Looking after someone who is dying can be a disempowering experience. You can find yourself always being sidelined and denied participation by people who know better. Disconnected.
When someone dies, however, you assume complete control. In spite of this, most funerals are conspicuously unjoined-up. Because people outsource the lot – the paperwork, care of the body, creation of the ceremony, transport, flowers, printing, catering, you name it – to all manner of emotionally disengaged specialist service providers. This outsourcing sets up a great many disconnects. Does that matter?
All service providers maintain a degree of judicious, objective detachment from their clients. Professionalism, they call it. A very necessary separation: it eliminates risk. Florists do not struggle with this. But the very best undertakers and celebrants do because they want to offer best emotional value.
Here’s how Rupert Callender of the Green Funeral Company addresses the disconnects. I’m incredibly proud to publish this. It is brave and it is beautiful. Please say what you think. Fill out a comments box at the bottom.
I would like to thank Charles for the opportunity to respond to his provocative but honest
post about celebrancy. I feel he has brought to the surface much that needs to be
My name is Rupert Callender, and my wife and I run The Green Funeral Company and are
often to be found wasting peopleʼs time with facetious remarks on the comments page of
this mighty blog. We are self taught undertakers and ʻcelebrantsʼ -a term that bothers me
with its implication of enforced jollity as much as ʻchapel of restʼ does with its confusing
mixed message- and have been doing both jobs side by side for ten years. We find it
difficult to imagine doing one without the other, and believe that the future of good funeral
directing lies with blending the two.
What Charles has highlighted is the possibility that our movement,(I am assuming a
shared sense of progressiveness from readers of this blog) is in danger of becoming
dangerously inoffensive on one extreme, or religiously combative on the other.
I would like to share with you the way we work and the differences between our own style
and that of both civil and Humanist trained celebrancy. I think we come from a relatively
unique position in approaching this without any prior training, and because of that, I
imagine much of what I say might feel counter-intuitive to some of you, and I hope to make
my points without being unduly provocative or rambling too much. These are important
issues we feel strongly about and it is difficult to know where to start, or when to stop.
Firstly, I think it is important to acknowledge that there must be a certain arrogance in the
make up of those who choose this riskiest of jobs, that of standing up to talk about the life
of someone they have never met, and our own individual motives for doing so are
sometimes altruistic, but are often altogether more complex and murky.
Often it comes from bitter personal experience; a family funeral in which a lacklustre priest
got the name of our relative wrong, or being shoehorned into an inappropriate religious
ceremony, or simply because of the emotional paucity of many traditional funerals.
My own motivation for what I do is because of the way my own bereavement was
mismanaged, first as a seven year old, at a time when childrenʼs involvement in a funeral
ceremony wasnʼt considered necessary, which established a pattern of numb
disconnectedness that re-emerged with my mother’s death when I was twenty five. For
me, every funeral I am involved in goes some way towards healing my hurt a little bit more.
I point this out so you can see that personally, I left objectivity at the door when I began
Most of the intention and training for secular celebrancy is concerned with making the
opposite true, of removing yourselves and your opinions from the dynamic, with the
intention of becoming a mouthpiece for the family and what they want projected into the
ritual. Much is done to minimise risk with safeguards put in place, because the potential to
ruin lives, certainly to ruin a post mortem relationship is huge.
These measures include a commitment to use a family’s words as much as possible, to
give them the farewell they had envisaged, to make sure they have a copy of what is going
to be said before hand, so they can check for inaccuracies as well as tone. This safety net
is summed up by the management-speak phrase, ʻBest Practiceʼ, but I believe that while it
comes from the best of intentions, safety is the enemy of authentic and lasting change.
If a family are reasonably ʻnormalʼ and happy, and we could of course argue for hours over
this definition, then a ceremony of this style can indeed reflect their happiness back at
them, but for any family with a complicated dynamic, often the last thing they need is the
reinforcement of their family script by an outsider colluding with their dysfunction, a
tightening of the grip on a social mask that often needs to be loosened, if not broken for
the real work of grieving to begin.
This is one of the reasons we approach the art of celebrancy from a different place.
Just because a family doesnʼt want a religious service, doesnʼt mean they have any clear
idea about what they do want. A certain prescriptive authority is needed, as very few
people have replaced Christianity with their own fully functioning belief system, complete
with a ritual to explain and deal with death, so simply telling them there is no “right” way,
only “their” way is unhelpful, and frankly, often a cop out.
If they subscribe to Humanism, then a Humanist celebrant is appropriate. Too often
though, bereaved people mistake Humanism for atheism, rather than what it actually is,
which is closer to anti-theism.
If a person has pagan beliefs, which a growing number of people in this country do, then
a pagan celebrant is the unargauable choice, but for everyone else, most of us, whose
beliefs are muddled between hope, fear, resignation and yearning, how are we to
approach death in a way which has integrity and depth and actually helps a family move
Bob Dylan said: To live outside the law you must be honest, and I think the same appIies
to a funeral outside of a religious framework. The compass needed for this journey is the
truth, but a celebrant takes risks in telling it, what the dead person was actually like, the
nub of their relationships, what really happened in their life. It is often clear from an initial
meeting what the truth is and what needs to be said, the courage and skill of the celebrant
lies in revealing it gently with compassion, in a way which begins to heal.
Is this adding paternalism to arrogance? Certainly. Is it worth the risk? God I hope so.
