How To Write Words For A Funeral As An Epic Story


Once upon a time …

Peter Billingham Funeral Celebrant - How To Write Words For A Funeral As An Epic Story

A good story captivates your heart and mind.

Stories can inspire you, encourage you, make you laugh, and make you cry. Yet, some stories can do much more than entertain you. Stories can help you profoundly understand at a deep level what is happening in your life. Sometimes even in the lives of those you love also.

Some stories can help to make sense of a life when everything happening in life is senseless.

Like when someone we love dies.

Can writing the words for a funeral as an epic story help in any way?

What if there were certain types of stories we could tell when planning what to say when speaking at a funeral, that could do that?

What if a particular shape of a story when we hear it, though it doesn't take the pain of loss away, helps us see through it, and around it. Though our heart is breaking, there is something in that story helps start to deal with the suffering of grief?

I'm certain there are those kinds of stories. They are the shape of epic stories that have been told for centuries. 

Let me tell you a story from my life.

My Granny, Rose, cooked chips in beef dripping fat. Crunchy, golden brown, and tasty, but not the healthiest of food! Hugging me, she softy smelled of 4711 Eau de Cologne. Life started out difficult for her and my grandad Harry. They lived during the economic depression of the 1930s in "back to back" houses of inner-city Birmingham. A blue brick yard, measuring about 8-foot square, was between them and the neighbours. For this new married couple, daily life was a hard grind. They didn't have an indoor toilet or bathroom. Truth is, they didn't have much of anything. They worked hard for long hours, Rose was a seamstress, Harry was walking the pavements at dawn each day as a postman. They had my dad, Sid. He was their only child. Sid grew up during the war years, did his National Service, met a woman, my mom, and got married. Harry and Rose were so happy when they became grandparents. Eventually, they moved to a better part of the city.

Harry died.

Then their only son died.

How could the only child they have die so young when he had two small children of his own?

The years would pass, Rose living out a well-earned retirement with trips out to the seaside on coaches. She had many days pottering in their long garden, growing plants and watching the grandchildren become adults.

I can recall many happy memories of an oil painting by numbers. Then doing jigsaws puzzles. Even helping Granny stick Green Shield Stamps in a book ready to buy a Christmas present for me. The cheeky sip of a cup of tea with a tot of Teachers Whisky added.

It is a story that is "beautiful and surprising and deep." It may not seem an epic story to you, but it's a beautiful story, an epic redemptive story to me nonetheless. There are some parts of that story I will never understand. Their story is my story and I live because of them.

We will all end up as stories.

There is so much more of the story of Harry and Rose to tell. I wish I could tell you, but I can't. I don't know those stories, and that makes me sad. Those stories were never spoken and now lost forever. I would like to know what happened when Harry met Rose? What was it about her that made him fall in love? What was the music that they liked to dance to? Did they dance? Was he romantic, or conventional? Was she coy and shy or bold and flirty - this would have been the roaring twenties of course!

Writing the words for a funeral as an epic story.

I wish I could tell you those stories. I can find the facts about their lives. Things like the date they married, who their parents were, what jobs they had. These days genealogy sites like Ancestry can make the search for those facts easier. But Harry and Rose are not the facts about their lives. They are people with an epic story to tell about who they were, not only what they did.

We will all end up as stories. Harry and Rose's story is now in your life too. Though you didn't know them, you know something of them - even if it's only that Rose cooked her chips in beef dripping fat!

Beautiful and epic stories like these are sometimes the words spoken at funerals.

But not always.

Often the words at funerals are cliches, or templated paragraphs with "(Enter Name Here)" filling up the time. That should never be the case. Each life is unique, each life is extraordinary, and each life is a story worth telling.

Why is it then that often many words spoken at funerals are full of facts and not full of the stories of people? It could be the time and effort it takes to research and write those unique words. It could be that those stories were never told. The first is sad, the second is sadder still. I've learned that some families don't tell the stories of their lives. Please, don't let your family be one of them. The day will come when someone will want to say some words at a funeral for someone you love. It needs to be rich and vibrant with the stories of their lives. Not dry and dusty with biographical facts and worn-out cliches.

If you are reading this blog post then you are a story being written. Who is the author of your story? Are you writing the story, or is the story writing you? What is the story of your life? Is it an epic story that will be told one day? Does the story of your life have a shape? The answer to those questions helps me as a funeral celebrant write eulogies that not only connect with the minds of those listening but deep within their hearts too. Let me explain why.

The Shape of Epic Stories

Writer Kurt Vonnegut pens quirky and complex books. When asked which of his writing he thought was his best, he always cites his Masters Thesis in 1940 for the University of Chicago. It was his, "prettiest" of work. Vonnegut believed stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper. There is a wonderful, funny and enlightening video on YouTube where he explains this idea.

