The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Guest post by Rupert Callender, undertaker

Monday, 7 June 2010

Looking after someone who is dying can be a disempowering experience. You can find yourself always being sidelined and denied participation by people who know better. Disconnected.

When someone dies, however, you assume complete control. In spite of this, most funerals are conspicuously unjoined-up. Because people outsource the lot – the paperwork, care of the body, creation of the ceremony, transport, flowers, printing, catering, you name it – to all manner of emotionally disengaged specialist service providers. This outsourcing sets up a great many disconnects. Does that matter?

All service providers maintain a degree of judicious, objective detachment from their clients. Professionalism, they call it. A very necessary separation: it eliminates risk. Florists do not struggle with this. But the very best undertakers and celebrants do because they want to offer best emotional value.

Here’s how Rupert Callender of the Green Funeral Company addresses the disconnects. I’m incredibly proud to publish this. It is brave and it is beautiful.  Please say what you think. Fill out a comments box at the bottom.

I would like to thank Charles for the opportunity to respond to his provocative but honest

post about celebrancy. I feel he has brought to the surface much that needs to be


My name is Rupert Callender, and my wife and I run The Green Funeral Company and are

often to be found wasting peopleʼs time with facetious remarks on the comments page of

this mighty blog. We are self taught undertakers and ʻcelebrantsʼ -a term that bothers me

with its implication of enforced jollity as much as ʻchapel of restʼ does with its confusing

mixed message- and have been doing both jobs side by side for ten years. We find it

difficult to imagine doing one without the other, and believe that the future of good funeral

directing lies with blending the two.

What Charles has highlighted is the possibility that our movement,(I am assuming a

shared sense of progressiveness from readers of this blog) is in danger of becoming

dangerously inoffensive on one extreme, or religiously combative on the other.

I would like to share with you the way we work and the differences between our own style

and that of both civil and Humanist trained celebrancy. I think we come from a relatively

unique position in approaching this without any prior training, and because of that, I

imagine much of what I say might feel counter-intuitive to some of you, and I hope to make

my points without being unduly provocative or rambling too much. These are important

issues we feel strongly about and it is difficult to know where to start, or when to stop.

Firstly, I think it is important to acknowledge that there must be a certain arrogance in the

make up of those who choose this riskiest of jobs, that of standing up to talk about the life

of someone they have never met, and our own individual motives for doing so are

sometimes altruistic, but are often altogether more complex and murky.

Often it comes from bitter personal experience; a family funeral in which a lacklustre priest

got the name of our relative wrong, or being shoehorned into an inappropriate religious

ceremony, or simply because of the emotional paucity of many traditional funerals.

My own motivation for what I do is because of the way my own bereavement was

mismanaged, first as a seven year old, at a time when childrenʼs involvement in a funeral

ceremony wasnʼt considered necessary, which established a pattern of numb

disconnectedness that re-emerged with my mother’s death when I was twenty five. For

me, every funeral I am involved in goes some way towards healing my hurt a little bit more.

I point this out so you can see that personally, I left objectivity at the door when I began

this work.

Most of the intention and training for secular celebrancy is concerned with making the

opposite true, of removing yourselves and your opinions from the dynamic, with the

intention of becoming a mouthpiece for the family and what they want projected into the

ritual. Much is done to minimise risk with safeguards put in place, because the potential to

ruin lives, certainly to ruin a post mortem relationship is huge.

These measures include a commitment to use a family’s words as much as possible, to

give them the farewell they had envisaged, to make sure they have a copy of what is going

to be said before hand, so they can check for inaccuracies as well as tone. This safety net

is summed up by the management-speak phrase, ʻBest Practiceʼ, but I believe that while it

comes from the best of intentions, safety is the enemy of authentic and lasting change.

If a family are reasonably ʻnormalʼ and happy, and we could of course argue for hours over

this definition, then a ceremony of this style can indeed reflect their happiness back at

them, but for any family with a complicated dynamic, often the last thing they need is the

reinforcement of their family script by an outsider colluding with their dysfunction, a

tightening of the grip on a social mask that often needs to be loosened, if not broken for

the real work of grieving to begin.

This is one of the reasons we approach the art of celebrancy from a different place.

