Better together

Charles 17 Comments

Sexual intercourse began, Philip Larkin reckoned, in 1963. So, roughly, did the secular funeral. It was about this time that the BHA began to develop its celebrant network.

Uptake wasn’t dramatic at first; most unchurched people carried on having bleak and meaningless duty-minister funerals all the same. By the turn of the century, though, it was clear that numbers were fast falling away from the church, and it was in 2002 that the zeigeisty ‘civil’ funeral for people of fuzzy faith or swirly spirituality was transplanted from Australia by Professor Tony Walter. Civil Ceremonies Ltd began to train ‘civil’ celebrants (Prof Walter is still one of the tutors) to conduct funerals “driven by the wishes, beliefs and values of the deceased and their family, not by the beliefs or ideology of the person conducting the funeral.” This formula was taken up by green fuse in Totnes and then by the AOIC. Infighting at the AOIC begat all manner of breakaway training outfits and professional associations. The cost of training became a competitive issue when new providers entered the market with cut-price, ‘microwave’ training.

We can talk about the value of training another day. Can it do more than merely get you started? Can it turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse? Or even a halfway decent suede one? Does training weed out those who aren’t good enough? Wouldn’t apprenticeship work rather better? As I say, another day.

A consequence of the upsurge in celebrant training is that some areas of Britain are now flooded with bright-eyed rookies trying vainly to get a foot in the door, watched with uncollegial fear and loathing by incumbent practitioners. The number of training orgs has gone off the scale.

The self-regard of secular celebrants is high, bolstered by the touching gratitude of the families they work with. Lest this self-regard lapse into complacency, let’s have a look at three areas possibly requiring attention.

1. Why do you all hate each other?

There is, to all appearances, vastly more that brings celebrants together than drives them apart, shared vocation for starters. So, why so little interdenominational dialogue? 

Why all this silly internecine stuff that fuels feuds? Humanists mutter bitterly of pick ‘n’ mixers and prostitutes. Pick ‘n’ mixers and prostitutes mutter that humanists are arrogant and out of touch, the IoCF is too corporate, green fuse is hippy-dippy, ministers are wicked. Some organisations are too commercial, selling celebrancy as a nowt but a nice little earner; others offer externally accredited diplomas at an unnecessarily high academic level. All organisations think they’re the best. 

To anyone on the sidelines it looks as if navel-gazing issues, commercial concerns, petty jealousies, the promotion of self-interest and making the best of things as they are, not as they ought to be, engross you to the exclusion of vastly more important matters. 

Oh, and the truth is that all celebrant organisations churn out some celebrants who are stunning and some who are rubbish. You need to sort that. 

2. Why the complete lack of thought leadership?

There is a very lively, issues-rich debate going on these days out there in society about dying, death and funerals. Name one contribution to this debate made by the celebrant orgs. Go on, one.

Celebrants, you are intelligent people and the best of you are reflective. Collectively, yours can be an influential voice. But you can only begin to contribute when you start talking to each other.

3. Why the denial of client choice?

Celebrancy does not offer, for celebrants, a level playing field for open and fair competition. It’s no job for a proud freelancer. Undertakers, many of whom are little interested in the value of the experience offered by a good funeral ceremony, are still the arbiters of who gets to work and who doesn’t. This suits the palm-greasers (the sort of who slip their FD fifty quid for every funeral), the grovellers and the dependency junkies. It works against talented new entrants for whom career progression may be a matter of dead person’s shoes.

This comes at the cost of the very thing everybody in funerals says they care about most: client choice. If it is good and right that the best celebrants thrive and the worst go to the wall, then it is clients, and only clients, who can be the arbiters of that.

Client choice is easily enabled. The website already enables bereaved people to type in their postcode and find out who’s in their area. Only a very few of the listed celebrants have enabled feedback. Tcha! Every celebrant can link to their website on which they can have a video clip so people can see if they’re their kind of person, and a calendar showing their availability — like a holiday cottage.

But first you need to get together and show a united front to the undertakers. Are you up for that?

If it’s the interests of bereaved people that matter to you most, as you say, it’s time to drop the bickering and put them first.


  1. Charles

    “Undertakers, many of whom are little interested in the value of the experience offered by a good funeral ceremony, are still the arbiters of who gets to work and who doesn’t. This suits the palm-greasers (the sort of who slip their FD fifty quid for every funeral), ”

    Nice to see that you hold celebrants and funeral directors with the same high regard. I actually find that statement offensive.

