Commemorating individuals is a special privilege in the life of a celebrant. You acquaint yourself intimately with a person’s life and hold the responsibility of conveying that faithfully, often to an audience with different, or even limited, perspectives on the deceased. It demands a delicate balance of confidence and humility to take on.


Often, for family members, this is a responsibility thrust upon them without much warning. Advice on this type of thing can overly focus on content and this can frustrate you if you don’t know how to start; my advice, therefore, would be to focus on the process instead. This is the only part the writer can definitely control and so, the only question is: what is the first step?


1. Ask


Hopefully you have access to a few people who knew your family member well. Try to speak to (at most) three people. Give yourself- and them- a time limit of thirty minutes and communicate this to them, perhaps providing the questions in advance to think about. Then, in the interview, stick to ten minutes for each question, ensuring you follow up on things that are unclear.


-    Qualities: what words spring to mind when you think of them? What images do you associate with them?

-    Relationships: who were they close to? How did they make you/others feel? What qualities strike you about them and how were they with others? What might others who you know say about them?

-    Memories: are they moments you remember in particular? When were they at their happiest/most content? When were they at their best?


2. Gather


Planning will happen in your mind if you give it space to do so. Don’t write straight away in the knowledge that a good process requires ideas to form naturally. That way, you can approach this with confidence.


When you are ready, perhaps the next day, give yourself a time limit of 40 minutes and as you review your notes, set yourself these questions:


-  What similarities in personal qualities can I see across these interviews?

-  What influences (concrete or otherwise) did they have on the people, environments and communities they were a part of.


Then, take notes in a way that makes sense for you, with a focus on identifying links between their qualities and their influence, adding relevant stories from across the interviews as you go. Perhaps form some headlines and collate details around these if you need a bit more structure. Set yourself 40 minutes for this.


3. Compose

I suggest composing in two sessions or three chunked sessions (which is my preference.) A side of A4, depending on speed of delivery, will take 5 minutes. As you can see, this means you will be writing on only the most important themes from your conversations. Choose one of two approaches:


-    Use the headlines and underneath them, start to write about what you’ve discovered. Force yourself to stick with short, simple sentences with a clear central clause. Then, see how the writing develops.

-    Lose the headlines or even the whole plan and write like no one is going to read it. You could write it like a personal report or diary to yourself, for example. Then, in the second session, insert the headlines as first sentences of each paragraph and rewrite anything that seems important, deleting the rest. When rewriting, create more distance or as much as you are able to whilst also keeping the tone personal and familiar.


Finally, and this is my best piece of advice, send the finished piece to the people you interviewed and ask them to read it. Reassure them that you aren’t looking for detailed feedback, simply another pair of eyes to check if you’ve got anything wrong or misunderstood anything they might have said.


What writing advice do you have? Comment below!

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