Just because a family doesnʼt want a religious service, doesnʼt mean they have any clear

idea about what they do want. A certain prescriptive authority is needed, as very few

people have replaced Christianity with their own fully functioning belief system, complete

with a ritual to explain and deal with death, so simply telling them there is no “right” way,

only “their” way is unhelpful, and frankly, often a cop out.

If they subscribe to Humanism, then a Humanist celebrant is appropriate. Too often

though, bereaved people mistake Humanism for atheism, rather than what it actually is,

which is closer to anti-theism.

If a person has pagan beliefs, which a growing number of people in this country do, then

a pagan celebrant is the unargauable choice, but for everyone else, most of us, whose

beliefs are muddled between hope, fear, resignation and yearning, how are we to

approach death in a way which has integrity and depth and actually helps a family move


Bob Dylan said: To live outside the law you must be honest, and I think the same appIies

to a funeral outside of a religious framework. The compass needed for this journey is the

truth, but a celebrant takes risks in telling it, what the dead person was actually like, the

nub of their relationships, what really happened in their life. It is often clear from an initial

meeting what the truth is and what needs to be said, the courage and skill of the celebrant

lies in revealing it gently with compassion, in a way which begins to heal.

Is this adding paternalism to arrogance? Certainly. Is it worth the risk? God I hope so.

It does mean a reappraisal of the function of a funeral and whether a successful one is

really one in which everyone is left comfortably unchallenged. I think there is an argument

for saying we not only want our funerals to change, but for our funerals to change us, to

become a place where change can be initiated, safely, but in a state of profound emotional

honesty. Perhaps we need to become as welcoming of regret and guilt at a funeral as we

are of reassurance and comfort, and when we are, we will know real change has

happened, but to be able to facilitate this, the celebrant needs to become more than a

mouthpiece, they need to become a witness.

It sounds extreme, not to mention unbelievably risky, but having made this

decision to put ourselves out there, to stand up and take a secular funeral service, then

perhaps we need to go with it, and to realise that our personal view point of their

relationship and their situation, gathered over the twelve or so days we have known them

is both valid and helpful. By asking us to take a service, a family is entrusting us with

ceremonial power, however subconsciously, and we should accept the honour and have

the guts to use it. This may well mean not simply rehashing what a family has told us, or

what they want to hear—often a sanitised version of a life coloured by guilt, shock and

social embarrassment—but by trying to tell the truth as we see it, avoiding euphemisms, or

elevating the dead to saintliness, or glossing over painful facts that everyone present is

aware of.

I donʼt mean that we spring a brutal ʻwarts and allʼ character assassination on a

dumbstruck congregation, but rather than repeating a conventional eulogy, something

more appropriate for a family member to deliver and usually given later on in the

ceremony, we talk about what we have learnt about the dead person and their relationship

in the time since we met them, which starts with the one thing usually left out, hurried

through, or euphemised– the personʼs death.

If looked at with compassion everyoneʼs death has something to teach us, not in a

voyeuristic or moral way, or because everyoneʼs death is beautiful; most are absolutely

not, but it is the last crucial piece of our lifeʼs puzzle, and with it sometimes some sense of

a life can come sharply into focus. It has something to teach us because it is the truth and

our destiny, and to leave it out or gloss over it is to lie by omission.

We donʼt regale everybody with a grim account of the mechanics of their last agonies, but

we do talk about the emotional journey of the dying process, the love shared, the

forgiveness bestowed, the unspoken finally articulated, what can really happen, and often

does around a deathbed. There can be more relevant communication between family

members in this time than in a preceding decade, and these are the stories we need to be

telling, the punchline to the narrative of illness, the real story that can so often left out of a


As the celebrant, by talking like this early on in the ritual you get everyoneʼs attention and

establish an intention to be honest that gives anyone who follows permission to do the

same. There is a palpable sense of heightened concentration when you honour a

gathering with the truth as it is all understood to you. It raises everyone up to the same

level, out of the mundane and the superficial and cuts through the bland bullshit that mars

so many funerals. And when you reach this place, a ceremony can turn into a once in a

lifetime event, a space of raw honesty and emotional richness where genuine healing can


We have advantages in facilitating these moments, because we are also dealing with the

practicalities. We have unlimited access to the key bereaved, a lack of ideological or

spiritual agenda, and a deep connection to the family due to being custodians of the body.

