Celebrants – know your limitations

Fran Hall

We’ve been much involved with the subject of celebrancy recently. We conducted a survey to find out more about the growing numbers of funeral celebrants here in the UK. And, along with some of the main celebrant training organisations, an independent celebrant and the funeral trade associations, we’ve been looking at the standards of funeral celebrancy (more about that later this year).

Over the years, there have been over 100 GFG blog posts about celebrants – some concerned, others constructive. We observe things here at the GFG. We hear from funeral directors and their clients about exceptional ceremonies – and we also get told about dreadful, templated or ad-libbed, grandstanding ceremonies. We hear about online forums where newly trained celebrants ask for help finding poetry or readings, or ideas about structuring a ceremony.

Now, it’s a fact that some of our best friends are celebrants. This is important. This blog post comes from a position of caring not criticism. And it’s difficult to get the tone of it exactly right. Let’s start gently.

According to Wikipedia, a funeral celebrant is ‘an individual person… who offers to perform civil funerals in a dignified and culturally acceptable manner, for those who, for whatever reason, do not choose a religious ceremony.’

Training courses proliferate. Just google funeral celebrant training and see what pops up. Distance learning, online learning, group learning, one-to-one training, residential courses. There’s something for everyone. And, of course, you don’t need any actual training at all to be a funeral celebrant. (Just like the rest of the funeral sector, celebrants are unregulated).

So, market forces should sort the wheat from the chaff, yes? The most capable, responsible, self-aware and emotionally stable celebrants should be the ones regularly sought out by clients or by funeral arrangers? Those who are able to craft unique and meaningful ceremonies, who have a broad and deep understanding of the purpose of a funeral and the role of the celebrant? Those who have clear boundaries and awareness of the extent / limitation of their skills?

Well, not exactly. Things don’t seem to be working like that. For all kinds of reasons, the hopes of the original, idealist pioneers for professional standards in funeral celebrancy haven’t materialised. And there are many people who are drawn to the role who want to do good, who feel they can help others – kind, well-meaning folk who feel that they have something to offer bereaved people.

Perhaps some attended a funeral that they found lacking and felt that they could do better, maybe others saw a celebrant leading a ceremony and were inspired, thinking ‘I could do that too’. We’re pretty sure the vast majority of celebrants have come into this relatively new world for the best of reasons.

But. That’s actually not enough.

Wanting to help others is a noble thing, but it’s not enough to make a kind hearted person a good celebrant. The role comes with huge responsibility. And, along with the ability to create personal, well crafted ceremonies, to work in collaboration with others and to understand the complexities of grief, the role calls for continued self criticism, self-awareness and humility. Without recognising this, and in the same way as for those choosing other caring roles, the danger of funeral celebrants succumbing to saviour complex is a real one.

So we were alarmed to discover yesterday that there is a move to encourage celebrants to extend themselves even further beyond their existing and professional abilities.

Kenyon International Emergency Services, the international mass fatality incident response company, is actively welcoming celebrants as Special Assistance Team members.

Here’s how this voluntary role is described:

‘Special Assistance Team (SAT) members are often the first personal contact a family member has with the organisation involved in an incident.

They are the conduit between the families, designated authorities, the investigation, mortuary affairs and the incident management centre.

SAT members do not exclusively work in the Family Assistance Centre (FAC). They can also provide assistance in hospitals, airports, mortuaries and family homes for non-travelling families.

Being selected to work as a SAT member, although challenging, is personally rewarding. The qualities of a SAT member could mean the difference between a family member taking the elementary steps required to finding their new normal or stagnating in hopelessness, frustration and grief.’

Kenyon’s latest Team Member Newsletter outlines these qualities required in Special Assistance Team members and identifies ‘Funeral Officiants’ as ‘a profession that already has the core qualities required’. (A previous version of this list had ‘Celebrants’ listed as the second profession, below ‘Health Care Professionals’, but above ‘Social Workers’, ‘Teachers’, ‘Police Officers’ etc, but the one in the newsletter seems to have gone for the more generic ‘Funeral Officiant’ title).

Now, without wishing to deter anyone from offering their services in humanitarian aid to people affected by disasters across the world, we would respectfully suggest any celebrant (of whatever level of training) considering putting themselves forward in response to this should just STOP.

And think.

The ‘excitement’ of being ‘deployed suddenly‘ – the ‘International Rescue’ element, think about what this actually means:

Airline crashes.

Earthquakes.

Tsunami.

Hurricanes.

Cyclones.

Fires.

Floods.

People dead. Sometimes many, many people dead.

Sights, sounds, possibly smells that will lodge themselves indelibly in the memory. Traumatised, shocked survivors and witnesses. Desperate, anguished relatives. Shattered lives.

Stepping into such a scenario in an attempt to help those involved ‘take the elementary steps required to finding their new normal’ requires either astounding resilience, dogged determination or sheer unawareness of what a toll it could take. 

Working with people in extreme trauma requires resilience, strength and skills that are part of a long term practice, taking years to develop. And those involved need support systems and networks in place to preserve their own mental, emotional and physical health and wellbeing.

