jewish people have their own burial society and there are volunteers who organise it all. It’s much more ‘in-house’, if you like,” Walter adds.

There may be parallels here with our own tradition in Ireland of holding a wake.

“If you have a wake, it doesn’t really matter if the funeral service is non-personal, because the wake itself is very clearly devoted to the person within the community framework,” says Walter.

But now that the wake tradition is dying out, the church service has become the sole focus of attention and may be revealed as unsatisfactory or even irrelevant.

“When people lose the sense of connectedness, all they’re left with is a church service that perhaps doesn’t mean so much to them,” he says.

In the UK the number of civil funerals is small, but growing fast. Many local authority websites include information about this kind of celebration under the heading of “community services”.

In Ireland, change in the burial business is moving at a more funereal pace, although there are an increasing number of inquiries about ecologically sound burial practices, including baskets made from wicker or pineapple weed instead of timber coffins, says Stephen Collier.

Avril West is one of just four civil funeral celebrants in Ireland, all based in the Dublin area.

“You might say all the eccentric people come to me,” she says. “And I suppose they are different from the people who want to have a funeral Mass or a funeral service and go to the graveyard. They are different, and they’re not afraid to say what they want, and I think that’s brilliant.”

Even if they want something which falls under the heading of madness and kitsch – a hip-hop track, say, or The Birdie Song?

“Well, I would try to deter people from doing really mad things,” West says. “But, you know, what’s mad to one family makes perfect sense to another. Take the Monty Python song, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, for instance. If you were to walk past my funeral and you heard that playing, you’d say, ‘that’s terrible’. But maybe to my family, it would be the song which absolutely summed me up. I don’t know. I’ve never had anybody ask for anything really off the wall.”

She grins. “Yet.”

'He wasn't religious - I didn't know what to do instead'

MARIE RICHARDSON’S son, Eoin Tobin, died of a brain tumour on November 18th last, less than two weeks after being diagnosed. He was only 42 years old.

“Of course he didn’t know he was going to die. But he wasn’t religious and he’d always said he wanted to be cremated. I knew he wouldn’t want a religious ceremony, but I didn’t really know what to do instead,” she says.

Marie is not religious either, but is used to funeral services in churches. “Nobody in my family had ever been cremated. So I thought we would just collect him with the hearse and go straight to the crematorium.”

However, the undertakers, Colliers in Bray, explained to the family that Eoin could have a civil funeral service at their premises.

“I didn’t know there was such a thing. We went up and Avril talked us through what would happen.”

Marie explained to West that she couldn’t speak in front of a crowd, so she wrote out something for West to read.

Marie was impressed that West also had lots of ideas because she had been talking to the family. “She knew a lot more about him than I thought she did.”

One of Marie’s other sons also said a few words during the service, and music was picked out from Eoin’s collection. “He was very fond of The Beatles so they had a Beatles song, and Christy Moore.”

Marie though it would be just family attending, and maybe a few friends. “But the room was packed. People were actually standing outside. And it was beautiful, really and truly. It gave us time to say goodbye to Eoin – and it gave everybody time to speak to us as well.”

Marie says she knows that some people didn’t go because there wasn’t a church service.

Also, some people attended because they wanted to see what was happening.

However, she says that friends of her other three sons said afterwards that they didn’t know a service like this was possible either – but that it was definitely something they would like.