A Thousand Goodbyes by Ruth Graham – The Surprising Life of a Funeral Celebrant

A Thousand Goodbyes by Ruth Graham

There are some jobs and occupations that mean seeing a lot of life, and being a funeral celebrant is one of those jobs. Meeting the families and friends of those who have recently suffered a loss can be daunting, but in Ruth’s hands it becomes vivid and even life affirming. Having endured mixed receptions as a stand up comedian, she has encountered tough audiences, unhelpful comments and startling circumstances before; in this book at least people are usually willing to listen, but there is still a large element of the unknown. I have taken a couple of funerals myself, my Vicar husband has taken hundreds, and yes, I have been that family a few times. Ruth manages to take this most basic of urges, to say goodbye, and makes something of it, when the family is fulsome or reticent, providing few details about the deceased beyond the fact that “she liked ironing”. This account is lively and not full of sadness; instead it reflects on the things that can go wrong in a time when the writer is ‘on show’, the human, mechanical and other slip ups that could ruin an event, when the group of people present often do not comment but merely look shocked. Like all books which reflect on a person’s profession there will be points of recognition for common experiences, and sometimes a wince of shared pain. It is not only a solo recitation of varied experiences as Ruth includes short stories by other celebrants of their significant memories, and they are certainly different! This is a memorable book – in the right sense- and I was very interested to read and review it.

One of the many interesting things about this book is to discover that funeral celebrants like Ruth are not necessarily humanists who will not allow any hint of religion in the service. Her abiding rule is that it is for the family to decide what goes into the service. Her job is to take what she is told, even if it proves to be fictional as on one occasion, and make it into a positive experience if at all possible. It does make life difficult when the family or friends have little material to offer, or want to offer tributes that simply take up too much time in a crematorium where each service has its slot which must not be exceeded. There are touching stories of where a family has few material resources to pay for the farewell, as well as those who have the money but not the will to actually spend it. There are funny stories, entertaining tales of the simple logistics of going into family homes where a range of human and pet behaviours come to the fore. It is not a depressing read, if only because of Ruth’s willingness to tell a story, even if it is against herself.

Ruth is keen to point out that having an “ordinary” life is not the point. “In fact, the more funerals I do, the more staggering stories of bravery, evil, hardship, generosity and love, I see. Lives full of drama that you couldn’t make up. It’s the stuff of best sellers!”. For a book with this subject it is a positive book, an admission that while doing her best, and working hard, things may not go quite to plan.

The events of the last months are tackled in the final section. Admitting the difficulty of taking a funeral with a tiny number of people, Ruth points out that she says to families that it is not a show, but an opportunity to mark a loss together without “the eyes of others upon them”. Her final encouragement is “to live your life to the full…and we will find the words.” This is a book that is full of finding the words to describe the most difficult of days, but with a lot of dedication.