What is a Funeral Celebrant?

 In Death & Funerals

When I began work in Bereavement Services in 1961, at the age of fifteen, every service was religious. Consequently, nobody asked what is a funeral celebrant? I was intrigued that a recent report suggested 64% of British funerals are now secular. Such statistics are unreliable yet it is evident that there is a considerable reduction in clergy managed services. The change was first noticed in the 1990’s. The British, principally the English, began to use the emerging Humanist funeral celebrants. For the first time in perhaps a thousand years, the clergy could be avoided when arranging a funeral ceremony. This avoidance clearly appealed to the bereaved. The number of celebrants has increased dramatically since that date. They create services which are a complex mixture of civil, secular and spiritual values. Within these reside Christian elements.

Cemetery Sexton

My early roles were as cemetery sexton and crematorium chapel attendant and I knew virtually every minister. In other words, I could predict what hymns each would choose and how long their funeral services would take. Every funeral service was religious. The default position was to leave the Church of England service books in the pews. These were replaced on the few occasions when Roman Catholic or Free Church services occurred. As a local authority, we provided service books only for the Church of England; the other religions had to supply their own.

The council had no management interest or responsibility for ceremonies. We were interested in when the service ended because of its impact on the workforce. For instance, the gravediggers twiddled their thumbs at the graveside. At the crematorium, with far higher numbers, it was difficult to get everything done within the 30 minutes allocated for each ceremony.  Those ministers who were quickest, usually the Church of England ones, kept well within the time. The stress was caused by the Free Church pastors and the Church of Wales. They would often overrun, delay the following funeral and upset the funeral director involved. We should have given more time. We had prescriptive management in those days. As the experts we told people how much time was required; the bereaved were not identified as customers, and rarely complained.

Burial Declining

Burial fell out of favour. Consequently, those Church of England parishes with an older population began to do very high numbers of cremation services. Conversely, the new parishes had very few services. These parishes were the newly built council and private housing estates. To balance this for the clergy, many crematoria authorities worked with the Church of England. They introduced what became the notorious rota service. The parish clergy participating in the rota were allocated specific weeks throughout the year. It excluded retired clergy. During these, they would take all the Anglican services requested by funeral directors.  The rota minister met the bereaved family for the first time as they arrived for the service at the crematorium.

The Notorious Rota

I first experienced a rota when I became manager in Wolverhampton in 1974. For instance, each minister might do six funeral ceremonies a day for a week. The worst ministers were those who rushed, a few reducing each service to eleven minutes. Too often they used the wrong name for the deceased. Some ministers were annoyed at the superficiality of non-churchgoers demanding a funeral service. They would remind us all that the ceremony was about God, not the deceased. A few would not mention the deceased’s name at all during the service; none would deliver a eulogy and the bereaved were not invited to participate in any way.

Complaints

However, there were a lot of complaints and I became very concerned that these reflected poorly upon the crematorium. They reinforced the conveyor belt criticism. I sat in on some rota services, and sent my comments to the Rural Dean. I added an erudite complaint from yet another upset family. He was furious and reminded me in robust language that it was none of my business. It didn’t help that he was one of the worst performers! The Christian service, then, was sacrosanct. Upset at his response, I made arrangements to cancel the council’s involvement and the rota ceased in 1976. The notoriety of rota systems similarly saw them phased out throughout the UK.

The Pastoral Role

Consequently, funeral directors were told to return to the convention that supported the pastoral role of the parish minister. These, all men, had to be given first refusal on any request for a C of E funeral service in the parish. But although people still called themselves C of E, throughout the eighties deference to the clergy declined. The church made matters worse as its financial woes saw parishes consolidated. The curates all but disappeared and fees increased. The major irritation was that, in a commercial sense, the bereaved had to pay for the service. Yet the convention allowed the clergy to say yea or nay to personal requests. Therefore, they might not even mention the deceased’s name.

