David Baddiel’s definition of a humanist funeral

I’ve often heard myself saying, “the problem with death is that we don’t like to talk about it.” That may be true for most of us, but it’s not true for comedians.

The comedian Cariad Lloyd was inspired to create Griefcast, her award-winning podcast, because she knew that comedians were the ideal people to talk about death. “It’s not that easy to talk about,” she says, “but it does help if you’ve chosen a career designed to hide your true feelings about anything emotional.”

Comedy gives licence to say the unsayable, and the best comedians are great truth tellers. I was listening to the radio in the car this morning when I heard a couple of them talking about death, and I liked what they said so much that when I got home, I felt compelled to listen to the programme again.

Isn’t BBC Sounds a wonderful thing?

The Radio 4 ‘My Dream Dinner Party’ series is an unusual format to say the least. It allows the host to plunder the BBC archives to put together an imaginary dinner party. The only ground rule is that the guests have to be dead, and today’s episode put some unlikely characters cheek by jowl over the Heinz Tomato Soup.

Alongside US comedienne Joan Rivers, David Baddiel’s guests were footballing hero George Best, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist John Updike, feminist icon Simone de Beauvoir, and British comedy legends, Morecambe and Wise, and it didn’t take them long to work their way to the ultimate question – how do we deal with the death of the people we love? The answer – you won’t be surprised to learn – is to make jokes about it.

“That’s how people with humour get through life,” says Joan Rivers. “That’s so terrible, I’ll make a joke about it! I made jokes all the way through my mother’s funeral because that’s how I get through things.”

“At my mother’s funeral”, David Baddiel said, “I had all these people come up and tell me what a wonderful woman she was and I remember thinking, ‘you didn’t really know her…’ and saying she was a wonderful woman erases her even further than her own death has. In the end what I decided to do was a whole comedy show about my mother and particularly about those parts of her life that most people wouldn’t talk about, especially at her funeral, because the dead, despite what we might think, are not angels, and if you want to actually present a memory of someone you need to talk about them in a 360 degree way that takes in all their flaws and their madnesses and their craziness and that’s how you have a sense of them as still being alive.”

And that’s what it’s all about,” says Rivers.

“Yeah…” replies Baddiel. And as he said, he did write a show, and you can read about it here.

What David Baddiel said about the ‘360 degree way’ resonates with me because that’s exactly what I and my Celebrate People colleagues try to do when we conduct a funeral. We want to get a multi-faceted portrait, taken from all the angles.

Your loved one may have been your mother, but they may also have been someone’s school friend or colleague; their team mate, their climbing partner or even their carer. That’s why – when we meet a family to talk about a ceremony – as well as listening to what they tell us themselves, we’re also listening for clues about who else we can talk to to get another angle. The best ceremonies are rich with detail and full of voices.

I conducted a funeral yesterday where three people spoke and I included memories from half a dozen more, alongside those of the immediate family. Including stories that come from outside the immediate family does something else too. It makes the people who’ve shared their stories feel that they’ve done something useful; that they’ve contributed in a positive way.

That’s not something that used to happen often, but it does now, and it should.

It’s only when you’ve presented the truth of the life that people feel it’s been truly honoured. And that’s what a humanist funeral is about.

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