Churchill was mulling over a cabinet appointment, weighing up the merits of a candidate. Glancing towards his principal private secretary he enquired: “What about So-and-so?” The PPS murmured: “Simply won’t do, Prime Minister.”
They talked like that, then. They understood the thermonuclear power of understatement.
That same PPS might have pronounced the same judgement on a number of today’s funeral celebrants.
In the beginning were the humanists. Then came the civils. Then the Green Fusers. Then the AOIC. Then, in what order I knoweth not, the Fellowship of Independent Celebrants, the Fellowship of Professional Celebrants, Perfect Ceremonies, County Celebrants, the Scottish Independent Celebrants Association… That’s as many as I can be bothered to track down in 5 mins of googling. These are all training organisations. There’s a bunch of self-taught freelancers out there, too. Together they’re breeding like rabbits. Demand for secular funerals is rising, but is it really rising this fast?
So who’s good and who’s not? If there needs to be a cull, who needs to go?
If you were to say that some celebrants are better than others, how would you make that value judgement? Where’re your criteria?
If it’s about brains, what level of intellectual attainment does a celebrant require? Some would say you need to be really quite bright to be any good at this work. It helps with the thinking and the listening and the writing. You need grammar, you need spelling, you need vocab, you need apostrophes. It does no harm to be well read. You need a formidable armoury of brain cells to create something appropriate and thoughtful and meaningful that articulates the feelings and values of the mourners and makes a funeral intellectually, emotionally and spiritually useful.
How are we to rate performance skills? Just as a beautifully crafted script can be devalued by mumbling, so can an indifferent script can be made much of by excellent delivery, a compelling presence and a mobile face. As to the quality of the thoughts and ideas expressed, one person’s banality is another person’s enduring wisdom. A lot of clever stuff uttered by brainboxes possibly passes over everyone’s heads. Style may count for more than substance, emotional rapport for more than cerebral rigour, with an audience whose minds are suffused with sadness.
What about motivation, then? Celebrancy has got to be vocational, hasn’t it? You’ve got to have a sense of mission, surely? You care about your work so much that you spend hours agonising over every script. You wouldn’t dream of taking on more than five ceremonies, max, a week. Three, even.
There is no doubting that bright, vocation-driven celebrants work incredibly hard at what they do. They reflect on their work self-critically, hanker to do better, are never satisfied with themselves. They are, in their way, admirable human beings. It’s not the money they do it for, not principally, it’s the getting it right that gets them out of bed in the morning. But are they in the wrong line of work? Is it really this hard?
When I posted a video of David Abel, of the Fellowship of Independent Celebrants, on the GFG’s Facebook page, comments were universally disparaging. Mr Abel, addressing would-be celebrants on his website, doesn’t address the matter of vocation at all. He doesn’t talk about supporting bereaved people and creating meaningful funerals in a secular age. He bypasses philosophical and vocational values and confines himself entirely to money matters: “It’s a market that’s very quick to get into … Some of my colleagues are conducting eight to ten funerals a week at a minimum fee of £150.” Watch him here.
The verdict of the market would seem to be that Mr Abel and the celebrants he trains are doing a perfectly good job at 8 to 10 a week. If he neglects to talk about vocational values in his video, his organisation requires high ethical standards of its members. Furthermore, Mr Abel has been instrumental in working to establish an umbrella organisation for all celebrants in order to drive up standards.
Just as funeral directors conduct their own backstabberly feuds in the best traditions of any caring profession, celebrants, too, are prone to really quite beastly factionalism. This is not just a matter of turf wars and power plays, though, goodness knows, these abound. Nor is it as simple as mutual animosity between visionary pioneers and cut’n’paste journeymen.
It may be the case that some celebrants take themselves more seriously than the job demands.
Wherein lies the value of a funeral?