But you didn’t even meet them …

How a celebrant writes a ceremony for a person they didn’t know

‘How can you write a funeral for someone you didn’t know?’ It’s a common question. People don’t like it when celebrants say, ‘We are here to remember … ‘ when a celebrant isn’t really part of the ‘we’ who is mourning.

I agree that it might seem odd to have a stranger over-seeing such an intimate and deeply personal occasion. In truth it was something I wondered about when I first decided to become a funeral celebrant. But having now conducted many services and written many more I know that it is possible to write a personal, meaningful ceremony for someone I have never met. 

The distance can be helpful

Of course one reason to use a celebrant is precisely because we have some distance. We can keep the ceremony flowing when someone closer might become overwhelmed by sadness or stress. 

I remember very clearly the few minutes before leading my first funeral. I was exceptionally nervous. Sitting in the car, I thought, ‘How am I going to do this without crying?’ But the minute I saw the family, it was like a switch went off inside me. I would do it, and I would do it well because that is what they needed me to do. Their grief was deep and clear. They didn’t need my tears–they had enough of their own. My job was not to grieve with them. My job was to help make this space for their grieving.

Key ingredients

I think there are some key ingredients in successfully writing a service for someone I didn’t know: 

  • I am genuinely interested in people and in their lives. Closely linked to this are the values I bring to my work, a belief in each person’s intrinsic worth.
  • I ask a lot of questions. Even when a family member is preparing the eulogy I sit with the family and listen to their stories. I do have a list of prompts and questions, but mostly I let this conversation take its own course. Through this conversation, the family reveals the spirit and essence of the person who has died.
  • I look for every opportunity for family members to contribute. You might not have the energy to write the eulogy, but perhaps you would like to write a shorter tribute, for example. 
  • Finally, I am clear in my mind: I am creating the service with you, but I am also creating it for you. I am creating the service about the person who has passed away, but I am also doing it on their behalf

It is very important that you feel comfortable with the funeral celebrant. Often, you are relying on the recommendation of a funeral director … but always remember that you are free to choose your own funeral celebrant. If you don’t feel comfortable with the recommended celebrant (yes, even if that person is me!) you are able to ask for someone else.