Is competition among celebrants killing off the fittest?

Charles 39 Comments

The funeral was in full swing and the celebrant was midway through that thing about life being a river that gets wider and wider when his phone went off in his trousers pocket. He furtively squeezed it into silence as he stumbled on. It may have been something by Kahlil Gibran. The phone shrilled out once more. Again, he stilled it. When it went off for the third time he pulled it from his pocket and addressed the caller. “I can’t speak to you now, I’m in a funeral.”

Reader, it really happened.

Yes, there’s a full spectrum of secular celebrants out there. Some are  the best it gets, some are sub-prime — and an awful lot are blameless. 

What’s more, there’s a heck of a lot of them.  They’re all competing for work and it’s getting a bit beastly what with all the wheedling and undercutting and general unseemly jostling. 

There used to be just four tribes of celebrants, the Humanists, the Civils, the green fusers and the Association of Independent Celebrants. Now there’s also the Fellowship of Independent Celebrants, the County Celebrants Network, the Scottish Independent Celebrant Association and the Fellowship of Professional Celebrants. I’ve probably missed one. They’re all training new recruits of whom, in this bad economy, there is no shortage. 

There’s market saturation in some areas. 

Does it matter? I used to think that Darwinian forces would kill off the less good while the excellent would drive up demand for secular funerals by the example of their work. There are still a lot more religious funerals than the churchgoing figures would seem to explain, so there is theoretically a rich seam to be worked. 

It doesn’t necessarily seem to be happening, the Darwinian thing. There may well be people who have been so underwhelmed by indifferent secular funerals they’ve been to that they’re turning back to the Church as the lesser of two evils. And let’s not be disparaging about ministers. There may be some below par ones out there, but there are also masses of excellent ones. 

Some funeral directors will only let the very best celebrants anywhere near their families. Others will take the first one who’s free on Thursday at 2.30. 

Perhaps the message to the very best is that you don’t need to be that good, spend all that time, invest all that emotional energy. Perhaps there is very little perceived difference between good enough and good as it gets. We note that no funeral director yet has sought to take the very best celebrant in his/her area out of the market by offering them a salary based on, say, three funerals a week. Perhaps a really good celebrant doesn’t make them look that good. 

No one wants to feel like a scavenger fighting for scraps. So the very best celebrants, they’re just going to walk away, aren’t they? And that’s either a shame — or it doesn’t really matter all that much. 

Do tell me I’m wrong. 


  1. Charles

    I totally agree with you Charles. We should be working together not competing with each other for work. In some places it is reminiscent of the Ice cream wars of old.

  2. Charles

    “The very best” of anything is, of course, subjective. That alone makes it difficult or impossible to make it quantifiable.

    Of course, anyone would hope that the phone situation wouldn’t happen, that goes almost without saying. Or does it? If it happened, someone must have thought it was acceptable.

    I think there is a funeral director in a south coast town not far from Bournemouth who does employ a celebrant isn’t there? Don’t want to mention names in case I’m wrong.

    The sad thing, IMHO, is that funeral directors per se have not yet realised that a good celebrant makes them look good. The vast majority of funeral directors choose the easy option (ie, go down the list until they find someone who can ‘do’ the funeral). That stems from the funeral director owning the funeral, arranging everything to suit him/herself then fitting a celebrant in around that. Until that changes, it’s never going to sort itself out.

    1. Charles

      I agree with you, Andrew, that it must benefit a funeral director’s reputation to work with excellent celebrants (of whatever stripe).

    2. Charles

      There are indeed funeral directors with what one might call heightened ritual awareness, who work very closely with celebrants — by having them on staff — or act as celebrants themselves.

      The ones I know at first hand are James Showers of Family Tree in Stroud; Arka Original Funerals in Brighton/Lewes; Ru and Claire Callender at The Green Funeral Company in Totnes. There are doubtless others.

      In a better world, the whole funeral conversation would be led by someone with ritual awareness, so that the focus would be on the co-creation of the right psychic environment, and to which the provision of logistical support (coffins, cars, etc) would be a service.