Tension

Funeral directors recognised this tension, and the fact that fewer bereaved people even knew their parish minister. Any threat that the parish minister might embarrass their client over their lack of churchgoing was unacceptable. After that, they began to buck the convention of informing the parish minister. They preferred to exercise more control over the funeral service. For certain, they recognised this as more than just a right of passage. Consequently, they increasingly gave the bereaved the option of using a retired minister. Such clergy were called a ‘tame’ minister in the business. Those retired ministers who delivered a warm and humane service were contacted. They used the theatrical flourish and knew the right length. They were also okay if a eulogy was requested. The fact that the retired clergy took the services away from the parish caused much controversy in the C of E.

Funeral Directing

Funeral directing was also dynamic and changing. The patriarchal funeral director of old, who lived in the parish, was disappearing. These, who stood shoulder to shoulder with the local vicar, had sold out to larger corporate firms. Funerals became commercial, all about marketing and sales targets. Many funeral directors changed into a salesman in a black suit. He, and increasingly, she, might be paid on commission. Neither had they any responsibility to local parishes or their clergy.

Castigation

However, the church made matters worse when they prohibited colloquial language on churchyard memorials; no mum or dad, and the media castigated them. In the 1990’s, I was invited to my local chapter meeting to explain how religious services were changing. I suggested that they needed to market their funeral services, a comment that was received with bemusement.

By 1995, I had been involved with approximately 70,000 funerals in Shropshire, South Yorkshire, the West Midlands and Cumbria. There were no secular celebrants in these areas and every funeral service was still religious. The few atheist funerals that arose chose not to have a service at all. It was unknown for family members to step in and take funeral services themselves. My staff were troubled by these non services. My deputy took it upon himself, after he had moved the coffin to the crematory, to read the Lord’s Prayer over it. I stopped that happening further.

Natural Burial

However, a significant change occurred in 1993. The City of Carlisle accepted my proposals and opened the world’s first natural burial site. The bereaved recognised that there was no established format for this new kind of funeral. Many perceived these funerals as secular, even pagan, because the predominant theme was environmental. The graves were to be turned into oak forest and would nurture red squirrels and owls. In the absence of any celebrant, I was increasingly asked to act as master of ceremony. This was to open the service, ask selected people to step forward and speak about the deceased. It was was usually left to me to round off the ceremony by performing the committal text. Sometimes, I was asked to explain the concept of natural burial to the mourners. In part this was to justify why an eco coffin was used, then only available in plain cardboard.

Bereavement Services

Because it became known that I and my deputy would MC services, requests to do this increased year on year and extended to the crematorium. In part this was because our section, newly renamed as Bereavement Services, arranged many Independent (DIY) funerals. The families taking this route often ignored the conventions, including the use of clergy. The ceremonies tended to be highly personal, with references to family events, local culture and occupations. For certain, many were very humorous. The families involved wanted to make the service a celebration of the deceased’s life; many suggested that no black be worn. Promotionally, each service had an immediate impact on many of the mourners attending, and drew many compliments.

The BHA

These changes had impact. For instance, in 1995, a local member of the British Humanist Association became the first secular celebrant in Carlisle. He had put himself through the BHA celebrants training course, and a few of these ceremonies occurred each month. But the service used was often a standard format. Even the ceremony would be recorded as ‘secular’ on the cremation forms. This would be little help to any later researcher wanting to identify Humanists, atheists, pagans or agnostics. The fact is that most people simply asked for a non religious service.

Princess Di

However, in 1997, Princess Diana’s funeral took place and was partially secular. Celebrants I have spoken to saw this event as the reason why their role expanded. The Director of the Centre for European Studies in 2005 stated that Diana’s funeral became a prototype; that this was an example of a vicarious religion, of believing yet without belonging, to a church. By that time, when I was asked how I might measure the quality of a funeral service, I would use a continuum. This is a horizontal line, with committed Christian ceremonies to the left and committed Humanists and atheists to the right. Both parties are a community that often knows the minister or celebrant, and with this focus, are meaningful, emotional ceremonies. In the middle I described the indeterminate and often less satisfied majority.

