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’.