    3. Charles

      If you mean who I think you mean, they don’t employ a ‘celebrant’ as such they employ a person who ‘turns his collar to all things’. Keep him busy though – i have heard 10+ funerals a week

  3. Charles

    Ooops, pressed send by mistake.

    I’m not sure it’s right to assume that the best (whatever that means) will walk away. The best stand out, they make a difference. They also gain a huge amount of personal satisfaction. That has to go a long way to ensuring they keep at it doesn’t it?

  4. Charles

    Fascinating post.

    I don’t know – who does? – whether I’m the best, the middle or the crap, though my nerves have never yet let me go in with the mobile on. (Check mobile, check glasses, check script under arm, check mobile, check glasses, ..) But for me, Andrew is right.

    I’m not walking away from being a celebrant until I’m ready to (‘course, I may get carried out…) and that’s whether I get asked to do one a week or one a month. It is deeply satisfying as well as all the other stuff (driving round in the snow, being sad for part of each week, etc etc…)

    It’s very difficult to say this without sounding self-righteous, but there may be two reasons for celebrants’ poor performance: simple incompetence (poor empathy, poor public speaking) as with any job; and a lack of that inner demand on oneself, that sense that only the best you can do will do – every time, no excuses, no exceptions. If I ever stop feeling that, then I’ll walk away.

    Celebrants shouldn’t, IMO, feel too comfortable with the role. I mean, you can’t go through an existential crisis every time you are asked to help with a funeral (well, not every time..) but the smug or complacent celebrant (priest, minister..) should be avoided at all costs. A necessary confidence, yes; comfort – no, I think you have to be ready to bear a little pain in your celebrant’s week. If it never hurts – are you in the right job?

  5. Charles

    In my experience we are only as good as our last Funeral and most FD’s realise that a bad ceremony will reflect badly on them. That should help them sort out the wheat from the chaff. Finally it is well nigh impossible to put together a dignified and meaningful ceremony if the Celebrant isn’t that bothered one way or the other IMHO.

    1. Charles

      Absolutely agree, Marc. We are very aware of how the celebrants we use reflect on us and are of the ‘only let the best anywhere near our clients’ school. When we do use a new celebrant, as we occasionally must, it is usually on the recomendation of one that we trust. We also spend that funeral rather on edge in case there’s a problem. We also try not just to have excellent celebrants but also to match them to clients that suit and, indeed, vice versa. Of course the time that all breaks down in when we are using local clergy. I agree with Charles, some are outstanding. The problem is that we have no control at all over whether they are or not and there is often a last minute substitution that the family (and us) were not expecting.

  6. Charles

    I also have noticed a quantum leap in the number of approaches I have had from prospective celebrants. I see (and encourage) many of them; unsurprisingly, few stand out as having the extraordinary mix of authenticity and theatricality and warmth and efficiency and confidence and … on and on with all the qualities that it takes to deliver a really great full hearted service.

    I’d have liked to know how the wretched celebrant above dealt with the phone interruption with the appalled folks who had witnessed it; it might just have been possible to rescue the situation with a spontaneous mot juste …. was it perchance the deceased calling from the coffin ha ha ? Shudders.

    Btw, thank you Kathryn, for your acknowledgement. You would know one.

  7. Charles

    I don’t think evaluating celebrants is as subjective as all that, Andrew. There are 3 skills they need above all: 1. empathy + listening + information-gathering; 2. the ability to write well; and 3. the ability to deliver effectively. I have a feeling that if you got ten people off the street to mark celebrants out of 20 for each you’d get a fair bit of unanimity. Skill #4 isn’t a skill at all, but it’s a vital component: over-anxiety. GM is a fine example. Even an idiot like me would always leave the phone in ‘vestry’.

    And (sorry to sound so contrary) I don’t know that it’s FD ownership that’s the matter so much as low client expectations. If most clients are perfectly happy with ‘mediocre’ funerals because the value they attach to a funeral is low, then I’d have thought FDs are right to plump, first, for Thursday afternoon (the client’s priority) then find someone (anyone) who’s free. I do agree with you that everything must be consumer led.

    Lastly, I’d have thought there’s only so much a good celebrant’s self-respect can take. But I acknowledge that my own amour propre may be leading me astray there.

