The soft bigotry of low expectations

Charles 7 Comments



Posted by May Andrews

“If we can just get through this, then we can get on with our lives.”

I’ve heard it so many times, in so many different ways, but it all boils down to this: many families perceive a funeral to be something they must endure, an unpleasant trial, which they must ‘get out of the way’ before the real process of healing can begin.

And we can’t really blame them. There remains a taboo around death, such that, when called upon to confront it, people still feel a sense of existential discomfort, as if they have stepped onto forbidden soil. As a celebrant, I see it almost every day: the apprehension in the faces of the guests who have just entered the chapel. What is going to happen? To whom has our loved one been entrusted? How should I behave?

If I can break through that dreadful self-awareness and allow each guest to experience a personal journey of memories and acceptance, both of the death and of their grief, then I have done my job.

Yet there are days when I feel I struggle against another great barrier – one that has developed out of this sense that, in a secular world, funerals are no more than trial and tribulation. And that barrier is low expectation.

I meet often with families who shrug and say, “oh, he’d have been happiest if we’d just wrapped him up and chucked him in the ground.” “He always said, once you’re dead, you’re dead.” And other such comments in this vein, usually suggesting that the family are enduring the funeral out of a sense of appropriate etiquette. The ritual has ceased to have meaning and, as such, I am often asked to ‘get it over with as quickly as possible.’

If that is what people want then that is what I shall give them, but more often than not, I find that, once we begin, families find solace, not only in the ceremony itself but in its creation and planning. Seeing them discover this very often gives me a renewed faith in what I do.

On the other hand, I am aware that, if the public continue to have a broad belief that the content of the ceremony is of less importance than getting it done, then our industry has a problem. If the public expect empty ritual, then on the occasions that they ARE confronted with empty ritual, they are far less likely to complain. As such, unlike any other industry, the funeral industry has less motivation to change, evolve and improve. One only has to look at the sharp increase in direct cremations to see where this might lead.

There are celebrants out there who use cut and paste services and only change the name of the deceased. There are celebrants who don’t even take the time to visit the family. There are also excellent celebrants who go above and beyond. But while public expectations from a funeral are low, there will remain little incentive to weed out those of a poorer quality. By way of example, I can paraphrase from a private online group (luckily this celebrant was in the US, so I can but hope they are not representative of the UK): “I always write weddings from scratch, but funerals? I don’t have time for those. I just change the name.”

I use this example because it points to a vast divide in public attitude to tradition and ritual. People rarely just want to get weddings over and done with! They are an important rite of passage, and a time of celebration.

…Which brings me back to my very first quote, “If we can just get through this, then we can get on with our lives.”

The key is in these words, which upon first glance, seem so negative, so lacking in expectations. Yet they are key to understanding, not only what people need from a funeral, but the standards to which the industry needs to aspire, in order to rid itself of the idea that what we do is merely proper etiquette.

As celebrants, we have a responsibility to show people that they need not be passive observers of an empty ritual, but if a funeral is done right, they will be active participants in the very process that allows them to ‘get on with [their] lives,’ by helping them to manage and accept the changes that the death of a loved one can bring.


  1. Charles

    I agree totally May. Getting the message out there and potential customers to understand the subtleties is difficult, however. I believe this is a quiet revolution for the most part. Funeral by funeral, more and more people are seeing an alternative way. A good funeral should move the grief process from one place to another and this is happening more and more in the hands of good celebrants – and ministers for that matter.

    My worry is that there are some very poor celebrants out there – some who quite clearly work from a template and rarely vary their spiel; some who cram as many funerals into a day as they can purely for personal profit; some who are fixated on the sentimental view of ‘celebration of life’ to the point that their ceremonies are full of sugar and nonsense and platitudes. Some simply get a thrill from being up there at the front, heading up the grief bus. Even worse, there are those who have no personal charisma or gravitas – and voices which grate and patronise – like listening to a monotonous monologue in a dull tune.

