One day I was standing at the front of a crematorium doing the best job I could of taking a funeral service. Choosing my words carefully, and trying to relate to sad and bewildered people as compassionately as I could, an unbidden and unwanted thought flashed across my mind. ‘You can’t do this without cliché’.
Undesired as it was, the thought was helpful to me. It is an extremely well-known fact that we all die. There are only so many things you can say about it; only so many ways to put condolences into words, or to express the hope of eternal life and peace.
I came to the view that the Irish have got it right with their, ‘I am sorry for your trouble’ and the clear community expectations of what will happen as soon as a member of the family dies. Death is not the moment for creativity, wit or doing anything out of the ordinary. Death is the ultimate leveler, the ultimate cliché. The wise culture recognises, accepts and honours this.
And yet, so many years on from that moment, a few years after the death of my own father and after, just a week ago, the death of my father-in-law, I feel less certain. I am aware of the tension between the cliché of death with its centripetal pull towards the common, the ordinary and the even solidarity of all mortals, and the centrifugal tug of the uniqueness of an individual life, the vividness and complexity of a particular personality. I am aware of both death as the triumph of the ordinary, and memory as the intuition that something supremely singular has been lost.
When I spoke at my father’s funeral, I came to realise in a new, deep and personal way the importance of his early years in forming the shape of his life. My vision of heaven for him was the reuniting with his long dead parents, his recently deceased elder brother and his other brother – the one who died when he was 19 and my Dad was 15: the one who could never be properly grieved as he was simply lost in action, and whose death cast a shadow over my Dad’s life and therefore, indirectly, over mine and that of my siblings.
As I reflect now on my father-in-law, ahead of preaching at his funeral, it is as different in detail as anyone could imagine, but once again I am compelled to realise that forces and people from the distant past have had the more powerful effect in shaping a life and adding vivid and unique character to personhood.
It is a cliché, of course, to say that everyone is different. But that cliché can be the first step in exploring the deep, vivid, uniqueness of someone we have known and loved for many years.
It is a cliché, too, to recognise that death comes to us all. But what I have come to realise is that while any two deaths are, at a fundamental level, the same, no two griefs are ever the same.
Caught as I am in the liminal space between death and funeral, I want to declaim as vehemently as I can the thought that there might be something as banal as a ‘grief process’ to pass through. Certainly a deep loss sets us off on a kind of journey – but even ‘journey’ is too slight and cheapened a word.
Death is not a cliché, it is the beginning of a scary adventure in which we discover how we can live without someone, and in which we discover again and in new ways, the person who, though now gone, is more vividly and diversely present in our life than ever before.
No death is a cliché, it is a beginning. And a beginning, as I want to define it right now, is something which cannot be a cliché, because it is, in the richest, deepest, most nuanced sense we can imagine, new.