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?