  8. Charles

    No apology needed for being contrary Charles. As I’ve said before, if we all had the same opinion, the world would be a very boring place.

    Low client-expectation stems from funerals being things clients have to go through though really wishing they didn’t have to, having had no emotional value in the past, and not realising that they can do something different. That, sadly, starts with the funeral director, who is the first point of contact for the majority of people who have experienced a death in the family.

    Of vital importance in your argument is your misconception that Thursday afternoon is the client’s priority. It isn’t. It’s the funeral director’s priority. It fits in nicely with the other 8 jobs they’re doing that day – the hearse should make the 3pm as well, the bearers can stay at the crem, and the limos can work over from the 1pm provided the punters don’t hang around, or God forbid, want to say hello to more than 4 people. (Various words used tongue in cheek, I hasten to add).

    Because funeral directors to all intents and purposes control funerals, imposing their values (ahem) on their clients, the expectations are low. So it’s not the client who is to blame for that.

    I’m not quite sure where your ’10 people off the street’ idea fits into all this, as presumably they will all have the same low expectations so will all give 20/20? If you watch mourners as they leave a funeral which you or I might term a pretty awful one, I’d be willing to bet the vast majority would be saying “that was lovely” wouldn’t they?

    And just to return to the phone celebrant for a moment, I’m willing to bet that wasn’t the last ceremony he ever led. And who booked him for the one after the phone incident?

  9. Charles

    Agreed that client expectations are as low as they are because funerals had become meaningless. And this brings me to one of my favourite hobbyhorses: the FDs are nuts, collectively and individually, not to make the case for the funeral as a valuable and enriching experience. All the talk is of price, never value; of hardware (merchandise) never software (the stuff that makes a funeral meaningful); of coffins and blinking floral tributes, but nary a ceremony-maker. Perhaps you can tell me: is this dimness or is it status anxiety?

    I think low expectations are pointed up by the 10 bundled at random off the Clapham omnibus. In real life they’d be well capable of “She’s great, he’s rubbish,” but put them in a funeral and they’d all say “Much of a muchness, really.”

    No, that’s not true, is it? So what’s odd is that people experience a brilliant celebrant but don’t draw the obvious conclusion: I must be picky as can be when I need one.

    I cede your point about Thursday. The FD wouldn’t go with it if it did not suit their convenience.

    1. Charles

      We do, on occasion, (2 recently, I think) have clients who say that the funeral HAS to be on a certain day because people are arriving/leaving from all over the country/world and that’s the only date that works and on their request we go with the ‘best available celebrant who is free on that day’. Not ideal, but sometimes that’s what is possible.

      Speaking personally we do concentrate on the service and the ‘feel’ of the service above cars and coffins which take up very little of our average arranging time. I am, however, increasingly aware that this is unusual. In answer to your question as to why this should be, Charles, my best guess is lack of imagination, inability/lack of motivation to change, and the fact that many of the people doing the arranging are employees with no particular drive to do anything other than what they have always done.
      By no means universally true, of course!

  10. Charles

    Wow ! This is a really interesting subject for me as I have just recently passed my Civil Ceremonies course (excellent course by the way, thank you Ann) and had a long hard think as to where I want to go and how I want to do it.

    I have now approached 3 funeral directors: one reasonable sized firm and two small independents.
    At the reasonable sized firm I sat and talked to the funeral arranger at the desk who told me how much she liked me and promised me work. Which was nice

    At the two independents I spent one and three quarter hours and one and a quarter hours respectively discussing my role and how I would fit into their idea of how a good funeral would be run. Both were completely aware that the celebrant represents them. Both had wanted to meet me to know what I was like – not just what I sent them (my new business card and leaflet and the IoCF guidelines together with my carefully crafted letter)

    Will I get work from these people ? I hope so, because there was a connection there: points of similarity in feeling and the determination to do the best for the family.

    It seems to me that the best celebrants want to do this and more importantly, they don’t become inured to the process.
    I went to a funeral the other day to observe and the minister was dire. Head down, saying everything by rote, muttering to his audience. Turns out it was his first or second funeral. So I can’t judge him by that. Or can I ? I cannot help but think that I would have put more preparation into my first funeral and the family would have got more from me both from my meetings with them and the ceremony itself.

