Friday, 19 November 2010

Funeral Directors and Non-Religious Funeral Celebrants: the ideal interface

Some might say, the ideal would be if they were the same people, like the Callenders. I know of a handful-3?- out of the thirty I've worked with who, in my unassuming and modest judgement, I would say could do a good to excellent ceremony. Some of the others would in my unassuming etc, do about as well as an empty lectern. But then as an undertaker I'd be as much use as a chocolate fireguard.

So here's what, in my un- etc, the other 27 should do:

1. Find out - actively - who is available in their area to call on for non-religious funerals.

2. See if any of their colleagues have any unbiased views on the available people (given trade rivalries, that may be a bit like asking a couple of leopards which antelope they prefer for lunch)

3. Phone the celebrants and talk to them. Ask them to send in a brief and relevant CV.

4. Ask two or three of them to pop in for an interview (disguised as a chat, of course.)

5. Draw up a list of preferred celebrants and a list of those you wouldn't use if they were the only available ones between here and Hell.

6. For each celebrant's first funeral or two with you, don't pop outside to have a gasper and talk about the football/rugby/cricket/Royal Weddding etc but sit and listen/watch what goes on.

7. Discreetly get an opinion or two from family and friends, both immediately afterwards and a few days later when they've had a chance to think it through and have got beyond "thank goodness that's over."

8. Always be ready to utter to the celebrant the magic words "well done, the family were well pleased with that," not just outside the crem afterwards but days/weeks later when you know this to be true (or not), AND be ready to utter the magic words "you're fired."

9. If the celebrant belongs to an organisation (BHA, Civil Celebrants, whoever) tell them too. They have and/or are developing some sort of quality control procedures - aren't they?

It's a lot of bother, isn't it? All for a "product" you are selling that only costs, er.... £2,000 on up...

If you want any ideas on what questions to fire at celebrants, you're very welcome to ask me.

That's how, in my unassuming etc, it should be done.

OK, all pigs loaded, fuelled and ready for take-off.


  1. This all presupposes that undertakers are better judges of who families want than families themselves. A celebrant -- the one with purple hair and facial piercings -- might be exactly who a family wants but he ain't going to get a look in -- might frighten the hearses. I don't think it fair on families, GM, if they are only offered a celebrant in the undertaker's image. An undertaker once said to me "D'you know, if all this [my business] goes tits up I'm going to do what you do." It took a great deal of stupidity to say that, but he's not alone.

    Undertakers have a coffin catalogue. There's no reason why they shouldn't have a celebrant catalogue. And a video clip of each one talking about what they do. Let clients decide for themselves.

    Clients look for 'someone like us'. How would an undertaker know who that is? Most undertakers probably reckon the beau ideal to be the person who comports himself like the butler in Downton Abbey.

    Yes, let undertakers give a steer. "He's often late." "Last time she forgot her script." "What people have said about him is..."

    If undertakers don't know what coffin people want, how would they know which celebrant they want? Starting with male or female.

    Choosing a celebrant is butt-out time for undertakers, in my humble.

    The best celebrant is not the one who can do it at the crem on the day and at the time that's already been booked.

  2. All good, Charles, but I'm only talking about the undertaker/celebrant interface. If the undertaker has made an informed decision about the quality of celebrant available, then s/he could present the choices to the family - the catalogue, indeed.
    Or the family make their choice of celebrant first - but how is that going to happen? They 95% of the time go to the undertaker first, don't they?
    So how can families get to choose celebrants, piercings or no piercings? We are where we are - and that is a place where undertakers often choose celebrants because they are free on the day and time they want, which as you say, is hopelessly inadequate. Let's make them do some selection work, since after all they do land up with responsibilities about what the funeral was like.

  3. It's a good post, thanks Gloria.

    Wedding celebrants often complain that we have to go through the "beauty parade", knowing that the happy couple will see several of us before making a decision. Personally, I don't have much of a problem with this - it's a lot of money and a big occasion, they need to be sure it's right.

    And I feel the same way about funerals. Like many celebrants, I think that I can work with a wide range of people, but there are some I meet that may well prefer one of my local colleagues. Yes, there would be some resentment; I'm only human and carry the paranoid fear that the FD will love the other person and hate me, never calling me again, but ultimately we are here for the families, not ourselves.

    But I fear that there are flaws in your excellent model, when applied to reality.

