From a practising funeral celebrant, more opinionated stuff that possibly needs a health warning: it’s only what I think.
I’m not really sure why we do it – I’m sure we have many very different conscious reasons and less self-aware motivations. As Freud, Jung, Adler and Frankl all said, or if they didn’t, they should have: our motives are opaque unto ourselves. If you think you’ve understood your own motives in something as complex as this, then your motives have probably just skipped a step or two further back into the mists. Anyway, here’s a few pointers through the murk:
- * We do it because for some strange reason we can do it, this odd thing. It’s difficult, demanding, fascinating, and
- * No, we don’t do it just for the money. We’re not that stupid.
- * It needs doing, if people are to have more freedom and choice about an important event. That’s the ideological motivation. Not everyone’s spiritual needs (or atheistical requirements) can be well served by ordained ministers of religion.
- * It’s intensely interesting, the patterns of all these lives and their endings. Many “ordinary” lives are not in the least ordinary. It is a privilege to help mark their ending.
- * The job flatters or completes our egos; it feels good to be wanted, at a time of crisis in people’s lives. People are mostly very appreciative; the bond between us and a family is brief but it can suddenly feel very warm, very strong. If we’re doing the job well, we have to share a little of their grief, and feel some love for them. So it’s a bit deeper than flattery, but the mists are swirling, so I’ll move on…
- * No, hang on, let’s look into that: maybe we get a charge out of being close to some strangers for a short and intense period, and then we can – have to – move on; we’re compassion tarts, sentiment junkies, it makes our own lives more intense. And that sense of heightened meaning, contact with an absolute, is very addictive.
- * It helps us to explore our own mortality and to come to terms better with the prospect of our own deaths. So we’re trying to work through fears of our own about death, by a kind of familiarisation therapy.
- * Following on from that: we are close to death at funerals, but afterwards we are still here; after a successful funeral, we feel a sense of achievement, even a small victory. We’ve helped some people find meaning when death has taken away someone who meant a lot to them. Not a victory over death itself, of course, but over the desolation and emptiness it creates.
- * We like the attention – it’s a small-scale public event, and they sure as hell pay attention to you, even if many of them won’t remember a word.
- * We are chronic melancholics and we like hanging around graves and crematoria, wearing black and looking profound – sort of doing a Hamlet: “Alas, poor Yorick! I never knew him Horatio, but he sounds to me like a fellow of infinite jest, why, his family were telling me just the other day they well remember the time he…”
- * We’re disgusted by what we see as the emotionally stifling conventions of the funeral business and our culture’s mortality aversion. We want to open it right out, because we can see a way it can be done better, a way that can enrich people’s lives, honour their deaths, and be use to their grieving.
- * Oh, and (let’s be fair to ourselves): It’s good to feel you’ve helped some people, and done a good job for them for a fee that is not extortionate. If, of course, you have done a good job…
It’s interesting how many celebrants I know moved into the role after some profound and distressing experience – a near-death illness, the death of someone or some people close to them. I very much respect that. Which raises the question: can you be a successful celebrant if you haven’t been bereaved? Don’t know – guess so, but I do think our own losses can make a bridge for our empathy and compassion.