    So yes. I am firmly in the camp that says that quality will out. I am determined to be that quality because I care about the people I will deal with. I will get a funeral sooner rather than later and prove this because of everything Charles has so obligingly enumerated. That’s not false modesty, it’s just that I know from experience in the police service if you care, it works.
    Oh yes and I’m leaving my phone at home when I do my first funeral

    1. Charles

      Chris – take your phone in case of emergency. But then lock it in your glove compartment.
      Best wishes for your first funeral!

  11. Charles

    If we’re getting new recruits like Chris, it’s all heading in the right direction! He’s taken the time and trouble to make an impact on a few chosen FDs. That’ll work, even if the start-up seems frustratingly slow, Chris. All the best.

  12. Charles

    Good luck Chris – you sound like you have it figured out and that is half the battle. Whatever happens in the actual service is the major part of what makes a good funeral, and good funerals are good for the client family and FD’s business.

    If I might add, yes please, take your phone and leave it in the Minister’s room. You never know when soemthing will go wrong that needs communication!

    Leaving your phone on is an honest mistake. Answering the bloody thing during a service is crass and unforgiveable.

  13. Charles

    As a celebrant fairly new to the game (6 months) I have to pour a little cold water on some of the bold statements made about the best surviving. My experience thus far has been: no matter how good you are, how cheap you are, unless an FD likes you then you will not work unless a family asks for you, and they tend to do this based upon reputation, which you only get by working!
    Part of the equation for survival includes economics. If you don’t work you don’t earn, so no matter how good you are if the bills need paying you find another, possibly alternative, income stream. So no, the best don’t always survive…..

  14. Charles

    The best, if they don’t have another income stream, may well be vulnerable, and that’s a real worry. But one of the very useful things made clear to me early in my not always very special training was that this is not a dependable way to earn a living, although it may supplement a living,

    Sorry to be blunt, but in my view celebrants shouldn’t expect to earn a living, and I think it can distort what we’re doing to expect it to do so. But I do agree with Lol that FDs need to “like” you, or at least your work. And sometimes I think celebrants’ frustrations with how Funeralworld operates blinds them to the nature of an FD’s work.

    There are ways of reaching out to people directly, informing them of what you can do and hoping they might come to you direct, but it’s a long shot. And you will get word-of-mouth recommendations by people who like thew way you work, as well as what some people rather callously call “repeat business.” These things, naturally, take time (a couple of years, maybe) So we need to work through FDs. But hey, they’re not a necessary evil! I hugely admire some FDs of my acquaintance, and I couldn’t do their job.

    If we talk to them properly, if we take time and trouble with them, if we do a good job for them – why shouldn’t they “like” us? See David’s first paragraph above.

    Only caveat here is that some areas seem now to be inundated with celebrants. Is it perhaps a bit like being an actor? It’s something of a jungle, it’s not regulated, it’s over-populated, standards vary widely, luck is important, you’re only as good as your last show, there’s no rational control by anyone…

    But it’s still a wonderful area of work. Good luck Lol, hope things improve soon.

    Re-reading the original post, I can scarcely believe he actually answered it. Poor misguided idiot…

    1. Charles

      Any celebrant who is in this for the money will pretty soon give up. If you factor in the costs and the time it takes to do the job WELL they couldn’t afford us.

      I think many people look at the 30 minutes in the crem and that is easy money…. how little they know.

      The mark of a good celebrant is the return business; you know you have done a good job when families go back and ask for you by name.

