Book extract: The Rituals by Rebecca Roberts
We are pleased to publish an extract from Rebecca Roberts‘ new novel The Rituals.
“Gwawr, secular celebrant, single and in her thirties, knows all too well how life can change in an instant. Well practiced at keeping her composure, she keeps on smiling, even though her own life is falling apart behind the scenes. A victim of online sabotage, an unknown perpetrator is trying to destroy Gwawr and her business. Prone to unwise relationships, we follow her as she becomes hopelessly embroiled with an attractive client, thwarts the advances of another, and tries to survive as her business dries up and her money runs out. All while finding a way to acknowledge her own, very private, grief.”
Gwawr Efa Taylor’s Celebrant Notebook
- Claire (1979–2018)
Claire was in her late thirties, just a year older than me. The funeral of a young person is always more difficult. Not in terms of the ritual itself, which is largely the same for everyone – but the grief presents itself differently. The funeral of a grandmother who reached her eighties and the funeral of a woman who didn’t see her fortieth birthday are contrasting experiences. One has the feel of a much-loved novel, read until its pages are dog-eared and yellowed before being placed carefully on a shelf and read no more. The other calls to mind an unfinished novella with the final pages ripped out of its spine, jagged remnants of the paper visible to remind you that there will be no tidy, satisfactory conclusion to this particular story.
Iolo, of Huws and Davies Funeral Directors, phoned to offer Claire’s funeral just as I was heading to St Asaph crematorium to conduct a ceremony for an elderly man named Thomas Littlewood. I asked Iolo to text the details to my mobile, saying that I would contact Claire’s family as soon as I’d concluded my current funeral.
I arrived at the crematorium in plenty of time to welcome those who had come to celebrate Thomas’s life; however, just a handful of people attended, and, significantly, they all referred to him as ‘Mr Littlewood’. His neighbours filled the rear seats of the chapel, the front rows left empty for absent family members.
At the very back of the room sat a handful of young women in pale green tunics – Mr Littlewood’s carers during his final years. There had been nobody available to tell me anything meaningful about his life, so by necessity my eulogy was brief. I was grateful to his friendly, garrulous neighbours for stepping up to the podium and helping me to fill the allocated half an hour.
But even with contributions from Thomas’s acquaintances, the long reading by Herbert Read and playing ‘Gymnopédie no. 3’ in its entirety during the period of reflection, I was acutely, almost painfully, aware of the briefness of the ceremony. There was no danger that the funeral would run longer than scheduled today. For some celebrants this would no doubt be a source of pride, as a celebrant who arrives or finishes late will soon find that offers of work from undertakers become thin on the ground, but I felt bad that the ceremony had lasted barely fifteen minutes and that so few people had come to pay their respects.
I felt that Thomas Littlewood deserved a better eulogy than Mrs Jones from Number 5 talking about his pride in his rose garden, with just a handful of the people paid to care for him listening with little apparent sadness. But there was nobody who had really known Thomas available to help me to capture his life more fully. All I could do was work with the scanty information gleaned from neighbours and funeral directors, and show him the same respect as I did for all my clients, regardless of whether their coffin was carried before hundreds of bowed heads or lowered onto the catafalque unobserved by anyone.
I have conducted funerals to empty rooms. I know this goes against my atheist principles, believing as I do that a person’s soul or essence dies with their flesh. The dead do not hear the words I say over their coffins, yet on several occasions I have delivered eulogies to empty air, with me the only living creature in the chapel. For some inexplicable, illogical reason I feel that everybody deserves a ritual to mark their passing: a small, final, belated act of compassion for those who most likely lived and died alone. Everybody deserves an acknowledgment that they existed and made their mark, and I find personal comfort in adhering to the old rituals that map out the milestones of our lives.
Mr Littlewood’s mourners departed almost as soon as I’d committed his coffin to the dark interior of the catafalque. It was a relief to step through the crematorium’s double doors and out into the cold February sunlight. The hills on either side of the Vale of Clwyd were a welcome wall of verdant freshness after the greyness of the chapel. It was also a relief to escape from the piano version of Queen’s ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’, which played continuously on a loop before and after the ceremony.
After hearing it so many times I’ve come to loathe that particular tune, but I half suspect this is the purpose of playing it over and over and over. It’s easy for those who work with the dead to focus on the fragility of life – but hearing the piano keys tinkling the same song for the hundredth time makes the idea of eternal rest suddenly seem quite appealing.
I took my leave of the funeral director, pocketing my cheque at the same time. Back inside my car, I reached for my mobile. As promised, Iolo had texted me the details of my next client. Maxine Monroe had also phoned several times – thank goodness I’d left my phone on silent inside the car – despite the fact we were scheduled to speak later that evening. Her voicemail acknowledged this with a pettish ‘I suppose we’ll have to talk about it later’. I decided not to return her call, as all the files relating to her wedding tomorrow were laid out on my desk, ready for final last-minute checks. Instead, I phoned my latest client and arranged to visit him at his home.
Before I left the crematorium, I took a moment to glance in the rear-view mirror and smarten myself up. I’ll always perform the quick check for lipstick on my teeth before visiting the bereaved family. Often they’ll be sitting waiting for me, peeking out from behind drawn blinds or curtains to watch for my arrival. The last thing they need to see is me parking the car and then wiping away mascara smudges and fussing over my hair.
One of the most difficult things about grief is the feeling that your life has just ground to a screeching, shuddering halt, and yet the rest of the world continues to turn relentlessly. ‘Stop All the Clocks’ by W. H. Auden sums up this moment of realisation perfectly, and that is why I chose it for Huw’s funeral. Never will I forget the experience of walking out of the hospice without him, turning the key in the ignition and hearing ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’ blasting out of the speakers. I came very close to punching the radio. Driving home that evening, the Christmas lights were garishly bright to my eyes, and I winced at the adverts urging me to buy, celebrate and rejoice with loved ones. It was unbelievably painful to see the world carrying on in the face of my own anguish, still rejoicing in frivolity and frolics, so indifferent to the pain that threatened to rip the heart out of my chest and swallow me whole. When I became a celebrant, I recalled that moment with painful clarity and decided to use it as a lesson to enable me to help others.
Good funeral directors and celebrants understand that time needs to slow down in the face of death; the bereaved need time, or at least the illusion of it, to say goodbye and begin to come to terms with their loss. Although in truth each dead person follows a similar path and schedule, every grieving family should feel as though those caring for them have no other claims on their time. They know that I will be there to listen whenever they need me, to help them take the first steps, at their own pace, through the morass that is grief. I don’t want them ever to feel as alone as I did. That is my mission, both corporate and personal.
Even after six years in the role, I still marvel at how readily people welcome me – a stranger – into their midst and share their memories of the person who has died. They talk to me freely when they are at their most vulnerable and trust me to perform the last ritual for their loved ones.
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