Celebrants talk business

Charles Cowling


Posted by Richard Rawlinson


Two topics that have inspired lively debate here recently are ritual and business. Comments about the latter reveal many civil funeral celebrants feel their service is undervalued in monetary terms. The going rate, between £120 and £180 a funeral, is deemed inadequate as a business model. This fee, which is unregulated but loosely set to be competitive when compared with clergy fees, makes professional life challenging. It’s a case of market forces squeezing profit margins.

Many in other sectors will sympathise with this scenario. Farmers are often forced to sell their produce to supermarkets at a price that scarcely covers their costs just so the supermarkets can undercut their retail rivals when selling it on to us, the bargain-hungry consumer. Farmers in turn have appealed to the state for subsidies, and diversified in order to make ends meet. Some have cut out the middle man by opening farm shops, charging a premium because their produce is local, fresh, exclusive and any other added value benefits they can attribute to it.

The state of the civil funeral celebrant’s bank balance might also be usefully compared to that of self-employed people in creative fields: the young actor whose sporadic castings don’t equate to a salary and so works in a restaurant as well; the painter who reluctantly sheds his principles to take on more lucrative, commercial work. In the media, I also come across distinct types of freelance journalist: those who churn out copy conveyor belt-style in order to make a living; those who carefully craft just a couple of features a month for personal satisfaction but who are supported financially by partner or private income; those who are so in demand they can command a substantial sum for a weekly column that takes up little of their time.

If regulation or state subsidy are not on the cards, and laissez faire economic forces have perceived injustices, what can celebrants do to improve their lot? If they want to commit themselves full-time to their career vocation, they need to charge more. One commentator in a recent thread estimated it would ‘have to be at least £250, which would mean £25k a year before tax at two funerals a week’.

This might be unfeasible without ongoing marketing drives that convince both public and funeral directors, who are positioned to influence the public in their broader funeral arrangements, of the value of good celebrants: how they spend time with families collaborating on a bespoke service, the enduring, positive results of which justify the premium cost.

The caveat to such marketing is the service can be detailed or simple depending on individual taste. Personalisation is itself a luxury but it can be ether embellished or plain, just as a party planner can organise a champagne reception or barbecue; an interior designer, a bling or rustic home.

Opinion-forming marketing campaigns, like party political campaigns before general elections, either win favour on merit or by digs at the competition or establishment status quo. ‘The clergy are usually phone-only merchants,’ said one commentator. ‘Funeral directors don’t think out of the box and we don’t get a fraction of their fee, or even the cash paid to florists and memorial masons’, said another. These gripes are natural and fine in private, but are perhaps best avoided in broader debate. While civil servants such as nurses win public sympathy when they demand recognition, it’s harder for many other worthy professions to do likewise. Resting actor? On your bike. Overworked priest on subsistence pay who serves the communities of three parish churches instead just one? Little sympathy here, I suspect.

Finally, perhaps ritual, or at least a more formulaic structure, can make funeral planning less time-consuming, and without necessarily taking away valued personalisation. But is there demand for a doubling of funerals even if time on each was saved? Ritualised structure might be a step too far for some, akin to the aforementioned conveyor belt journalist, the sell-out artist, or indeed the clergy with their liturgy. As one commentator said: ‘There’s rather more to a non-religious celebrant’s job than reading a set text from a book and inserting a name here and there’.

19 thoughts on “Celebrants talk business

  1. Charles Cowling
    Mr XX

    As with all things funeral, the typical client is fairly uninformed. Unless a regular church-goer, most express a desire not to have a religious service, even if they actually want and expect prayers! I would guess one in twenty of my clients want to go into church, prior to cremation. I do of course appreciate that does almost always ensure a ‘better’ funeral experience.

    I like your journalistic analogy. I have written many articles for publication, typically 5-600 words. The best take many hours of work.

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    Fair reply, Mr XX. May I ask how many of your clients have church funerals followed by crem committal, how many have a priest at the crem but no church, and how many ask for a secular celebrant? Also, when you find a good civil celebrant in your area, would you recommend your client trade up from a typical funeral to one which requires more preparation than the 30 minute phone call followed by the hours spent interpreting that research and translating it into a bespoke service? A further journalistic analogy, a newspaper or magazine feature might involve a half hour interview, followed by further thought and research and the end result might be read in 10 minutes. But the customer satisfaction lies in the thought behind the delivery.

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    Mr XX

    I am relating my experience, not criticising you personally. I think you should understand the difference. I do not know you nor the service you provide. Unlike you, I would not presume to criticise.

    This past week I have dealt with three celebrants. All are as previously described. My search for someone who offers something different, when the circumstances warrant it, continues.

    As a funeral director, I believe my job is to understand exactly what my client needs and find it for them. Harsh reality is, most families seem perfectly happy with a 30 minute call from the officiant and 20 minutes at the crem. I wouldn’t be, but I know a good funeral from a typical funeral.

    What I have described is what happens at 95% of British funerals?

    As for the comparison, I believe a coach driver warrants more than £8 – 9 an hour, but that is what they get paid to be responsible for up to 70 lives.