    1. Charles

      a. that funeral directors aren’t interested in the quality of the service received from the celebrant
      b. that anyone would ever suggest that celebrants are bunging £50 to fd’s who use them. Do you have evidence of this and if so, please name the culprits.

      …can’t comment on any other part of the country but round here we have these amazing speaker systems which mean that you don’t actually have to be in the room to hear the service. Technology, eh. Who’d have thought it.

      1. Charles

        Re a) a good many FDs do not attend to what’s going on inside. If the FD’s role is one of impresario — if the FD’s job is to get the logistics right (there’s a strong case to be made that that’s what it is) — then there’s every reason for letting the celebrant get on with it . But if a FD has referred a client to a particular celebrant then the FD assumes responsibility for the work of that celebrant and therefore ought to be there to see that the work is good. Aside from that, a great many FDs, having got to know the family and something about the person who’s died, will want to be there for them as a familiar face in an unfamiliar place and share the experience with them. As one FD said to me, the funeral is the time when they finally get to hear all about the dead person they have been looking after. I’d have thought that the absence of so many FDs from funerals is, in itself, evidence that they’re not much interested in funerals. The growth of direct cremation among people who can well afford a funeral calls into question the value and purpose of the non-religious funeral (what good does it do, really?) and poses an existential threat to FDs. If there is a time for FDs and celebrants to make the case for the conventional funeral (a formal affair at which the person who’s died is present) it is now, I believe. A religious funeral has a rationale. A secular funeral has a rationale, too, but not one which necessarily calls for the format of a conventional funeral. Homemade ceremonies/parties for ashes often work as well if not better.

        Re b) I have verifiable evidence but cannot betray my source. I’m not suggesting it’s widespread, more an extreme example of the general way celebrants ingratiate themselves.

        Back to client choice re celebrants, I do believe it would be better for bereaved people to source their own celebrant and this can now easily be done (yes, technology).

  2. Charles

    OMG Charles – you love winding us up don’t you?! Perhaps I’m naive but (most of) the funeral directors and arrangers I know do want to use the best celebrants. It’s got to be good for them hasn’t it? You know that bit when the mourners are heading for the flowers? It’s just great for the funeral director to hear that everyone is genuinely delighted with the funeral and thanking the celebrant – and not just a mumbled and cursory thanks.

  3. Charles

    A little over-egged, A Celeb? I’ll put my tin hat on.

    I’d just like to see people choosing a celebrant for themselves. It’s very easy to do and it’s empowering. I’m sure FDs/arrangers try to find the right celebrant based on what they learn about the bereaved person, but that person knows him/herself rather better than the FD/arranger. Agreed, getting it right makes the FD look and feel good — but why do so many of them absent themselves from funerals?

    1. Charles

      Very good point Charles. Why do most FDs not sit at the back? Too busy getting a coffee/chatting to the crem staff/updating their Facebook status?

  4. Charles

    Ministers are surely not widely seen as wicked. Some might tar all ministers with the same brush through prejudice. Most would accept that many are excellent and others not.

    There remains millions of regular and irregular worshippers in the UK, many of whom know, respect and adore their minister. Other non-churchgoers might call on a minister they don’t know, often ending up impressed and other times not.

    The advantage of trained/ordained ministers is they are used to ceremony and public speaking. DItto civil celebrants who have been teachers or local radio DJs, for example, or who trod the boards in school plays.

    Sure, there are those duty-funeral ministers who disappoint but I doubt the ratio of thumbs down for ministers is any greater than it is secular celebrants.

    And that’s even when ministers, obliged to bear witness to the faith, shouldn’t be as flexible as civil celebrants (I firmly believe they should decline non-religious bookings rather than kow-tow to the celebration of life fad).

    PS I hate public speaking, personally, counting me out from standing in front of any congregation. Hats off to all those who excel at it.

  5. Charles

    A Celeb, I think its understandable FD’s don’t sit through many ceremonies when waiting for their cue to perform. Shakespearean actors smoke and gossip when off stage. The musicians in the orchestra pit at the ROH seem unaware they can bee seen from the cheaper seats in the Gods. When the diva sopranos are taking their bows, members of orchestra are packing up their instruments and sauntering off home.

  6. Charles

    ‘Better together’. Maybe. I’m not sure how much time the training orgs are wasting on squabbles, petty or otherwise. But I do think that a good celebrant is a good celebrant regardless (and in spite of) the training they’ve received. Unfortunately as is pointed out here, bad celebrants before they’re trained are still bad celebrants afterwards. Why don’t more FDs have a brochure of celebrants for clients to peruse? If they did, I bet that the least important criterion for the client would be where the celebrant did his/her training.

