It's a Guy Thing

The Final Countdown

Epic Eulogies 

If my own experiences are anything to go by funerals are usually pretty sombre occasions. I suspect the only exceptions to this general rule are when genocidal maniacs such as Hitler, Genghis Khan, and Pol Pot kick the bucket. 

Culture shapes what rituals are followed and how mourners should behave, with religion very often presiding over the occasion. Although I fervently hope that my ultimate smoking is some way in the distant future, I nonetheless have an uneasiness with final curtain calls. Not with death itself, but the manner in which the subsequent ceremony is often facilitated. I am not religious, principally due to the fact that I will never grasp why a deity would sanction the death of a child under any circumstances. 

When I attend a place of worship to bid farewell, I therefore feel something of a fraud and obliged to collaborate in a tradition I don’t endorse. I can’t sing either, so I usually mouth the words to hymns that have absolutely no relevance to my view of the world. At this juncture I may sound like some heathen and perhaps I should immediately reflect on the potential embarrassment I may encounter at the Pearly Gates, or more likely somewhere a hell of a lot warmer (I was brought up in the Christian faith, learning the Lord’s prayer by rote). Funerals just frustrate me or did until Conrad resonated with my view on life as he departed his. I met him briefly at a family dinner and I was aware of his reputation. Larger than life, a keen amateur painter, and a player. Waiting to be seated in a Cardiff restaurant the day before we met, I struck up a conversation with a local man who mentioned that he was from Maesteg, a small town around thirty miles due north. Conrad had lived there! The stranger smiled and reinforced the reach of his rascal rating. Anyway, back to the funeral. 

Conducted by a celebrant, the ceremony chimed with my opinion of how my life should be remembered in death. A celebration of Conrad’s life without the utterance of any gods, religion, or damnation, with a terrific twist – Conrad had written his own eulogy! I had heard of instances where practical jokes had been played – for instance when Irishman Shay Bradley surprised the mourners at his graveside with an hilarious commentary. As his coffin was lowered a pre-recorded message belted out, “Hello? Hello. Hello? Let me out!” accompanied by knocking against the lid. This legend of a man then continued, “Where the fuck am I? Let me out, it’s fucking dark in here. Is that the priest I can hear? This is Shay. I’m in the box. No, in fucking front of you. I’m dead.” He concluded by singing, “Hello again, hello. Hello, I just called to say goodbye.” Proud Welshman 

Conrad went one better. His own homage to his packed life was funny, self-deprecating, and reassuringly honest. Picking out various family members, he acknowledged his failings. Everyone in the room knew of his shenanigans and he knew this. I would like to think that this brought closure to many things that had perhaps not been fully aired in public whilst he was alive. Smiling broadly, I was fundamentally a spectator seated behind his nearest and dearest, wishing I had got to know this cad before it was too late. 

As I left the memorial hall, I vowed to write my own eulogy when I feel the time is right. Indeed, as an author I have written about many of my life experiences and shortcomings, so I guess the final task is to edit it down as no one living needs to listen to an epic monologue. I also sought to better understand how my own funeral will feel and sound. Turning to celebrant Maxine Mitchell Edgar, founder of Bronze Ash Funeral Directors I asked her a series of questions, and as I framed them, I realised they would more than likely be asked by those mortals who remained. I want to be like Conrad and be fully prepared for my final swan song! 

Image by Conrad

What can I expect from my celebrant? Maxine smiled broadly and surprised me with a short rendition of the 1972 Johnny Nash classic, “There Are More Questions Than Answers.” She explained, “People are so intrigued with the role of a celebrant and have an interest in death and what options are available.” Since she was also a minister and a scholar, undertaking a master’s degree in death, religion, and culture, I immediately sensed that I was in safe hands as I sought to negotiate my own learning. But first I needed to appreciate a little history and understand the nuances of her gift, as she put it. “The church has had a monopoly on births, deaths and marriages.” I sensed from this statement that my view of my own end of the show show wasn’t that extreme and perhaps better represented an antidote to the religious regime. Although comparatively new to the shores of the UK, the celebrant route can be traced back to the former colony of Australia, where many a pronounced villain had been deported between 1788 and 1868. Further proof that I was uncivilised. Maxine continued, “Celebrants can be both non-religious and religious. Humanists, on the other hand, believe that life stops at death.” She further explained that a humanist event would not engage with any reference to religious symbolism, an afterlife or reincarnation. I was somewhat taken aback that even the Robbie Williams track, “Angels,” would be frowned upon at this type of event. I liked this song, but not as much as, “Let Me Entertain You.” My mind was made up – it would be a secular celebrant for me. Surprisingly, Maxine offered up some contradictory data. “Choice of ceremony is driven by the individual or their families and although many initially prefer a non-religious event, once the process is explained around eighty-five percent eventually go for some religious content.” She added, “For example ‘Morning Has Broken’ by Cat Stevens, “Footprints in The Sand” – a Christian gospel song – and the Lord’s Prayer at the end.” I was warming to this pick and mix approach, meaning that I could have Robbie Williams if I wanted to! Or better still, “The Ace of Spades” by Motorhead. 

