Here we examine some of the dos and don’ts you might like to bear in mind whether you’re considering becoming a funeral celebrant, or you want to up your celebrant game and finesse your funerals. But first…
What is a funeral celebrant?
A funeral celebrant is somebody who stands at the front of the ceremony and essentially says the words, holds the space and enables people who are at a funeral to say goodbye to a loved one in a meaningful and personal way.
You might have experienced a minister, or other person of religion conducting a funeral ceremony. A celebrant essentially does a very similar thing to a minister. But with some key differences.
What a funeral celebrant does is enable people to have a non-religious or partly religious funeral ceremony instead - one that is very much to do with their loved one and is written around that person, as opposed to their story being shoehorned into an existing liturgy, as may traditionally be the case.
A professional funeral celebrant will put together creative, personalised funeral ceremonies to say goodbye to loved ones.
The dos and don’ts of becoming a funeral celebrant
We hope you find these dos and don’ts useful. If you have more of your own, please do get in touch and we’ll add them to the list and, of course, credit your contributions ;o)
1. DON’T… assume you have to be sombre all the time
I think the idea of what a funeral celebrant should be in people's minds might be connected to the idea we have, particularly in the UK, that we're terribly sombre, probably always wearing black and not smiling very much.
But in actual fact, the reality couldn't be further from that.
Of course, funeral celebrants do need to be very sensitive people. They do need to be people who can be serious and can treat people who are mourning and bereaved in a very sensitive way, but it doesn't have to be that we're all terribly dour and looking very formal and traditional.
There are plenty of us out there who are all of those things. We'll listen to people, we'll care for them and be very sensitive but also we can see the humour in the things that that person did and the funny stories we’re told about them. We can share a laugh in the family meeting and we can create very upbeat sorts of ceremonies.
Some roles in the funeral profession do typically play that sombre, serious part, of course. Some funeral directors and their staff, on the day of the funeral, may well play out that role of quiet, solemn, serious, straight-faced, respectfulness. All of this is important, but if you’re the funeral celebrant that might not be the best reflection of the people that have passed, nor the expectation or wish of the family and friends left behind. It’s all about reflecting back what you have learned from the family.
2. DO… listen, like you’ve never listened before.
Naturally, we are all very different people as funeral celebrants. However one common quality we all need as a professional funeral celebrant, whether in the UK, Australia or America, is that we need to listen very carefully to the people we are working with.
One of the biggest compliments you can get after a funeral ceremony is when a family member comes up to you to ask you in what capacity you knew the person, or how long you’d known them for.
This comes down to your ability to listen very carefully to stories, and also be able to retell those stories. Essentially, to evoke the person who has died in their ceremony and to help people say goodbye to someone they really recognise and relate to in the words of the funeral ceremony.
When you’re meeting with family and friends of the person who has died, there are different ways that you’ll be ‘listening’ too. You might be in that person's home, for example, and you might be able to essentially ‘listen’ to the home - to look at the things around you. Maybe they've got a collection of dinosaur figurines or a great big DVD collection – it can all tell a story about the person.
You can also listen to the way that the family is talking to each other or to friends. Sometimes there’s a little bit of an exchanged look that you notice, and certain things are given away in what is not said.
3. DON’T… make the funeral ceremony about you
It’s probably an obvious point, but as a truly professional funeral celebrant, there’s a lovely absence of self in the process. Whilst one of the elements in your character which might have steered you towards becoming a funeral celebrant in the first place may have been your confidence to stand up in front of room full of strangers with all eyes on you, a funeral is not the place to make it about you.
You are there to use your skills and experience to create space to remember and say goodbye to a loved one in a meaningful way, not to put your personal stamp on the ceremony. So you do have to be great at your job, but not be the star attraction – it’s quite a fine balance.
4. DO… write the funeral service for the people left behind
This might also feel obvious, but it’s important the funeral ceremony you create as a celebrant is primarily there to support the people left behind.
Sometimes, you’ll perhaps be contacted by the person who is dying, who wants to get the funeral preparations, including the funeral ceremony sorted before they die. Often that can include them saying something like, “I want my ceremony to be really happy”, or “I want everyone to sing karaoke”, or something about how people should dress or behave on the day. Whilst these are fair requests of course, the funeral ceremony is about the person who's died, but it's for the people who are left behind.
So, in actual fact, even if that person was very upbeat and funny and a big laugh they're going to be still leaving a hole. And the more gregarious the person, probably the bigger the hole. Those left behind don’t have that person to laugh with anymore.
As funeral celebrants, we can focus on those brilliant times. And yes, it will be good and cathartic to all laugh together about the zany things they got up to. But the funeral ceremony needs to be balanced with a recognition of the fact that the people there are going to be feeling very sad and missing them, and that in amongst those happy memories is also the fact they won't be around anymore.
So, whilst it is still possible and good to focus on those positives, it's important to keep a space for the difficult stuff too.
5. DO… hold a space for the widest possible range of feelings
Another trait of a professional wedding celebrant is the ability to hold a space for e all sorts of emotions encircling the funeral ceremony. For every ceremony where the person who has died is sorely and utterly missed, there will be another where different members of the family may well have mixed and often quite conflicting emotions.
You might see it with families where perhaps the deceased person has remarried, where elements of the relationship may have been abusive, or where siblings hold sharply contrasting opinions.
There is a great opportunity for healing during the funeral ceremony, and it’s the job of a professional funeral celebrant to create and hold that space for the tangle of emotions to be gently acknowledged, nodded to, so that everyone gets the closure they need.