Retirement

In 2001 I moved to manage Bereavement Services at Cardiff, and in 2003 to Croydon, where I retired in 2006. The number of celebrants remained quite small and those I encountered were mostly Humanists. It was only in late 2014 when I wanted to promote my book R.I.P. Off! or The British Way of Death  to practising celebrants, that I realised just how much they had expanded. Yet what had seemed earlier just a simple battle between secular and religious had become far more complex.

I used the internet to identify who and what are these celebrants. I needed to know how many there were and what does the future hold? This is not presented as a definitive study as I do not have the resources to complete a comprehensive survey. As I read the many celebrants home page or descriptions, I found a huge variation in their approach. Consequently, some mentioned their training whilst others did not, and many of the celebrants stressed that they were ‘independent’, but from what?

Counting Celebrants

However, as a Humanist myself, I started with the BHA website and listed a little short of 300 celebrants. These included Scotland and they were the largest single group. In the mid 1990’s the BHA were the only provider of secular celebrants. Yet they still come with beliefs, a dogma, so I assume them not to be independent. Unlike most other celebrants, the Humanist celebrant will not (should not) allow religious content in the ceremony. In essence, anyone using them must denote themselves as non-believers. Prior to the mid 1990’s, they did allow religious content. A subsequent prohibition lead to the celebrants in the North East breaking away from the BHA. 

Innovation

However, the most innovative proposal arose at a conference in 2002. It was the creation of the civil celebrant, and this association had a healthy 160 celebrants when I researched it. They were the first alternative to the BHA. The civil funeral, the way I saw it, copied the civil wedding ceremony; or did it? My wife and I had a civil wedding in 1971 and it was bureaucratic and rather dull; it expressly forbade religious content. That meets the dictionary definition of civil, which means outside religion. This associations definition of civil suggests that it is a service chosen by the bereaved. This is not one imposed by a higher authority. It can include as much or as little religious content as requested. 

Internal Disputes

After that, the celebrants created other associations to represent and promote their services. I was told this was often because of internal disputes and schisms creating breakaways. The second largest group of celebrants, around two hundred and twenty eight, was the Fellowship of Professional Celebrants. The UK Society of Celebrants had forty eight. The Association of Independent Celebrants seventy nine and the County Celebrants Network, thirty three.

I counted a total of just over one thousand celebrants, represented by eleven organisations. A number of celebrants, possibly a similar number, are also independent of these organisations. These seem to be those who have created a local business; this was based on word of mouth and, perhaps, by working with the local funeral directors. They, evidently, do not feel the need for an overarching organisation or further promotion. The typical fee for a service proved to be £150.00 to £190.00. One celebrant stated that his fee was £135.00 but this was discounted by £40.00 for visitors to the website. This suggests that competition between celebrants is developing and may drive down fees. This is exacerbated by the fact that perhaps 20 new celebrants finish their training each month and join the market.

Independent

In addition, that word ‘independent’ kept returning to my mind. On one independent association site, I clicked funeral celebrants only to have two funeral directing logos immediately confront me. Are celebrants independent when their member’s sites are adorned with funeral directing logos? Indeed, on one or two such sites, the featured male celebrants wear formal suits and ties and look suspiciously like funeral directors.

Local Celebrants

One of these sites stresses the need to enrol and train celebrants locally. They emphasise this as a marketing strategy. They quote “Families will also be willing to pay for this service and open to discussing options for other merchandise or services that a funeral director has to offer.” The implication is that if the funeral director employs, or controls, the celebrant to some degree, it benefits the business. It also suggests that truly independent celebrants might be seen as a threat to conventional funeral directing; that they might influence the bereaved adversely as regards buying more services. Worse, they might support people in taking the DIY funeral route? It is a notoriously untransparent industry. Any option that encourages external and independent advice is rarely favoured by the larger funeral directing firms. 

The role is Vital

For instance, the website with very close ties to funeral directing suggested that the celebrant role is vital; that it is a reflection of the quality of the funeral itself. This harks back to my earlier comments about the rota service in Wolverhampton. In a section titled ‘How Celebrants Work’ this website incorrectly states that there are 500 celebrants in the UK; that approximately 45% of these are funeral professionals, which must mean funeral directors or funeral directing staff. This conflicts with Charles Cowling’s The Good Funeral Guide, published in 2012. It states on page 82 that hardly any celebrants have a funeral industry background.