I want to be like Conrad. Can I determine exactly how I want my ceremony to be conducted and can I use swear words? Maxine paused, and immediately I thought my favourite word – the most versatile of descriptors, both a verb and a noun, an expression of elation and disappointment, a call to action and a decision to sit it out – would be alien to even the most progressive of celebrants. I need not have worried. Thank fuck I could insist on “fuck” being utilised as it inevitably should, since literally it would be the last time, I would actually meet the rigours of the statement often directed at me – “Fuck off!” More importantly, Maxine clarified the principal position of celebrants who seek to reflect the life of the deceased. “I conducted the ceremony of an avid book lover. Their favourite books were brought along and handed out at the end.” This was so Conrad that I couldn’t help but let out a belly laugh that my quirky dealer of death picked up on – “Laughter is important!” I immediately thought back to the numerous traditional funerals I had attended and the tears and depression that reigned supreme. She continued, “It’s theatre. Funerals are drama. A performance! Captivating the audience with a piece of that person so that they leave knowing more about what they were about.” Maxine reinforced this jolly atmosphere by proudly stating that she often wore a pink coat and would always seek to engage in some audience participation, such as the time she wrote the eulogy for a particular charismatic character. Shouting out, “Was she bolshie?” The onlookers yelled, “Yes!” “Was she loud?” “Yes!” came the emphatic reply. “Was she stubborn?” I will leave you to imagine the rest. 

Are there any dos and don’ts at such a bash? In a word, no. “Go with the flow. We are in a changing world.” This simple statement resonated strongly with me. It’s all about the person who’s leaving and not some antiquated formula, beholden to a set of principles that I don’t honour while alive, so why would I employ them at death? 

What’s the most unusual thing that you have been asked to do? Maxine reflected for a moment and said, “Nothing really.” That gave me a hint of something that merited further investigation. I was right to push on. “The deceased had been left penniless after his large inheritance had been allegedly nicked by his sister. The family had asked that during the ceremony I call her out as a thief.” With bated breath my legal head immediately focused upon defamation of character. In keeping with her natural style of warmth and pragmatism Maxine confidently covered this tricky request with a few specially selected passages, delivering the motion in a diplomatic and non-judgemental manner. This lady is class! A touching yet incredibly healing process sees Maxine conclude some events by encouraging those in attendance to touch the coffin and make their peace. 

Can I livestream mine on YouTube and Facebook? The opportunity to have friends ‘like’ my ending is available and since COVID-19 this platform has become almost mainstream with the fluctuating restrictions imposed on funerals and travel, especially from other countries. Yet there was the ‘Helsinki event,’ demonstrating the potentially damaging consequences. Heading the pallbearers as they carried the coffin, with John 11, one of the Epistles, written by Saint John the Beloved (New Testament) echoing, “I am the resurrection and the life…” (OK, I had to Google that one) Maxine heard an enraged voice shout, “Go on then!” At which point a nephew gave his uncle a left hook, the coffin fell to the ground and all hell was let loose as a massive fight erupted. Regaining her composure Maxine simply asked for substitutes and calmy completed the ceremony, with the relatives in Finland keeping a dignified silence and deciding not to share the online experience. This got me thinking. With a review of my colourful life my funeral had the real prospect of going viral! Fucking brilliant! On a more poignant note, Maxine recalled the many occasions when she has asked family members to join her before she commits the coffin to make up. Often this simple gesture undoes years of angst, suspicion, and hatred. 

How much do you charge? Generally speaking, for a thirty to forty-five-minute ceremony, including the planning phase, editing music and, if requested, writing the eulogy the price is around £240. I have often spent more on following Notts County, so this represents a bargain! 

As I am giving you some publicity can we agree a discount? My elegant interviewee would not be drawn on this issue! 

Any, pardon the pun, final words from you? “I love my role. A wonderful job, enhancing the deceased in their death and bringing peace is fantastic.” Remembering a truly harrowing death – the suicide of a twenty-eight-year-old man – Maxine’s face radiated the most beautiful of images as she recounted the nine days of celebration which followed, including dancing and food. Within this special moment, she was able to talk about suicide awareness and mental health, issues that have plagued many during the torturous pandemic that has gripped us all. She concluded our time together with a series of touching words for everyone – religious, non-religious and those in between – “We leave a funeral different. The coffin allows us to look at our own mortality. We are all on borrowed time and we should be the best we can in the moment.” That about wraps it up for me. Not as in mumification, or an elaborate shroud, but in a manner that is befitting my view of life and death. I want people to remember the real me – warts and all! And be warned – in the words of Stan Laurel, “If anyone at my funeral has a long face, I’ll never speak to him again.” My final tribute must be to Conrad – my benchmark of bereavement since his wake was just as good as his funeral! He had arranged for his collection of personal paintings to be distributed amongst his friends and family. There were loads of them. Evidence that he either couldn’t shift them, or he is destined to be the Welsh Vincent van Gogh, who received global prominence well after he hung up his brushes for the last time. To be fair, Conrad’s creative flair will always be in the eye of the beholder, with some of his work benefiting from the partial or complete closing of one’s eyes. But what do I know about art? As I sipped my pint, having had the best of times, Conrad’s son-in-law Lee made a short announcement and beckoned me over. I have to say that my gift was the most exotic and beat boats in the estuary any day. The only mystery is, who the fuck is she and can I have her mobile number please? Rest in pandemonium Conrad! 

© Ian Kirke 2021 / @ianjkirke