ACTRESS, singer, performer of reminiscence shows for people living in care homes, Patricia Webster is a woman of many parts.
Which is why she is not surprised she has become a funeral celebrant, a trained MC if you will, to guide the grieving through the most difficult day of their lives.
“I had a sense that I wanted to be involved in the funeral business for a long time, I think it combines a lot of the things that are me,” she says.
“As an actress and singer there’s an element of ceremony and presentation and all of those things have a theatrical element.”
She was also drawn to the idea of telling people’s life stories the: ‘amazing sense of a world full of all these different people’.
Patricia, who lives in Bournemouth, sees her job as helping those left behind to celebrate the life of their loved one. Celebrants guide funerals, talking to the bereaved, teasing the dead person’s life story from them, forming an order of service, ensuring, perhaps, that space is given for favourite or poignant music to be played and assisting those who want to contribute to the proceedings.
“I’ve often had grandchildren who want to read a poem or a tribute and I can help guide that or, if people find they are too overcome to read what they have written, I can gently take over that for them,” she says.
Celebrants are part of a growing movement of trained funeral and memorial leaders which started during the 1970s in Australia.
They cater for all religions and none, somewhere between the full religious service offered by a priest, and the resolutely secular affairs, with no consideration of an afterlife, offered by the Humanist movement.
“People may want a sense of God to be included in their service but not want a full religious service,” says Patricia.
“We are entirely focused on what is right for them.”
They train to lead different types of funerals; including those for suicides, children, stillborn babies, where there is a family rift and even if there is almost no one left who knew the deceased.
“In situations like those you can research the person’s background, the times they lived in, so you can refer to the things that happened in history while they were alive,” she says.
“I’ve spent years listening to life stories and completely get the importance of the individuality of these services.”
But what about rifts and warring step-families?
“You try to find a way in which you can acknowledge things,” says Patricia.
The same, she says, would apply if the deceased had committed a crime.
“The general rule-of-thumb is that you should be authentic but find a way of bringing out some element of humanity within the situation. It’s a balance, not a cover-up job.”
Services have finite times and celebrants help families stick to their allotted slot.
“It’s my job to provide structure otherwise they’ll be all over the place,” she says.
She also helps the bereaved prepare for what can be the most distressing moment of all: the committal.
“Most people don’t want the coffin lowered or the curtains drawn because it’s the most horrible point in the service, so I remind them they don’t have to.”
Many people like to be able to touch the coffin and say goodbye as they leave a chapel.
“It’s part of the process of letting go,” she says.
“At that moment you do recognise you are saying goodbye to the physical body but the memory of them will vibrate far beyond.”
Although the job can be terribly sad: “Some people do cry all the way through services,” it is her job to help find the best things to say and to remember.
“Sometimes a funny or affectionate story that allows people to laugh can enormously lighten the atmosphere,” she says.
She has a library of poems; Dylan Thomas’s call for us to ‘rage against the dying of the light’ is especially popular, as are the songs ‘Over the Rainbow’ and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’.
But, because she offers a personal service, the funerals can be highly individual.
“I had one where the gentleman had worked in the meat industry and was asked to read a poem about sausages,” she remembers.
“In another service I was asked to play the music for Wimbledon because the person had been so keen on watching tennis”
In the end, she says, her job is to ensure that whatever type of funeral a family has, they end up with: “A good one.”