Does personalisation get personal enough?

Charles Cowling

 

I sat down yesterday afternoon to write a review of Powell and Family, a brand new funeral home in Droitwich. In a supersaturated funeral industry, here’s one to watch. There’s a Darwinian clearout of superfluous undertakers already under way, and evolution is likely to favour the Powells. Check out their website.

As I thought of things to write I scanned the comments coming in about this post concerning the desirability of ritual in funeral ceremonies. Here’s the joy of blogging. However hard you think a thing through you can never in a lifetime predict the responses or arrive at the sorts of insights generated by the GFG’s Usual Suspects. They were on coruscating form. We are incredibly lucky to have them.

The Powells attach great value to personalisation and, unusually in their business, they see the need to work collaboratively not only with their clients but also with celebrants. Bravo.

Personalisation is a much-bandied word in Funeralworld. It is the reaction against one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter funerals, especially funerals conducted according to the rite of the Church of England. Is this the fault of the rite? I don’t know. I suspect that if you throw a good ritual over a dead person it will mould itself to the contours of that person’s unique personality. It fails when it knows next to nothing of the dead person and does away with the sensuous element which so appealed to Jenni Russell. A fullblooded ritual can fall on disbelieving ears and still do a pretty good job.

So I would suggest that the problem isn’t one-size-fits-all funerals, it is could-be-anybody funerals. And while the move towards personalisation unquestionably addresses this problem it may not go far enough. 

Personalisation offers descriptors of a person – football fan, nature lover, motorcyclist, whatever. But however typical, these descriptors tend to be outward manifestations of identity, emblematic but also generic; they tell us no more than that the dead person was ‘one of them’. A funeral which has merely been accessorised in this way is likely to fall short of being personal.

A person’s identity isn’t definable by a single person. You are not who you think you are, you are everything that other people think you are. You don’t have a single identity, you have multiple, complex, contradictory identities. So a really personal funeral is not one in which the identity of the dead person is cleverly encapsulated by a single biographising eulogiser but, instead, one in which their identity is refracted through the many people who knew them.

If that is so, then a personal funeral is an ensemble performance. It is one where many people answer a duty to get out of their seats and bear witness in their own way to what the dead person meant to them and will go on meaning to them. Proper commemoration is likely to result not in a single version of a person but a rather marvellous kaleidoscope of versions, some contradictory, all valid.

In practical terms this is very difficult to achieve without the whole shooting match lurching off into embarrassment, sentimentality, irrelevance, rambling, mumbling, tedium, egotism, euphemism, trivialisation, bluffness or tonguetiedness.

Usual Suspects, over to you.

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12 Comments on "Does personalisation get personal enough?"

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Kingfisher
Guest

Sweetpea, I think that was what I was asking in my opening paragraph, rather than stating it as fact.

How many priests (or high Church officials) would admit to making a service ‘non-personalised’ then? Perhaps that is the real question we should be asking?

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Sweetpea, I think you make great points, clearly from considerable experience. Charles, does familiar architecture – placing the right symbolic acts within the framework of secular funerals – involve formalising the entire framework of the ceremony? For example, the Mass is split into the Introductory Rites (greeting, blessing); Penitential Rite; Liturgy of the Word; Liturgy of the Eucharist (the big one), and the concluding blessing. By sequencing and scripting events, you eliminate potential disruption, unpredictability, confusion and accident. But sequencing need not deny individuality. Secular ceremony already alternates between highly specific acts – toasts, salutes, pledges, oaths – with open… Read more »
sweetpea
Guest
Yes, Charles, I’d absolutely agree; a funeral within a collective faith group is a wonderful thing for those who have the same understanding, and in that context they are not anonymous at all. The ‘smallness of us all’ was really an observation rather than any criticism. In my professional life, however, I’m interested in creating meaningful rituals with/for people who don’t have any allegiance to a particular tradition, or who’ve had previous experience of a tradition which has been compromised for some reason. This is when the personalisation of a funeral ritual seems to make the most sense to those… Read more »
sweetpea
Guest
Kingfisher – ‘Every vicar, priest and celebrant ‘personalises’ a ceremony’? No, I don’t think everyone does, certainly not at the conservatively-religious end anway. That isn’t what many of my devout and religiously informed acquaintances seem to want. In those cases, the everyman element and the smallness of us all in the overall scheme of things seems to be uppermost in people’s minds, with the larger church body and an all powerful but loving deity a far more important aspect of the overall experience. We are just small cogs in a large wheel. And there is undoubtedly a great comfort to… Read more »
gloria mundi
Guest

Excellent post, Charles, one for the manual.

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Charles, your stand-out sentence for me is: ‘I suspect that if you throw a good ritual over a dead person it will mould itself to the contours of that person’s unique personality’. I question whether real personalisation is biography by one or several eulogisers. First, I believe individuality of both deceased and narrator is overrated in the context of death ceremonial. Second, it means too much paying attention. The soothing, familiar rythms of prescribed liturgy and ritual give one the option to drift off into private contemplation of the deceased, warts and all. Whatever music and spoken words are chosen,… Read more »
Rupert Callender
Guest

While we aim to put personalisation in every ceremony, We try also to present the person as ‘everyman’. Too much of the individual and we lose the context of our shared humanity. In death we merge.

Kingfisher
Guest
Everyone likes to think that a funeral is personalised. Every Funeral Director offers ‘the personal touch’ in their adverts. Every vicar, priest and celebrant ‘personalises’ a ceremony. Don’t they? To my mind, the Humanists get the closest to the real personalisation. Is that because they are furthest from religion? But even they only once in a while will produce something verging on really different. Any form of ceremony which has the restrictions of time and shape (as almost all funerals do) immediately makes complete personalisation very difficult. Ritual, which seems to be important to most, the need to conform, the… Read more »