What Makes Funeral Celebrants Do It?

Charles 10 Comments


From a practising funeral celebrant, more opinionated stuff that possibly needs a health warning: it’s only what I think.


I’m not really sure why we do it – I’m sure we have many very different conscious reasons and less self-aware motivations. As Freud, Jung, Adler and Frankl all said, or if they didn’t, they should have: our motives are opaque unto ourselves. If you think you’ve understood your own motives in something as complex as this, then your motives have probably just skipped a step or two further back into the mists. Anyway, here’s a few pointers through the murk:

  • *     We do it because for some strange reason we can do it, this odd thing. It’s difficult, demanding, fascinating, and

  • *     No, we don’t do it just for the money. We’re not that stupid.  
  • *     It needs doing, if people are to have more freedom and choice about an important event. That’s the ideological motivation. Not everyone’s spiritual needs (or atheistical requirements) can be well served by ordained ministers of religion.

  • *     It’s intensely interesting, the patterns of all these lives and their endings. Many “ordinary” lives are not in the least ordinary. It is a privilege to help mark their ending.

  • *     The job flatters or completes our egos; it feels good to be wanted, at a time of crisis in people’s lives. People are mostly very appreciative; the bond between us and a family is brief but it can suddenly feel very warm, very strong. If we’re doing the job well, we have to share a little of their grief, and feel some love for them. So it’s a bit deeper than flattery, but the mists are swirling, so I’ll move on…

  • *     No, hang on, let’s look into that: maybe we get a charge out of being close to some strangers for a short and intense period, and then we can – have to – move on; we’re compassion tarts, sentiment junkies, it makes our own lives more intense. And that sense of heightened meaning, contact with an absolute, is very addictive.

  • *     It helps us to explore our own mortality and to come to terms can you buy cialis online in canada better with the prospect of our own deaths. So we’re trying to work through fears of our own about death, by a kind of familiarisation therapy.

  • *     Following on from that: we are close to death at funerals, but afterwards we are still here; after a successful funeral, we feel a sense of achievement, even a small victory. We’ve helped some people find meaning when death has taken away someone who meant a lot to them. Not a victory over death itself, of course, but over the desolation and emptiness it creates.

  • *     We like the attention – it’s a small-scale public event, and they sure as hell pay attention to you, even if many of them won’t remember a word.

  • *     We are chronic melancholics and we like hanging around graves and crematoria, wearing black and looking profound – sort of doing a Hamlet: “Alas, poor Yorick! I never knew him Horatio, but he sounds to me like a fellow of infinite jest, why, his family were telling me just the other day they well remember the time he…”

  • *     We’re disgusted by what we see as the emotionally stifling conventions of the funeral business and our culture’s mortality aversion. We want to open it right out, because we can see a way it can be done better, a way that can enrich people’s lives, honour their deaths, and be use to their grieving.

  • *     Oh, and (let’s be fair to ourselves): It’s good to feel you’ve helped some people, and done a good job for them for a fee that is not extortionate. If, of course, you have done a good job…

It’s interesting how many celebrants I know moved into the role after some profound and distressing experience – a near-death illness, the death of someone or some people close to them. I very much respect that. Which raises the question: can you be a successful celebrant if you haven’t been bereaved? Don’t know – guess so, but I do think our own losses can make a bridge for our empathy and compassion.


  1. Charles

    Me too Belinda. But why? What makes us do it?Kindness, absolutely, Jon, and I’m reminded that the word is related to “kin” i.e. treating people (strangers) as you should treat your own family. But I was also trying to stir up some thoughts, in this post, about the fullest range possible of motivations. In an absolute sense, perhaps no motive is entirely and only altruistic, in that it feels good to be helpful and compassionate towards bereaved people, and maybe part of why we do it is that feeling of usefulness?

  2. Charles

    Whereas there may be many things one wouldn’t do for money, there’s a lot less one wouldn’t do for thanks.

    It sounds unaltruistic to speak of wanting thanks. Thanks sought out can swell our pride and touch parts of us we’re less proud of, and I for one am embarrassed to admit this part of my motive, but I’d be less than honest if I pretended to be disinterested in the voluble praise sometimes freely given me after a funeral. It does, it’s true, make me proud of myself to know I can stand tall in the community and enjoy its respect, and I like that feeling as much as I love seeing others moved from a place of uncertainty and soemtimes unbearable hurt to one of at least manageable common human distress, if not actual resolution. There, I’ve said it. But that’s far from the strongest motivation for doing this work.

    It remains true, though, that there are other motives that relate to the urge, often seen in the reactions of passers-by to emergency situations, to help others in distress. People have lost their own lives trying to save those of a total stranger who was drowning, for instance; and who can say they’d stand by and watch a man be run over while calculating the risk to their own safety of diving in regardless? Isn’t that altruism in its most literal sense, having no thought for one’s own welfare in the interest of another? Bypassing the intellect can have its benefits.

    Perhaps it’s partly an animal thing that makes us do this, an instinctual empathy with our own kind and an impulse to serve the welfare of the species, and not just a highly motivated and sophisticated philanthropy?

  3. Charles

    Fascinating stuff, Jonathan. One remembers the bloke who made a human bridge of himself so that people could scramble out of the capsized death-trap that was the “Herald of Free Enterprise” (now there’s a symbolic name for you…)Happily he survived – matter of chance, not calculation, we can be pretty sure.

    As you say, that sort of selflessness bypasses the intellect to at least some degree, and I don’t think our work does that, but perhaps it is related to something way down in our wiring that may once have been to do with the welfare of the species. Isn’t it right that Darwin acknowledged the evolutionary value of cooperation within species as well as competition amongst and between them?

    I respect your honesty – I’m not sure I’d believe a celebrant who said s/he didn’t enjoy the thanks and feel more significant because of them. I doubt we could continue to find the job so fulfilling without some strengthening of self-worth from the thanks we receive, because as we know, there are down-sides at times.

  4. Charles

    That’s a big run up to a small admission Jonathan!

    C’mon, we all like to have the family effuse, and we are all equally haunted by the idea that most families are pathetically grateful for what they get and are so used to such terrible funerals that they effuse if you just don’t fuck it up.

    There, I’ve said it.

  5. Charles

    True, Ru, and I’ve grown up a bit and got more used to myself since this morning but it did feel like a fairly big admission for me at the time! And yes, one is reluctant to inhale too deeply the oxygen of testimony from a public whose real feeling behind their overwhelming and grovelling gratitude could possibly be simply relief that it wasn’t as fucking horrible as they feared!

  6. Charles

    Thanks Rupert, you’ve just banjaxed my feelings of significance and self importance for the next few times I open up the old folder. I shall have Eric beside me waggling his glasses and slapping my cheeks….

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