Friday, 24 August 2012

Funeral celebrancy - a paradoxical status

I sometimes feel a bit like the little chap in the picture, making something (a ceremony) in which my role looks simple in plan, but turns out to be full of paradox, ultimately impossible. 

Any celebrants out there dis/agree with any of this? Do chip in:

1. I didn't know the person who's died, but I have (usually) to present a picture of her - life story plus essential characteristics, looking for the spark of recognition in the upturned faces. If I overdo it, people will feel I am being presumptuous. If I undercook it, the congregation will find it harder to feel the connection. A catalogue of jobs, hobbies and retirement activities, and health problems doesn't do. We need to feel the uniqueness of the person, but the only possible view, for me to use, is the one from one or two people in the family. It's my empathy, imagination, background knowledge I shall have to draw on. Mustn't over do it....

2. I want to give the event some ritualistic power, some ceremonial effect, but the common threads for assembling such a thing are few and faded. Ritual and ceremony evolve over time, but we're trying to invent them. It kind of works, sometimes. 

3. I need to stay in control of the ceremony, however distressing the circumstances. But celebrants who can't bring love and compassion to the people they are working for should perhaps be doing something else. Those qualities cannot be faked as part of a professional performance, but my part of the proceedings needs to be calm and ordered. I need to be moved, I won't help anyone if I lose it.

4. I draw on my own emotions, my own thoughts about mortality and loss, but if I draw too deeply I run the risk of exhausting and depressing myself. If I don't draw upon anything of mine, the ceremony may lack my own personal commitment, therefore it will lack authenticity. If I drain myself over a few weeks, I'll be less able to energise the next funeral.

5. I don't want to take on too many funerals (see above) but if I turn down a request, I worry that a suitable alternative may not be available. (That's not, I hope, vanity, merely availability of celebrants who are at least as good (or bad) as me.)

6. I'm not in it for the money, but I find it difficult sometimes not to feel cross about the attitudes towards celebrancy fees from the rest of the funeral so-called profession.

7. Who am I to talk about the meaning of a life I never knew, and draw from it something for the people to carry away with them? Yet I know how hard it is for family members to make that sort of synthesis - much as I want to see them do as much of the funeral for themselves as they can. It's probably only people with considerable cultural resources, time, maybe money, who can do that for those close to them.

8. Celebrants often feel they need to present an honest picture of the person, but they don't want to hurt feelings, they want to help people along with their grieving. It's not a forensic activity; yet no-one respects a whitewash.

9. Celebrants often want to transform the way our culture "does" end-of-life matters in general and funerals in particular. But here and now, most people want something fairly or very conventional.

10. There is no such thing as a secular funeral that is ideally suited to purpose, occasion and dead person. It's an impossible job. 

It's the best job I've ever had.


  1. Spot on GM. I recognise all the paradoxes - but of course, it's not a job is it? It seems to me that, although we are of course providing a service, the tasks take place in a very personal and much more significant context. For me there is something of the applied mindfulness that you write about in this blog in the relationships we build, in what we write and in the ceremonies we enact. It is where the paradoxes you list have their location. Less of a job than a state of mind, even an age of life, perhaps.
    Tangential thought. As an Eng. Lit. person and a non-conformist by tradition, my celebrancy is strongly centred in what the Methodists would have called the 'ministry of the word'. It's what most of the people I serve seem to expect and want too.
    Reading your list, though, has helped me look more broadly at what ceremony and ritual actually is. I beginning to see that what we are engaged in as giving public and external expression to an inner state - psychic or emotional. For most people the words and music are sufficient, but there are also the physical actions people engage in - carrying the coffin, lighting a candle, bringing flowers - that are the vehicle for the same process. It means that, when we meet people, one of the questions that we need to have in the back of the mind is 'what is being done here?', and then, 'how in words and music, gesture and action' can we externalise (and thus ritualise) the process. Probably obvious to everyone - but a mini revelation to me. Thanks for prompting GM.

  2. An age of life - now that's a particularly interesting idea. Certainly a state of mind.

    Yes, I think people want some powerful words, and that's what I guess we try to find, around and between the paradoxes of our role.

    I don't think what you finish up with is obvious - well, it wasn't to me, it gradually dawned on me."What is being done here?" is the unspoken question that hangs in the air as we sit down in the front room of a dead stranger with our antennae quivering. A while ago, I started asking some families what they wanted the ceremony to do, how did they want to feel afterwards, what difference did they want it to make, that sort of thing. (Bit less direct, of course!) I was quite nervous about asking, but when I do, the response is usually immediate and I think it perhaps helps people to ask questions in this area. Certainly helps answer your question!
    Many thanks for stopping by so fruitfully, Vale.

  3. I can strongly identify with all the paradoxes you raise.I think ones Emotional Intelligence (EI) and life experiences are key to handling / coping with the emotionally charged environments a Funeral Celebrant may encounter.

    Having considerable experience in palliative care and writing / lecturing on EI, I have developed strategies to compartmentalise my emotions with a view to remaining calm and collected at all times - whilst maintaining appropriate levels of empathy / sincerity / warmth without appearing aloof / cold /uncaring.

    On occasion it is difficult for a Funeral Celebrant not to go with the flow of emotions on the day - Is it OK to shed a tear / "well up"? Of course it is - but not while officiating as you are the "hired professional"

    As a Funeral Celebrant, I see my job as being a collator of "information / stories / memories" ;I then structure the aforesaid into an appropriate narration, usually based upon the wishes of the bereaved.

    When I reflect on a funeral ceremony, I look at whether there were as many tears of laughter / joy as there were of sadness - if so, then a good balance has been struck.

    Remember, Funeral Ceremonies are for the living - the dead are no more. Funeral Celebrants don't just perform the ceremony - they help the bereaved deal with their loss.

    Being a secular atheist also enables me not to get distracted by theistic dogma. I recognise , in fact encourage the inclusion of spiritual / ritualistic elements of a funeral ceremony as they are a part of our culture - I do however, refuse to make any overt theistic references - it would be hypocritical of me to do so whilst believing the deceased is / or soon will be wormfood.

    Point 10 - It is possible - I have done it , only once - I have prepared my own funeral ceremony thanks to technology(music and video and I will be the celebrant). Maybe unorthodox, but hey - show me the rule book! I wish I could be there to see it! I have subsequently done the same for 3 other people - as mad as me.

    Be Well


  4. Thanks for stopping by James, and welcome.

    No rule book, as you say, and - madness is highly relative! What is sane about a featureless 20-minute ceremony in which everyone seems to be working hard to avoid anything that is marked with true grief?