    I have seen many new celebrants come and go – full of belief in their own publicity ’til they find that there are others out there who are used because know what they are doing – who do it well and humbly. The newbies will often then try the undercutting practices, or deploying the buy-one-get-one-free mentality with funeral directors. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they (thankfully) fall by the wayside.

    My concern is that the quality of celebrants should be as high on the funeral world’s agenda as improving the quality of funerals in general. How we do this is another matter – some sort of regulation? Some sort of GFG accreditation guide sitting alongside the funeral director accreditation guide perhaps?

  2. Charles

    I have seen too many cut n paste celebrants. Perhaps funeral directors should take more responsibility when booking them, as in endorsing their services?

    The trouble is, the busy FD, is often just trying to get the job done, if someone is available to take the service, then during busy periods, you can see why it happens.

    I agree, many of the families I deal with see a funeral as a job to get done. We do of course try to enlighten them as to its value to them and the people left behind. As Bill Bryson says in his latest tome, ‘the trouble with stupid people, is they’re too stupid to realise they are stupid.’ You could say the same about poor celebrants!

  3. Charles

    As you say, David, “…the busy FD, is often just trying to get the job done, if someone is available to take the service, then during busy periods, you can see why it happens.”

    You can indeed see why it happens, though that’s no excuse. A good or bad funeral can be extremely influential in people’s mental and emotional health, as much as a medical intervention can, and for a hospital or doctor to offer inferior care to cover busy periods would be completely unacceptable. The “Can we please just get it over quickly [any old how]” mindset needs challenging by funeral directors and celebrants who are willing to do the job thoroughly, put the family’s interests before all else, and gently guide people through the twists and turns of early bereavement
    rather than follow them when you know they’ve no idea where they’re going.

  4. Charles

    Goodness me, there’s a lot of doom and gloom about us celebrants isn’t there ?
    I know a lot of good celebrants and that in itself should be a cause of celebration.
    Let’s not kid ourselves: it’s a difficult job. If you’ve done it right, you’ve spent time and hard won cash training yourself and then done the inevitable rounds trying to convince FD’s that you are good enough for their trust. And taken the trouble to join an association like the IOCF that means extra paperwork and thought.
    I try and make my ceremonies as individual as possible, but, as I explain to them my type of ceremony (because we are all different aren’t we ?) then a pattern emerges.
    People like my words. they like the sentiment behind what I am saying and how I say it. They like what I say. They like what it means. And I make it very VERY clear that if they don’t like it, it can be changed, that they and they alone are the final arbiter of their ceremony, that they own it.
    So yes, I use the same words as feedback from families shows people like and find comfort from them. I don’t cut and paste: that is cheating my client in the worst possible way. But nonetheless, my ceremonies have similar rhythms and words to them because they work and give comfort.
    The making of a ceremony is hard work. Many’s the time I’ve woken in the middle of the night with inspiration I have to write down there and then. but I’m not throwing baby out with the bath water just because I feel guilty about using the same words again.
    Finally, I don’t think we have too much to worry about with lazy celebrants. These people will not take the time to meet and get to know their funeral arrangers, won’t ask after their families, bake them cakes and generally treat them like the friends they become. And if they can’t be bothered to make the effort, they won’t get the jobs.

  5. Charles

    Great comments…who can argue ? I have struggled with F.D ‘s using their ‘ regulars’and there is always an adorning worship of them when they describe how good they are. Yet , I have witnessed what they do and believe that the F.D ‘s are caught in the trap of feeling safe , using someone tried and tested. There is a problem with tried and tested though…it becomes monotonous and mistakes can happen . When this occurs , no one feels able to criticise as they have used the celebrant for so long it’s like a deteriorating marriage.
    I always try to be inventive and imaginative for each and every funeral and understand that families are wanting to do the best for their loved one on the day. They look to you for guidance.
    No birth is the same, no marriage is the same so why should a funeral? Families say they want it simple and yes the ‘getting it over and done with’ is part of the pain during grieving. It is up to a good celebrant to utilise their brains , not cut and paste .

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