  15. Charles

    @Gloria – I’m cognisant of the likelihood I have to find a part time job to supplement my celebrant earnings, which is frustrating but a reality. The “march of the celebrants” is getting ridiculous, and still the companies churn them out because fundamentally it’s THEIR livelihood. When it comes to an FD choosing a celebrant, yes it sometimes down to price, and sometimes if the FD is unaware of what makes a good service then they take quality out of the equation of choice. Coming from a small town that is inundated with celebrants, ministers et al, it is the case that one or two people commandeer the most funerals. Are they the best? Categorically no, from experience of using them for my families funerals. Am I better than them? yes, and that’s not false modesty on my part. The fact is though that they are “embedded” with several and many FD’s getting most of the business. It is not uncommon for one of these celebrants to do the first 5 services of the day down at the crem. Why are they used? FD likes them and the public is ignorant of the choices out there, mainly because few others get a look in and the FD’s have them as their first choices.
    I will say this to Chris The Trainee – don’t judge the minister the other day too harshly. I come from a business background and have delivered presentations, off the cuff, in the boardrooms of multi million pound companies without so much as turning a hair.
    My first three funerals I gripped the lectern as though it were a life raft and the boat was sinking. The sweat ran down my face in rivers. I still get butterflies, and that’s good.
    The guy who left the phone in his pocket? He fouled up, big time, but does he deserve to never work again? We are all human, and if that was his first foul up in an otherwise good career where he has served families well, then he deserves another chance. having contributed to a mistake in a service (compounded by shoddy crem staff), do I deserve to never work again?
    To err is human, to forgive is, well, beyond some people.

  16. Charles

    Ahhhh this is the sort of post this blog should thrive on. Good, reasoned, intelligent, well thought-out debate, many sides of the argument, no nastiness, no exclusivity, new and not-so-new commentators contributing. Even if we have got somewhat away from the original question, it’s good to type!

    I really do take my hat off to any celebrant who makes this line of business work for him or her. One a week may be adequate, more than they can cope with, or just no good at all. Expectations vary, requirements differ.

    I sometimes get pangs of guilt that the talk I give to the new recruit civil celebrants gives them false hope. I hope I exude enthusiasm, because I’m so enthusiastic about what a difference we can make together, but I’m very conscious that once they get into the real world they will be up against an untold number of funeral directors who just don’t get it.

    I have to admit that, just like most funeral directors, I have my favourite celebrants, and whilst happy to encourage others, I would find it difficult to take that leap of faith, just in case of a muck up. The celebrants I work with most often have one thing in common – our clients adore them. That can (and does) only have a positive effect on my business. Why would I want to risk tarnishing that reputation?

    Just to put the other side of the argument as well, in the last year I have had two celebrants approach me asking me to give them work. One told me that the reason she was so busy was that she was so beautiful, and one told me that every other funeral director in the area used her because she was so good (I kid you not) yet when asked to name a few she couldn’t.

    As has been pointed out, the training organisations make their living by training new celebrants. They have a niche market, so why shouldn’t they make a decent living from it? Do they give false expectations to trainees, or do they make it plainly clear that they’ll give you the ability and the direction, but after that you’re on your own? Civil funerals are on the up, massively so in some areas, but like anyone going into business alone, there has to be an element of taking responsibility for yourself. Why, for instance, do so many people go on these courses without first visiting funeral directors in their area to see if there is a market for them? Surely that is basic business research?

    I don’t think there’s really a right or a wrong, as with so many things. It frustrates me that funeral directors have the upper hand in everything, but it annoys me when celebrants state categorically that they are better than someone else. I suppose that brings us full circle to the subjectivity I opened with yesterday morning.

    1. Charles

      Well Andrew I’m afraid you just have to be annoyed with my statement. It was based not through vanity, because god knows I have MUCH to learn and I am far from vain, but personal experience. One of the two I compared myself to could not write the service for my father’s funeral, What she provided to my sister was an absolute mess full of inaccuracies and poorly structured. I had to write the eulogy for her, which she then missed the final third off, but replaced it with banal readings of which we were not given a choice. My father died of Alzheimers, so when the first reading of the day began with “the mind has long gone but the body remained”, well call me sensitive but that’s just wrong! Oh, and she delivered it with all the emotion of a bored waitress reading out the days specials for the 30th time.
      The other person I compared myself to? Well, I don’t: do so many services that I get them mixed up and can’t find the notes for my next one. Likewise I don’t conduct interviews with families over the phone because I’m too busy to travel 5 miles. I don’t turn up with a few pages of notes jotted down and wing it.
      What I DO is: unlimited time with clients, phone on until 11pm 7 days a week, a copy of the service provided on the day, a service that has been approved by the family beforehand by the way, I write poetry for families just for their loved ones service, and many other little bits and pieces that I don’t care to share.
      Whilst to use Charles’ terminology I am still, at best, sub prime, I stand by my assertion of doing a better job than the aforementioned pair, and hence, in this instance, Darwin’s theory is flawed.