  7. Charles

    Richard, I think you’d be surprised to discover just how much anti-clericalism there is among funeral folk, and I don’t mean from dawkinsists but from those who feel their families were let down by switched-off officiants. Everyone has their favourite groan-story. I like the one about the minister who did no prep at all and simply rocked up at the crem at the last minute and asked the FD in a whisper on the way through, ‘Male or female?’ Depending on the answer the subject of the funeral would be referred to as ‘our beloved brother’ or ‘our beloved sister’.

    As to FDs absenting themselves from funerals, your seductive analogy does not hold, I feel. If you engage collaboratively with a family and a celebrant to co-create a funeral, you should see it through with them because you’ve invested in it. Furthermore, the sound of laughter from outside often intrudes.

    1. Charles

      Yes it’s true: ministers do turn up not having a clue about the person in the box/the hymns/whether anyone would like to speak. Any chapel attendants out there? Bet they have a few stories to tell. About all of us!

  8. Charles

    Personally we wouldn’t dream of leaving during the funeral for a variety of reasons most of which have been mentioned here. Another which hasn’t is to sort out anything that goes wrong such as curtains closing or not closing when they are supposed to (so one of us can nip out the back and poke the attendant) or, at the more extreme end, a member of the congregation becoming (quite seriously as it happened) ill and needing to be got out quickly and an ambulance called. No, no way we would not be there!

    As for clergy…as you all know I have no axe to grind here but I will say that every single funeral we felt did not go well was due to a minster of some description. The best one being the hospital chaplain who turned up 15 minutes late to a 20 minute funeral after we had already changed the date to suit him. I wish it were not so, because I fully support Christian funeral celebrants for those for whom they are appropriate, but they are consistently worse than other celebrants we use and far too often it seems to be ‘just another job’ with no real awareness of what they are doing or its significance to the family. Not universally true of course.

  9. Charles

    I disagree that we are all at loggerheads and I also don’t agree that we all need to be a cosy bunch. There are some powerplays going on, such as the ARC attempt last year, and I think we are also entitled to have an opinion on what makes a good training for celebrants, how long and thorough that training needs to be, and not encourage would-be celebrants to go down the cheap and cheerful route of thinking a weekend of training is enough to learn a complex and multifaceted role. In fact, Charles, Jane and I at Green Fuse, Anne Barber at Civil Funerals and John Copley at BHA have a good relationship and talk to each other about issues from time to time. We respect each other and the work we are doing to give the public the best celebrants / officiants we can and we agree they should have choice. We do say to trainees who are not of the required standard and who therefore don’t pass the course, which takes 5-6 months to complete, that they are not to call themselves Green Fuse celebrants and suggest that they don’t practice. The course is demanding and some come to this conclusion themselves. When we have worked so hard to build a training with high professional standards and rigorous assignments which are external accredited, I consider your linking of hippy dippy to our name to be a cheap jibe based on stereotyping the area in which we are based and, hopefully, beneath you, Charles. I expect better analysis than this.

  10. Charles

    ‘a good many FDs do not attend to what’s going on inside. If the FD’s role is one of impresario — if the FD’s job is to get the logistics right (there’s a strong case to be made that that’s what it is) — then there’s every reason for letting the celebrant get on with it .’

    Hi Charles, can I ask your source for the claim that ‘a good many’ FDs don’t attend what’s going on inside? I’d agree that, amongst many other roles, our job is logistics but even on that basis, if anything or anyone is going to need your attention, chances are you need to be within the service. Coming out at a discreet moment to check what’s happening outside if there’s anything that needs your attention then fine, but your duty is arguably wherever the person who has died and their mourners are. I agree that you have an obligation to care about the service given by the celebrant/minister too.

    ‘As one FD said to me, the funeral is the time when they finally get to hear all about the dead person they have been looking after’. I can’t assume this FDs method of arranging a funeral, but having conversations about the person who has died in terms of them as a person (not a funeral in need of arranging) and the family’s relationship enables us to hear about them before the funeral. This is hugely preferable for me as an FD, not only because I care about who the person was and trying to understand a little of what it means to the family that this person has died – but so, within the service, when the minister is talking about the person, I have an idea of whether they have done justice to them. That’s not really my judgement to make of course, but you can get a feel for whether what is being said is likely to be striking the right chord.

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