The Good Funeral Guide Blog

What You Need to be a Celebrant (the unofficial version)

Wednesday, 7 September 2011


Posted by Gloriamundi


Health warning: this will be opinionated – it’s only my view



1. Ask yourself why you want to do it, and listen to the answers. The motivations of celebrants are varied, and not necessarily clear to themselves at first. It’s a role that reveals yourself to yourself. That can be quite a tough process. You’ll want to feel happy with some robust, clear non-financial reasons for doing it.

2. Another income stream is essential; it is all but impossible to earn a sensible living. The demand for your services will be unreliable and unpredictable. There may be a very few people who can take enough ceremonies each week to earn a very modest living, but they must be super-efficient, emotionally and spiritually tough, and have a fade-proof capacity for empathy.

 3. There are probably some people who should never try to be teachers or airline pilots or…celebrants. You need a basic toolkit:

*   empathy and patience to deal with the bewildering variety of responses you’ll come across amongst bereaved people (they can even be startlingly rude sometimes!) 

*   a reasonably wide knowledge of the ways of the world – you meet all sorts of people, and you’ll want to pick up very quickly on cultural signals, work references, social contexts 

*   an understanding of, preferably a gift for, ceremony and ritual

*   the ability to write and speak in a way that creates enhanced meaning, and draws people towards you rather than keeping them at a stiff distance.

Some but not all of these things can be improved with training – provided they are there to begin with. (Fair enough, I couldn’t fly an Airbus if I trained for ten years…)

 4. Here’s the big stuff: for the bereaved people you work with, you need to be able feel and show some love. Not the sentimental version, the real, unselfish, compassionate thing. You’re not there just to take efficient notes about someone’s life, stick some philosophical niceties fore and aft, and play a CD or two. You need to be able to enter a circle of grief and share a little of it without being knocked over yourself. You’re on a journey with these people. They’ve not been on it before, nor have you, and you can’t know your final destination when you start the journey.

 5. Obvious enough: you have to put your own preferences and beliefs at a working distance, while you help people explore what they need. This sometimes means letting go whilst family members do something you may think you could do better yourself. A funeral isn’t an artifact, it’s an event; your control over it won’t be total.

 6. You need to stay calm if unexpected things happen (mostly they don’t.) In fact, reducing tension without being superficial is something important you always need to do, so people can feel what they feel, not what they might think they are expected to feel.

 7. If you’re good, you’ll find a sense of balance, constantly shifting as you read people’s responses and tune your voice, your gaze, your stance; you need what people usually call presence, and yet it’s not about you. The ceremony needs to belong to them; it’s not a showcase for your erudition and eloquence. You’re sharing the floor with them, even if yours is the only voice heard.

 8. OK, so:

*  being a celebrant is badly paid (at many funerals, the flowers cost more than the celebrant’s fee) and the training is expensive

*  some crems are dreary, some undertakers can be difficult

*  it can be nerve wracking (at the first one or two, nerves are predictable, but things can go wrong however well-experienced you are)

*  it is sometimes deeply upsetting; a tragedy that has resulted in a phone call to you from a funeral director you’ve met twice and don’t much like, asking you to visit a family you have never met – who are in pieces

*  even with traditional British levels of self-control, raw grief is a difficult thing to share a room with. The only guide is your compassion, the only help is your skill.

 9. If you are being honest with yourself, (if you’re not, you’ll never be a convincing celebrant) if you still want to do it, welcome – it’s a deeply fulfilling job that may overturn your preconceptions about your own mortality. If you wonder why you feel elated as you leave the crematorium. It’s because you’ve been privileged enough to help people with a unique event at a major crisis in their lives. 

17 comments on “What You Need to be a Celebrant (the unofficial version)

  1. Monday 19th September 2011 at 7:14 am

    Late, you say, Ariadne, but very welcome enouragement such as this is never really late! Thanks. Keep on spinning!

  2. Ariadne

    Sunday 18th September 2011 at 6:21 pm

    Late to this post, but want to call out a big hear hear for its wisdom and all-round rightness. Hurrah.

  3. Thursday 15th September 2011 at 9:23 am

    Marvellous. Let’s never forget this when we’ve had a difficult family to deal with, the funeral’s at a dreary crem, the FD’s a jerk and it’s pissing with rain.


    Gloria x

  4. Jonathan

    Thursday 15th September 2011 at 8:39 am

    I do think we leave much behind. A young lad approached me in a cafe recently and said, you probably won’t remember me but you did my (relative)’s funeral, about ten years ago. You’re very highly thought of in my family.

    And then he left.

  5. Wednesday 14th September 2011 at 4:07 pm

    Jonathan, you have it. And not for the first time.

    If there is no such thing as 100% altruism (sterile idea, really, since it separates the does from the object of his actions)than you have beautifully captured why we do this.

    And I think that although you write “I leave,” you also leave much behind.