6. DON’T… bring your own baggage along
It takes a certain sort of groundedness to do the job of a funeral celebrant. Even if you're all over the place for whatever reason (maybe you're stressed, the traffic was awful and you spent the whole journey fearing you’d be late, or you've got 100 other things you’re worrying about) you have to be level, anchored and earthed!
You need to be in a space where you can put any amount of your private baggage to one side for the time of a meeting with the family and the funeral ceremony, so you can be fully present for them.
Sometimes that will require picking everything up afterwards and/or being upset in the car on the way home, but for that moment, you're there and you are focussed entirely on creating a place for people to feel what they need to feel and express what they need to express in a way that suits them.
That's quite an art - the advanced level of ‘it not being about you’.
7. DO… look after yourself
This is something that we talk about quite a lot within the funeral celebrant world. Self-care.
Being a funeral celebrant is about walking alongside your family at one of the very darkest times in their lives. You don’t have to be their beacon of hope, that’s not your job either. But you do need to be that consistent, friendly, supportive, calming ear.
It's not easy, once the funeral is over and you’re back at home to just forget all about what you’ve witnessed, that you shove it to one side and just try to forget. Because that creates its own problems.
Having someone, possibly another funeral celebrant to share your experiences with, can really help to give you a safe space to offload. The Celebrants Collective is a mutually supportive community of celebrants worldwide, which provides training and support, very active forums and lots of opportunities to work through the different aspects of life as a funeral celebrant within your local community.
8. DON’T… get too involved in other people’s emotions
As well as having a way to earth the emotions you’re confronted with, it’s important that we funeral celebrants don’t get too involved with the family's grief in the first place.
One of the things that we say often in this funeral celebrant job is “This is not your grief”.
Now that doesn't mean that you’re uncaring or unfeeling about it - quite the opposite in fact.
Once you are in a space where you've taken on some of their grieving as well, you cease to be as present for the family, and you’re not helping at all. You can and should still guide your family with lots of loving care, but without necessarily getting involved in the grief yourself.
The more you focus intently on holding the space for the bereaved, the less likely you are to adopt their grief yourself. But inevitably there will be feelings of sadness, and some situations will really get under your skin. Another good reason to have an excellent self-care routine and the back up and support of your own loved ones as well as other professionals.
This is another tricky balance to maintain, especially as funeral celebrants tend to be empathic, feeling people in the first place.
9. DON’T…consider becoming a funeral celebrant if you think you're going to have tons of free time!
Funerals do take up a lot more time than people think that they're going to.
A lot of people think about us standing up in the front for half an hour or so, and if you’re only just considering how to become a funeral celebrant, that have been your initial thought too.
What really goes into this is many hours spent chatting unhurriedly with family and friends of the person who has died, hours of preparation, writing and researching, and a good bit of time chasing people up, responding to first-draft feedback, incorporating last minute requests, liaising with funeral directors and adapting to timing changes and needs, and then there’s the time you need to get there (in plenty of time), conduct the service, and time spent immediately after the ceremony with the family.
The adept can slot this kind of work in around other commitments. As long as you’re clear it takes many hours to create a 30-minute funeral service which is all thriller and no filler.
10. DON’T front-load the family meeting with your own ideas
Don't go into a family meeting blurting out all the ideas of all the things that you could do in the ceremony almost before they said anything.
This is something that quite a lot of newbie funeral celebrants might be tempted to do, born of a very genuine excitement about all the things they can ‘bring to the party’ and ways they can make a ceremony memorable.
But the most important thing to do first is to listen to everything that the family tells you. You need to let them unpack what they're going through, and their thoughts and feelings before you start saying, "oh, I've had this great idea".
Once everything has been said, let the family’s shared information guide your thinking, so you’re more
"okay, what can I do here that can add value?”, rather than the other way around.
11. DON’T be blinded by the lights
Not literally, but sometimes you’ll be called to act as a funeral celebrant for someone who was possibly very well known in a certain field, or they might be famous in a way that you might already know a bit about them.
It’s probably another obvious one, but you've got to remember that they were potentially also, a mother, a wife, a close friend, and there was that personal side of them as well.
It’s another case for listening to the people who love them first to really find out what they're about, not just raving about their fantastic music career or whatever it is that they are well known for.
12. DO play to your strengths!
We meet and talk to everyone individually on our funeral celebrant training courses, and you’ll often meet people who have been (or still are) teachers, or who have performing arts backgrounds and other experience of being ‘out there’ in a public-facing role. You definitely don’t have to be that to be a professional funeral celebrant, but since you’ll need to stand up in front of people and present, you will need to feel comfortable enough with that aspect of the work.
We also see people who have worked in the fields of counselling or coaching which, again, draw on that listening part of the job and very much the ‘holding space’ part.
It might be you’re a serial organiser or a meticulous planner, or you’re already a writer in some other capacity.
Since being a funeral celebrant and planning and conducting funeral ceremonies is actually so much about people’s lives, almost any life skills and experiences can usefully feed into the process of becoming a confident and successful funeral celebrant.
So don’t come to your new career as a funeral celebrant thinking that you’re starting completely from scratch – you will likely have tons of transferable skills that will stand you in very good stead!
13. DON’T… forget to tell people sit down
This is a funny one, but when people stand up at the beginning of the ceremony, it's been many a rookie funeral celebrant who then realises halfway through the ceremony that people are still standing up and they’ve forgotten to tell them they can sit down again!
We’d love to hear your own dos and don’ts to add to this list, so don’t hold back, and do please send us your thoughts!
What it’s like being a funeral celebrant
Interview with certified wedding and funeral celebrant, Gill Manly
Funerals: a celebrant’s eye view