We have time, sometimes over two weeks. Once we have taken on a funeral, we donʼt

have to bring anyone else in; there is no need for the family to repeat the story of their

loss. Early bereavement can feel as bureaucratic as any Kafka story and our gathering of

the information needed to hold the ceremony, can happen organically and almost invisibly.

Celebrancy is like other listening therapies; the art is to hear the client, and to show them

that they have been heard, but often that requires hearing what they are really saying.

But what do we know about their relationships with their dead? How dare we comment on

something on something we never saw?

I think our opinion of their relationship is valid, not least because we are the first to form an

emotional relationship with the bereaved after this life-changing event, and are crucial to

how they see and define their new identity. One of the reasons I donʼt show a family what I

am going to say, unless they specifically ask, is that I want them to hear what I have to say

for the first time within the framework of the funeral, in the presence of their dead. I am

talking to them first, not the congregation. I want them to hear what I have learnt, not

necessarily what they have told me about their relationship. I want them to be taken

unawares by the emotional clarity the truth can bring, to be separated from the numbness

of shock for just a second. I believe that the greatest gift you can give somebody deep in

the first rush of pain is to tell them something they didnʼt know they had told you, that the

nature of their relationship with their dead is such that it is visible, even after death, even to

a stranger. This is worth so much more than a repeated history, rewritten in flowery

language, but it does mean changing the nature of the service from a public event

concerned with social appearances with the family present, to an intimate ceremony

constructed around the truth to which friends are welcomed in and initiated.

It might seem we are stepping outside of our remit, straying into areas we havenʼt been

invited to, but actually we keep it very specific, and talk about only what we have

experienced directly, the loss that a family are feeling, always framed and enclosed and

referenced by the love that they feel. To do this we have to become more than a

mouthpiece, we need to become a witness.

In many Humanist funeral ceremonies this emotion can seem absent, perhaps because of

a desire to be seen as entirely separate from Christianity, but this negation of a religious

message means the central message that Christianity and Humanism share – “Love one

another,” a social command not a religious one, is forgotten, to the detriment of all.

I am not a Christian, but I do believe that love is the only appropriate measure of a life,

and whether a life had enough love or not remains its clear message to us, the still living,

and is a message that needs to be publicly aired. It is not enough to replace it with talk of

seasons changing, or leaves falling.

I have probably tried to say to much here, and I hope that in this jumble of opinions and

declarations some sense of what we do and how we do it differently comes across. I will

answer Charlesʼs question about how many services a celebrant should do in one week.

Personally, I start to lack focus on any more than two. Were I doing this without the

undertaking, clearly it wouldnʼt be financially viable, but I think there is a strong argument

for a confident celebrant to value themselves in the way Charles urges all good

undertakers to do, to realise that a well constructed ceremony is the most important part of

the funeral, and should be worth 3-4 hundred pounds.

6 comments on “Guest post by Rupert Callender, undertaker

  1. Monday 14th June 2010 at 4:26 pm

    Wonderful poem, Jonathan. Wonderful.

    Is there a consensus growing here concerning the real value of a funeral celebrant?

    I can’t afford to work as one, not on the £140 tops you get round here. But that’s not the point. The point is that there are lots of EXCELLENT people who would be brilliant celebrants but they simply can’t afford to do it. And maybe that tells us something about the calibre/disposition of so many of those who troop off for the training…

  2. gloriamundi

    Monday 14th June 2010 at 12:14 pm

    Given the quality and utility (if that’s not too blunt a word) of your comments, particularly recently, a blog from you, Jonathan, would be a Good Thing for which I for one would say big thanks.. I shall lift (whilst acknowledging, of course)some of the above when I finally turn from blathering on in Charles’ blog, to posting a few thoughts about bodies and funerals. Thank you – again – for the above.

  3. Jonathan

    Sunday 13th June 2010 at 7:10 pm

    Dear Rupert,

    Thank you for your awe-inspiring post the other day. I promised to have something more intelligent than my immediate response, but it wasn’t that easy.

    I can say how fortunate are the very few families who have those caring for their dead for their ‘celebrant’ (yes, yuck) over the days they are together. It’s the only coherent way to do it, but in practice we nearly all get to know the family only after they’ve been packaged and presented to us by a well-meaning funeral director who leaves them at our door, and so we are compromised before we start.