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling
    X Piry

    This debate is going to run and run. Here’s a selection of random thoughts.

    How much do we want to stimulate growth? If consensus is that four a week is the max, do we want to stimulate it? If we’re part of a network/association then we have colleagues to pass work to, but don’t forget the paranoia of the self-employed – “if I say no, does that mean they won’t ask again?”

    And maxima are personal things. My busiest ever week was seven. I’d had none the week before, so was able to prepare well, but I was still a zombie by the Friday evening. However, I know of a colleague who does a consistent average of five a week. For me, this would not be sustainable, and quality would suffer. But it seems that these numbers work for him and he keeps getting asked, so either there’s nobody else in the area (which is unlikely), or he’s pretty good.

    On the plus side – given that we do follow the CofE rates, the synod is looking to put the fees up substantially next year, so perhaps we can all look forward to a pay rise?

    Peace and love to all

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling
    Carole Renshaw

    For me this whole debate is simple…..I provide a service…..somebody wants to purchase that service…..that gives me a transaction!……that can be a business (or a vocation or whatever you choose to call it. And markets do work to influence price….that’s economics!.

    But it’s all about choice. Just as we proclaim to give choice to families….we too have choice to provide the service or not.

    If the price the market is willing to pay isn’t good enough….then don’t start providing it!

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling
    Ru Callender

    RR, I take your point about worthy occupations, but you were talking about earning public sympathy, deserved or not.
    It’s never dull when you post, Richard..

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    GM, quite right to defend your corner when nonsense is spouted. Quite right too to ignore and rise above it. No right way.

    To indulge our other digression about worthy occupations. I guess I was alluding to a basic Christian tenet that all life is important: saint, sinner, the unborn, the tax collector… But I don’t want to sound all loved up and cheesy because it’s the start of Lent! Yes, some work is trival and some is positively criminal. Let’s move on…

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Calming words RR, but I fear, to judge from his comment, that the idea that celebrancy is valuable and considered does not look to me like a given for Mr XX. Your views are quite otherwise, of course, I appreciate that.

    For my own position, I don’t actually care quite as much as some of the GFG Commentariat about the rates of pay, but then I’m perhaps in a relatively fortunate position, and I’m not trying to earn a living at it. I don’t quite know how to stimulate growth, because there are, it seems to me, similarities with acting. A free-lance, fragmented area of work which has no way of representing itself strongly and fairly. I can’t see a way to get a better rate of pay, other than perhaps concerted action in one area, and then the next. Can you imagine trying to get all the celebrants in an area to agree a higher fee? In some areas there are too many celebrants to do this, anyway – they would seek to undercut each other.

    I’m fascinated by your comment that all occupations are worthy. Are there no trivial, useless or even socially destructive occupations? Sorry, that’s off the point, but you raise the big question – how, other than the market, can you compare the worth of different occupations?

    H’mm, and h’mmm again.

    BTW, like you Richard I don’t much like defensive justification, but also I don’t really like to stand by and watch nonsense (IMAO) gaining ground. Maybe aggressive justification is healthier??

    Also BTW, if you are still reading, Mr XX, I do accept that being an FD is a difficult and stressful occupation. A bit of mutual respect, if it is genuine, wouldn’t go amiss.

    Final and best word was Ru’s. Do we know anyone else who is undertaker, celebrant and radio presenter? No, I thought not. Arise, Sir Ru.

    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling

    Mr XX. You have your overheads. You charge more than £170 a funeral to cover them. So that effectively removes those costs from our comparison – they are irrelevant to this particular discussion.

    You have told us previously that the celebrants in your area aren’t up to much. I took that statement in good faith, but in this post you betray a startling lack of knowledge and understanding of what a good celebrant actually does. Gloria is right – I’m not sure it’s worth pursuing this argument with you, not from any fear of coming off worse, but because I’ve got better things to be doing with my time. Like working with people who are light years ahead of you in terms of understanding what they are doing.

    And there ARE far more enlightened fds who are glad to support my work and that of my better colleagues. Those fds and I have discovered mutual respect for each other’s work, and the fees reflect that. They know that I will look after a group of bereaved people in a way that can only enhance their own reputation, and I am only too happy to work with those fds – it is mutually beneficial. Once it is well established, people seek out that partnership.

    Since you are obviously a man who appreciates the value of a bottom line, that is a trick you are most lamentably missing. If you will, it is just good business, but these subtleties would probably pass you by. I should stick to polishing your limos.

    Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    Ru, belated reply to your first one on this thread: I hear you but by the same token all occupations are worthy, whether priest or celebrant, actor or journalist, bin man or nurse. Where would be be without funeral celebrants, in or out of holy orders; entertainment and media; street cleaners and hospital carers? Where would we be without tax collectors even? Greece?