    As with this poem.

  6. Jonathan

    Monday 12th September 2011 at 4:21 pm

    The funeral nourishes me
    by embrace in the humanity of strangers.

    I relieve them of their bewilderment
    and reveal them to themselves
    in the beauty of their pain,
    with words, with voice, with actions.

    I touch their hurting hearts
    to know they are not in isolation;
    that their grief is universal;
    that healing lets love in
    and does not banish it;
    that anguish
    is their invited guest;
    that tomorrow will still come.

    And then I leave.

  7. Thursday 8th September 2011 at 8:07 pm

    Cl…er, Ru – (Raise? Clu?)now you tell me, when I’ve just ordered it from Amazon. We can comapre notes when I’ve read the other seven books ahead of it in the q.

    CB, thanks back to you for the encouraging words, pleased you and I have resonance there.

    Richard, Pax vobiscum (sorry can’t remember the singular….)and thanks, maybe I will have a crack at the way approaching mortality has changed for me through the work. Probably be tediously personal, mind.

  8. Thursday 8th September 2011 at 7:43 pm

    Still not Claire, still Ru..
    Comfort Blanket, yes, Intimate Death one of greatest books on dying ever written. Bitterly disappointed with her new book on ageing, The Warmth of the heart prevents the body from rusting.

  9. Richard Rawlinson

    Thursday 8th September 2011 at 7:01 pm


    Thank you. I learned from your blog – me not being in the funeral business and even new to thinking about funerals in any depth.

    Believe it or not, I appreciated the qualities and skills required of any funeral celebrant beforehand (!) but my respect for the way good celebrants can help people in crisis has certainly developed as a result of reading your words.

    I can now better imagine how “you’re on a journey with these people”, and how you have to “put your own preferences and beliefs at a working distance, while you help them explore what they need”.

    I’d welcome another blog expanding on how the job may “overturn your preconceptions about your own mortality”.


    Religious correspondent 🙂

  10. Comfort Blanket

    Thursday 8th September 2011 at 6:46 pm

    Forgot to say…

    I read Intimate Death by Marie De Hennezzel 18 months ago and I am still reeling from the raw beauty of it. Incredible.

  11. Comfort Blanket

    Thursday 8th September 2011 at 6:43 pm

    Oh bravo GM… Magnificently accurate and honest description of the role as I see and feel it. Celebrancy is not an outlet for people with a yen for public speaking. It goes way deeper and wider than that. Thank you for putting it so brilliantly – a wonderful reminder of what we do and why we do it. Thank you. x

  12. Thursday 8th September 2011 at 4:37 pm

    Thanks Jon for the compliment – but no, not heroes (well, not necessarily, and not in this case!)but people who find it fulfilling to do a difficult job as well as possible. Maybe it does take a certain kind of nerve, yes (perhaps that’s nerve as in “she’s got a bloody nerve…”?)

    We get a great deal from it, I think. Maybe I’ll risk writing something about the motivations of celebrants. Actually, now that might be close to suicidal heroism as motivations must vary so much between one celebrant and another that I’d be bound to thoroughly irritate some of us. Or all of us except me. H’mm, this is beginning to sound like a good idea….

  13. Thursday 8th September 2011 at 11:28 am

    Thank you for this Gloria. I am in awe of those who have the courage to even consider celebrancy, let alone do it. I couldn’t. Heroes.

  14. Wednesday 7th September 2011 at 10:05 pm

    Much valued words sweetpea,I am much encouraged. Ta.

  15. sweetpea

    Wednesday 7th September 2011 at 7:07 pm

    Beautifully, thoughtfully and accurately expressed, Gloria. Your post should be required reading for anyone considering becoming a celebrant – and anyone who already is.

  16. Wednesday 7th September 2011 at 1:21 pm

    Well, if I could edit the above post, I’d put in a bit using your “flame of reassurance” in a dark place.

    Rogers’ thought is an excellent one in this context, too.

    Ru, these words of yours I greatly treasure, because I understand something of the standards you set yourselves. Thank you.

    I also thank you for putting me on to “Intimate Death.” It is a book beyond praise.

  17. Wednesday 7th September 2011 at 12:00 pm

    Still Ru not Claire..

    Brilliant Gloria, absolutely brilliant. The great psychotherapist Carl Rogers said “Don’t waste your time training therapists-time is better spent in selecting them.” But if you do have to train them, this is as good a manual as you can get.

    In Intimate Death, Marie De Hennezzel describes entering a patient’s room for the first time, just after she has been admitted to the hospice. The patient is very agitated, trying to climb out of her bed. Her daughter is even more so. But in the middle of it is a nurse, Chantelle, calmly smiling. She describes her as a flame of reassurance in this vision of hell.

    That intention, to be that flame of reassurance is what both celebrant and undertakers need to hold on to, whatever rudeness and panic and drama is erupting around them.

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