Category Archives: celebrants

Responsibility for your own conduct

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

laughter

 

By celebrant Wendy Coulton of Dragonfly Funerals

The Plymouth Herald ran a story recently about a family complaint that the funeral service for their relative was disrupted by the loud and distracting sound of laughter and conversation outside by a large number of people waiting to attend the next funeral. They included senior leading council figures because the funeral was of a former councillor.

Instead of holding their hand up and unreservedly apologising for any upset they caused, one councillor blamed the crematorium staff for not marshalling the crowd properly and the council statement said this was an issue they would take up with the funeral director. This just added insult to injury to the family who said their funeral was spoilt.

I was incensed that the crematorium staff were the scapegoat and was delighted when the Herald ran my letter prominently with the headline ‘Take responsibility for your own conduct.’ Grown adults shouldn’t need to be reminded or marshalled on how to behave in a cemetery outside a chapel when they know a service is being conducted.

It is a challenge managing large numbers of attendees at the council crematoria because of the back to back service activity and limited areas to congregate but at the end of day it may come down to that simple saying ‘Silence is golden.’ The wake reception may be the better time for banter and a good chat.

Mother of all swear words

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

keep-calm-and-no-foul-language

 

Posted by Wendy Coulton

Recently I had a dilemma in that a funeral I was planning and conducting was for someone who was known among their close friends for using the expletive C*** (C U Next Tuesday) with affection and as a genuine term of endearment.

I winced when I heard this because it is the mother of all swear words and I shuddered at the thought of having my mouth washed out with soap if I cursed (a threat my mother made when I was a child). But equally I understood and respected that it wasn’t regarded as offensive within the tight knit social circle of the deceased.

I knew that I would not myself be able to say the C word as an individual with my own values and also in my professional capacity as a funeral celebrant.

The friends were rallying their support by producing the Order of Service and they wanted to include this particular word on it. When I spoke to the mother of the deceased to research the tribute I became increasingly uncomfortable that her generation of the family could be offended by this language and I shared my concern diplomatically with the friend who was organising the Order of Service.

The friend was very gracious and acknowledged the point I raised. They came up with their own compromise which I thought worked brilliantly. A differently worded version of the Order of Service was produced for the family mourners and another with the C word in it was produced and handed out to friends who attended the service.

Doing them justice

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Judgement_day_IMG_1369

 

Over on the Mindfulness and Mortality blog, in a discussion about funeral eulogies, Gloriamundi asks a good question:

“Why do we seem to feel the need to sum up a life and pass judgement on it?”

He goes on: “The torrent of unqualified praise that falls on someone who has just died is an expression of sorrow and compassion, of course.” He wonders, though, if  “the only way to set the balance straight and strive for a more balanced, seemingly accurate picture would be to talk about the less angelic side of someone’s nature.”

Gloriamundi concludes: “Who are we to pronounce judgement upon the flickering, shimmering transience of a personality? The imperfect wonders of a human life? Let’s accept the limits of human judgement and not encumber a funeral with verdicts.”

Instead: “How much better to have people tell us, directly or via the celebrant, what the person meant to them. How much better to have anecdotes and stories that illustrate some well-known characteristics; they bring about the smiles of recognition and affectionate grief, they mean much more than generalised and abstract judgements.”

It’s a perennial question: what exactly is the purpose of a funeral eulogy within the context of a funeral rite?

Well, what are the expectations of the audience?  Do those who come to a funeral expect an evaluation of the dead person?

Yes, they probably do, don’t they? Religious people, for sure, believe that death is when we render our final account to God and receive, in awe and trembling, some sort of verdict on our life. As the Bible says, on the Day of Judgement, “who shall stand when he appeareth? for he [is] like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap.”

God is less like fullers’ soap nowadays, more of a mate, but nonetheless: there’s a widespread sense among the unchurched, too, that death is a time for totting up and taking stock. Unbelievers and those of fuzzy faith want their celebrant to deliver a final reckoning, albeit with a much massaged bottom line  – more soft soap than fullers’.

So perhaps Gloriamundi and her/his kind ought to view a eulogy as, essentially, an exercise in creative accounting.

But for a eulogist to try and meet the expectations of the audience if those expectations are no more than a cultural hand-me-down is, some would argue, no longer useful nor necessary — it’s time, now, to set aside the traditional funeral in favour of a more apt vehicle. If so, what would that vehicle look like?

As it happens, the eminent humanist Harold Blackman designed one. He questioned the focus on the corpse and the usefulness of the public funeral ritual. He favoured a private, corpse-free (‘unencumbered’) funeral ritual – he called it a memorial meeting – featuring, in the words of his eulogist, Nigel Collins, a “reasonably full, frank and above all honest account of the subject – so, crucially, more a multi-faceted tribute than an idealised eulogy.” This looks very close to the Gloriamundi position.

