On Friday we held the funeral for my Nan. It was a simple, mostly christian, ceremony held at Luton’s crematorium. It was a lovely service, very fitting for the woman she was, and along with the tears there were many smiles as we celebrated the life of a lovely woman.
My sister and my father both spoke. My sister read a poem, ‘The Rose Still Grows Beyond The Wall‘ by A L Frink, which appears to be a popular poem to be read at funerals. My father talked a little of his memories of my Nan and of things she’d seen and done during her long life. The vicar also spoke. I thought she judged what she said very well. In fact they all did. It was well done, moving and very appropriate.
I was asked if I wanted to say something but I chose not to. One of the reasons for that was that I couldn’t really find the words for what I wanted to say. That may be thought odd as if there is anyone in my family who is practised in public speaking it is me. But speaking at someones funeral is a very different kind of thing to that which I usually do.
As a result I have been thinking a little over last few days about the art of speaking at funerals. How do you use words to sum up the life of an individual? Well of course you don’t, you can only give a flavour or an impression of the person. But you can tell stories about what they meant to you. Confronted with the hard finality of someones mortality you can look for words to tell the story of what their life meant to you, to their family, or to the wider world.
In truth I think funerals are mostly for the living. So speeches and readings at funerals are an attempt to give meaning to the sadness and grief of those present. In the case of a funeral or memorial held because of a tragic event this is even more important.
Aside from my recent personal experience the other reason why I’ve been thinking about the nature of speeches at funerals was watching President Obama’s speech at the memorial to the victims of the Arizona shooting. It is one of the most extraordinary pieces of oratory that I have ever heard.
The event was a personal tragedy, but one that had achieved national significance, and then become an issue of political controversy. What Obama managed to do in his memorial speech was to bring together each of those three elements and then go further. He told simple stories about the victims. Talking about who they were, what their lives had been about, what they meant to their families, and then he looked for and found wider meaning in their stories. In doing so, and then asking his audience to learn lessons from that wider meaning, he managed to transcend the situation and give the Arizona tragedy a place within the story of his nation. But he was not neutral in doing this. His words had a purpose. He wanted to appeal to the better nature of the American people and challenge them to change the way they approach political discourse.
Key to this was Obama’s telling of the story of nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green who died in the shooting;
“Imagine — imagine for a moment, here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that some day she, too, might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council. She saw public service as something exciting and hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted. I want to live up to her expectations.
I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us — we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.”
As an example of political rhetoric, in the best sense, it is superb. I was impressed and moved.
If you haven’t seen it I would recommend you watch it in full:
More on Obama’s memorial speech here:
- Max Atkinson: ‘Obama’s memorial masterpiece in Arizona’
- Neil Stockley: ‘Obama at Tucson’
- Mark Mardell: ‘Obama finds fitting words for Arizona tragedy’
This content was originally posted on my old Strange Thoughts blog.