Brian McInerney – Pioneer Funeral Celebrant

Brian McInerney

Brian McInerney: Pioneer Funeral Celebrant

Brian McInerney died on December 22nd, 2014

This heart was woven of human joys and cares,
Washed marvellously with sorrow,
swift to mirth.

The years had given him  kindness.
Dawn was his,
And sunset,
and the colours of the earth.

He had seen movement,
and heard music;
known Slumber and waking;
loved;
gone proudly friended;
Felt the quick stir of wonder;
sat alone;

Touched flowers and furs and cheeks.
All this is ended.
—————
(slightly adapted from Rupert Brooke)
————-

Brian McInerney was a man who could read, write and speak. He was a man of many parts but here I just want to talk about him as a funeral celebrant.

I first met him in 1972 when he was executive producer of English language radio programs for the ABC’s Radio Australia.The pressure of the job was affecting his health, so he resigned from the ABC in 1975.

The recently created marriage celebrant program established by the Attorney General Lionel Murphy had been enthusiastically received by the general public.

Marriages are very happy occasions and the original celebrants enjoyed their task immensely – but inevitably there came the time when clients of celebrants required non-church funerals. The marriage celebrant community, consonant with the culture of the times, vehemently rejected the idea of officiating at secular funerals. So we could fill the need, Murphy (then a Justice of the High Court) urged me and others to go out into the “highways and byways” and find non-marriage celebrants to respond to the need.

Mr “Golden Voice” from the ABC, as Brian Mcinerney was known, became one of the first funeral celebrants. He stepped into this totally new field as if he had done it all his life. He was such a natural. Brian was probably the most well read, best self-educated person I have ever met. Family members told me that he had read the complete works of Dickens before he turned fifteen years of age. In the days before Google and the internet, Brian was the “go to” person if you had a line or quote from a poem and you needed to know the source.

Today’s readers will find it difficult to comprehend that there was no such thing as a non-church funeral in the mid 70s. McInerney was a pioneer who established the new freedom and who set the new standard. For the first time in Western cultural history ordinary people were farewelled in a funeral ceremony which was framed by appropriate and carefully selected poetry, prose, music, symbolism, myths, and stories. The life of the person was recorded, their achievements recognised, and their character and personality described in a eulogy which set their special place in family and community history.

Brian, more than any of us, gained the reputation of writing eulogies for ordinary people which bordered on the masterful. The connections to history,  the allusions to literature, were skilfully inserted with animation and colour.

A new and exciting phenomenon, celebrants were, at this time, widely reported in the media. Brian Mcinerney was often featured. One famous account relates the funeral of the father of the family who evoked the story of the Knight in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”. Brian centred his eulogy around the story of the Knight and in doing so uplifted the spirits of everyone who attended the funeral. What he didn’t know was that one of the man’s children had arrived from the USA on the morning of ceremony. This young woman was a lecturer in 14th Century English Literature at Harvard University. Expecting a “nothing” funeral, she had the thrill of hearing her father eulogised in terms of the Knight.

Up to 1995 or so funeral celebrants throughout Melbourne were often called on to create funerals for the soldiers who had survived World War II. At our meetings and seminars, Brian would inspire his fellow celebrants with the poetry of Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. When Brian began to recite –

“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge …”

we knew, in the vividness of our imagination, we were going to be transported to the horror of war. Thus inspired by Brian, we composed funerals for those old soldiers which did them proud.

The end of the eighties /early nineties was a time of high inflation in Australia. Brian and his wife Tina had three young children and were feeling the pinch financially. He needed to increase his income and so asked the funeral directors with whom he worked to give him a rise in fees. He had come to believe that the people he knew in the funeral industry were his personal friends and collaborators. They would understand his position and recognise his contribution. But at this request the smiles went off their faces. He learned later from one of them that they had rung around and decided to “put him in his place”. All funeral work suddenly ceased.

Brian was deeply hurt and disillusioned. To survive he had to capitulate. I don’t think he ever recovered his faith in human nature after that. To maintain his income with what had become a pittance of a fee, he had to take on more funerals and lower his standards – a decision which always cuts deep into the heart of the true professional. His health slowly deteriorated and he gradually withdrew from funeral celebrancy. But in his first twenty years of work he had set a benchmark standard for secular people in western society. The thousands of written records which survive his pen will be the joy of family genealogists and historians for centuries to come.

(Brian is survived by his wife Tina, his daughter from his first marriage, Jane, his stepdaughter Amy, his son Michael and daughter Sophie. A commemoration ceremony will be held for him on February 8.)

Brian McInerney recites the World War 1 Wilfred Owen Poem – Dulce et Decorum est.
Dulce et Decorum est. Explanation of the text

Dulce et Decorum est – the Poem

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