Celebrant interview: How to get through the day of the funeral

Get through funeral day

‘No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.’ – C S Lewis

Interview with David Linaker, a former Anglican priest who, having moved outside of the formal faith environment, offers families a powerful partnership in helping them to say their goodbyes in their way, with or without religious content.

David is here to talk to us about how to get through the day of the funeral emotionally. He passes on his experience and knowledge as a long-serving Celebrant.

So take it away David: 

In nearly 53 years of attending or leading funeral services, I’ve experienced and witnessed the spectrum of human emotion.

The death of someone close to us is bound to elicit all sorts of emotional responses, but the day of the funeral itself is always different. Emotions are exaggerated in ways that often surprise and wrong-foot us. 

To help us to think about how to handle a day that tests us like very few others, let’s explore the professional help available and the ways in which we can make sure that our emotions don’t overwhelm us.

Grief and Fear

C S Lewis was spot on in the opening lines of his book ‘A Grief Observed’; later made into the film ‘Shadowlands’, when he made the connection between grief and fear. Fear is one of our primal responses – a product of our evolution – and is intended to protect us from danger. Fear is a part of what is sometimes called our ‘Fight or Flight’ response; do we stand our ground and fight the lion, or run away? In our daily lives most of our fears, such as fear of spiders or heights, are pretty irrational, but on the day of a funeral there are many quite legitimate fears.

Firstly, there is the loss itself which may evoke feelings of desolation, loneliness, anger at abandonment or fear that we won’t be able to cope with the weight of the moment.

Then there is the formality of the occasion itself. Most people arriving at a church or crematorium, or even a woodland burial ground, will find themselves in an environment with which they are unfamiliar. They may also be in the company of people they find difficult. It might be possible to avoid a challenging sibling at a family wedding, but funerals force us together in relatively confined spaces in a way that can cause huge emotional tension.

I would always advise anyone attending a funeral, but especially the nearest and dearest, to trust three key people, or groups of people.  The first two are the Funeral Director and the Celebrant; these are hugely experienced professionals and you are already likely to have built a relationship with them. The third, and often overlooked, group is the crematorium or venue staff. They are very familiar with what is happening and are used to handling questions and providing support. Lean on these people! They are there to help you get through.

So can we control our emotions?

I believe that the answer to this question is ‘YES”!

I don’t mean to say that we should have to maintain a ‘stiff upper lip’ and suppress emotions that are natural at such a difficult time, but I do believe that if we are clear what our emotions are and how they are generated, then we can make sure that they remain a helpful servant to us, rather than a dictatorial master.

Emotions work from the inside out. 

Often we are taught that our emotions are the result of some external circumstance. For instance, someone jumps in front of me in the queue and I feel anger at their actions. Actually, their action and my anger are only connected by one thing: my thoughts. I can choose to be angry, or I might think that they are obviously in a hurry for some important reason, and choose to let them go ahead of me with a smile.

The emotion is all in the thought. Our emotions are not our masters, they are the servants of our thoughts, so the trick is to learn how to deal with our thoughts so that they produce helpful emotions that will get us through such a difficult day in good shape.

Thoughts are like a passing breeze

The breeze blows and picks up a leaf; depending on how we are feeling at the time, we might watch the leaf and see it float past. We might notice its colours or even what kind of tree it has fallen from, or we might just think ‘Oh, there’s a leaf’, and barely notice it at all. Thoughts are just like that. Hundreds of them float past in any one minute; we pay attention to some, and ignore others.

This is where I like to use a Soap Opera or TV drama analogy: if the thought seems like it might play well in a soap or TV drama to increase the emotion or the tension, then it’s best avoided. If the thought generates calm and a sense of peace, then it’s worth hanging onto.

Thoughts to let drift past:

  • What others think of us
  • Judgements about others
  • Worrying that you won’t cope
  • Spiralling and unproductive anxiety

Thoughts to hang onto:

  • Love for yourself and others
  • Hope in the future
  • Inspiration from the life of deceased and kindness of others
  • Gratitude for all you shared with the deceased
  • Kindness towards yourself and others

Pulling it all together

Here are some things to remember:

  • Feeling emotional on the day is totally natural.  Grief is like fear; be kind to yourself
  • Trust the professionals around you and lean on them
  • Your emotions are the product of your thoughts; your thoughts are not your master. Let unhelpful ones drift away on the wind.
  • Breathe!


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