    I’m especially grateful to you for emphasizing the focussing power of the death narrative – so often, people end their account of it with; “but that’s not what I want to remember about her, it’s all the happy times before that matter.” It takes a loving hand to go against such a caution without inflicting pain or resentment, and raise things to a level of un-prepared-for honesty.

    And yes, we are the witness here, but the invited guest also, so there’s a balance to be struck between truthfulness and etiquette. Perhaps the most powerful effect of a really well spoken, well-written tribute, in attractive prose that’s a pleasure to listen to and that actually evokes a dead human being, is the feeling that the person, and her folks’ relationships with her, are indeed witnessed and cared about, even after death. It makes her real.

    We can’t all do it the same – good god, what did I just say? Wouldn’t that be awful! – but I have to admire and respect your way, and I hope I can learn from you. So thanks for that, Rupert, and please may I return the compliment with what it looks like from inside me:

    You can’t feel someone else’s pain; you can’t know how they feel at all. You can only know how to hurt, and show that you yourself have what it takes to celebrate life without losing touch with your own grief. Which I think means sharing their pain, in a way, by revealing something of yourself to them so they can see that you too are acquainted with grief. (That’s what I used to assume humanism meant.) And chuck out the bullshit about keeping a ‘professional distance’, so you can show the family that you love them. And if, as Paul Hensby said, no-one is ‘celebrating their grief’ as I rashly put it recently, have the honesty to say yes, there’s nothing good to say about this, no-one has any answers or comfort for you and neither do I, and that’s what this has to be about today.


    Let me end with a sort of poem I wrote some years ago, which still says it for me, and which I imaginatively called ‘On Writing a Funeral’:

    I wrote down your words in disorderly groups that clamour to form sentences that will speak you her name.
    She looks out from her photo, shyly at first, as I strain to catch your thoughts in her face.
    I touch my notepad, gingerly trying to feel your hand as you reach across my desk to clasp hers.

    I stop writing, have a fag and some coffee and, back from my musings, I see you and she have altered my faltering prose.
    Good. We’ve begun; and slowly I withdraw, to eavesdrop on your parting as you hold your goodbyes in my study.

    Just the donkey work now, to get it word-perfect, and give her the chance for her last call to you from the wrong side of the grave.

    (Oh, and yes, I’d reckon that, for at least fifteen hours’ work at, say, £25 an hour for such skilled craft, a proper ceremony should be worth £375 at least.)

  4. Jonathan

    Tuesday 8th June 2010 at 3:10 pm

    Too much to go into comprehensively till later, but for now…

    Say it sensitively how you’ve been shown it, intentionally or not, I agree, and I’ve often been thanked for doing so.

    But there are times when I’m aware of deliberately colluding with a family’s denial because it would be cruel to undermine this crucial psychological defence in the first days after a death. I’m reminded of a Cruse client who fondly spoke of his wife becoming compost in the woodland burial ground. What would you have me say? “I’m afraid, actually, she’s just sludge and methane.”? He needed his illusion to come to terms with the truth in his own time (which I think he did, incidentally); perhaps that’s partly what a funeral is for sometimes, to put the truth on hold and replace it with something more palatable for the time being so we can safely bury the corpse without going mad?

    Thanks for this food for thought, Rupert. I’m going to need to read you again to come up with something more intelligent, I’m afraid; so, till we meet again…


  5. gloriamundi

    Monday 7th June 2010 at 9:52 pm

    Rupert, thank you, that’s really very fine, very high-protein, very rewarding and honest. There is so much in it I don’t know where to start, and since I don’t like writing long entries in these little comments boxes, I’ll move back to my blog to write more fully. I need a little more time to think about it.

    But for now: the growth-points and arguments you raise which I want to address include safety/authenticity, breaking social masks, risk and disengagement,and your swipe at Humanists as anti-theists, which I utterly, comprehensively etc refute, unless I can persuade you to put the word “some” in the right place.

    There seems to me to be much of great value and growth in what you say, and also some real dangers.


  6. Monday 7th June 2010 at 4:00 pm

    You can follow another very interesting and intelligent discussion about celebrancy over at Gloria Mundi’s blog:

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