Andy Jackson: On The Lonely Funeral | 17 May 2023
As part of his project ‘The Lonely Funeral’, Andy Jackson explores the role of the poet as both eulogiser and witness.
The Lonely Funeral is an initiative aimed at providing a poem to be read at funerals where the deceased has no family or friends present. On the surface the project addresses grief and loss, but it is also concerned with isolation and loneliness. The project uses poetry to celebrate the lives of people whose death goes almost unnoticed.
Typical funeral eulogies often focus on the facts of a person’s life—birth, childhood, relationships, employment, interests—which are known to some or all in attendance. The person’s character as presented by the eulogist is often accompanied by smiles of recognition—laughter even—as mourners bring that person to mind in their many circumstances. The person’s faults may be alluded to or, more often, glossed over, while talents and strengths are recalled anecdotally. There may be a choice of music based on the departed’s likes. Sometimes there is a poem, but it is often a familiar one: Clare Harner’s ‘Do Not Stand By My Grave And Weep’ or Henry Scott Holland’s ‘Death Is Nothing At All’ are both popular. These poems are impersonal and addressed directly to the mourner in the voice of one who has died. How much more difficult is it for the living to speak to the dead in a genuine voice than for the dead to speak to the living in a generic voice? This is the task of the poet’s eulogy.
A person may have a Lonely Funeral for one of several reasons: they may have no surviving family; or they may have become estranged from what family they do have; or, in the most extreme situations, they may be untraceable, or even unidentifiable. In some cases they may have been unable to remember or communicate their circumstances due to e.g. dementia or other trauma, and so they fall under the care of the State. In such cases, whatever information is available often comes from local Councils, the NHS, or a care home. This lack of detail about the departed person is often a product of their isolation; their personal histories, working lives or interests may be evident only from photographs or possessions. Their relatives may not be known. Their character may be evident only from a short period of interaction with care staff at the end of their lives, at which point they may no longer be who they were in terms of behaviour or temperament. It is as if a veil has been thrown over them, or as though they’ve begun to fade even before their death. How then can a poet paint a picture of the departed that is both true and satisfying? The answer is, of course, that they cannot.
The Lonely Funeral poem draws on what little can be gleaned about the deceased through fragments of character or interest – what is revealed, often to strangers, in the final days or months. Writers of eulogies might despair at a lack of factual detail or authenticity. A poet revels in such uncertainties and can weave something beautiful from even the rudest material. The Lonely Funeral poem is not a photograph but an impressionist painting. It cannot be expected to be a true likeness, but a good poet can capture the spirit of its subject in skilled strokes of the pen and washes of poetic colour.
For more on this project visit: www.lapidusscotland.co.uk/lonely-funeral
Andy Jackson is the author of three poetry collections including The Saints Are Coming (2020). Editor of twelve anthologies including Scotia Extremis (2019) and Whaleback City (2013). Former Makar to the Federation of Writers Scotland. Works with writing-for-wellbeing organisation Lapidus Scotland. Host of Otwituaries blog and Royal Literary Fund Fellow for Stirling University.