A Lie About Humanity

I’ve always thought that people like humanist funerals because they reflect the character of the person at the heart of them, so I was a bit surprised to read this article in The Guardian by the Anglican priest, journalist and broadcaster Giles Fraser.

“One unexpected consequence of the rise of the secular memorial service is that funerals are more full of half truths and evasions. Yes, the atheistic mindset is happy that the lie of God has been eliminated. Everything is more honest now, they say. Death is death. No more dressing it up. But things turn out to be far more complicated – for in the secular funeral this so-called lie about God is commonly replaced by another sort of lie, a lie about humanity. Or, at least, a lie about how good this particular person was. It is, of course, not unreasonable that the oration is designed to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. But this can sometimes lead to a peculiar emotional disconnect with reality. Which is why, in so many secular funerals, we no longer recognise the person being buried.”

In a religious funeral, ‘the eulogy’ is where someone who isn’t a priest or minister is given the opportunity to celebrate the life, goodness and accomplishments of the deceased. The word comes from the Greek and it means ‘to speak well’ so by definition it’s a respectful and positive tribute.

In some of my ceremonies that’s exactly what it is, but in others, it’s quite the opposite. Families fall over themselves to tell me ‘the bad stuff’ about the person they loved, not just because it’s funny, which it often is, but also and much more importantly because they want to honour the reality of the life.

George Ashley Wilkes was a bit of a wild boy. Married four times, twice to the same woman, his spiritual hero was George Best, who famously said, “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered”.

Named after the noble upstanding character played by Leslie Howard in the film ‘Gone with the Wind’, he had more in common with Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler. “Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn” was George’s motto and as his five children told me, ‘dad was infamous: you either loved him or hated him’. 

Born four days after D Day in World War II, George spent a year in the army after school before moving into in the booming new business of television rentals. These were the days when ‘pay per view’ involved putting coins into the back of the TV, so his customers came up with lots of ingenious ways to avoid doing that and if he caught them at it, George would take a pair of pliers to their aerial cable to teach them a lesson they wouldn’t forget.

One of his lifelong interests was running. He and his best mate Rab were members of a running group of the old school called the Hash House Harriers who would meet up with a bag of flour, shake a dod out to make an arrow, shout “on, on!” and head off, leaving arrows of flour in their wake until they ended up at a pub a few miles away. After a few shandies, George loved nothing more than stripping off his clothes and streaking through the pub or climbing up a flagpole, with his tackle on display to all those unlucky enough to be below him. Rab told me that he and George travelled the world with the Harriers, getting barred or arrested pretty much everywhere they went. 

Chatty and opinionated, George was an extrovert. He could be very funny – he was a great one for telling jokes by text – but he could also be a grumpy old bugger, and he was famously mean: if he could figure out a con to save a few pennies, he would. The most important things in his life were money, beer and women – in that order – but as his children told me, he taught them some valuable lessons, and one of the most valuable was not to be tight.

I don’t know if Dane was ever one of George’s clients, but as a kid in Muirhouse, he helped his family watch a lot of free TV by making replica 50 pence pieces out of linoleum. He also discovered how to empty the money box, so it’s quite possible that from time to time the Baxter family found that their aerial cable had been neatly cut in two…

Tall, blonde, blue-eyed and handsome, Dane was a popular boy at the school from which he constantly played truant and he was a good brother to his wee sisters, Marion, Kate and Theresa because he was very brave, and stood up against bullies to protect them. As they told me, Dane never caused any trouble, but if trouble came looking for him, he knew how to handle it. Sociable and popular, he was the kind of person who lit up a room. He had a great sense of humour, and he was always the life and soul of any party.

But Dane wasn’t a saint – he was ‘a character’. His brother-in-law and best friend from the age of five Derek told me Dane was always up to mischief. One of his childhood hobbies was ‘creative recycling’. He was very good at dismantling ‘stray bikes’ respraying and rebuilding them so their original owners wouldn’t recognise them, but they weren’t always very reliable. Theresa told me about the time she was going down the long hill to Cramond Island when the front wheel came off the bike Dane had made for her, and she went right over the handlebars.

