Much to celebrate?

Charles Cowling

When wireless listeners switched on for the BBC Home Service (now R4) news on Good Friday, 1930, the announcer began in familiar terms in his familiar dark brown voice: “This is the BBC Home Service. Here is the news. There is no news today.” The resulting startled gap was filled with 15 mins of pianoforte music.

I apologise for getting nothing posted yesterday, not even 15 mins of improving pianoforte music. I thought I had a nice, juicy little story in the bag but, on following it up, discovered that it was a silly and not unsqualid story best left unprobed, unseen. It all took time.

In the absence of any exciting breaking news this morning, I found myself, while walking the dogs, brooding on a telephone conversation I had yesterday.

Secular celebrants reckon themselves to be a force for change and may even congratulate themselves on what they have accomplished. Many of the qualities they bring are, I would mischievously and provocatively point out, best expressed in the negative: they don’t mumble so much, they don’t get the dead person’s name wrong, they’re not so disengaged, they’re not so ‘samey’ and they don’t talk so much nonsense. In brief, they’re not as awful as some, a dwindling number, of ordained ministers, none of whom talk nonsense anyway, they talk theology.

Celebrants pride themselves on the time they spend, the care they take, the degree of personalisation they achieve. Unique funerals for unique people, they say. It’s a fine vision. I think many underestimate the amount of time and care many ministers also expend.

And let’s acknowledge, too, that many secular celebrants are spreading themselves very thin and doing too many funerals. Is every one of their ceremonies a stand-alone one-off? No way. They are, actually, very samey. I have every sympathy with them; ringing the changes is exceedingly hard to do. The one-size-fits-all religious rite, we discover, is not a lazy expedient but, done well, a superb piece of ceremonial couture which flatters the figure of each dead person who wears it.

Why are some secular celebrants spreading themselves too thin? Because they need to make a living from a vocation which pays very badly. This leaves them time-poor. So they cut corners. They get the facts but they don’t get the feel. And it serves. Because it is not, actually, all that difficult to meet the expectations of funeral consumers, for their expectations remain extremely low.

Celebrancy is, arguably, a job for portfolio workers and the retired. Otherwise, it’s a weirdly onesided way of making a living. A lot of potentially excellent celebrants look at the rates of pay and decide they simply can’t afford to work for that. Neither are they attracted by the pride-swallowing involved in sucking up to undertakers and supplicating for referrals.

So: what is the maximum number of funerals per week that a secular celebrant can perform well? Three? Four? I’d be interested to know what you think.

Some secular celebrants are superb. They have played an heroic part in making farewell ceremonies for the dead more focussed on the individual, more palatable, more meaningful, more relevant, more emotionally congruent. Some of these ceremonies are really nice and some are really good.

And yet, most secular ceremonies still happen at the crem. Most resemble religious ceremonies, use the same basic template. In the words of Thomas Long, they ‘evoke a vague impression of the sacred’.

So, what can we say about the ceremonial status and ritual authority of the secular celebrant? You need a minister at a funeral to broker the deal with God but you don’t need a celebrant for anything except to say the stuff that others don’t feel up to.

Where are things moving towards? What is their destination? Is the role of the secular celebrant set to accrue ceremonial significance or is it due to dwindle?

Any thoughts?

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[…] I would like to thank Charles for the opportunity to respond to his provocative but honest […]

Claire Callender
11 years ago

Re My Last Song, has this not all been covered by years ago? it’s free and it doesn’t have adverts for health products

Paul Hensby
11 years ago

I agree with much of this. It is about the ability, attitude and commitment of the person – religious or secular – who is, as you put it, the consultant and agent. The worst outcome is the ‘underwhelming’ service/ceremony which results from the combination of a shocked family unable or unsupported to participate properly and the ‘just another one to dispatch’ attitude of minister or celebrant. One of the purposes of My Last Song (sorry for the plug) is to enable the living to ensure their choices of music, readings, type of funeral are recorded and, hopefully, acted on. Grieving… Read more »


[…] an interesting exchange of mainly similar and reasonable views going on about the quality of service (ho, ho) given by ministers of religion and humanist […]

Paul Hensby
11 years ago

The point surely is that a secular celebrant has the flexibility to make the funeral event more focused on the person whose life has ended, free from religious messages and the rigid order of service designed to deliver these messages. The flexibility of a secular approach also allows the friends and family to take a more active and positive part when appropriate. The humanist celebrants I have witnessed have encouraged and empowered loved ones to be more involved than any minister of religion I have seen. They have also taken more time to know, and get right, the important facts… Read more »

11 years ago

Can’t stop long this time around, may come back to this one later but… I believe I understand what you’re thinking, Charles; is there a way we can be so creatively, stunningly individual every time that you wouldn’t even recognize it as the same thing as a funeral? Paradox is, you’ve got to abandon the funeral to begin such a task – no bad thing. As things stand, 15 hours is about average time to spend on a funeral for me (G’mundi, I never repeat what I’ve said before, even if the crem staff haven’t heard it, I have), so… Read more »

11 years ago

Apologies in advance, but what’s a “secular celebrant”. Secularism applies to the state and religion, and the separation thereof, but not funerals. Being picky I know… Anyhow, assuming you meant religion-free celebrants, including Humanists like myself and Gloriamundi, you’ve made some fairly sweeping generalisations here, haven’t you? I don’t care to be lumped together with other “secular celebrants”, good, bad or indifferent. I used to do up to up to four funerals a week, usually not more than three, when I was busiest. This wasn’t from choice; it was because there wasn’t anyone else after a friend and colleague nearly… Read more »

11 years ago

A valuable posting, Charles. I’m a humanist celebrant, and I want to respond to you in some detail, so I hope it’s not too tedious of me to refer you to my blog.