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My First Funeral

On Tuesday last week a long held dream of mine came true when I buried someone in the ground. You might think my dream morbid but not I, for I am Sanderson “Lover of Death” Jones. I would even pick a fight with you about our use of the word ‘morbid’ and ask why does it mean both ‘Pertaining to death’ and ‘Grisly and ghoulish’? I think there’s nothing ghoulish about death at all – it’s the most normal thing in the world (you’ll find out soon enough).

“Life is an invitation to live!”
“Life is an invitation to live!”

Why this love of the inevitable? Because it’s been a driving force in my life. I started a career in stand up after the enervating contemplation of my own death forced me into following my dreams.

My first stand up show was called ‘Another Heartbreaking But Ultimately Life Affirming Show About Death’ and as I wrote it I knew I wanted to ‘do’ funerals, where death and life sit laughing-cheek by crying-jowl.

It was the achievement of a long held goal but, above all, a massive honour to be asked to bury Richard Grice, the father of my friend (and Sunday Assembly board member) Julie Simon.

The Sunday before the funeral I sat round a table with her brothers and sisters as they swapped hilarious tales and told me all his favourite catchphrases. “Get your head down, get stuck in, and get a result” was a classic as was “Life is an invitation to live”.

After being given this picture of the man, whom I had met occasionally at Sunday Assembly, I wrote my bits, trying hard to tread the line between grief and fun. Trying hard to do justice to the jagged pain while bringing to life the man himself.

Then, suddenly, it was the day itself: 100 people walk into a building in various states of distress. 100 people walk into a building hurting in a myriad of ways. 100 people walked into a building wanting something to happen that would commemorate Richard, honour their grief and maybe do something to ease the pain.

I was slightly terrified but my experience at Sunday Assembly and 8 years of stand up got me through and, I am reliably informed, I discharged my commission honourably. It was one of the most meaningful experiences of my career. I didn’t knock over the coffin, call the deceased the wrong name and turned up with ages to spare. Even more than giving me the satisfaction of a good job well done, the funeral made me realise two things:

1. We need to build Sunday Assembly so that we can help people in trying times.

Congregational communities have always been there for people when they are at their weakest. Churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and all the rest come into their own at moments of existential crisis, pain and transition. For too long there has not been an alternative to these providers of community and care.

At Sunday Assembly we NEED to build the systems and processes in order to help people in the most trying and most important times of their lives. In this case I felt that we could do something really tangible, which we couldn’t do when we experienced the recent death of an organiser in the US. We need to be there for deaths and injuries, as well as naming ceremonies and marriages.

So many of the traditional ceremonies do not do justice to the people who are involved, people who deserve something that speaks to their lives and those that are witnessing the rite of passage. In the UK the BHA has done great things around non-religious ceremonies and Sunday Assembly should pick up that baton because incredible non-religious events is our thing.

2. We need to build Sunday Assembly so that we can make people’s dreams come true.

As my own dream was coming true and I was achieving my personal goal of celebranting a funeral, I also realised that Sunday Assembly needs to do more to help our Assemblers have lives where their dreams come true. The man who died, Richard, had a heck of a life, full of adventure, misadventure and lots of children who loved him. He was a soldier, a sailor, an adventurer. A father 6 times, thrice a husband. He was a man who had lived.

Our purpose is to help everyone live life as fully as possible because life is short, incredible and incredibly easily wasted.

We are making great strides towards this with a network of communities that are changing lives but we need to do more. We need to help put in the systems and processes people need to get the most out of life, so that when someone is standing over their coffin everyone will think “This woman lived”.

To that end we’re going to start testing a Life Course soon – an 8 week course that should be a start for people to find the lives of their dreams. With regards to funerals and weddings we don’t yet have a clear plan but I will do my best to help those who might need a celebrant.

Thanks to everyone who has been on the journey so far. With each new experience and new experiment we get a little closer to our goals. I hope that your week is full of the life that we are blessed to have and, remember, ‘Life is an invitation to live!’.