    Firstly, time scales - everything to do with funerals appears to be done in a rush. They book the crem, sort out the logistics with an attitude of "let's get this over with as soon as possible". (Perhaps a suitable subject for a later musing)

    Secondly, echoing Charles's points above - the family have very little to do with the selection process.

    And finally, FDs are really hard to change. I have travelled around meeting the little darlings with a colleague of mine. An FD who is situated mid way between me and this colleague calls on me. I was chatting to him once and reminded him that my lovely colleague is also available when I am not. Despite having met her, shaken her hand and chatted, he simply referred to her as "the other lady", even when I'd said her name a couple of times in conversation.

    Comfort appears to be all, change appears to be the enemy.

    And with regard to firing celebrants - I think that we are sometimes fired, it's just that nobody bothers to tell us!

  4. You are quite right, GM, we are where we are, and if I often sound impossibly unrealistic, reporting from a comfortable position of disengagement, I nevertheless know exactly what you mean -- because I've been there.

    I don't know that, on t'ground, the undertaker takes responsibility for what the funeral was like -- for all that a good celebster can make said undertaker look pretty good. Because celebsters and undertakers tend to be such different sorts of people, I think families apportion blame/praise according to the merits/demerits of each. And here I would add that it takes three to tango. If the family engages with the funeral it will hold itself responsible for the choices it made - and apportion praise and/or blame accordingly.

    Two things that pissed me off when I was an active professional obsequist. First, my less than co-equal relationship with undertakers; second, knocking on the doors of families I had been foisted on knowing that they had absolutely no idea what I was going to be like. I imagine a number took one look and thought 'Oh f***.'

    We are where we are, for sure. The timetable of the crem dictates everything and introduces urgency and white knuckles into a process which ought to proceed at its own pace. I'd like to see the celebrant prof bodies agree a cross-party policy and campaign for more open competition among celebsters, for family choice -- and, in the longer term, against the tail-wags-dog crem timetable.

    Where we are is where we are, and it's not a good place.

    I represent my present pov without fervour or certainty, feeling pretty sure I have missed something. In short, though, I reckon an undertaker's role to be not a gatekeeper but a portal. I have a strong feeling that you will be able to bring me to a better and more realistic apprehension.

  5. Charles you really are almost too civilised to deal with a redneck like me....I think it is you who bring a realistic and well-informed view of the whole field, whereas I (and others) simply bang on from our various unobjective viewpoints!

    But for you and XP too (many thanks to both of you) - I think the FDs need to keep a celebster catalogue ready to hand to show families, then the fatuous whiteknuckle crem timetable wouldn't interfere for more than an extra ten minutes with the business of engaging a celebster.

    And sadly, FDs are gatekeepers to celebsters, whether we like it or not. (In about 85% of cases I don't.) I'd like them to be effective in this role, and offer some choice to families.

    But XP points out how conservative FDs are - or is it too lazy/anxious to do other than fall back on the usual operator? I've managed to get one of them in a nearby town to phone m'learned colleague before me. Result.

    But let's be clear - I don't want anyone other than the family to choose - but at present they don't, in 95% of occasions, get to choose AT ALL. At least if FDs interviewed us properly and made their minds up, at least if they had a list based on knowledge and careful thought, they could offer a choice of, say 3 or 4 to a family? E.g. if FDs at least thought "this one's a bloke, this one isn't, this one is good at particularly sensitive contexts, this one is a bit of a bull in a chine shop but is very good at the heartening message and the life celebration bit,this one is more alternatives-friendly and expressive, this one looks as though he's got a pencil up his fundament but does the dignified and solemn thing very well" etc. If they just thought a bit more. Only a few seem to.

    Well, the defence rests. I don't know how to change it radically. Though I was heartened by a recent case where a lady phoned me via the much maligned BHA website first and talked through what would be right for her dad, before she phoned anyone else, and she considered alternatives before making her mind up..I was in the unusual position of discussing her choice of undertaker with her!

    Sorry if you've read this before on my blog, but it might bear repeating in this context, so: as for looking at one of us and thinking "Oh my goodness," or worse - one woman last year opened the door to me and said "Hello. Do you like a drink?"

    Not noticing that she'd said "do you" and not "would you" I said "Thanks very much for asking, but not just now,thanks."

    "No," she said, "I mean, DO you drink?"

    "Well, yes," said I.

    "Good." she said. "You'll do. Come in."

    What a star. The chap had been a pub landlord and the crem was crammed. Lovely people.