OPINION: Wakes progress: Time to bring some humour and light to funerals

 St. Michael’s Church and community centre at Flordon

St. Michael’s Church and community centre at Flordon in south Norfolk, a favourite stop Skip’s extensive rounds of rural churches as press reporter and entertainer - Credit: Trevor Allen

Could we be on the cusp of a radical new approach when it comes to bidding a final fond farewell to beloved family and friends?

An unlikely topic for consideration, perhaps, at a time when so many are deeply preoccupied with a cost of living crisis hot on the heels of a global pandemic.

Even so, a Great Yarmouth taxi driver recently hailed a memorable lift for those attending his funeral by composing his own pun-loaded eulogy and urging organisers to make it as cheap a goodbye event as possible.

Mike Smith not only raised laughter at the kind of occasion when anguish and tears usually dominate but also cast a cheerful light on increased cost of dying figures too often shunned as far too embarrassing to mention about such a sensitive gathering.

I have attended funerals where the main address has borne scant relation to generally known achievements and characteristics of the dearly departed. Lost in a lather of well-worn platitudes and dusty Old Testament quotes, such offerings fall lamentably short of the “good send-off” verdict these occasions need.

It’s a final bow in the earthly spotlight and deserves proper attention to personal detail for a worthwhile tribute with amusing anecdotes. warming memories and cheeky references to stand-out habits. Like: “He insisted on fried onions for breakfast every Sunday, wore his demob suit for posh occasions and always answered the phone with ‘Howyer gittin’on?’ in broad Norfolk.”

A dash of humour, especially self-denigration coated in our colourful vernacular, can help take some of the sting out of inevitable pain and sadness without undermining reverence and dignity owed to all present.

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We should accept every gathering as a microcosm of society with variable attitudes, beliefs and ways of coping with high emotions on show. Some mourners are far more at ease at the wake which follows, often featuring reflections and yarns worthy of airing at the “official” ceremony.

I’m not advocating start of a “do-it-yourself funeral” era with cost-cutting advantages and “entertainment” bordering on a useful impression of a holiday camp talent contest. But I do feel In-house clerics along with lay celebrants could do more to best reflect wishes of the family in celebrating a life with its own unique qualities. Lockdowns and Covid restrictions ripped the heart out of countless funerals during the past couple of years to highlight cherished requirements for “a proper goodbye.”

I suspect several more extrovert characters will be inspired by Yarmouth taxi driver Mike Smith to pen their own whimsical eulogies with tongues firmly in cheek as we get back to something like normal. Maybe some could even be filmed and recorded for “live” use with family permission.

Favourite verses and musical items presented by family members of all ages and close colleagues and friends with good stories to share should remain key components of traditional tribute instalments and the social follow-up over refreshments. Sticking to time limits is necessary, of course, especially at the crematorium where “production line” rules apply!

Yes, funerals can be uplifting affairs when words of comfort and sounds of harmony can take on fresh meaning or emphasis. We are reminded of our own mortality in a rum ole world and invited to compare virtues and flaws with those brought sharply into focus over an honest oration or informal pint.

I cut my local press reporting teeth in the early 1960s on attending all manner of funerals in packed parish churches, taking names at the door and collating background details from family members before and after the service. It taught me to take extra care over spelling and punctuation when folk with hyphens and titles filed in to pay respects to a local luminary.

Most helped me out with smartly-printed calling cards but there was usually one medal-bedecked figure strutting past with a “Don’t you know who I am?” expression to test my investigative powers at the village hall get-together after.

I also collected favourite lines from rural events like these on discovering how fertile funerals could prove. It began with an exchange between a couple of village elders. Arthur asked George: “Are you a’gorn’ ter ole Isaac’s fewnrul next week?”

"No,” replied George bluntly; “And I dunt spooz that miserable ole beggar will come ter mine neither!”

Fast forward to a couple of young chaps reflecting after a wedding in the village. “Used to hate weddings …” said one. ”All those old dears poking me in the stomach and cackling 'you’re next!'” His mate smiled and replied: “They stop all that when you do the same to them at funerals!.”

Last word for now in a final letter from a dear old Norfolk friend shortly before his death a couple of years back.

“They say lovely things about people at their funerals. A shame I’m going to miss mine by a few days."