Here is Maggy’s article, Ashes to Ashes, which has won the Folio ‘Eddie’ award in the ‘Essays and Criticism’ category 2023. It was published in the March/April edition of Unity Magazine 2023
When people ask me how I can dare do stand-up comedy, on the grounds that it must be a terrifying thing regularly to risk humiliation in front of a crowd of people, I always say that it’s nothing, nothing, nothing, like as frightening as taking a funeral.
For a start, nobody’s going to cry if you get their name wrong at a comedy gig; nobody’s going to have a fight with the ex-wife/current wife/unexpected gay lover over who sits where; nobody’s going to give a heartfelt eulogy lasting 20 minutes in a 25-minute crematorium slot so you’re in danger of over-running on time. That one is a cardinal sin for funeral ministers as it’s deeply disrespectful to the next group of mourners. Nobody’s going to set fire to the curtains with an ill-placed candle; nobody’s going to jump into the grave with the coffin; and, as a general rule, nobody’s actually dead.
All of the above have happened to me in the last twenty years as a minister. In addition, I’ve worn pink fairy wings to facilitate a pink angel funeral where the deceased’s daughter sprayed the crematorium with so much aromatherapy that I had to stay behind to apologize to the staff, the clergy and mourners attending the next two services. Worse, I’ve been groped by the deceased’s husband and asked not to allow the coffin to be burnt until I had personally checked inside it to make sure that the chief mourner’s late brother truly was dead.
For that one, I went downstairs to the cremator area after the service and made the request (you have to do what the family ask when they are that afraid). The crematorium worker in charge looked at me long and hard and said, ‘firstly, it’s illegal to open a coffin once it’s sealed, secondly, I don’t have a crowbar and thirdly, he’s been screwed into an airtight box for three hours. If he wasn’t dead before he went in, he is now.’
My bishop taught me a wonderful phrase: ‘there are lies and there are bandages for the soul.’ I told the lady that I had checked as she asked and her brother was definitely dead.
Another problem with being a priest is that you have to attend funerals of your own friends which are facilitated by others who may not have taken any time to get to know the deceased. Apart from trying not to critique their work, which is extremely bad form, particularly when you are meant to be focusing on celebrating a loved-one’s life and mourning their death, but hey, I’m human. I’ve only heckled out loud once; when the minister kept calling my late friend’s even later husband ‘Brian,’ when his name had been ‘Barry.’ Afterwards, most of the other mourners avoided me, as did the vicar, because the British psyche is still wired in the ‘politeness at all costs!’ mentality with follow-on complaints only when it’s safe to make them.
For future reference, please note that if a British person says ‘that was brave’ to you, it really means ‘that was rude, exhibitionist or a dismal failure.’
I wouldn’t have done it had I not, at the age of seventeen, had to sit through my grandmother’s funeral hearing her called ‘Margaret’ when she was ‘Margery’ with no one saying a word, during or after. That wasn’t the worst thing about Grandma’s funeral – the gravedigger had been told it was a burial of ashes so we got to the cemetery in pouring rain to find we had nowhere to bury her.
I remember the funeral director, crying after that debacle. No one had said anything but he was deeply ashamed. ‘It’s all right,’ I bandaged his soul. ‘Grandma wouldn’t have minded. Grandma would have understood.’
‘That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me,’ he said.
Grandma would have murdered him.
I do think it’s important to embrace humor at a funeral. Telling the deceased’s favourite joke or a lovingly funny story about their life lifts the service for everyone. Possibly you do have to draw the line at processing to Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust but I have known Bat Out of Hell elicit roars of approval! After all, the job of the minister or ‘celebrant’ as we are now called is to make a funeral as bearable as possible. I believe that the facilitator should also appear to be invisible; the oil that makes the event flow elegantly, not the star of the proceedings.
Nowadays, we call the funeral a ‘celebration’ of the departed’s life. That’s important, appropriate and sometimes even magnificent; it’s certainly all that humanist funerals can do as no belief that there’s any future for the departed means that the soul itself is never addressed or guided onwards.
Okay, I think this article was going pretty well up until now … but this next bit may weird you out. My apologies, but there you go. The whole tenet of a humanist funeral is that there is no afterlife which, if it turns out there is a mislaid soul hanging around, can be a bit awkward – and I’ve never yet come across a celebrant training school where this is addressed.
The original idea behind a funeral was to ensure that the dead person did not become earthbound. In this modern, secular world, people don’t generally think much about souls and what happens to them when the body dies (apart from TV programs about ghost hunters and psychics).
But I’ve worked as a hospice chaplain and as a journalist in war zones and when you do either, you start to realize that some folks simply don’t leave this mortal plane when their body surrenders to death. As in the movie Ghost they can miss the light that comes to fetch them. This may be for all sorts of reasons; perhaps, they don’t realize that they are dead or they are concerned about loved ones. Generally, whatever you may think of the words of a religious funeral service, there will be a phrase such as the well-known ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust,’ that alerts the departed soul and sends it onwards. That – to me – is the priest’s primary job: to ensure that the next docking stage (as it were) is achieved.
How can you tell if a soul hasn’t moved on? Often you can’t but there are prayers you can say and visualizations you can do as a precaution – including a wonderful meditation called The Chapel of Liberation that I will happily email to anyone who wants it. And sometimes, you just know.
When people scoff at this idea, I tell them about the Blue Suede Shoes man.
I’m not a psychic so this one was pretty weird for me too.
Gary died two weeks after his mother. He had a heart attack while asleep so his daughter, Judy, took comfort that he hadn’t suffered but it was a deeply sad time for the family. Judy questioned me long and hard about life after death and whether her Dad would be reunited with his Mum and I did my best to answer.
Gary had been a huge Elvis Presley fan and his coffin featured the best rendition a florist could make of a pair of blue suede shoes. They were more extraordinary than realistic but it was a lovely idea and certainly eye-catching.
While I was reading the eulogy, I somewhat reluctantly became aware of a susurration of energy by the coffin. It seemed to form into the image of a man staring at the blue flowers. ‘You’re imagining things,’ I told myself but the problem with being a vicar is that you can’t not assume that there is the possibility of a soul present. Better you make a complete fool of yourself than you miss a lost one.
I announced the hymn and, while we were singing, sent a mental query over to the presence. I felt a pulse of energy move towards me and ‘heard’ the man say, ‘you can see me? Why can’t people see me? What’s going on?’
‘Are you Gary?’
‘I’m afraid you died. This is your funeral.’
‘Oh! I thought it was my mother’s.’
Then, his whole beingness swelled in concern and he said, ‘Judy!’ and he moved over to where his daughter and her family were standing.
I went down to the cremators after the ceremony – I often do that anyway as a possibly strange mark of respect. Even if you aren’t burying them, there’s still a sanctity of being there for the final committal and I can’t tell you how loving and gentle the downstairs staff are with their charges. I worked at several crematoria in London as part of my seminary training and I never met an operator who wasn’t an angel of love. ‘There you go, Sunshine,’ John at Hendon Crematorium used say to everybody he met in a box. ‘Don’t fret; it doesn’t hurt a bit, I promise.’
I sensed that Gary was there and we figuratively held hands while his body burnt. He stood beside me and said, ‘It doesn’thurt does it!’
I went home wondering if I had finally flipped but the next day, Judy phoned.
‘Maggy, please tell me: was my Dad at the funeral?’ she said.
‘Yes, I believe he was,’ I answered. She gave a big sigh and told me that, after the wake, she had gone back to his house alone. As she opened the front door, Gary’s juke box turned itself on and played the Elvis record of ‘Judy,’ the song after which he had named his only daughter.