Much to celebrate?

Charles 11 Comments

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?


  1. Charles

    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 killed herself in a car accident on her way to interview a client. All of a sudden, I had twice the workload. Sorted that out by training more people. Yes, there are people who deal with that sort of pressure by regurgitating the same old stuff, over and over. I’ve always been conscious of the fact that the funeral conductors and crematorium staff see all, and they pick up on the fact that some people do this, so I avoid one-size-fits-all, however busy I might have been.

    I’ve also done my best to encourage people to consider doing things themselves, as far as possible. Jane Wynne-Willson, who wrote the BHA guidelines, “Funerals without God”, intended her book to be used by new celebrants and by families who wanted to do things themselves, to get things started. Instead, the book’s been used to do funerals by numbers (a bit of page 12, with a smidgeon of page 15), which wasn’t what she intended. Jane was a pioneer, as far as Humanist funerals were concerned, and is now very disillusioned by how commercialised the whole business has become.

    It’s good that people have realised that there aren’t any rules, so they can do more or less what they like, but the funeral business has always been expensive, ever since local coffin-makers realised they could make more money out of selling a total service, with lots of extras. A bit like the wedding business, really. It’s just a pity that Humanist funerals have been “professionalised”.

    A good celebrant is a good celebrant, no matter where he or she comes from. People will seek such people out, which is as it should be.

    Now I’ll go and read what GloriaMundi thinks…

  2. Charles

    Margaret, it’s good to see you over here. I had hoped to provoke an insurgency some time ago. I hope that those of my readers who have not discovered your blog will now do so.

    Let’s not get too picky about words. If secular means unconnected with any mainstream religion I think the term serves its purpose. Your own ‘religion-free’ does not cover those celebrants who do not exclude spiritual elements.

    You say you do not want to be lumped together with other secular celebrants, but I don’t know how you can avoid that. In the eyes of the public you do what you do, and those others do that too, yes? So you’re one of them, right?

    I think I can see where you are coming from when you talk about professionalisation. It is a paradox of the individualistic age we live in that people have never before been keener to huddle under the umbrella of best practice and, instead of bringing themselves to what they do, timorously roll out what they have slavishly learned. I think you were once a teacher so I am sure you know what I mean. Here’s a trade where the inspiring free thinker has been driven to extinction by the characterless clone (and where a teacher can deliver a syllabus to students who are much cleverer than him/her).

    What price stand-alone individuality in the funeral marketplace? In rural areas, I’m sure reputation counts for something. In urban areas it counts for far less. The fact that funeral directors are presently the gatekeepers to celebrants is another distancing factor. Most people still have no idea what their options are or where they can find a celebrant whom they can be more or less sure is any good.

    For these reasons it makes sense for celebrants to market themselves with externally accredited credentials which assure funeral directors and consumers that they can offer an acceptable level of service. In an age when we have training courses to teach people how to climb a ladder, we must not be surprised to see celebrants waving certificates and banding together in bodies. We even have an Association of Independent Celebrants. No one is struck by the oxymoron.

    I am with you in spirit, I think. But ours is not, I fear, the spirit of the age. Amateurism is a much disparaged thing, the preserve of the hapless and the eccentric.

    I wish you had addressed others of my sweeping generalisations. I deploy them to rouse debate.

  3. Charles

    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 if people would queue up and die on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I could fit in a long 40-hour week to do three at most.

    And you know what I hope, Charles, about the future role of the secular celebrant; I believe it will wax before it wanes, or who will show people what it is that they already know? (the job of a good teacher?)

    Sorry about the brevity. (By the way, the GFG didn’t have many jumping off the ferry, good thing too or they’d have had to convert one of the lifeboats into a deathboat!)

  4. Charles

    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 about the person whose life they are helping celebrate.
    As I said in the article on My Last Song We Deserve Better Endings, there can be an unintended dishonesty at funerals given by ordained ministers. At my mother’s funeral, the vicar at her local church, which she had been to once in 25 years, gave a tribute which suggested she was one of his congregation and that she was now in heaven!
    I was not the only one to have witnessed this. Read also the article Honesty at the End, in which a family relate how uncomfortable they found such an approach.

  5. Charles

    Agreed on flexibility, Paul. And I hope people will make their way to your site now, too. But let’s not overlook the fact that religious folk actively want the familiar rite. There’s comfort and custom in that. Without careful planning, flexibility can descend into ad-hoc-ery and muddle. People planning a secular ceremony have nowt but a blank sheet of paper to start with, after all. That’s a lot of working out to do.

    You talk of involvement and, of course, the more of that the better. But you are talking about the best celebrants. And you are assuming that the audience wants to participate. Very often they don’t. For all that, there are a great many dull and dowdy secular funerals performed every day where the audience is sits like puddings while one person goes on and on and on, words, words, words. The church has neat tricks to counteract this and involve even the most self-conscious – sitting, standing, kneeling, responses, community singing, all-together praying, signs of peace… A lot of secular ceremonies are recipes for DVT. A friend of mine met someone yesterday whose mother had a humanist funeral which she described as ‘distinctly underwhelming.’ She added, ‘Bring back the Catholic Mass!’ Where the church hasn’t lost its eschatological nerve it can put on a damn good show. Dammit, it has been working on ceremony and ritual for centuries, not to mention architecture and music (much of it composed by unbelievers, but that’s another matter). It’s picked up a trick or two along the way.

    I am not a subscriber to any denomination. But I think you overlook the work of the best priests, just as you overlook the work of those secular celebrants who are content to be briefed over the phone. There can be no generalising here. There are bad’uns on both sides. The best priest will be able to do a far better job than the best celebrant because if the dead person was a regular attender the priest will have known him/her for years, perhaps. Everyone will know that the priest knows who he/she is talking about. That is almost never the case with a secular funeral.

    As for the unintended dishonesty, the dear old C of E is in a difficult position when a lifelong absentee comes along to be funeral-ed. It is required to hold the funeral – on its own terms – obviously. What else to say?? If the occasional priest over-eggs it a bit, I guess he/she supposes, in good faith, that it’s all in a good cause. What else can be expected of a religious funeral? For a family to describe this as dishonesty is unfair — in the same way that anyone opting for one of your humanist ceremonies would be unfair if they railed against you afterwards for having made no reference to religion. In the words of Father Ed Tomlinson, ‘if this is your position, why invite me to the party?

    One last little quibble. You make it sound as if the celebrant is in charge. Let’s be sure to understand that the role of the secular celebrant is that of consultant and agent.

    Very good to hear from you, Paul. Thank you for writing. I think this one could run and run!

  6. Charles

    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 loved ones are more likely to be more empowered to participate positively knowing they are fulfilling the wishes of the departed.

    For a description of a well planned and uplifting Jamaican funeral, see my blog.

  7. Charles

    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

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