In Blackman’s words: “Modern humanists should not make much of funeral rites, disposal of the body, attendance on it at the tomb; rather, they should encourage friends and relatives to come together to contribute from their memories and impressions to the creation of a new image of the person they knew, harvesting what was cultivated and produced in life.”

Again: “Even for the most private person, the unencumbered memorial meeting is the real tribute to the dead and the real admonition to the living, for it helps to redeem the loss in a living image and it asks for a life worth valuing. The Memoryconcentration and collective contribution of the memorial meeting can raise and reinforce the image of the lost person with the sharpness of finality that survives dispersion. This should be a harvest ritual rather than a tomb ritual.

When Blackman first proposed these ideas to the Royal Society in 1967 he encountered “violent protest … Many of [the Fellows] at least could not tolerate the idea of not paying respect to the dead in the customary way.”

That was almost 50 years ago. Blackman died in 2009 at the ripe age of 105 and was accorded a memorial meeting according to his own model — here.  He would be interested to observe the waning of the focus on the corpse that seems to be under way today. And he’d probably like the cut of Gloriamundi’s jib.

reproduction_painting-England-Glendening, Alfred 1861 - 1907-Resting From The Harvest

A new choice of funeral venue for bereaved of Plymouth

Sunday, 4 May 2014

unnamed (2)

 

Devonport Guildhall

 

Devonport’s historic Guildhall is to be offered as a venue for funerals. 

Built in 1822, the Grade 1 listed building has, over the years, served as a town hall, magistrates court, library and even a mortuary. It is now a community hub which hosts exhibitions, community group activities, events, weddings and conferences. 

The initiative has been driven by celebrant Wendy Coulton supported by  David Parslow of Walter C Parson funeral directors. Wendy has for some time been a doughty campaigner for venues that are more funeral-friendly than a crematorium — see here

Wendy says: 

“For a city population the size of Plymouth, the bereaved are poorly served at the moment in terms of providing choice of venue for non-religious funerals. The majority are held at the local crematorium and on a lesser scale in the non-denominational chapel at Ford Park cemetery and occasionally at Plymouth Albion rugby ground.

“I approached Devonport Guildhall about hosting funerals because the building is special. The Main Hall is beautiful and welcoming but it is also versatile in the way the room can be used for funerals attended by 50 to 200 mourners. Traditional chapel settings have regimented pew seating and fixed lecterns. At Devonport Guildhall we can use the space and arrange the seating and layout as the bereaved wish. It will enable Plymouth families to pay their respects and give thanks for the life of the person who has died in their own way and in their own time.

“Devonport Guildhall should be commended for recognising that this is a wonderful way to serve the community and I hope other appropriate venues in Plymouth will be more open-minded about hosting funerals, wake receptions and memorial events. If the person who has died had a particular affection or connection with a place it may be more comforting for the bereaved to hold the funeral there when the time comes.

We are very grateful to David Parslow of Walter C Parson funeral directors for supporting this initiative from the outset and providing valuable practical guidance to ensure the building is fit for this purpose. In time it would be fantastic if city funeral directors could offer their clients a range of venue options for non-religious funerals.”

Devonport Guildhall’s Commercial Manager Claire Burgess says: “The beauty of the Main Hall is that it is a light, airy and versatile space so that we can create a personalised setting for any occasion or event.

When visitors walk into the Main Hall they comment on how beautiful and impressive it is, but also how intimate and friendly it feels. We want to provide a venue which meets the needs of all generations in the city from naming ceremonies and weddings to funerals and memorial events.

“We understand that more people in Plymouth are choosing a non-religious funeral and throughout its history Devonport Guildhall has adapted in the way it serves the community.”

Here at the GFG we think this is terrific. Go Wendy! 

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Wendy Coullton

 

What’s for love and what’s for money?

Monday, 31 March 2014

third_sector

 

If there’s one thing that really vexes people in the funerals business it’s the question of who gets paid for what – and how much.

Take the business of conducting a funeral. In England, when C of E clergy moved their fee up to £160 + travel, lots of people howled. Everyone in England is entitled to a C of E funeral whether they attend church or not. The C of E is the state church. Vicars are paid wages to lead parish worship and attend to pastoral duties. How therefore can they define a funeral as an extra? Well, up in Scotland, where the Church of Scotland is the national church, not the state church, ministers make no charge for conducting a funeral. But the C of S is running out of money and looks like not being able to afford to do this for much longer. Conducting funerals for nothing is a luxury it cannot afford. Every altruistic enterprise needs revenue streams.

In the case of secular celebrants, the contract with clients is apparently clearer cut. They sell their skills for a price the market will stand. Theirs is unmistakably a commercial service. A good many celebrants are thereby able to generate a reasonable income by knocking out up to 10 or so funerals a week, working from a template with slot-in readings, etc  – a liturgy by any other name, nothing wrong with that — comprising also a treatment of the life of the person who’s died which probably goes little deeper than rapidly gathered facts + dates + a few notable attributes.

