Wednesday, 26 May 2010

GFG questions about secular celebrants

This posting is in response to a thought-provoking rumination from Charles on 26th May at

A valuable posting, Charles. I'm a humanist celebrant, so in response, in no particular order:

1. The BHA warns the celebrants it trains not to attempt to earn a living from it; a few try to. They are short-changing themselves and others. The BHA can't seem to stop them, because we don't work for them, they merely accredit us. You're absolutely right, it should only be a portfolio worker's or retired person's activity. What the BHA should do is not train them in the first place if they are clearly going to use it as a means of support. On a related but different point: it is may be a real advantage (if you see what I mean) to have been bereaved yourself, and to have arranged a funeral, if you are talking to other bereaved people.

2."..except to say the stuff that others don't feel up to." I feel a bit short-changed on that one. There are skills developed by a good celebrant that not so many people can easily draw on, even if they are up to it at a funeral. This isn't necessarily only to do with the grief people feel, that they worry will stop them speaking.

3. Most funerals are at crems because people don't investigate funerals until they have to, and it's a bit late then - they get channelled to the crem not just for the cremation (essential, obviously) but for the ceremony too (most definitely not essential, as the GFG makes very clear!)So crems aren't the celebrant's choice. If we were better reconciled to our mortality we would have better (more varied, effective, "thorough") funerals. There's only so much celebrant A in conjunction with family B on a particular occasion can do about that. Meantime, all power to the elbows of GFG, Greenfuse et al.

4. I've never sucked up to an FD, or supplicated for referrals, and I don't intend to start. Take it or leave it, choose me or not. I try to get on with them, and I keep them informed, which just means I send them contact details and explain what I do. I like and respect most of the FDs I know. The other few, well, I button my lip and get on with it. FDs refer families to me, but I do what I do for the family and the dead person. The few celebrants I'm in contact with could say the same, I'm sure. There are two FDs I will never work with again (not that they have asked me...) because they were so casual and disengaged. You don't expect them to be in tears, but you do hope they won't behave as if they were watching telly whilst doing the ironing.

4. I worry about the uniqueness point. Of course the eulogy bit is entirely unique, but I say a little of the same (or pretty similar)at many ceremonies, because I believe it to be true, not because I can't be arsed or because I'm doing too many funerals. No-one has raised it (and yes, I have seen people at more than one of the ceremonies I've been involved with.)

5. I think we secular celebrants (BHA or otherwise)should work harder to vary the form and nature of our ceremonies, and see ourselves more as facilitators(much as I hate the word), only taking over proceedings when we are needed. We need to erode the default mode. This is very hard to do if you have too many ceremonies on! And it takes a lot of thought and care. Some people really do want "the usual," and it may unsettle them if you try to move them too abruptly away from it.

6. Yes, I'm sure many ministers expend much time and care. Others, as far as I can tell, suggest by their behaviour that they don't. But it is pretty obvious that with two hymns, a quiet bit and a prayer or two, they have to do less unique thinking and writing themselves, in the usual 20-30 minutes. In the end, "comparisons are odious." They do what they do, and so do I.

7. Will we "accrue ceremonial significance?" Not as a priest does for believers, because we are not mediators, we belong to no church, we have no parish or communion. Do we have ceremonial significance? Of course, at the time, just as a family member does who speaks, or a singer who sings. Do we have ceremonial authority? Only if we earn it by the quality of what we do. Ritual? That's a fiercer matter and harder to get to. But please don't assume a religious funeral has any real ritual power just because it is led by a priest. Convention doesn't necessarily = ritual power and effectiveness.

8. So: what's the max we should be involved in? (I try not to speak of "doing" a funeral, as in doing the washing up. I try to remind myself that the ceremony doesn't belong to me, it belongs to the people who've asked me to help.) I've been involved in three in one week, twice, and only then for specific reasons. I couldn't do the job justice if I did that every, or most, weeks. I've been at two in one day, three times - for specific reasons, again. That was, suprisingly, OK. It's not chiefly the ceremonies, it's the writing and thinking time that must be protected, for a good ceremony, and the time to talk through, check back, refine etc. On average and in general, I'm taking part in four and a bit funerals a month. I'm bringing that down to three, or even two, by referrals to colleagues, so that I can improve my practice. When I rule the country (only a matter of time) then no secular celebrant will be allowed more than three ceremonies in a month. But they would have to take more than six a year, to keep them on their toes and in practice. In practice, the demand for ceremonies and the supply of celebrants will never be so neat and tidy.

I hope this doesn't come across as too self-righteous, but it seems sensible, in response to Charles' questions, to describe what I do and try to minimise assumptions about what others do.

GFG never stops providing food for thought, I'm pleased to say, and if you chance upon this and haven't been to GFG (unlikely but possible) then I urge you to visit Charles without delay.


  1. This is a cracking response, GM, and a debate so worth having, I feel - in the interest of which I was deliberately tail-tweaking and wilfully onesided! I have been a celebrant myself: I can see both sides.

