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Eulogist: a dead-end job
May 9, 2011 | By:

Don't want a religious funeral, but still need a eulogist? Colin Bostock-Smith meets a woman who has made that her new career

{a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/herry/” target=”_new”}Photo by Wolfiewolf{/a}

 

The family was in crisis. Mum was dead. Her four grown-up daughters, each with a different and now absent father, were faced with arranging the funeral. Mum had to be given a decent send-off, but the one thing she had made crystal clear before she went was: no religion! No vicars! No thank you!

The sisters asked the undertaker for his advice. And the undertaker put them on to Trish – Patricia Bentley to be formal – a compact blonde in her mid-fifties, whose job is one of those that you never hear about until you need it. She is a freelance funeral celebrant.

A one-time local government wonk, Trish is now a member of a growing profession that didn’t even exist ten years ago. In 2002, a change in the law made civil funerals possible. Since then, if you don’t want some unknown prelate to bleat platitudes over your beloved’s coffin, yet you do want more than to just put the cadaver out in the recycling bin, you can call on someone like Trish. She does about six funerals a month, usually cremations, mostly in the South-East, for a standard fee of £140.

Perhaps her most important contribution to the whole deal is the writing and delivering of that most difficult of verbal tricks, the eulogy. Trish’s skill is to make the late departed sound super. Even late departeds like Mum.

Trish met the four sisters at the family’s rundown council estate house in the Home Counties. She wore her carefully chosen black suit, and she spoke in the sombre and sincere tones she has really worked on over the years. “Tell me something about Mum,” she urged the sisters. Trish has got ten minutes of eulogy to fill, so she needs input. “What did you love about her?”

Silence from the sisters.

“Something nice about her you’d like me to mention?”

Silent sisterly exchange of looks.

“Something good that she did..?”

Nothing volunteered. Now Trish knew she faced a challenge. As well as stipulating no religion, Mum had left specific instructions about her funeral music. When her coffin was carried into the crematorium she wanted Status Quo and Rocking All Over the World. For the moment when she slid behind the curtain she had requested Blame It on the Boogie, complete with hand gestures. No problem. Trish can fix that. She has fulfilled stranger requests. Duelling Banjos from Deliverance. The Benny Hill Show theme. ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ (the version with the rude word in it). All these she has dutifully provided. No one, she says, has yet asked for Elvis and Return to Sender to speed the coffin on its journey, but when they do, that’s what they’ll get.

Back to our four sisters, all sitting silent on the couch, trying to think of something loveable about their late Mum. And failing. Trish tried a new tack. “Well… what used to get her goat then?”

Now answers flowed like heaven’s mercy. “She didn’t like us rustling crisp packets… she hated us whistling… or humming… or just breathing, really…”

Trish sighed inwardly. Writing a eulogy for a stranger is not usually this tricky. Families generally have fond memories of the departed – or perhaps they are more hypocritical than our four sisters.

“Is there any poetry you’d like me to read for Mum?” There wasn’t.

There often is. Favourites are Do Not Stand By My Grave and Weep, by Mary Frye, All Is Well by Henry Scott Holland – it’s that one about slipping into the next room – and Pam Ayres’ Woodland Burial. Any of these can bring the most cynical mourners to the brink of tears. Not to mention the celebrant. Whatever request is made, no matter how off the wall, Trish takes it seriously. She knows how much what she does can mean to those who mourn. And of course, sometimes it gets to her, too.

“I try not to get emotional,” she says. “But sometimes it’s difficult. I haven’t cried yet, but there have been moments between my reading the eulogy and my pressing the button when I’ve come terribly close.”

Did the sisters get their eulogy? Was there anything good for Trish to say about Mum, as she slid towards eternity while the Jackson Five implored us to blame it on the boogie? Of course there was. Trish is a pro. After much probing she teased out of the four sisters one long-forgotten fond memory of Mum. And around that memory Trish built a ten-minute eulogy that made everyone happy. Apparently, years ago, when Mum sent her four girls off to school on bitterly cold mornings she would first put their coats in the tumble-drier for ten minutes, so they could walk out of the door warm as toast. Ahh…

Trish read her eulogy at Mum’s cremation, and it is said that it brought tears to the eyes of all who heard it. And there were plenty there to hear it, too. Mum’s funeral was packed out – mostly, said the sisters, by people who came to make sure she’d really gone.