Long before I became a funeral celebrant, I had a rather solemn idea of what a funeral looked like, felt like and essentially, should be like. I attended a handful of funerals in my youth and none of them made any sense; just a lot of religious words about the meaning of God, really boring hymns that reminded me of school and a rather vague description of the departed (are they talking about Auntie Mildred or cousin Sue, I can't tell the difference?!)
Funerals seemed to be dull and tedious affairs that one must endure out of respect, with the reward of a cheese & cucumber sandwich after to make the whole experience more bearable. Not the kind of send off any of us would wish for, either for ourselves or our loved ones!
The images I had in my mind, of course, came from an endless stream of TV shows, films and American sitcoms depicting scenes of bleak tragedy; weeping mourners dressed in formal black attire, staring into the pitiful abyss of a freshly dug grave, against a backdrop of moody grey skies and abandoned headstones (unless of course it’s American, in which case funerals are always sunny!)
While some funerals may certainly live up to this picture, the landscape of end-of-life celebrations is changing, partly due to fewer people being actively involved in religion in this country and partly due to the increase in celebrant-led funerals, who are playing a crucial role in the changing shape of funerals in modern Britain.
People want more for their person, not just the tired old rhetoric that we have become accustomed to. They want funerals to be more personal, more authentic, more compassionate and more in keeping with their person's life, personality, values and impact.
Where can funerals take place?
You may be surprised to discover that funerals and celebrations of life can be held in all sorts of places, not just religious places of worship or crematoriums. Most people have no idea of the choices available to them. A funeral, memorial or celebration of life can be held in a wide range of places that have meaning to you or your person, such as village halls, function rooms, golf clubs, art galleries, at home, favourite pubs, in a garden or woodland burial ground or on private land. You can hold a funeral ceremony with the coffin present anywhere that will agree to have it and there is no licence needed.
What is a funeral celebrant?
A funeral celebrant creates and delivers personalised funeral services that celebrate and give remembrance to people’s lives. They are the person who holds the space at funerals and leads the service. Funeral celebrants work with bereaved families to put together a funeral service that reflects their values and wishes and captures the essence of the person who has died. Unlike traditional clergy, funeral celebrants can offer a non-religious or semi-religious approach, allowing families to tailor a service around their own beliefs and values.
Getting to know your funeral celebrant
Your journey with a funeral celebrant begins with an initial email or phone call, followed by a meeting. Most of these meetings will take place at your home or at the funeral directors, if preferred. These meetings are a chance for you to not only meet your funeral celebrant but to delve into the running order of the funeral service and all the important aspects of the day. You might be surprised to discover that the atmosphere is not as sombre or as difficult as you might expect. Many people I work with often say at the end of the meeting that they found it really helpful and cathartic; it may even be the first time that they have actually sat down with anyone to talk about their person or begun to process their feelings. A funeral celebrant will ask you questions about the deceased to understand their personality, interests, and the stories that defined their life. They'll also discuss your preferences, whether you want a formal or more relaxed ceremony, and the tone you'd like to set.
What happens when you meet a funeral celebrant?
A funeral celebrant will visit you at a pre-arranged time, at a place of your choosing. You can invite any family or friends who would like to be part of the conversation, as their input can sometimes (but not always!) be invaluable and help take the pressure off of you.
In no particular order, here are some of the typical things you will discuss:
Song choices Funeral celebrants can help you pick songs that hold special meaning for your person, adding a musical touch that resonates with their personality. A typical funeral will include three songs; an entrance song, a reflection song, which is often accompanied by a photo or video tribute and an exit song, which is played during the final farewell. Some funerals include more songs, but it depends on the length of the service and the time available. Longer funerals often incur an additional cost, depending on where it is being held. I always ask if there is a singer or musician within the family who might want to sing a song or play an instrument at the service. It can add a really touching and personal element to the funeral and be a beautiful way to help say goodbye.
Readings A funeral celebrant can assist in selecting readings or poems that capture the spirit of your person’s life or convey messages of hope. Readings can also provide a moment of reflection and often include words of comfort and solace during a time of grief.
There are hundreds of readings and poems available online and your funeral director may have a collection that they can recommend too. I have gathered a selection of poems that you can have a look at on my Funeral Poems page. Here’s the link: https://www.creativeheartceremonies.co.uk/funeral-poems
Once a funeral celebrant has gathered all of the essential details about the funeral service, such as the running order, song choices, tributes, dress code, service sheets, etc, they will ask questions about your person so that they can build a picture of who they were. This may include gathering information and anecdotes about their life, career, family, friends, passions, achievements, character traits, values, special quirks, and what they meant to those they leave behind. A funeral celebrant will incorporate all of the personal stories, memories and anecdotes to create a heartfelt and authentic send-off.
Incorporating special elements
If there are specific rituals or customs that align with your person’s beliefs or values, a funeral celebrant can incorporate them into the funeral service. A funeral can be even more personalised with special, meaningful elements. I’ll be writing a more detailed article on this topic but things like decorating the coffin, adding personal messages or cherished objects on the coffin or having everyone wear your person’s favourite colour or flower.
Final thoughts In times of grief, a funeral celebrant serves as a guide, a storyteller and a maestro of ceremonies. They take the time to craft a farewell that is as unique as the person it honours. Their ability to infuse humour, warmth, and personal touches into a funeral service is a testament to their skill, experience and compassion. When working with a funeral celebrant, you're not just planning a service; you're celebrating a life!
Written by Celine Gucher, independent celebrant of weddings, funerals and naming ceremonies.