Dane was always imaginative and inventive. As an adult, he worked all over the world making and installing undersea pipes for the oil industry. He was an instinctive fixer with a self-taught understanding of technology, and he was often able to repair specialist machinery before the senior engineers could be flown in to fix it, but being Dane, he always had an angle.

Derek told me about the time he asked Dane to come for a beer, only to be told, “No, I think I’m going to get a call from work”. And sure enough, Dane did: a machine had broken down. How did he know that would happen? Dane had the necessary part with him at home, and he also knew he could earn a whole shift’s pay by popping back in for an hour and putting it all back together again…

Full of life, always up for fun, when Dane was diagnosed with lung cancer at the age of 48, he took it in his stride, saying to his oncologist, “There’s nae point in worrying about it. C’est la vie.” To the end, he loved socialising and he continued to make new pals even in the hospice. One of his last visitors there was Derek who made sure I took down Dane’s parting words. “See the one good thing about dying at my age, Derek? I’ll no be like you – auld, ugly, and smellin’ o’ pish!”

Not every family is as open as George or Dane’s and one of the things every celebrant develops an instinct for ‘the elephant in the room’. As I was taught in my training, a celebrant has to be part detective, part journalist, part diplomat. In the meeting, we have to listen carefully to everything that is being said, but after a while we learn to notice what’s not being said as well. A funeral is not a trial, and nobody is obliged to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth but often there are things people prefer not to talk about; alcoholism, drug dependency, family breakdown, mental illness and more.

Shame is a powerful emotion, which is why when celebrants sense that a subject is being avoided, we ask our clients to tell us what it is so we can find ways to talk about it – or not talk about it, as the case may be. The celebrant’s role is not to pass judgement, to editorialise or to give our opinion but to speak on behalf of our clients, and that is why – unlike journalists – we send them our scripts so they can change them. 

As TS Eliot wrote, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality” and there is no doubt that euphemism can be helpful. I’ve lost count of the number of people who liked a drink more than it liked them, who were connoisseurs of exotic tobacco or who, by instinct and temperament were essentially gentlemen of leisure. On the other hand, I can still remember every single ceremony when the family felt able to be open about whatever the problem was, and Tam’s was one of them.

Tam had worked as a cooper all his life, making barrels for whisky. His brother Dick said that Tam didn’t actually like whisky that much, but as he was working in a distillery, he felt it was his duty to drink it. Drinking is an occupational hazard in that line of work, and after a while Tam found he had a bit of a problem. His niece Cara told me that, towards the end of the last century, he’d been told if he had another drink it’d kill him so he decided to dry out, and she took him down to Castle Craig, a sanatorium near Peebles. Tam did well there although the family were a bit surprised when he asked them to come to meet his therapist.

As they discovered, he had good reason. 

In the group sessions, the patients had been told to talk about themselves, so Tam shared about his family. He told everyone that his big brother was a deep-sea diver, his sister ran an airport and his brother-in-law owned a construction company. He told them that one of his nieces flew Boeing 747s, another one was a chemist and another one still was a merchant banker. Tam’s therapist didn’t believe a word of it and put a note on his file saying, “delusions of grandeur”. When Tam discovered this, he asked the family to visit him so he could prove to her – and to his fellow inmates – that he wasn’t round the twist!

Thanks to his time at Castle Craig, Tam stopped drinking, and it was a source of great pride to him that for the last thirteen years of his life he was able to say, “I haven’t had a drink this century!” 

It’s true though, as Giles Fraser also said in his article, that, ‘In contrast to the religious funeral, the secular memorial service faces one massive problem. What if the deceased didn’t merit the effusive praise of the recently appointed biographer? What if they had done little of note? Or indeed, even more problematically, what if they had been a total shit throughout their lives and no one has a good word to say about them?’

Most of the ceremonies I conduct are for people who have done “little of note”. Often they’re the most moving of all.

Kim died of cancer when she was just 48 years old. A sporty kid, she’d been a keen footballer in her teens so when she became a mother to Ryan and Darrell, she played with them too. As they got older and better, she went to all of their games, wherever and whenever they were. Never the centre of attention, Kim had a brilliant sense of humour, and she was famous for her one-liners. No matter how late she went to bed, she was always up before everyone else and for breakfast she made her husband Gordon and the boys anything they fancied. She wasn’t a great one for going out, but she loved to have a laugh with her sons’ friends when they came to the house: for their part, Ryan and Darrell’s friends loved that they could say anything in front of Kim and she was totally unphased.

