One of the people you will work most closely with to prepare a funeral is your funeral celebrant. So what does a funeral celebrant do, and what makes a good funeral celebrant?
A funeral celebrant is usually independent or freelance. They don’t work full time for one funeral company, instead they are hired directly by you or by a funeral director on your behalf.
About half of the funerals I work on are with people coming directly to me–either through personal recommendation or internet searches leading to here. The other half are funeral directors who know my work and think I would be a good match for one of their clients.
What does the funeral celebrant do?
The specific extent of my job is guided by what you want or need, but generally I will meet with you and talk through how you want the day of the funeral to go. We will also spend a lot of time talking about the person who has died. It is my hope that this first meeting is an enriching time for you and even one of peace and healing.
Based on our decisions at that meeting, I will help you put the funeral together, writing the parts you want me to write, collating the parts that you, or your friends and family are writing.
On the day, I will usually present the funeral on your behalf. Sometimes I read on behalf of people, other times I support people to read themselves, and other times I simply introduce speakers. Everything depends on your needs, and my role changes with every funeral.
A funeral celebrant needs three key skills
So in many ways, the celebrant’s role is quite straightforward, but I think there are three key skills you want in a celebrant: listening, writing, and performing.
A good funeral celebrant is good at listening
I have written about the importance of our first meeting, and this is where a funeral celebrant’s skills in listening are especially valuable. We need to hear what you say about the person who has died, and we need to hear what you say about how you want the day to go.
Many people ask, ‘How can you write a funeral for someone you don’t know?‘ Listening is key.
Writing it all down
A funeral can be anything from 1,200 to 6,000 words or more. Besides the eulogy or life story and tributes, I usually write an introduction, the committal (final farewell) and a time of reflection, and a final thank you. There are also little pieces of text to weave all these elements together. I also often include a small reflection on grief and sometimes a poem specifically for that service.
There are very few celebrants now who use a cut and paste formula to write a funeral. Most celebrants I know write a highly personalised service. Having said that, there are some lines or links about the experience of grief I do try to weave into the ceremony. One is around our changed relationships and another is around giving words to grief.
A good celebrant needs to be a good writer. To write with emotion, but not cliche. To be precise but not clinical. To be empathic, but not gushing. With good writing, a funeral celebrant will help people find the words for their own unique grief.
“The most important thing is that you feel comfortable with the person you are trusting on this important day.”
Skills in performance
A funeral isn’t a performance, but it relies on many of the skills and techniques that I’ve learnt through performance. There are the technical considerations like breathing, pitch and volume. But there are also the less tangible qualities that a good celebrant brings to their work. Find the rhythms in language, bringing the right emotion at the time. All while avoiding what my friend calls, ‘the dreaded funeral voice.’ I think by that she means being overly-sombre, overly-dramatic.
How do you know if a celebrant has all the right skills?
To a certain extent, it is a matter of trust. Trusting your friend’s recommendation, or trusting your funeral director to make the right match. But don’t be afraid to do your own research. A lot of celebrants have their own websites or social media pages. By the time I get to the first meeting, nearly everyone has read at least the home page of this site (welcome, if that’s what your’e doing now!). For the record, you can read about some of my writing projects here and my theatre projects here. And if you want to talk to a funeral celebrant before your first meeting, you should always feel welcome to email or ring. The most important thing is that you feel comfortable with the person you are trusting on this important day.