After speaking at a recent conference, Rosie hung around to listen to other talks and sessions. At one, attendees anonymously wrote down some of their most challenging funerals incidences, these were then read out and discussed. This exercise really got her thinking about celebrants and their encounters. A call to Anne has resulted in this article.

A funeral celebrant has to be all things to all people and much more besides. They lead funerals that can include anything from physical fights to families at war to malfunctioning curtains!

At the Institute of Civil Funerals’ recent annual conference, members gave dramatic accounts of some of their experiences. It takes a certain type of individual to cope with the dramas and high emotions that arise and experiences seem to fall into certain categories.

Firstly what you might call ‘content issues’. At the slightly less difficult end are the families where the celebrant, try as they might, simply cannot extract any information whatsoever about the person who has died in order to make the ceremony personal and ‘tell the story’ of the life that has been lived. Using their own resourcefulness, celebrants report how they track down other people who knew the person and endeavour to build a picture to portray at the funeral. In other instances content is put forward by families with wording that is simply not repeatable or else it sets out to attack another person or organisation or is so badly written to be unreadable!

This is hard enough. Then we get to the category of ‘difficult family situations’ when the family is literally ‘at war’ within itself or family members detested the relative who has died. The amount of tact and diplomacy required to create a meaningful funeral ceremony in these circumstances is unbelievable. Examples were given by members where families have actually sabotaged a funeral to ensure the ‘other’ section of the family did not get the funeral content they wished for. The poor celebrant, who is bound to do as their client instructs them, is caught right in the middle.

Take this a stage further and you see the physical fights that have broken out at some funeral ceremonies. Special qualities are indeed required by celebrants to deal with these situations. Unflustered professionalism, along with great teamwork with chapel attendants and funeral directors. Fights aren’t the only physical issue to be dealt with however, one celebrant recounted the funeral where an ex-girlfriend of the man who had died, flung herself on the coffin and would not be moved. Drunken mourners, abusive language and heckling are far too often experienced and dealt with by the celebrant, who on occasions have had to ask mourners to leave the funeral out of respect for the family.

Equipment issues arise all the time, broken microphones, curtains getting stuck at the committal or failing to close when they should or the wrong music is played, however carefully it was checked beforehand.

Then there is the isolation of the work, sitting up till all hours the night before the funeral, composing a revised ceremony with information that a family has just sent through. It happens all the time. The other side of this difficult coin is the family that believes you can fit two hours’ worth of material, stories, poems and music into the permitted single slot at the crematorium. The art of saying a lot in a few words is a key celebrant skill!

Taking funerals for people who are known to the celebrant is really hard too, they have to put their own feelings under their professional hat. The emotional drain involved can only be imagined, especially with the ‘too soon’ deaths of babies, children and young people, the suicides and the deaths by accident or murder. Dealing with other peoples’ extreme grief and making the day of the funeral something that a family can bear is the role these amazing people play.

So all in all – let’s hear it for the civil funeral celebrant.

By Anne Barber