We asked secular minister / grief specialist (and Good Funeral Guild member) Emma Curtis for her thoughts on the potential consequences of working with the bereaved at a multi-fatality incident, having herself volunteered during the first days of the Grenfell Disaster, supporting families and friends of the missing, and the local volunteers. Here’s what she said:

“Once seen, things can’t be unseen. Once heard, things can’t be unheard. Experiencing such trauma changes not only your outlook on life, but your physiology, especially your nervous system. The fashionably touted ‘benefits of post-trauma growth’ come not through the experience of trauma, but through working through that trauma: the memories, shock, grief and pain of that experience with all the challenges it has presented to your mind, body and belief system. Post traumatic growth isn’t simply a magical gift of experience, it’s a light at the end of a long, and rather gruelling tunnel.”

Wanting to help others in distress is a natural instinct. But if you’re a celebrant, usually working as a lone, self employed person, where is your support network? Where is your supervision? What will you do with the experiences that might be involved?

Before you put yourself forward to become a volunteer Special Assistance Team member for an international mass fatality incident response company, maybe consider the most famous of the Delphic maxims?

Know thyself.

 

 

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vita incertaMartin SkolnikLucyJan StainforthQuokkagirl Recent comment authors

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vita incerta
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vita incerta

Whilst I endorse most of Fran’s sentiment, there were some middle aged snorts at ‘templated’ ceremonies. This was the very means by which I was ‘trained’ at significant expense eight years ago, skipping away with a light heart and a flash drive full of ‘jigsaw pieces’ which together, I had been advised, constituted a ceremony. Appreciating that you have to start somewhere, those templates were used for perhaps a year, to an ever lesser degree. To find this labelled ‘dreadful’ when it cost the best part of two grand and was recommended to me by a former President of SAIF… Read more »

Martin Skolnik
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Martin Skolnik

I’ve been a celebrant for about a year and am part of an online group of celebrants all trained by the same organisation. I’m irregularly but reliably staggered by some of the posts I read in that group. As the piece above suggests, some appear to cast themselves as saviours, therapists, family members or seers, while another element appear to be doing the work as a way of working through some of their own emotional / psychological issues. The ability to enter the lives of the bereaved, offer what’s needed, know your limits, then quietly withdraw seems rarer than it… Read more »

Jan Stainforth
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Jan Stainforth

Firstly I feel that there needs to be a way to regulate the celebrant industry. At the very least there should be a minimum qualification and a supervision period. Those who do a bad job give the rest of us a bad reputation. I pride myself on being able to deliver a bespoke, quality ceremony, whilst being able to deal compassionately and supportively with families going through early stages of grief. Maturity and intuition also count for a lot too. Regards being a SAT member – I wonder what the person spec has on it? Whilst they may be some… Read more »

Quokkagirl
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Quokkagirl

Thank you for this post. I have long been very concerned about the quality of celebrants entering the trade.

Wanting to help people is never enough. Most of the qualities needed to deal effectively with humans in crisis simply can’t be learned. They are innate. Few people have those qualities, nor the ability to take care of their own needs in the process. To extend that to helping humans in much greater crises is laughable and of those who feel they could do this, the vast majority will be sadly delusional.

Know thyself seems a little too simple but it says everything.

Debbie
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Debbie

I am about to start my training to become a celebrant. A celebrant, working with funeral directors to ensure someone’s final moment is bespoke and exactly what a family would want it to be. Surely that in itself is a tough job without trying to also be a member of a special assistant team member. That must be an entirely different role!

Sarah Parker
Guest
Sarah Parker

Don’t the specialists doing this work with Kenyons have to sign a confidentiality agreement?

I don’t think this sort of work is fodder for a travel blog (see link). Exactly why celebrants shouldn’t be doing it.

Bad choice Kenyons.

https://mumstravelblog.com/2019/03/11/thoughts-on-the-ethiopian-airline-plane-crash/

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Lucy
Guest

While Kenyon’s may be courting “celebrants,” I’m afraid they would be in for a rude awakening. I personally know members on the disaster recovery team who went out to Thailand when the tsunami hit along with other international disasters. These are experienced people working in mortuaries around the country seeing the worst of the worst on a daily basis. The years of experience in working in NHS mortuaries of just two people I know who went added up to 45 years and yet, they came home traumatised. Not because of what they were doing (although I’m sure that took a… Read more »

David Holmes
Guest
David Holmes

As a forty year veteran funeral director, I endorse every word Lucy. Disaster scenes are not for the feint hearted, or those lacking considerable experience. Death can be brutal, horrific. People who lose their lives in accidents and disasters can sometimes be haunting – even to experienced pathology technicians. Asking celebrants to go and deal with people and families in these horrific situations seems crass?

Lucy
Guest

David, I would say asking celebrants to deal with people in these situations and families is actually dangerous.

Families deserve better than a celebrant who has done an online course and has only seen dead people when they have been gently cared for by an experienced funeral director.

Families do not need someone who is completely traumatised by what they are seeing and can’t actually care for the people waiting for news on a family member.