Kurt Vonnegut suggests the basic structure of all stories come down to eight story shapes. This infographic explains them all. But, it is the "Man In A Hole" and "Redemptive" epic story shapes that interest me when I am writing the words for a funeral.

The "Man In A Hole" story, Vonnegut says, need not be about a man or a hole. It is a story of someone who gets into trouble and gets out of it again. The story has a happy-sad-happy trajectory. The highest box office takings are "Man In A Hole" shape movie stories.

Another story arc that resonates with us is the Redemptive Story. This is where the story starts off bad then ends good. We can resonate with these story shapes because we can feel it is the story of our lives too. What we may never have considered, for example, was that it is the shape of our parents or grandparents life story also. These are the epic stories we are looking to write at funerals. By epic, I mean wherein the story has themes of heroism, overcoming odds stacked against them, persistence and resilience. 

It's not only Vonnegut who describes stories this way. The American Professor of Literature, Joseph Campbell, explains a similar story archetype called the "Hero's Journey." This story involves a hero who goes on an epic adventure, hits a pivotal crisis, wins a victory, and then comes home changed.

Stories like these are worth telling. Stories like these help us understand a clearer picture of a whole life in perspective. Stories like these, I think, start in small ways to help heal the hurt and loss, even when we don't understand why, even when the days we are experiencing after the loss of a loved one don't make sense.

I sometimes can find these epic story shapes when I write the words for a funeral. Why? I go looking for them through the questions I ask when I meet a family. Often the story is hidden between the words they tell me. The story is there all the time, but it is not clear. Listening to what is said and what isn't said helps me discover, understand and then write the words for a eulogy that help a family see the life of their loved one was more than just an accumulation of facts. But the realisation that the story I tell of their family, their grandparent's let's say, is an epic one. A story they hadn't seen or heard before. They had never seen that their story had a shape and hearing that story helps them.

James Wallman cites scientific evidence to prove the power of these stories and the shape of them in his fascinating book, Time And How To Spend It.

He asks the question, "What makes humans different from all other animals?" The answer - story. The science of Narrative Psychology is proving that specific stories make sense of our lives. Rather than thinking that events in our lives are unconnected dots, we can join the dots into stories. These particular kinds of stories help us to understand our lives. Psychologists have found they provide unity, purpose and meaning into our lives. Understanding how our loved one's lives are redemptive stories, hero's journeys, or "Man In A Hole" stories makes a difference.

Life is incredibly complex, there are lots of things going on in our environment and in our lives at all times, and in order to hold onto our experience, we need to make meaning out of it. The way we do that is by structuring our lives into stories.
— Jonathan Adler

Harry and Rose's story has a redemptive arc. Though punctuated with heartbreaking loss, the trajectory of their lives was upwards towards the end of it. So that is why, if I can, when meeting with a family to write the words for a funeral, I am looking for specific shapes of stories. Yes, it takes a lot of time, yes sometimes there is not that shape of a story there. Some funerals speeches I write are heartbreaking because some lives end, and there is no rhyme or reason to why they did. Those are difficult words to write and speak.

I've read Kurt Vonnegut's most famous book - Slaughterhouse-Five. It is a quirky and complex book! Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of the story, is transported away to the planet Tralfamadore. (It's a sort of Sci-Fi story you see) There he asks to read one of their books. Of course, he can't read Tralfamadorian but sees that the symbols of their books are separated by what looks like stars, and thinks that they might be telegrams. They are not. But the creature goes on to explain something unusual about these mini-stories.

"There are no telegrams on Tralfamadore. But you're right: each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message - describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn't any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end…"

That’s what happens when we write words for a funeral as an epic story. Those situations and scenes from a life when brought together produce an image, or they create the shape of an epic story that ends up being something that is "beautiful and surprising and deep."

How To Write Words For A Funeral As An Epic Story - Peter Billingham Funeral Celebrant

Who are you telling your story?

Who are you asking to tell their story?

What is the shape of those stories?

How can your story or the story of your loved one help you make sense of what is happening or has happened?

Remember, we all end up as stories.

Yours, or your loved ones’ is an epic story that one day needs to be told. Can I help you tell it?

Are you at this page because your need someone to write the words for a funeral for someone you love? I hope that it is a long time in the future when you might need me to help your family.

Unfortunately, that may not be the case and that is why you are visiting this page today. I want to help you plan the funeral service or write a eulogy.

Please contact me either by phone on 07788404240 or email me I will do my very best to bring together everything that you need to celebrate the life of a loved one.

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Peter Billingham