This Is Why Authentic Stories Make Words For A Funeral Cherished
What is the story of your life?
Imagine your life as a story, projected large and central on a screen for all to see? Would it be a tale of epic scale? Would you be the hero - if only for one day? A romance of 'Gone With The Wind" passion? Or overcoming challenges the height of a "Die Hard' high rise? Even the story of an "Incredible Journey" to find your way back home?
A life story is not over ... well ... till that life is over.
It's only then when at a funeral, someone has the privilege to tell the whole story end to end. Your life is not a list of facts, so why do most eulogies end up that way? They could be much richer, vibrant, they could be stories. Recognising the narrative arc and character arc of life helps a funeral celebrant write words for a funeral as stories. Let me explain more.
We All End Up As Stories.
Each life is an epic story to tell. There is no such thing as an ordinary life. Each life is extraordinary. Each life is a story that needs telling. That's why I'm grateful for being a funeral celebrant, I get to research, write and tell those stories. Finding meaning in those stories is such a privilege and honour. Because every life is unique and there is an authentic epic story there if you look for it.
"Not one day in anyone's life is an uneventful day, no day without profound meaning, no matter how dull and boring it might seem…" "Because in every day of your life, there are opportunities to perform little kindnesses for others… Each smallest act of kindness—even just words of hope when they are needed reverberates across great distances and spans of time, …"
Someday, someone will get 20 minutes to tell the extraordinary life story of someone you love at a funeral.
That's hard to read, but sadly it is true - that is life and death.
Writing cherished words for a funeral starts as a story, it helps those hearing it in ways psychology understands adds deep meaning and healing. This is often what is needed most on the day of a funeral. That's true also in the weeks and years that follow. It's called narrative psychology.
According to narrative psychology, how we look at scenes and connects the dots of our story helps us to understand who are.
It figures then that in writing the words for a funeral as a story, it might just help us to understand the shape and meaning of their life too? The words of a eulogy can be words of hope that "reverberates across great distances and spans of time" or they can be a lacklustre list of facts. What would you want?
A box of 35mm slides and narrative psychology is helping me understand the story of my life - let me explain.
Snapshots of a Life
Attempting to clear the clutter in my loft, on some wet, quiet day, I thought that I would sort through a large box of 35mm slide carousels that I hadn't opened for decades. Thinking it would be good to scan and bring them to life in a photo book.
Last week that day came.
Before the forgiving era of digital photography, I'd put rolls of 35mm slide film in my camera. When the small green and white Fuji boxes containing the latest 36 slides came through the letterbox, along with them was anticipation. I hoped what I'd seen through the viewfinder was something to display projected onto the wall. That's what you did then. "Come and see my holiday pictures." You would pull out a screen or use the wall, none of this passing mobile phones around.
Unfortunately, I no longer own a slide projector. I had one of those little battery-powered displays allowing me to see these scenes from the past. Pulling slides one by one from the carousel, I saw snapshots of my life one slide at a time. There were hundreds.
I must have had a thing for sunsets. Slide after slide were pinks, reds and oranges. There was no end of slides of night scenes at a funfair. The frozen light trials of waltzers, dodgems illuminating unknown faces. Pictures of waves bursting over rocks here. Then macro shots of frost on sticks, the sunrises diffused in the background, there. Not one "selfie" in sight. Then, mixed in with my "artistic attempts," was a day at the beach when I was a kid. Something I can't remember.
I'm sitting on a donkey called Susan at Blackpool beach. There's my dad with me. Next, I'm in a little motorboat, the tower in the background. I don't remember that day, I wish I did, but those snapshots tell me something about the story of my childhood. Later, I find more photographs of a day trip to the tank museum, again with my dad. These are some of only a few pictures I have with him. He obviously loved to use slide film too.
This is part of the story of my life. Snapshots of a day gone by that recall those scenes that time has erased. It reminds me of the joy he and my mom must have had when I was a boy taking me to the seaside for the day. It's their story that comes to mind in these slides, not mine. It reminds me that the story of my childhood in the years before the chapters of their lives became very challenging, were filled with the pure and simple pleasure of a family trip to the beach. There is more to the story than the memory.
Behind every great story that captures your attention, is something called a narrative arc. Writers will often draw out the shape of the story to get a sense of the tale they are about to tell. A narrative arc provides the structure to the story - a beginning, middle, and end. Gustav Freytag, a German novelist, is credited with the concept of developing the idea of a narrative arc, or Freytag's Pyramid, built around five key elements - Exposition - Rising Action - Climax - Falling Action - Resolution (denouement).
Exposition is how the story starts - resolution or denouement is how it ends. (It's got nothing to do with a certain large woman's rendition of a song!)
Within the more full narrative arc of a story are characters, each one on an individual journey within the path of the overall story. The narrative arc is the story, which could involve many individuals a character arc happens to one person. When I write words for a funeral of someone I don't know, that's what I want to find - the story of that "one life" in the story of a family.
It's that "story within a story" that helps me write words for a funeral that people remember, words that are cherished. People's lives are not a list of Wikipedia biography facts. So often, that is what words are spoken at a funeral. Not the rich and fascinating character arc of a life story. That's the kind of story about how life plays out. How some peoples lives are marked by overcoming an obstacle. Or how they deal with the random hands of cards that life plays them, the highs, the lows, the failures and successes. That is real authentic life. As Julie Beck says, "though perhaps the facts of someone's life, presented end to end, wouldn't much resemble a narrative to the outside observer, the way people choose to tell the stories of their lives, to others … almost always have a narrative arc. It is in telling the story of who they became. That's the story people want to hear, as it's that story that helps understand that person's life.
I am in a unique and privileged position of seeing a life end to end. It is, after all, what eulogies are - good words said about someone at their funeral. A life has ended. We all end up as stories anyway. I get to write and tell that story for someone I don't know - how unique is that? That's why I am grateful for the vocation of being a funeral celebrant.
The challenge is how you bring those points of a long life together in a short story. The length most eulogies at funerals are 15 minutes or less. Some crematoriums allow only a total of 30 mins for the entire service and will endorse a fine if you run over seconds. You get very little time as a funeral celebrant to speak. Every word counts - that's why most services sound like Wikipedia biography facts. To ask the right questions and listen intently to the answers, to find those points of life and write them as a story is challenging and takes time. Honestly, sometimes, the stories are hard to find. Still, patience, asking the best questions in the right way, you find a nugget of gold as the stories reveal themselves.
The stories I find are rich, vibrant and extraordinary. I give them titles and themes -
A Life of Eloquent Sufficiency
The Greatest Riches of All
The Gentleman Within
What If A Home Is Not A Building But A Person
And many more …
Writing words for a funeral as a story helps families in ways that they would not have known until they hear that story at the funeral. It doesn't take away the pain of loss. It doesn't all help make sense of a senseless situation, but it does help, and that's what matters.
Looking through those slides and seeing my parents so happy that day in Blackpool, not knowing what their future would hold, made me understand the courage, tenacity and sheer guts they had later in life. Life didn't follow a typical story for them, the good guy riding off into the sunset with his love by his side. There wasn't a clear ending - but they took their life and made the best of it without knowing what was going to happen next.
That next is me. My life. My story now. I will be forever grateful for the story of their lives.
Thinking on the snapshots of those days of their story, helps me understand mine.
How can I help you write the stories of those you love?
Are you looking for someone to write the words for a eulogy? Do you need help shaping the words that you already have? If you are local where I work as a funeral celebrant in Bromsgrove and Redditch, perhaps I can help in writing and leading a service for you?
Please contact me today.
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. Please contact me either by phone on 07788404240 or email me email@example.com 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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