Verity James talks front and centre about life and death

Verity James officiating at a funeral

Former ABC radio and television presenter turned funeral celebrant, Verity James, wants her ashes to be embedded in a statue in Hyde Park.

She has applied to the City of Vincent to have her ashes embedded in a stylised swan made by sculptor Ron Gomboc to be installed in the park, a place she adores and visits most days.

“I think public art is incredibly important, it doesn’t have to say Verity James on it, I just want it to be there; dogs will come and wee on me, and birds will come and crap on me, but people might say: ‘I’ll meet you at the Swan end’ and I’ll feel part of that community.

“Then I hope I will have a gathering, a party around the swan, and everybody can come along. I’ve already written the menu and put aside the money for wine,” she laughs.

It might seem a little odd to transition from radio presenter to funeral celebrant, but Verity says she started to think about the idea when she got involved in her ex-husband’s business, In Memorium Productions (IMP), while she was taking a year’s long service leave from the ABC.

She would go to various chapels and play the video montage presentations created by IMP for funerals.

She got to see a lot of funerals and it seemed there was plenty of emphasis on the religious side, but the ceremonies were missing out on the personal stories of the person who had passed away.

One day she heard celebrant Ken Booth speak at a funeral.

“I thought, I can do that, and I remembered I’d interviewed Ken and remembered the satisfaction he had from it, so I read a book and started,” Verity says.

She’d spoken to the funeral director on that day and asked what qualifications she needed. He said none were required.

While you need to do a Cert 4 course to become a civil celebrant and perform marriages (a course she has since done), it wasn’t necessary to perform a funeral.

When Verity’s best friend’s husband’s mother passed away Verity was asked to conduct the funeral.

“I thought ‘what a great opportunity, here we go’, and when I did the service, I think because I was very connected to it, the two funeral directors said, ‘want a job?’ – and I said, ‘funnily enough, yes’.”

That was more than a dozen years ago.

Most West Australians are familiar with Verity through her eight years hosting a daily afternoon radio program on ABC 720 and hosting a variety of TV and radio productions for the ABC.

Her media background has helped enormously with her work as a celebrant.

“Everything I did in radio and television has prepared me for celebrancy.

“You go to meet people, you talk with them, you take up their story, you listen to them and then you come away and write it, then on the day of the presentation, it makes a huge difference to how it’s actually received.

“All of that I learned through media.”

But Verity’s maternal nature is also important when people are grieving.

“I’m a very maternal person, despite the fact that I forgot to have children, and I like to gather them in and love them to death during that time.

“That bond that you form with a family in those early stages is really important.”

Once that trust has been built Verity says many families ask her to return for other funerals.

“That’s such an honour when they want you to keep coming back and they want you to be part of that family.”

Verity says it is difficult not to get emotional at funerals.

“When I first started, I would just come home and weep and I wasn’t able to separate myself from the funerals very well, but it’s got better as I’ve got older.

“I have some little rituals that I do quietly for me. I always say a prayer of farewell at the casket and I release them. Once I’ve started to release them it’s better for me, but you can’t help but get involved.

“Sometimes when you see an entire front row of blokes sobbing their hearts out you just can’t help but sob as well. You’d have to be made of stone not to.

“That might feel unprofessional in some ways but you’ve made a connection with them so I care about how they are feeling at that time.”

Verity wants people to think about their funeral.

“We’re such a death-denying culture, you only have to look at the amount of plastic surgery that’s around to see that nobody wants to get old.

“I would love everybody to write down salient points in their life, things of which they are proud. They are often not the things people expect. Of course, it’s the kids and all that sort of thing, but one man absolutely wanted it in his funeral that he came second in the backstroke swimming competition when he was nine years old.

“And that sort of story always came up with the family and it’s those stories that make it personal but when a family is grieving even though they have heard those stories 1400 times they often don’t remember them.

“Even if you just do dot points about things in your life you make it a lot easier for the family as well because grief will steal your brain for about six weeks after somebody passes – minimum – and you’ll find simple decisions difficult.

“You also don’t have to have it in a chapel, you can have it in a favourite park or somebody’s yard or at the beach or somewhere that means something to someone.

“You can opt to have your body taken to a funeral director and then they will put in process the cremation and then you can have the ashes there. That’s a lovely thing to have at a memorial table and it has a completely different feeling about it.

“It’s not for everybody but it’s quite a nice feeling for lots of people.”

From time to time, Verity will sit with people who know they are dying to talk about their funeral.

“I wish more people would come to me when they are dying and talk about what they want.

“Before Covid, there was quite a trend of people calling me and saying ‘I have this diagnosis can you come now?’ and I love that. It’s a bit harder on me on the day because I’ve made that bond with them but it’s much better in representing that person.

“It’s a lovely thing and I’d love to do much more of that, but you always want to be careful about not looking like an ambulance chaser.”

Verity says people should write down what they want, including the music they want played, and keep it alongside other important papers. 

Verity is always happy to talk to people about their funerals and you can reach her at 0422 267 199.

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Journalist and public relations specialist Allen Newton has worked across major media organisations in Western Australia and PR locally and internationally. He and wife Helen Ganska operate Newton Ganska Communications. Allen started his journalism career at the long defunct Sunday Independent and went on to become the founding editor for news website PerthNow, Managing Editor of The Sunday Times and PerthNow and then Editor-In-Chief of news website WAtoday. As well as news, he has been an editor of food and wine, real estate, TV and travel sections. He’s done everything from co-hosting a local ABC television pop show, to editing a pop music section called Breakout with Big Al, and publishing his own media and marketing magazine.