It does mean a reappraisal of the function of a funeral and whether a successful one is
really one in which everyone is left comfortably unchallenged. I think there is an argument
for saying we not only want our funerals to change, but for our funerals to change us, to
become a place where change can be initiated, safely, but in a state of profound emotional
honesty. Perhaps we need to become as welcoming of regret and guilt at a funeral as we
are of reassurance and comfort, and when we are, we will know real change has
happened, but to be able to facilitate this, the celebrant needs to become more than a
mouthpiece, they need to become a witness.
It sounds extreme, not to mention unbelievably risky, but having made this
decision to put ourselves out there, to stand up and take a secular funeral service, then
perhaps we need to go with it, and to realise that our personal view point of their
relationship and their situation, gathered over the twelve or so days we have known them
is both valid and helpful. By asking us to take a service, a family is entrusting us with
ceremonial power, however subconsciously, and we should accept the honour and have
the guts to use it. This may well mean not simply rehashing what a family has told us, or
what they want to hear—often a sanitised version of a life coloured by guilt, shock and
social embarrassment—but by trying to tell the truth as we see it, avoiding euphemisms, or
elevating the dead to saintliness, or glossing over painful facts that everyone present is
I donʼt mean that we spring a brutal ʻwarts and allʼ character assassination on a
dumbstruck congregation, but rather than repeating a conventional eulogy, something
more appropriate for a family member to deliver and usually given later on in the
ceremony, we talk about what we have learnt about the dead person and their relationship
in the time since we met them, which starts with the one thing usually left out, hurried
through, or euphemised– the personʼs death.
If looked at with compassion everyoneʼs death has something to teach us, not in a
voyeuristic or moral way, or because everyoneʼs death is beautiful; most are absolutely
not, but it is the last crucial piece of our lifeʼs puzzle, and with it sometimes some sense of
a life can come sharply into focus. It has something to teach us because it is the truth and
our destiny, and to leave it out or gloss over it is to lie by omission.
We donʼt regale everybody with a grim account of the mechanics of their last agonies, but
we do talk about the emotional journey of the dying process, the love shared, the
forgiveness bestowed, the unspoken finally articulated, what can really happen, and often
does around a deathbed. There can be more relevant communication between family
members in this time than in a preceding decade, and these are the stories we need to be
telling, the punchline to the narrative of illness, the real story that can so often left out of a
As the celebrant, by talking like this early on in the ritual you get everyoneʼs attention and
establish an intention to be honest that gives anyone who follows permission to do the
same. There is a palpable sense of heightened concentration when you honour a
gathering with the truth as it is all understood to you. It raises everyone up to the same
level, out of the mundane and the superficial and cuts through the bland bullshit that mars
so many funerals. And when you reach this place, a ceremony can turn into a once in a
lifetime event, a space of raw honesty and emotional richness where genuine healing can
We have advantages in facilitating these moments, because we are also dealing with the
practicalities. We have unlimited access to the key bereaved, a lack of ideological or
spiritual agenda, and a deep connection to the family due to being custodians of the body.
We have time, sometimes over two weeks. Once we have taken on a funeral, we donʼt
have to bring anyone else in; there is no need for the family to repeat the story of their
loss. Early bereavement can feel as bureaucratic as any Kafka story and our gathering of
the information needed to hold the ceremony, can happen organically and almost invisibly.
Celebrancy is like other listening therapies; the art is to hear the client, and to show them
that they have been heard, but often that requires hearing what they are really saying.
But what do we know about their relationships with their dead? How dare we comment on
something on something we never saw?
I think our opinion of their relationship is valid, not least because we are the first to form an
emotional relationship with the bereaved after this life-changing event, and are crucial to
how they see and define their new identity. One of the reasons I donʼt show a family what I
am going to say, unless they specifically ask, is that I want them to hear what I have to say
for the first time within the framework of the funeral, in the presence of their dead. I am
talking to them first, not the congregation. I want them to hear what I have learnt, not
necessarily what they have told me about their relationship. I want them to be taken
unawares by the emotional clarity the truth can bring, to be separated from the numbness
of shock for just a second. I believe that the greatest gift you can give somebody deep in
the first rush of pain is to tell them something they didnʼt know they had told you, that the
nature of their relationship with their dead is such that it is visible, even after death, even to
a stranger. This is worth so much more than a repeated history, rewritten in flowery
language, but it does mean changing the nature of the service from a public event
concerned with social appearances with the family present, to an intimate ceremony
constructed around the truth to which friends are welcomed in and initiated.
It might seem we are stepping outside of our remit, straying into areas we havenʼt been
invited to, but actually we keep it very specific, and talk about only what we have
experienced directly, the loss that a family are feeling, always framed and enclosed and
referenced by the love that they feel. To do this we have to become more than a
mouthpiece, we need to become a witness.
In many Humanist funeral ceremonies this emotion can seem absent, perhaps because of
a desire to be seen as entirely separate from Christianity, but this negation of a religious
message means the central message that Christianity and Humanism share – “Love one
another,” a social command not a religious one, is forgotten, to the detriment of all.
I am not a Christian, but I do believe that love is the only appropriate measure of a life,
and whether a life had enough love or not remains its clear message to us, the still living,
and is a message that needs to be publicly aired. It is not enough to replace it with talk of
seasons changing, or leaves falling.
I have probably tried to say to much here, and I hope that in this jumble of opinions and
declarations some sense of what we do and how we do it differently comes across. I will
answer Charlesʼs question about how many services a celebrant should do in one week.
Personally, I start to lack focus on any more than two. Were I doing this without the
undertaking, clearly it wouldnʼt be financially viable, but I think there is a strong argument
for a confident celebrant to value themselves in the way Charles urges all good
undertakers to do, to realise that a well constructed ceremony is the most important part of
the funeral, and should be worth 3-4 hundred pounds.