Alongside these fast-food merchants are the altruistic adherents of the Slow Funerals movement for whom the creation of a funeral is an evolving process requiring much talk, much listening, much thought and, as a consequence, a treatment of the life lived which calls for a great deal of ‘frightfully difficult literary labour’. The result is a funeral which goes deeper and is more personal. A better funeral, in other words. But to work in this way, and conduct a very few funerals a week, requires either acceptance of poverty or the existence of another form of income, whether in the shape of a pension, an inherited fortune or a supportive partner. In commercial terms, it is an uneconomic way of working.

So: how much of the time put in by these Slow Funerals people do we count as being given for nothing? What part of their work, in other words, counts as voluntary work?

This question doesn’t apply only to celebrants. There are undertakers, too, who believe in Slow Funerals, and who may also believe in doing their best for those who struggle to find the funds for a funeral. They generate a great deal of social capital but many of them don’t bank a lot of cash. It’s the same with every vocational occupation, of course, the difference being that most vocations we can think of pay at a level that makes going the extra mile an affordable luxury. Many of our most caring undertakers, by contrast, live close to the breadline. Many, but by no means all.

Funeral shoppers have always had a difficulty with acknowledging and accepting that a funeral is a consumer product just the same as any other. That’s changing. Two factors above all are responsible. First, it’s a product which 1 in 5 people struggle to afford. Second, it’s a product whose experiential value is being increasingly questioned.

Did I say two? Add a third. Until recent years, the state enabled everyone to buy a decent one-of-those, what-everyone-has, funeral. Any notion that the value of the Social Fund Funeral Payment will be restored in this, the era of the benefits cap, looks delusional. So something’s got to give, and that something’s almost certainly the way we do it now.

The time-consuming part of an undertaker’s and a celebrant’s work, which calls for high expertise and wisdom, is the emotional support of the bereaved, helping them come to terms with, and make some sense of, what has happened. The easy bit for an undertaker is the care of the person who’s died. Any good celebrant will tell you that only a small proportion of the value of their work can be judged by the script they read at the funeral.

You’ll not find the pastoral element of the work itemised and charged for at an hourly rate on any bill submitted by an undertaker or any celebrant. You can’t place a commercial value on that, you can’t charge people for kindness. If you’re an undertaker, it’s the care of the body that has to cover it. If you’re a celebrant, the rate for a template funeral. Reputation will help, too, of course. You can put your prices up a notch if everyone agrees you’re worth it — but you might not want to do that if it means making you unaffordable to people of slender means.

Whatever you think of all that, the fact remains that the what-everyone-has funeral, reckoned expensive by those who can afford one, is now out of reach to an increasingly large segment of the population. We need something more affordable.

conference held at the International Longevity Centre in February this year proposed a cheaper way forward that we’ve discussed on this blog: There is considerable potential to review the funeral service itself, separating the ritual from the committal. This could enable people to have more time to consider the ritual aspects and costs of the service, separate from the more functional aspect of managing the remains. When they say committal, they mean disposal, of course. Do read the report, it’s good.

Separate the disposal from the ritual. Take the corpse out of the funeral. Bring in cheaper cremation and the re-use of graves, and the costs begin to tumble. If, that is, the resulting ritual is reckoned timely and satisfying. Not everyone will be persuaded, of course. 

Kate Woodthorpe at the University of Bath takes it a step further and proposes that there may be roles for “public, private and third sectors in both preparing individuals and their families pre-death, and when bereaved.

That’s interesting. Third sector. Volunteers to share the work of listening and supporting bereaved people. That would redefine the roles of undertakers and ritualists. But is it really a viable alternative to the way we do things now?

 

Does distance disadvantage the bereaved?

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

telephone image

 

Guest blog post by civil funeral celebrant Wendy Coulton

More often the next of kin I work with to plan non-religious funeral ceremonies live in another part of the UK but this week I have had my first experience of discussing and planning arrangements with relatives living on two different continents!

Creating trust and an open dialogue through long distance telephone calls and email communication is more challenging than a conversation in person. A lot can be gleaned from reading facial expressions and body language or observing how relatives interact with each other. There is also of course the power of silence or pauses which can reveal so much about relationships or emotions which may not be as comfortable on the end of a phone line.

I ask the client how they would like to communicate and whether they would like the planning of arrangements to be broken down into bite-sized chunks or prefer to do it in one long conversation or email.

Some clients drip feed me questions or responses by text and others co-ordinate contributions from other people who contact me direct. Offers to skype have not yet been taken up.

Personally for me the most difficult aspect of the ‘remote conversation’ is the tribute research and feeling I have captured the real essence of the person who has died.

