Posted by Gloriamundi
Health warning: this will be opinionated – it’s only my view
1. Ask yourself why you want to do it, and listen to the answers. The motivations of celebrants are varied, and not necessarily clear to themselves at first. It’s a role that reveals yourself to yourself. That can be quite a tough process. You’ll want to feel happy with some robust, clear non-financial reasons for doing it.
2. Another income stream is essential; it is all but impossible to earn a sensible living. The demand for your services will be unreliable and unpredictable. There may be a very few people who can take enough ceremonies each week to earn a very modest living, but they must be super-efficient, emotionally and spiritually tough, and have a fade-proof capacity for empathy.
3. There are probably some people who should never try to be teachers or airline pilots or…celebrants. You need a basic toolkit:
* empathy and patience to deal with the bewildering variety of responses you’ll come across amongst bereaved people (they can even be startlingly rude sometimes!)
* a reasonably wide knowledge of the ways of the world – you meet all sorts of people, and you’ll want to pick up very quickly on cultural signals, work references, social contexts
* an understanding of, preferably a gift for, ceremony and ritual
* the ability to write and speak in a way that creates enhanced meaning, and draws people towards you rather than keeping them at a stiff distance.
Some but not all of these things can be improved with training – provided they are there to begin with. (Fair enough, I couldn’t fly an Airbus if I trained for ten years…)
4. Here’s the big stuff: for the bereaved people you work with, you need to be able feel and show some love. Not the sentimental version, the real, unselfish, compassionate thing. You’re not there just to take efficient notes about someone’s life, stick some philosophical niceties fore and aft, and play a CD or two. You need to be able to enter a circle of grief and share a little of it without being knocked over yourself. You’re on a journey with these people. They’ve not been on it before, nor have you, and you can’t know your final destination when you start the journey.
5. Obvious enough: you have to put your own preferences and beliefs at a working distance, while you help people explore what they need. This sometimes means letting go whilst family members do something you may think you could do better yourself. A funeral isn’t an artifact, it’s an event; your control over it won’t be total.
6. You need to stay calm if unexpected things happen (mostly they don’t.) In fact, reducing tension without being superficial is something important you always need to do, so people can feel what they feel, not what they might think they are expected to feel.
7. If you’re good, you’ll find a sense of balance, constantly shifting as you read people’s responses and tune your voice, your gaze, your stance; you need what people usually call presence, and yet it’s not about you. The ceremony needs to belong to them; it’s not a showcase for your erudition and eloquence. You’re sharing the floor with them, even if yours is the only voice heard.
8. OK, so:
* being a celebrant is badly paid (at many funerals, the flowers cost more than the celebrant’s fee) and the training is expensive
* some crems are dreary, some undertakers can be difficult
* it can be nerve wracking (at the first one or two, nerves are predictable, but things can go wrong however well-experienced you are)
* it is sometimes deeply upsetting; a tragedy that has resulted in a phone call to you from a funeral director you’ve met twice and don’t much like, asking you to visit a family you have never met – who are in pieces
* even with traditional British levels of self-control, raw grief is a difficult thing to share a room with. The only guide is your compassion, the only help is your skill.
9. If you are being honest with yourself, (if you’re not, you’ll never be a convincing celebrant) if you still want to do it, welcome – it’s a deeply fulfilling job that may overturn your preconceptions about your own mortality. If you wonder why you feel elated as you leave the crematorium. It’s because you’ve been privileged enough to help people with a unique event at a major crisis in their lives.