The time has come to give celebrants their due

Charles 2 Comments

The business model of most busy undertakers subordinates the needs of consumers to the necessity to get things done—paperwork, prepping bodies (laying them out and dressing them), transport issues. The interests of the business and the interests of you, the consumer, conflict. In balancing, on the one hand, things to do against, on the other, people to talk to, undertakers prioritise things to do. They are running against the clock.


You get in the way.


In another important respect the business model of most undertakers is faulty. Undertakers have a dual role. They are tradespeople skilled in looking after dead bodies. They’re generally good at this. They are also event planners who source, instruct and orchestrate service providers. These are, of course, unrelated skills. What’s more, the two roles are easily separated.


Undertakers tend not to be good event planners. Many cling obdurately to the same old same old. They have a template: one size fits all; less is best. They won’t make clients aware that they can have doves or balloons released at the funeral because booking them is too much hassle. Never, when mystery shopping, have I been offered Heaven’s Above fireworks or the services of LifeGem for my fictitious Dad’s ashes. When I die, my ashes will make a LifeGem diamond which will hang from my beloved’s neck and dandle between her breasts. There’s nowhere I’d rather spend eternity.


What disqualifies almost all undertakers from being event planners is this: their focus is not the focus of their clients. For their clients, the climax of the process is the funeral ceremony. But the funeral ceremony is none of an undertaker’s business. No, for the undertaker the climax of the process is the cortege. As the ceremony gets under way with all its majesty, emotional intensity and great grief, the undertaker and his or her staff are off duty, oblivious, often larking.


No wonder specialist event planners are filling the gap, and terrific people they are, too. Check out Sentiment Farewells and The Fantastic Funeral Company. Highly recommended.


The rise of the personalised funeral and the secular celebrant throws into even greater relief the inadequacy of undertakers as event planners. Ask any family, when it’s all over, which person was most important to them, the undertaker or the celebrant, and they’ll likely pick the latter. It’s enough to make celebrants feel that the tail is wagging the dog. They’ve got a point. Does it anger them? Of course it does. Celebrants are the principal drivers of change in the way we do funerals.


In the olden time, when all funerals were conducted by priests, no client, rightly, would ever blame the undertaker if the ceremony was awful.


But when an undertaker refers a client to a secular celebrant, that changes. All at once the undertaker is answerable for the quality of that celebrant’s work.


A really good celebrant makes an undertaker look really good. But no bad undertaker, however dreadful, can make a celebrant look bad. This is a revolutionary development. The balance of power has lurched away from the undertakers with the exception of those few who prioritise the emotional needs of their clients and involve themselves in their farewell rituals. It has created an interesting and potentially beneficial instability. Undertakers complacently suppose that celebrants are dependent on them. It’s time for them to wake up and smell the formaldehyde. Guys, it’s exactly the other way about. 


There are some superb celebrants out there. They bring to their work skills of a high order. They are listeners first and foremost.  They are wordsmiths: they must write literate ceremonies. But they must deliver them, too: they must be good performers. That’s a rare combination of talents.


There’s a wonderful variety of celebrants out there. That’s important. A celebrant speaks for the family and friends of the dead person. He or she is their representative. All the more important, therefore, that the celebrant is ‘one of us’. Staid middle class professionals do not want to be represented by some kindly scruff wearing a pony tail and suede shoes any more than a bunch of pagans wants to be represented by a starchy ex-headmistress.


What chance is there that consumers get to choose for themselves the celebrant who will best represent them? Very little. And this despite the fact that good celebrants are of inestimable commercial value to undertakers. You’d be amazed how difficult it is for brilliant celebrants to find work or be paid what they’re worth.


The tail is definitely wagging the dog.


Every undertaker now has a small stable of celebrants: one frontline strict humanist, one frontline pick-‘n’-mixer (the sort who says yes to a hymn and a couple of prayers), plus a couple of standbys. No more. If Brad Pitt turned celebrant and offered himself to most undertakers they’d say, “Thanks, mate, we’ve already got one.” They take no account of gender, appearance, accent, social class, education, ethnicity or performance style. You’d think they would offer their clients the publicity materials of all those celebrants who’d ever entered their doors, give them a steer and let them choose someone like them. Oh, no. Want a pagan? Over your dead person’s dead body, so far as most undertakers are concerned.


To what do we ascribe this? Stupidity? Well, okay, yes, up to a point, you’ll rarely go wrong there. But the principal reason is time. They simply haven’t got time to let clients go home and faff about interviewing celebrants. They need to book the crem. They need to find a time when everyone’s free and the hearse is available. There’s no time like now, now while they’re all in the office, everything done and dusted in one meeting. 

Thus are clients denied choice and celebrants work. 


The undertakers’ business model being what it is, their ideal client is the little old lady who makes all the arrangements for the funeral in twenty minutes and is never seen or heard again until the day of the funeral. Can it accommodate the growing requirement for personalised, participative funerals? In most cases, no.


It’s broke. Let’s not fix it. Let’s move on. Dead people and those who love them deserve good celebrants. Celebrants deserve a status which accords with their value, and they deserve the remuneration which goes with that. Consumers owe it to themselves to survey who’s out there and make their own choice, not to outsource it to an undertaker. 

To find the right celebrant for you, go to: the British Humanist Association; the Institute of Civil Funerals; the Association of Independent Celebrants; the Interfaith Seminary. Many celebrants work independently of any organisation. Try your luck: type ‘funeral-celebrant’ into Google. 

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Marie Macintyre Thomson

This is a brilliant informative article, one I wish could be circulated around the Funeral Directors. Well done. If we were to stay at a good hotel we would check out its ratings its reviews we would listen to others who recommended it. The same goes for celebrants. We are good people providing a service that is more in demand every day. I feel my career as a celebrant is now a vocation. Making the loss of a loved one the most important job of ones week is a gift. This is taking in to consideration the support the family… Read more »

Brendan Johnson
12 years ago

Hopefully more Funeral Directors will read this and start to offer services that truly reflect people’s beliefs and wishes, especially the ‘unchurched’. It is no more expensive to have a bespoke funeral, and inevitably a great deal more satisfying.