    Charles Cowling
  11. Charles Cowling
    Ru Callender

    C’mon then Mr XX, step out of the shadows and let us feel the quality of your wares. Let’s cast a critical eye over your bespoke uniforms, appraise your stationary, eavesdrop on your bearers. Actually, these celebrants you mention, I assume they’re doing your funerals. Let’s leave it at that.
    By the way, I am an undertaker, a celebrant AND I have a regular slot as a radio presenter, and I know which one takes the most application.

    Charles Cowling
  12. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    Don’t let Mr XX wind you up, GM. While I wouldn’t describe my own media work as Kathryn describes her celebrancy for fear of ending up in Pseud’s Corner (‘to acquire the subtle but important pieces of information that come from staying alert to nuances and then make fertile the ground of our creativity’) I for one totally accept that celebrancy requires time, sensitivity, communication skills etc. and that it’s a shame it can’t command more remuneration at this stage. I wish this thread wasn’t focussing on defensive justification. It’s a given that the work is valuable and considered. Chat should move on to discussing how to stimulate growth…

    Charles Cowling
  13. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    You try taking a 20-minute service. If you were to make a proper job of it, Mr XX, you might find it took you longer than you think. I don’t know how good your celebrants are, but in my book, five a week is too many.

    And how do you judge what a “fairly straightforward” funeral is? Do you attend family meetings, and watch them dealing with bereaved families, steering them towards the ceremony that is right for them and not just going through the motions? I suggest you leave the judgement about straightforwardness to the celebrants. I find very few funerals, if they are good funerals, are that straightforward.

    Of course you have to have the shop, as it were, and you have overheads. You also have skills, and so do we, which you seems o be completely ignoring. The overheads for a good celebrant include several decades of knowledge and experience; a high degree of emotional literacy and empathy; excellent communication skills in speech and writing; emotional openness and yet a high degree of emotional resilience. The abilities you need are..

    Oh, what’s the bloody point? If you really think the way to arrive at a fair rate for celebrants is to compare business overheads, instead of the effectiveness and significance of what we do, there’s really not much point in arguing with you. Maybe we’d convince you more if we had three very large, expensive black cars.

    Hey, why don’t you ask you radio presenter mate to do your funerals? You’d probably get him down to a better rate.

    I’m sorry to be grumpy, but really – you say “with respect”- there is nothing respectful or empathetic in what you have written.

    Charles Cowling
  14. Charles Cowling
    Mr XX

    This topic is fascinating, because the celebrants I know do seem to be doing five or more fairly straightforward funerals most weeks @ £170 – 180 each.

    With respect, Celebrant fees cannot fairly be compared with the fees charged by funeral directors or florists. Both have High Street rent to pay, business rates, insurance, staff costs, advertising, vehicles, heat and a dozen other costs. The fee charged to a family must reflect these high overheads. It is possible to be a celebrant with just a business card, a phone, a reliable car and probably a PC.

    A friend of mine works as a local radio presenter. The going rate for a 3 to 4 hour shift on-air is £60-80. This requires a lot of preparation, probably more than taking a 20 minute service at the local crem!

    Charles Cowling
  15. Charles Cowling

    Four a week? No. Because a fee of £250 would be for the attention and involvement that Kathryn has already explained about. And still wouldn’t remotely cover it. To earn a living from this, it’d have to be a realistic hourly rate, which would include time spent staring at the wall waiting for the right words of committal, for this one and only person, to emerge from the tribute or elsewhere.

    Surgeons aren’t paid on a competitive estimate per removal of a melanoma. Even taxi drivers are expected to charge per mile. I’ll conduct your funeral so you can move forward without the dead person in your life, you pay my rent so I can do the same for someone else; what’s so difficult about that?

    Charles Cowling
  16. Charles Cowling
    Ru Callender

    Not quite sure how resting actor became sandwiched between ‘worthy’ professions like priest and nurse. I mean, we all like to be entertained, but..

    Charles Cowling
  17. Charles Cowling
    Kathryn Edwards

    Four a week? No.

    Because the bespoke approach doesn’t mean rifling through a book to find a unusual poem. It requires us to hang out with a bereaved community, spending time with them to become connected, to acquire the subtle but important pieces of information that come from staying alert to nuances and then make fertile the ground of our creativity.

    Charles Cowling
  18. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    Hi GM, I understand celebrants aren’t motivated by the money but, like many other part-time or full-time occupations, it should ideally command a price commensurate with the time and skill required. The £250 figure is roughly a £100 hike on the current fee and yet two funerals a week at that price still equates a low salary which might often have to be subsidised with other work. Meanwhile, working full-time and achieving, say, four funerals at that price would equate a decent salary. The questions are: could you do justice to four funerals a week? Is there demand for such a scale of business? Is £250 realistic and, if not, could stakeholders be convinced that it’s good value for a bespoke service?

    Charles Cowling
  19. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Interesting. I don’t think celebrancy is a job, at present, and the comparison with a free-lance journalist is thought-provoking. Celebrancy is a vocation and an occupation; we might find a way to get a bigger fee accepted, but until and unless we do, there is a limit, perhaps, on how much use it is to bleat about it.

    Conversely, the day all of us are in it just for the money will be a very bad day.

    Charles Cowling

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