Stand-up comedians do this too; they'll know that a particular joke "won't work" or throw in one that will. It's a give and take scenario; when an audience is 'with you', the sympathetic exchange of energy and enjoyment is nothing short of magical.
The same dynamics apply between the person leading a funeral service and the mourners. The mood or tone they set at the beginning is crucial; with less than an hour to conduct the service, and usually more like 20 minutes in a crematorium, there is precious little time to build a rapport, but equally, sufficient time to lose one.
As a professional attending the service, we get to see all this first hand, and also get to see the good, the bad and the rather unfortunate approaches taken.
We'll say right now that the vast majority of clergy and celebrants we have seen in action are good, and some are really great. For us, the best are those who recognise two key factors:
- a funeral should celebrate a life
- a funeral is for the family and friends, not just for the church
Most church funerals now veer towards the celebration of life, interweaving religious elements with a more human, informal approach. Toni recently heard a Roman Catholic priest who was exceptionally good at this. From the start, he focussed on the life of the deceased, not their demise. His eulogy was thoughtful, unusual and perfectly balanced with the more formal elements of the service.
Needless to say, when the vicar knows the deceased personally, the service takes on a whole different feel. Here too they remember a person, not a list of attributes written by the family. Our heart always goes out to the clergy who start the service with the words "I didn't know (xxx) personally, but the family tell me…" We often find, in this situation, the best services are those where the clergy help friends and family do the tributes, or read poems, rather than do it all themselves.
We all know that funeral services are never going to be easy. However, one priest we saw started the entire service with the words "I know this is going to be tough, really tough." He then proceeded to ensure it was, constantly addressing the family in the front row with a serious stare. Needless to say, the poor relations soon broke down into tears, and we watched as a wave of emotion travelled down the rows of mourners like a tsunami of grief. It was a big church packed to the rafters, and by the end there wasn't a dry eye in the house.
Toni and I were singing together that day, and I must confess I found it tough to resist that welling up of emotion inside me that mass grief induces. Only when Toni and I got outside afterwards did I notice the red marks on her hands where she had been digging her nails in to keep her composure.
Now we're not saying an outpouring of grief is bad, far from it. However, I very much doubt that particular funeral service gave anyone any consolation or solace, or sent the family home with renewed strength to carry on without their loved one.
And it all started with those opening words, uttered barely 35 minutes before the last mourner sniffed their way out into bright sunshine that they hardly noticed.
Some may say that celebrants have an easier task; think again! The very fact that there is no formal structure to their service also means they need to create one afresh each time. One of the best we saw had just a handful of attendees at the funeral, which we know as singers is far harder work than a large group. By setting a joyful, upbeat tone from the start, in line with the family's wishes, she created a service that was inclusive and personal, celebratory and sincere.
A Humanist celebrant Toni saw at our local crematorium delivered a wonderful funeral based on the power of nature to heal and restore. It was perhaps a more sombre affair than one might suspect, but it also gave tremendous dignity to the occasion without ever being mawkish or over-sentimental. Toni was also thrilled that the deceased had loved opera, and singing such heart-felt music in tribute felt both right and proper.
We know it's hard when planning a funeral to have time to pick the right personality to lead, but it can make a considerable difference. So, give your clergy or celebrant as much information and indication of what you'd like as possible, including the mood of the service, special readings, poems and of course, music. Let us know too, and we'll suggest music to fit the occasion, sung by our funeral singers.