In the last years of her life, Kim worked as a home help, and she did all sorts of extra things for the people she was caring for that she wasn’t meant to do; she was just that kind of person. In fact, when I asked the family if she had any faults, they sat for a while without saying anything, and all they could think of was that “sometimes she could be too nice.” 

I remember that funeral. Mortonhall crematorium in Edinburgh holds more than three hundred people and there were at least another hundred standing outside in the rain, listening to the ceremony over the speakers. 

Lives like Kim’s don’t get obituaries in newspapers. Very few of my clients would have considered themselves part of ‘the great and the good’ but some of them, in their unassuming way, were very good indeed and they all deserve to be remembered.

That said, not everyone lives an entirely virtuous life and from time to time, we do get asked to conduct the funeral of someone who’s crossed to the dark side.

A member of the Scottish karate team who’d raced motorbikes at Silverstone, Philip was a big strong handsome lad; he worked on the doors of several of the city’s nightclubs and he was respected by his peers as one of the hardest men in Edinburgh. That was how he met Julie, who became his partner and the mother of two of his children. She was nine years younger than Philip, but they quickly fell in love and moved in together. What Philip forgot to tell Julie was that although he’d left his wife, he was still technically married, so it was all a bit embarrassing when one day Mima turned up at their door. It was a bigger surprise still for Julie to learn that Philip also had a daughter by another former partner, but they got over it, and went on to have two kids of their own.

Julie told me that Philip was quick and clever, but he’d had an unhappy childhood which he didn’t like talking about. He took everything in, but he got easily bored. Like a lot of people at the time, he used to do a bit of speed, but in the late 1970’s heroin came to Edinburgh in a big way, and he began using.

Heroin is a drug you use to take away pain, to put your life on hold, and numb everything. Philip did it partly because he was looking for something more out of life, but also partly to escape his difficult past. He soon realised that although heroin took his problems away, it became a problem in itself, so he tried to fight it.

With some other users, he set up a branch of Narcotics Anonymous at St Paul and St George’s church on York Place, but he never managed to get clean, and in the end, he chose the drugs rather than the family. He and Julie split up, his life spiralled out of control, and he was sent to prison for murder. Life inside wasn’t easy but in some ways it was the saving of him. 

Philip used his 14 years in prison to learn, gaining a diploma in Social Policy and Criminology, a certificate in Social Sciences, an HNC in 3D Computing and another one in Legal Services. He put those legal studies to good use. He led – and won – a campaign for prisoners’ wages, getting his picture in the paper. Had he admitted his crime he could have left prison much earlier, but he refused to do so, and it was only because he was terminally ill that the authorities gave him early release, 5 months before he died. 

His son Phil moved in to look after him and he told me that his father was more of a mate than a dad. They played Medal of Honour together; Philip was good at war games and with the 3D design skills he’d learned in prison, he built virtual worlds for Phil on his PC. As well as his children who loved him, Philip had two young cousins, Yvonne and Julie who described him as charming and witty. He also had three nephews and a niece who said they wished they’d been able to get to know him better.

Philip made up an eclectic playlist for his ceremony. The opening track was Sweet Dreams by the criminally underrated blues guitarist Roy Buchanan who mysteriously died in a jail cell in Virginia in 1988.  We left whistling to the ever-popular Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, by Monty Python’s Flying Circus but for the ‘Time for Reflection’, Philip chose a version of ‘My Way‘ that I’ve never heard before or since at a funeral. It was the one recorded by the former Sex Pistols bassist, heroin addict and alleged murderer, Sid Vicious, and as it played, the congregation solemnly head-banged in the pews. 

As I walked towards my car, a heavily built shaven-headed man stopped me. My heart sank, but then he said, “I was Philip’s probation officer. He knew he’d done bad things, but he regretted them, and he used his time inside to make amends as best he could. You got him right – thank you.”

Perhaps ‘eulogy’ is the wrong word for what we do, but even in the worst of lives there is some good. Being honest about the life that was lived with all its faults and failures is not “a lie about humanity”. On the contrary: it’s the best way to honour the person we wish to remember.

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