How did Speaker for the Dead come to be?
As with all my stories, this one began with more than one idea. The concept of a “speaker for the dead” arose from my experiences with death and funerals. I have written of this at greater length elsewhere; suffice it to say that I grew dissatisfied with the way that we use our funerals to revise the life of the dead, to give the dead a story so different from their actual life that, in effect, we kill them all over again.
No, that is too strong. Let me just say that we erase them, we edit them, we make them into a person much easier to live with than the person who actually lived. I rejected that idea. I thought that a more appropriate funeral would be to say, honestly, what that person was and what that person did.
But to me, “honesty” doesn’t simply mean saying all the unpleasant things instead of saying only the nice ones. It doesn’t even consist of averaging them out. No, to understand who a person really was, what his or her life really meant, the speaker for the dead would have to explain their self-story—what they meant to do, what they actually did, what they regretted, what they rejoiced in.
That’s the story that we never know, the story that we never can know—and yet, at the time of death, it’s the only story truly worth turn the funeral service into a Speaking. I hasten to add that they have done this either with the permission of the family or at the urging of the deceased (given, obviously, before death!). Some of them have even sent me the text of their Speaking, and I must tell you that the stories thus told are astonishing and powerful.
I hope someone will do a Speaking at my funeral.
I think there really is power and truth in the idea.