There’s a well-known saying in showbiz that you are only as good as your last performance.
It applies well beyond show business. It’s the same for me as a celebrant of the most important moments in people’s lives – the birth of their children, their marriages and the celebration of that terminal event, death.
I’ve done hundreds of funerals and no one is like any other. We don’t need to go into detail on that, because The Hoopla editors have asked me to say what it’s like being inside the celebration of a life that’s ended and that’s what I’ll try to do.
The simple answer to that question is, it’s terrible.
No matter that death is predictable or may have even been desired by the deceased and those who care for them. And every death is different.
On the demise, out come all the mixed feelings – the pathologies and regrets as well as the gratitude and often, relief, which people need permission to admit.
But, as a celebrant, the most important thing to remember is what an old priest once told me ages ago: the funeral is for the living, not the dead. They are with God, I believe. Whatever they’ve done is understood and forgiven. It’s those carrying the pain of the loss that I focus on.
In that regard, I’ve got things to do. I follow the practice I was taught long ago: 3, 3 and 3.
After meeting the family during the dying or soon after the deceased has passed, I engage with the family three days after the death and together we prepare the funeral. Then I visit three weeks after the funeral and again three months later.
I’ve added another 3. I stay in touch for the three years after the funeral because in my experience that’s how long the grieving goes on. It takes that long to absorb what’s gone on in the death of a close family member, partner, friend.
The key thing for a celebrant is to focus on in any memorial is the living who are grieving.
That means that however close the celebrant may be to the deceased or his or her family or friends, one thing the celebrant should never do at the funeral is lose their composure.
I’ve done it four times – at the funerals of my parents, a loved uncle and my first girlfriend who suicided. Fortunately, there were others present to pick up the pieces and keep the momentum of the ceremony moving.
It’s not about me, but them. And what a celebrant has to do is give space to the grieving to encompass all they feel. The hope, despair and desire in that moment. Celebrants create the space for the best in people to be named and cherished.
Then comes the rest. From my personal experience, there’s no change out of two years from the death event of a significant other – however anticipated and prepared for – to reaching some sort of equanimity. Anger and frustration about things you can’t change, sorrow and depression that inevitably follow when you don’t get the result you want, are the ordinary currency of these two years.
What sustains me during my grief?
A conviction that there was so much to the one I loved that I can’t believe that’s all there is. If that’s so, all that I knew and loved was a futile protest against life’s absurdity.
I don’t accept that as a satisfactory account of human experience. But that’s an act of faith and hope and I believe the good that we knew is a foretaste and promise of more to come.
*Father Michael Kelly entered the Jesuits in 1971. After studies in philosophy, theology and social sciences, he worked as a journalist in Australia and Asia for various publications, religious and secular. He was ordained in 1984 and co-founded Albert Street Productions, a TV production company, in 1986. In 1989, he founded Jesuit Publications, publishers of Eureka Street, Australian Catholics and Madonna magazines. He is now the executive director of UCAnews.com – Asia’s Catholic news source.