Life lessons on dealing with death
How could I possibly imagine that my days as a police officer would prepare me so well for later life as an independent funeral celebrant? As a 19 year old ‘Bobby’ on the beat I had to visit parents to tell them their son, who was my age, had just died in a car accident.
I knew this would be the first of many, such occasions and that my job was to make the most unbearable days for others of as bearable as I could. People might not remember you personally but they will remember your kindness. I knew I couldn’t take on all their grief but also that I must never stop caring.
I am delighted to say that after a wonderfully rewarding 30 year policing career, including a few months temporarily at the dizzy heights of Assistant Chief Constable, I retired – still caring.
A celebrant! Are you serious?
I got on really well with my mother-in-law Mary who, for many years, kept a treasured poem on her pin-board. She was not religious and when she died the family chose to have a humanist celebrant lead her funeral service. However there was a reference to ‘Heaven’ in the poem so, as a humanist, the celebrant felt unable to read it. It was suggested that I read the poem and I was really pleased to be able to offer that gesture for Mary.
After retiring from the police I started volunteering as a caseworker for SSAFA (the Armed Forces Charity). I visit veterans and their dependents who may have mental health problems, housing issues, financial difficulties and often practical problems that need sorting out. Sometimes we help with people who haven’t got enough money for a funeral.
It started dawning on me that I might become a funeral celebrant, after all I had a lifetime’s experience of helping people at the low points in their lives. I also understood the importance of ceremonial occasions and had been public speaking for years. I was really nervous about telling people about my decision because it seemed so strange and different.
Who do you think you are?
What I believe matters less than the beliefs and values of the families I help. The funeral service should be true to their values and beliefs and to those of the person who has died. That is why I am happy to include some religion (strictly speaking a humanist service wouldn’t include any) or to have no religion at all if that’s what the family want.
My services celebrating a life are not about keeping a ‘stiff upper lip’. Our grief and tears are only natural, they show how much we loved someone and how much they will be missed. But funeral services should also be uplifting and truly celebrate the person’s life; how they touched the lives of others; the best of their values; the love they gave and the rich legacy they leave in wonderful stories and memories.
So I chose to become an independent celebrant. My aim is that the funeral service should bring the family and friends some comfort on the day and also in the years ahead. Every word and piece of music should aim to reflect the essence of the person and be meaningful for family and friends.
My life experience and background have brought me here. From the age of 19 I’ve encountered life and death situations most people thankfully never ever will. But I’m very well grounded, creative and open to other perspectives.
Last month I led several beautiful funeral services with:
- Viking & Pagan prayers (music from Pink Floyd)
- The Lord’s Prayer (music from Mike and The Mechanics)
- A Terry Pratchett reading instead of a prayer (music from Gilbert & Sullivan)
- Jehova’s Witness prayers – (music from Elvis)
What have I learned?
I have learned three really important things.
Firstly that the enormous responsibility of putting together and leading a lovely ceremony is incredibly rewarding. Secondly I have learned to market myself for the skills and experience gained over a lifetime of difficult work in the police and as a charity volunteer caseworker. Thirdly I am learning to make the most of social media and technology and I’ve created my own website www.dorsetcelebrant.com which is definitely worth visiting!
Dorset Celebrant Martin Hiles can be contacted via his website www.dorsetcelebrant.com