THE Revd Christyan James was surprised and “quite chuffed, really” to have been designated Funeral Minister of the Year by the independent body the Good Funeral Guide.
It is something he regards as a vocation and not simply an aspect of his priestly ministry; something into which a childhood brush with death, and long spells in hospital surrounded by dying people, gave him some early and enduring insights. He has a theatrical background, and now, as a priest with permission to officiate in Chichester diocese, teaches voice alongside looking after St Andrew’s, Alfriston, in East Sussex.
He likes the continuity and deep connectedness of family funerals, “where you can be creative and do what they want to do, which is celebrate someone’s life and send them off in the most positive way”. But he has a particular ministry in taking the funerals of homeless people in Brighton, and those who die alone in hospital.
“They are the most moving, because they have no one present to value them at the end of their lives. I find that very upsetting. There are so many people with absolutely no one, which is a mark of our society, I’m afraid.” He does not charge for any of these: “I do it because I’m a priest, and it’s a part of my calling. It’s a privilege to be part of so many people’s journeys in some way, and I feel blessed every day.”
FUNERALS provide the opportunity to connect with people from all kinds of backgrounds and all kinds of life experiences, he says. This year alone, he has taken funerals for several families struggling with the loss of a loved one through suicide: a 15-year-old boy who hanged himself; two brothers, six weeks apart; a mother discovered by her sons; two murdered women.
The very nature of a funeral is spiritual, he says. “There are all these emotions flowing: there’s pain, there’s grief; there’s also joy. But, primarily, you hope there is love. And God is love; so wherever love is, there is God. It doesn’t need to be laced with heavy duty liturgy. And, as a priest, you mustn’t come with any agenda. It’s not about you. It’s about the family, the bereaved.”
He does secular funerals, too, if asked, and always wears his clerical collar — often having to disabuse people of the idea that “because you have this posh bit of plastic round your neck, you’re going to judge them”.
Most people’s journeys are not easy, he says: “We all know life is bittersweet, and that should be represented at the service. Of course, you’ve got the business of loss and pain and the trials of life, but also the sweetness of what someone’s left behind. And from where you’re standing, you can look into the eyes of bereaved people and instantly see whether, and how much, the deceased had enriched these people. It helps you to know where to gauge the funeral.”
HE EMPHASISES that “Honesty is vital. Often, people paint their loved one as a saint, and, when you scratch the surface a little deeper, you get the truth. You can’t paint someone as a saint when they obviously weren’t, because people will look at you and think, ‘You don’t know this person.’”
It helps when those who have died have given some idea of the kind of funeral they would like: “When the family can say ‘This is what dear old Doris would have liked,’ it’s much more personal, and it does make life so much easier for the family.”
He warns against people being too prescriptive, however, and allowing family the chance to be creative in remembering his or her life. “It can be very therapeutic for the family to put something together; it puts them on the right road to recovery,” he says.
Mr James took a funeral recently where the deceased recorded her own eulogy. “A lot of people found that very difficult, to hear her voice so clearly.” And, while he encourages family members who want to write a eulogy to do so, he says: “Often less is more; you just want the essence of someone’s life, not their whole life story.”
Many of those who nominated him spoke of fun. “In everything, there’s humour,” he concludes. “Yes, most of the services I take, I do get them smiling, in spite of the sadness. Because their loved one’s life wasn’t all grief. You learn to be able to push a little bit more, or pull back if necessary, depending on the feel of the people present. You learn to be able to let go a little more, and take risks.”