        1. Charles

          Yes, but I’m not an FD, although that has crossed my mind for the future 😉
          I would just like to add Andrew that from your perspective as a FD you dislike celebrants saying they are better than others. Well to be fair that is something I have never done nor would never do when meeting an FD. if someone else is mentioned I default to this setting: ” I’m sure that xxx does a good service, but this is what I bring to the table” and then let them make their own minds up.

  17. Charles

    In all walks of life, there is competition and new businesses have to be prepared to stay in for the long haul. Old businesses can never feel complacent, they need to stay fresh and alert to new trends as well. I agree in some areas there may be seemingly a surplus of celebrants, but this can be positive too as more people are hearing about us through friends, family, neighbours etc. Word spreads.

    Self belief is very important and I think having a passion for this work really helps. For me it has to be a part time living as in order to do the job really well, time is rather elastic. Also I want to continue to enjoy every moment of my work.

    I was a homeopath in an earlier life and a similar trend appeared. Now the colleges have reduced again in number and the ‘good’ homeopaths have stuck in there and are still working despite some very adverse publicity over these last few years.

    Let’s celebrate the fact that families are slowly hearing about other options and making choices, that may or may not be using a celebrant. Let’s work with others in the Business in our area if we can or at least be approachable and friendly. Who knows where all this new energy goes and what can potentially develop from it.

  18. Charles

    Thank you everyone for your kind comments. Are funerals like busses ? As it happens, the next day I get asked to do two funerals on the same day at the same crematorium from two separate sources !

    Lol Owen I am now quaking in my boots. I take your point about the minister. I too have given presentations and training inputs, but this is very different. The point I was trying to make was that he didn’t seem to have prepared very well. If there is one thing I have learnt it is that the 5P’s apply and preparation is everything.

    As to the market being flooded, I am sure that it will be. This is a growing area of business. There were 12 people on my course, all looking to go back to their areas and get work.

    I don’t know whether I am lucky or not, but I have a group of people in my area who have not only accepted me, but welcomed me into their network. They see another celebrant (as long as the celebrant is of a certain standard) as another resource when they cannot do a ceremony and as I become more experienced vice versa. Is this kind of collaborative working common ?

    Another important factor is that I have a mentor. She may not see it as that ! I don’t want to ask too much of her, but her help has been invaluable in easing me into the ways of thinking like a celebrant.

    And the last thing that has helped is that I have prepared a letter and have my stationery ready to rock (business cards and leaflets). I have spent a long time deciding who i should approach and what I should say. Website ? Maybe if I am deemed good enough for regular work. As I see it, you have to take every opportunity to sell yourself.

    But in the end it comes down to being yourself and selling yourself to the funeral director. Only really that one to one will ensure that they remember me and decide to give me a chance.

    First meet with a family tomorrow – I am going to do my very best for them. I hope that I do my very best for everyone.

  19. Charles

    Chris – set your sights unrealistically high, but temper that with forgiving yourself if you don’t quite make them, that way you SHOULD do the very best you can.
    If I can offer one tip on delivery of a service, I tend to approach it as I would reading a story to someone, the pace of delivery changes according to content as does tone of voice etc. Perhaps not for everyone but it works for me and it’s when I feel most comfortable.

  20. Charles

    I found the point about the phone interesting – it can happen that phones go off even when switched off – the professional answer is to politely walk to the side of the room and put it outside or hand to someone else to dispose of.
    They can take the battery out. but better still don’t take it in the ceremony room.

    Then you can carry on undisturbed..

  21. Charles

    If such a thing is possible, this post is even more relevant at the start of 2015. There are celebrants-a-plenty round here. A few are cramming in so many that they’re doing the large weekly numbers done by (some of) the retired C of E vicars.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>