Interfaith

I was also unable to categorise the growing Interfaith movement. Many of these celebrants are ex clergy, seceded in varying degrees from the formal church. Are they in the celebrancy movement, or do they remain clergy? Can they be considered independent? I also noted that celebrant coverage is extremely variable. It is high in the Home Counties and low in rural areas, particularly Wales and Scotland.   

The Influence of Celebrants

It is fascinating to consider how much influence the celebrants have, as a whole, on the funeral market. Clearly, the independent celebrant is effectively bought as a creator of the ceremony. He or she is a source of advice and help on funeral protocol.

The celebrant could sell themselves more directly to the bereaved rather than to the funeral director. This potentially enhances their role? Imagine being engaged before a family is associated with a funeral director. The celebrant has the opportunity to provide insight into how the local funeral market works. This might include the quality of burial and cremation facilities; even advice on how to reduce funeral costs, as funeral poverty is now such an issue. The absence of independent advice is an issue that really troubles the bereaved. The celebrant who is not independent, such as those who work directly for a funeral director, cannot fulfil this role. But because this ‘independence’ is often not transparent, the bereaved might not understand this difference.

Pastoral Role

Otherwise, apart from compiling the service, the celebrant has also taken over some of the pastoral role. This was the prerogative of the parish minister. The celebrant really can focus on the bereaved, their life and love, family and achievements, free of dogma and conventions. They can replace the black clothing, the morbidity and the emphasis on ancient dogma, such as ashes to ashes. Their more modern language can be full of meaning and purpose. This role, as provider of emotional support to the bereaved, is not given due recognition. The confidence they can instil in the bereaved is also important in their management of the funeral director.

The Blurb

This reminds us that the celebrant does have a dogma in the form of the blurb on their website. As an example consider the Green Fuse website. This is a funeral directing concern in Totnes, who have trained and promote seventy seven celebrants. Unlike the BHA celebrants, these immediately expose their philosophy; note their email addresses, with words like pointing star, heartsong and handmade ceremonies. These websites convey a bias towards natural and green funeral ceremonies, even though they actually perform more cremations. Whatever, the bereaved can view any number of websites they wish before choosing the one they like. This will probably be the one whose words have the most appeal.

High standards

Both the Humanists, and civil celebrants, take great pains to create high standards and to train to these, but how important is this to the bereaved, and perhaps more importantly, to the mainstream funeral director? If their company feels that a funeral service is just a funeral service, or is concerned with the cost of trained celebrants, or fears the potential for external influence on bereaved families through the ‘independent’ celebrant, then they will expand their in-house celebrant network. The weakness of these in-house celebrants is that they will rarely work for rival funeral directors, and might be poorly trained and unable to offer specific services to niche groups, like the pagans, steampunk or to people with alternative lifestyles. The fact is that the service is the key element of the funeral, not the coffin, hearse or the cremation, which are merely perfunctory elements in the package.

Stand Out

For the celebrant today, it appears difficult to stand out from the crowd, to showcase unique qualities, which in marketing is called differentiation. The BHA can do this for the atheist, the pagan celebrant has a similar advantage within that niche. Many celebrants show a bias towards natural burials. But this uniqueness has its dangers. The latest research suggests that people choosing natural burial now do so more for spiritual reasons. Consequently, it is not, as in the past, for the environment. This suggests that the celebrancy role needs more training, not less, on many skills and not least on the environment. Added to this, in anthropological terms, the celebrant needs the ability to replace the shaman of the distant past; a ritual intermediary with the spiritual world.

Perhaps this explains why many celebrants offer to do all things, such as civil, secular, green and spiritual, and not stand out from the crowd. Perhaps, also, this is why a significant number of celebrants avoid funerals altogether, restricting themselves to weddings and namings. Defining the celebrant role such that it can be marketed well remains the challenge, particularly if there is a desire to move away from the rather negative request for a ‘non-religious service’.