    Taking your points 1 by 1:

    1. Full marks to the BHA. I hope the other training orgs do the same.

    2. I take your point. But I feel, in principle, that the dead deserve to be spoken of from a hurting heart by someone who loved them, not from a well-wrought script by a stranger who has been briefed about them. In practice, I acknowledge, it is difficult to put people in touch with their duty in this matter (if I am right in supposing it to be a duty). But I think there is a mistaken supposition that a funeral must meet minimum literary and performance standards. With funerals, it is only the taking part that matters. I acknowledge also that a crem is not the sort of place that bestows anything like enough intimacy or safety for this. They cow people, and I don't blame them for feeling cowed.

    3. Agree.

    4. I don't see how, when you've refined a way of addressing some aspect of death in general, you would seek to do anything other than keep working on it rather than substitute it. All celebrants are plagued by terrors of sameyness but tend not to share their fears, I find. They need to come cleaner. Uniqueness is over-valued and unachievable.

    5. I see little evidence from other celebrants of a desire to move things on and make things better. Dammit, you'd have expected secularists to have broken the mould. There is too much complacent acceptance of things as they are, and too much gratification derived from the not always just consideration that secular celebrants do it better than religious ministers. There needs to be a stronger dynamic and more robust thinking. There are not enough Gloria Mundi's out there!!

    6. The advantage of shared faith is that more is understood so less needs to be said. But secularists need to, in Tom's words, reinvent the wheel and state their rationale. A great drawback of secular ceremonies is that they are so wordy and rely so heavily on words to import meaning. For the audience, this means a lot of sitting and listening. But there's probably no getting away from it.

    7. There remains, I think, an anomalousness about the role of the secular celebrant. Yes,I think you hit the nail on the head, it comes down to each and every one. A secular celebrant says as you do 'I am who I am,' not 'I am one of these'. What an interesting notion...

    8. This is very radical. My heart is nodding furiously.

    You don't come over as remotely self-righteous. I hope I don't, either. My thoughts about all these things are in constant flux, the only respectable position to take in my view.

    Thank you for the chance to debate these things with you!

  2. Never self-righteous, Charles, and flux we are, in everything, the other stuff is an illusion. And if my views on these matters are worth debating, that's very largely down to you, and the blogs, books etc you've put me in touch with.

    For 2., I'm a little anxious about "duty," but maybe a little more iron in these matters would provide a better funeral. If we could de-mystify, de-cow the crems, then we could nudge people more towards doing things themselves, and yes, certainly it is the words of the hurting people that must take priority, and does - why else, during a funeral, does the entirely non-literary "poem" by the grand-child cut you in half when you can merely nod wisely at the wisdom of a great poet read well by a celebrant? But might I be able to find words that people would have wished to find themselves, but can't? (I mean "find," not just "speak"?) H'm. Food for thought.

    Lastly (for now...)any celebrant who thinks s/he does it better than a priest merely because s/he doesn't believe what the priest believes, and thinks they have written something unique ergo "better," deserves the Grand Order of the Turd. And will be duly awarded it, when I take over.

  3. I want this takeover, GM, and I want it now! (Do I hear echoes of Withnail?)

    I agree with you about words. A celebrant who works with words can enable others to express their thoughts. But I think it needs to be done collaboratively and it needs to sound when spoken like the people on whose behalf it is being read. Of course, less educated people are especially dependent on the celebrant to do this. I was always happy to do it -- and their joy at being given a beautiful word portrait of their dead person was often touching and made me feel like a magician. Could I ever read the damn thing in their voice, though? I speak posh and they speak Brum. They thought it was a bit of a class act to have an 'educated person' do the biz. And they liked me because I am not a typical product of my class and because I like people. But the rest of the audience didn't know me from, er, who's the atheist equivalent of Adam? And the posh vowels did seem to put up a bit of a barrier.

    Having in mind your grandchild's poem, perhaps we can agree this rule of thumb where funerals are concerned: the only good one's a crap one? You see what I'm getting at?

    (Undertakers obsess about quality of performance, but they are mechanicals. Seamless in a funeral = soulless (another rule of thumb!!)

  4. Absolutely see the point. It's an event (not an artefact) that needs to do things with and for the bereaved, it's not a literary work or a rhetorical masterclass. "In the destructive element immerse yourself." Takes some nerve, though.

    Posh vowels - well, agreed, some may like 'em, just as you say - may even look for 'em. I'd be in the same box. Is "authenticity" too tired and period a word to use? We can't imitate, we can only be ourselves, and true, within that, to what we've learned of the people we've met and the people who've died. And we have to keep an eye on our own egos and their demands.Serve the people, not our own need for approval, status, affirmation etc etc.

    As for the takeover - I'm having trouble with the spare parts for the tanks, otherwise, soon as this coalition crumbles, I'm in there.

  5. I've already responded to Charles's post, and may come back to this one later, after I've slept. Like the idea of the Grand Order of the Turd. Can think of a few people who deserve to join.