It does feel different meeting a client for the first time minutes before the funeral starts but there is a notable shift by the time our shared funeral experience ends. And it’s possible that some prefer the detachment of long distance preparation.

I don’t want my clients to feel disadvantaged in any way because they live so far away and I hope communication technology doesn’t dilute my warmth and professionalism. Any tips or guidance would be welcome.

 

Better together

Thursday, 6 March 2014

handshaking-4

 

Sexual intercourse began, Philip Larkin reckoned, in 1963. So, roughly, did the secular funeral. It was about this time that the BHA began to develop its celebrant network.

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.

 

Holding the line

Monday, 24 February 2014

There’s nothing new in a minister-naffs-off-mourners story, nor yet a Catholic-priest-bans-eulogy story. Some minsters are insensitive to the needs of their congregations, some insist on theological orthodoxy, some use a funeral as a conversion opportunity, some like to remind non-churchgoers that they will burn for all eternity in the fires of hell. Some clergy do exactly what their congregations want them to do, let’s not forget, but today’s story is not about them.

Today’s story is about Father Mike, a catholic priest in America who, at the funeral of a 29 year-old, was reckoned to have conducted himself in an insensitive, impersonal way which denied the congregation the comfort and assurance they sought. Below is an email one of the mourners sent to him:

father-mike-1

Below is the reply from the priest:

father-mike-2

 

Father Mike, like a lot of Catholic priests, believes that a funeral is no place for a eulogy. The do afterwards is the appropriate occasion for personal tributes, reminiscences and other life-celebratory stuff. A Catholic funeral has an altogether different job to do.

Father Mike’s heartless-seeming treatment of those grieving people is theologically defensible. Who are we to take issue with him for defending the integrity of the Catholic funeral mass and objecting to it being muddled by the intrusion of an anomalous element like a eulogy? Any faith group which is settled, fixed and confident in its beliefs prohibits the intrusion of anomaly. Atheists (Humanists) ban religious elements from their funerals, a practice reckoned heartless by some. In the words of one humanist celebrant, “Reverting to old comforting superstitions at a time of bereavement is understandable and will no doubt persist for a generation or two … I feel that celebrants, whether Humanist or religious should personally subscribe to the ethos and philosophy that underlies the nature of the ceremony.”

Whether or not Father Mike would subscribe to what this same celebrant goes on to say, we can only wonder: “I’ve met independent celebrants who’ve told me they can be whatever the client wants them to be but that strikes me as being the job description of an ancient but entirely different profession altogether.” (Source)

The question never debated by secular, semi-religious, call-them-what-you-will celebrants is whether a eulogy does actually belong in a funeral. If a wedding is analogous, we note that the speeches are made at the wedding breakfast, not the marriage ceremony — the happy chatter is kept separate from the solemnisation.

Eulogy clincher

Monday, 17 February 2014

greatest-hits-danse-pop

 

One for you celebrants.

US Methodist minister Talbot Davis has written an open letter to fellow pastors on his blog urging them to make a better fist of funerals. He offers lots of sound advice and concludes by urging them to use his favourite line:

“[The deceased] is more alive now than they have ever been before.” 

Used at the end of a eulogy, he says, this goes down extremely well.

Tempted to try it?

(When I was a celebrant I had a favourite line. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.)

Greetings from the Isle of Portland, buffeted but unbowed.

Would you ever marry them?

Friday, 7 February 2014

oludeniz_weddings_garden_wedding4jpg_114594

 

We are pleased to publish the email below, which raises a potentially interesting point of discussion. The name of the sender has, with our agreement, been redacted.

Dear Charles

I read with interest yesterday’s blog about the Funeral Director who has diversified into organising other ‘life events’. I can’t for the life of me decide whether or not what you say is fantasy and poppycock, or whether this man actually exists. On the grounds that truth is infinitely more depressing than fiction, I have decided to believe that he exists.

But that is not why I am writing to you. Much the more interesting matter you raised was one you merely touched on — or to be precise, glanced off. You say this man was ‘inspired’ by the example of an ‘all-rounder’ celebrant (what my close celebrant friends and I refer to more bluntly as a promiscuous celebrant). I am pointing the finger here at celebrants who ‘sleep around’ with other rites of passage. I bump into a great many of them, these days, at the crematorium. Their talk is all of wedding ‘fayres’ and fripperies.

Now, I am a funeral celebrant. I have been a funeral celebrant for seventeen years. In all that time I have been as minded to conduct a wedding ceremony as walk to the South Pole in carpet slippers.

I have a question I would like to address, with your indulgence, Charles, to any celebrants out there brave enough to put their heads above the parapet and speak out.

Celebrants, if it was funerals that drew you to celebrancy; if, for you, funeral celebrancy is a vocation, can officiating at ‘lesser rites’ be seen as a natural extension of that vocation? Would you, do you, ever do it?

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