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.

12 thoughts on “Does personalisation get personal enough?

  1. Charles Cowling

    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?

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    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 spaces for improvisation and particularisation – speeches, songs, and so forth.

    Some of these structured, predictable – even unchanging – segments provide opportunities for participants to establish their individual emotions, identities, motives and needs. Others allow the ritual masters of ceremony to convey the specific, idiosyncratic messages which are unique to the occasion in hand.

    Open sections can be short or protracted, can involve several people or one, can be conventional or new, but must be coordinated to ensure they’re a scene in the same play. If they fail as accurate and authentic metaphors, emotional momentum will flag.

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling

    Instinctively I am right with you, Sweetpea. Sui generis every time and why not?

    As Christmas approaches I am reminded how people want theirs to be just the same, as it always has been, so I’ve been interested to explore ideas around a familiar architecture for a funeral (call it a ritual, whatever), however it is interiorly furnished.

    In the end, the people will tell us. While they make their minds up, let us hold in mind those many fabulous and excellent sui generis funerals which, with the collaborative input of fabulous celebrants like you, happen every day – and satisfy everyone present, even people from ritualistic traditions. What do they leave to be desired?

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling

    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 taking part.

    I don’t see this as inferior to the longer established traditions, or something we need to formalise into established liturgy to validate. As far as the people most closely associated with each funeral are concerned, these personalised rituals stand tall all on their own, and need no apology.

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling

    I’m with your drift, Sweetpea. As to the everyman-style funeral, let’s not forget that, though the dead person’s name and deeds may not figure, if s/he was an active member of their faith group then the element of personalisation is supplied by the fact that everyone there knew them, including the officiant. This is most certainly not a could-be-anybody funeral.

    Thank you, Sweetpea. Much here to nourish thought.

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling

    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 be found by those of a like mind. Hence Richard’s reference to the soothing aspects of familiar liturgy and ritual.

    But for those who are not inculcated into these familiar rhythms and patterns, the same approach can be a very alienating experience indeed – the opposite to a ‘personalised’ approach which those people seem most to desire.

    As we have noted elsewhere, private contemplation and meditation are muscles which strengthen with exercise, and the majority of people have not visited that particular gym since ‘heads-down-on-desks-time’ in reception class. How many funerals have we observed where ‘time to contemplate’ leads to a suspicion of leisurely shopping-list-making, planning the re-fit of a bathroom, fidgeting, even yawning.

    Personalisation of a funeral is a lot more than ‘tarting a ritual up’ with a few personal props. It comes from the generosity of the people involved (or not), in their willingness to open up and really think about the process, to be imaginative about the possibilities, and this is achievable with the help of a skilled co-ordinator, be it a family friend, a celebrant, or a member of the clergy.

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Excellent post, Charles, one for the manual.

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling

    Well, yes, how personal is it necessary to get? It’s perfectly reasonable to take the view that to administer personalisation as the remedy for the could-be-anybody funeral could be missing the point.

    I really don’t know what I think. Not that that matters at all, of course. I’m just the guy who lights the blue touchpaper.

    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    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, those meditative moments of golden silence are what makes each funeral unique. Still waters run deep.

    Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling

    Ah, good points. But is it not possible to get really personal within the context of a funeral which relates this death to all deaths? The architecture of a good ceremony ought to enable this?

    Charles Cowling
  11. Charles Cowling
    Rupert Callender

    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.

    Charles Cowling
  12. Charles Cowling

    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 need to do what is expected, and the need to do what is ‘right’ unfortunately stand in the way of true personalisation.

    Only when it becomes completely acceptable to override all expectations will we achieve this. Those who are willing to challenge the boundaries are experiencing something magic. Until then, we can only hope to personalise funerals to a (lesser) extent, which is probably enough for most.

    Charles Cowling