Uptake wasn’t dramatic at first; most unchurched people carried on having bleak and meaningless duty-minister funerals all the same. By the turn of the century, though, it was clear that numbers were fast falling away from the church, and it was in 2002 that the zeigeisty ‘civil’ funeral for people of fuzzy faith or swirly spirituality was transplanted from Australia by Professor Tony Walter. Civil Ceremonies Ltd began to train ‘civil’ celebrants (Prof Walter is still one of the tutors) to conduct funerals “driven by the wishes, beliefs and values of the deceased and their family, not by the beliefs or ideology of the person conducting the funeral.” This formula was taken up by green fuse in Totnes and then by the AOIC. Infighting at the AOIC begat all manner of breakaway training outfits and professional associations. The cost of training became a competitive issue when new providers entered the market with cut-price, ‘microwave’ training.
We can talk about the value of training another day. Can it do more than merely get you started? Can it turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse? Or even a halfway decent suede one? Does training weed out those who aren’t good enough? Wouldn’t apprenticeship work rather better? As I say, another day.
A consequence of the upsurge in celebrant training is that some areas of Britain are now flooded with bright-eyed rookies trying vainly to get a foot in the door, watched with uncollegial fear and loathing by incumbent practitioners. The number of training orgs has gone off the scale.
The self-regard of secular celebrants is high, bolstered by the touching gratitude of the families they work with. Lest this self-regard lapse into complacency, let’s have a look at three areas possibly requiring attention.
1. Why do you all hate each other?
There is, to all appearances, vastly more that brings celebrants together than drives them apart, shared vocation for starters. So, why so little interdenominational dialogue?
Why all this silly internecine stuff that fuels feuds? Humanists mutter bitterly of pick ‘n’ mixers and prostitutes. Pick ‘n’ mixers and prostitutes mutter that humanists are arrogant and out of touch, the IoCF is too corporate, green fuse is hippy-dippy, ministers are wicked. Some organisations are too commercial, selling celebrancy as a nowt but a nice little earner; others offer externally accredited diplomas at an unnecessarily high academic level. All organisations think they’re the best.
To anyone on the sidelines it looks as if navel-gazing issues, commercial concerns, petty jealousies, the promotion of self-interest and making the best of things as they are, not as they ought to be, engross you to the exclusion of vastly more important matters.
Oh, and the truth is that all celebrant organisations churn out some celebrants who are stunning and some who are rubbish. You need to sort that.
2. Why the complete lack of thought leadership?
There is a very lively, issues-rich debate going on these days out there in society about dying, death and funerals. Name one contribution to this debate made by the celebrant orgs. Go on, one.
Celebrants, you are intelligent people and the best of you are reflective. Collectively, yours can be an influential voice. But you can only begin to contribute when you start talking to each other.
3. Why the denial of client choice?
Celebrancy does not offer, for celebrants, a level playing field for open and fair competition. It’s no job for a proud freelancer. Undertakers, many of whom are little interested in the value of the experience offered by a good funeral ceremony, are still the arbiters of who gets to work and who doesn’t. This suits the palm-greasers (the sort of who slip their FD fifty quid for every funeral), the grovellers and the dependency junkies. It works against talented new entrants for whom career progression may be a matter of dead person’s shoes.
This comes at the cost of the very thing everybody in funerals says they care about most: client choice. If it is good and right that the best celebrants thrive and the worst go to the wall, then it is clients, and only clients, who can be the arbiters of that.
Client choice is easily enabled. The website funeralcelebrants.org.uk already enables bereaved people to type in their postcode and find out who’s in their area. Only a very few of the listed celebrants have enabled feedback. Tcha! Every celebrant can link to their website on which they can have a video clip so people can see if they’re their kind of person, and a calendar showing their availability — like a holiday cottage.
But first you need to get together and show a united front to the undertakers. Are you up for that?
If it’s the interests of bereaved people that matter to you most, as you say, it’s time to drop the bickering and put them first.