The Future

As to the future, I am confident that the internet is the new force. The latest figures suggest that 50% of all funeral arrangements are being researched on the web. The principal wordsearch is ‘cheap’ or ‘low cost’. Recently, the first funeral price comparison website, called www.yourfuneralchoice.com  went live. These initiatives have arisen because funeral costs have risen well above inflation for perhaps two decades, and this is going to continue. The ‘Direct Cremation’ is the latest internet innovation because it avoids the use of a conventional funeral director. For around £1500, under half the cost of a traditional funeral, a firm will collect the body, have it cremated without ceremony, and the ashes placed in the Garden of Remembrance or returned to the applicant.

Working With The Family

If the ashes are returned home, this is an opportunity for the celebrant to work directly with the family. This could be in arranging a Memorial Service and enhancing their support and advisory role with the bereaved.  This would require the celebrant to find ways to be more proactive. Consequently, they need to meet the bereaved, or potential bereaved, before referral by a funeral director, the reactive approach. This suggests that the truly independent celebrancy role needs to be extended. This is because we must find ways to get people talking about death and dying. That involves preparing a will and an advance funeral directive to prevent the death becoming a crisis funeral purchase.

The charity Dying Matters and death cafes are all part of this new approach, much of it utilising the internet. The deceased can now fill in an advance directive and even name a celebrant. I can say with confidence that where the bereaved follow this they find it a most satisfying and therapeutic funeral. The problem for any celebrant taking the independent approach is whether it would irritate conventional funeral directors. This might lose them referrals.

The Continuum

Before I conclude, I would like to return to the continuum I mentioned earlier, because it has dramatically changed. To the left, the committed Christian ceremonies have declined further. To the right, the committed Humanists, atheists and pagans have increased to some degree. That leaves what I described as the indeterminate and less satisfied majority, the middle ground, the vicarious. For instance, those people who used the rota service in the past have now turned to the celebrant. For the bereaved, that is a much better place to be.

Declining Churchgoers

For certain, as attendance at church continues to decline by 1% each year, this continuum will change. Consequently, it would be careless to assume that as science expands our horizons we will become more secular. The supernatural paradise, one which rejects dogs because they have no soul, will still exist.  The Good Funeral Blog only recently included an item which put belief in an afterlife as high as 36%. Many of these people call themselves secular. Are these the new ‘seekers’, those people looking for spiritual enlightenment outside religion, and mostly women? Perhaps they no longer accept my distinction between secular and religious. I hope that they  will read “My Pagan Ancestor Zuri – A Parallel Journey: Christchurch to Stonehenge”  (published Aug. 2019.) They will realise that our pagan past has a long and illustrious (pre) history; it perhaps needs re-imagining for our present society.

The clergy, the Church of England ritual, the language, the paternalism and even the parish process, were no longer relevant. Consequently, the funeral celebrant has replaced them, allowing the bereaved a multiplicity of choice, whether they be atheist or religious. For the seekers there is also a celebrant, the one whose website states, ‘let me enwrap you in stardust’.


This article was first published on Final Fling website – a community to accept mortality and plan for the end.

Recent Posts
Showing 3 comments
  • Avatar
    Lyla Peterson
    Reply

    I like that celebrants can help to organize non-religious funerals. My father recently passed away, and seeing that our family is not religious, we don’t want a typical memorial service in a church. Hiring a celebrant may be a great alternative for us.

    • Ken West
      Ken West
      Reply

      Many thanks Lyla. My experience of celebrants is really good but it pays to find one that you can bond with. The warmth comes out at the funeral and people at the service really feel that.

  • Avatar
    Debbie Donnelly
    Reply

    Ken, Thanks for this blog, as a Funeral Celebrant in training this piece about the rise of the celebrant and the history behind it was really interesting and made me think about having a specialism or USP.
    From a fellow Christchurch resident
    Debbie

Leave a Comment

Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Not readable? Change text. captcha txt