Community Co-Ordinator Becky found the professional and personal overlapping recently when reading Priya Parker‘s book ’The Art of Gathering’…
Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors has been established in Sussex since 1855, and seen a lot of changes during this time! The company now has four offices – in Billingshurst, Crawley, Horsham and Hurstpierpoint – and employs staff in a variety of roles, from funeral arranging and conducting to community liaison. Whilst the team regularly experience events and the deaths of others via their professional lives, they also of course find themselves in these situations for personal reasons too. Community Co-Ordinator Becky has recently read Priya Parker’s book ‘The Art of Gathering’, and reflects on her learning here.
As Community Co-Ordinator at Freeman Brothers, my role is not only unusual within the company, but across the industry as a whole. The funeral industry has struggled to market itself in a contemporary and innovative way, particularly in the UK where attitudes towards discussing death, dying and bereavement mean that the subject is still regarded as a taboo. The purpose of my role is to change that – I spend my time organising events which encourage people to discuss their funeral wishes, in addition to understanding and implementing things that we as a company can give back to our communities.
This happens in a wide range of ways, from providing free printing services, or helping community groups promote upcoming events, to volunteering at events and teaching charities the basics of social media management. With over ten years of experience in the events industry, and a degree in Events Management, it’s safe to say that this is where my expertise lies, and I recently – successfully! – pitched a new workshop idea to Horsham District Council’s Voluntary Sector Support, which means that, this October, I’ll be leading a half-day seminar on Events Management.
The task of imparting the wisdom I’ve gathered in over a decade within half a day feels a little daunting, but with fortuitous timing, a friend recommended a book to me – Priya Parker’s ‘The Art of Gathering’. The book is pitched as a ‘human-centred approach to gathering’. I dove in eagerly, always keen to hear someone else’s perspective, and intrigued as to how the thought process around events is evolving: although events have been happening, to the best of our knowledge, since the beginning of human existence, the study of them is relatively new. Events have also, until recently, been studied more within the context of anthropology or sociology than a technical management sense. Although many academics still consider aspects such as tribal behaviour at events, we’re increasingly seeing work around the best way to design a venue, or how to ensure that delegates actually fill out feedback forms, and even the most efficient way to manage a queue for badges.
Parker’s book focuses not only around her work as the founder of Thrive Labs, and her studies within conflict resolution, but also her own lived experience. For example, she details what she has learned from organising private dinner parties, attending weddings and funerals, and a surprising disclosure she made about an event she was part of as a teenager (it’s a great story, I won’t spoil it for you). This mirrored my own experiences: when I was an undergraduate, I was an insufferable delegate, spotting ‘errors’ within every event I attended, and struggled to disengage as a professional and slip back into the role of enjoying an event on a personal level… or perhaps I was just keen to help people improve where I saw things could be better! But it was also a reminder that then, as now with my role in funerals, we experience things from two directions – the personal and the professional.
‘The Art of Gathering’ points out many things that a lot of event managers believe: from what we see as more basic pieces of knowledge, such as the fact that cost and location alone should never be the only determining factors when choosing a venue; to the appreciation that more of our daily experiences are events than we realise – that day out you’re planning with your sibling? Definitely an event.
The elements of the book which intrigued me most with reference to my current role were when Parker discussed funerals and, again, she did so from a professional and personal perspective. Parker’s chapter on the concept of priming – that is, preparing your guests or delegates for the event – was one of the ones which I took the most from professionally, and in this section, she recalls attending the funeral of a friend. Parker tells of how the first words said by the minister taking the service weren’t about the person who’d died, or their family. They weren’t, in fact, even about the people attending the event, really. Instead, the minister did what many of us do when opening an event, and began with a housekeeping notice. As Parker says, ‘The minister had wasted what could’ve been an unforgettable opening’.
It’s an interesting story and, as a professional, I wouldn’t necessarily be inclined to counsel strongly against this approach with any event – I think it does, however, come down to preference. To anyone running an event and choosing to start with a series of logistical notices, I’d say: understand what this means that you are doing. Parker is right – the opening of an event (just as the earlier stages of ‘priming’ from announcing the event to sending out invitations, and welcoming attendees on the day) is an opportunity to cement its purpose, welcome everyone correctly and set the tone for the rest of the event, be it a 45-minute funeral service or a four-day festival.
The other chapter which I’ve gained a significant understanding from is Parker’s thoughts on closing an event. She again references a situation which many of us will recognise: ‘It’s the closing session of the conference, and people are fumbling for their bell-desk tags, hoping to retrieve their luggage quickly.’ Parker continues to draw a parallel with funerals here, and notes something which we are seeing more commonly at Freeman Brothers – that many people are choosing to mark the end of a person’s life with a ‘celebration’ or ‘thanksgiving’ service, things which have a distinctly different tone to how funerals are usually regarded.
Here, Parker tells of how, for some cultures, this is deemed inappropriate. Some Zen Buddhists, for example, will assert that these more celebratory and uplifting styles of funeral discourage people from accepting death, and endings in general. Whilst this is an interesting philosophical concept, particularly in the wider context of the book’s subject matter, those of us working in the funeral industry continue to be guided by our customers, and are happy to organise the event which they believe is appropriate for their process. This section of the book was, however, very interesting for me as an events professional.
The book finishes brilliantly, with what I think is a great metaphor for both funerals, other events, and life in general: ‘A good and meaningful closing doesn’t conform to any particular rules or form. It’s something you have to build yourself, in keeping with the spirit of your gathering, in proportion to how big a deal you want to make of it.’
And, with that thought, I know that I am better prepared to prime myself and my delegates for the forthcoming workshop, and other gatherings I organise in future.
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