Funerals: a celebrant’s eye view

A laptop, notebook and pen, and a cup of tea on a funeral celebrant's desk

If you have ever attended a celebrant-led funeral ceremony, you will have some idea of what it is like. Hopefully, if your experience was a good one, you will have felt that the space was gently held for you to say goodbye to the person, and that they were evoked sensitively in the words of the celebrant and anyone else who spoke.

That funeral ceremony might have lasted around half an hour, but the ceremony is really the cherry on the cake of the work that goes into creating a meaningful funeral.

During a conversation with a Funeral Director recently, it transpired that not even she really knew how celebrants go about their work (and, to be honest, there was plenty about hers that I hadn’t realised too). That chat was the inspiration to write this post!

So, whether you’re contemplating working with a celebrant on a loved one’s funeral, or you’ve ever wondered about what the process is like from the celebrant’s point of view, read on!

The first contact

Mostly, my first contact with families is through a Funeral Director. 

I don’t work for any Funeral Directors but am lucky enough to work with a number of excellent Funeral Directors in and around my area (Worthing, West Sussex). A good FD will ‘matchmake’ a family to a celebrant who they think will be a good fit for them and their needs so, if they think that might be me, I get a call to check my availability.

Of course, sometimes a family has asked for me because I’ve created a ceremony for them before or been recommended by someone they know. In this case, they’ll either contact me directly or will ask the FD to contact me.

Other times, families will look around online and find me before contacting a Funeral Director. In this case, the tables are turned and I find myself matchmaking the family with a FD I think will suit them!

Getting to know you

If a person has contacted me directly about creating and conducting a funeral for a loved one, I will agree on a good time to meet with them and anyone else who will be involved in making decisions about the ceremony. If the Funeral Director has put us in touch, I’ll make a call and do the same.

It’s good to meet the family in person, if possible. And it’s even better if our meeting happens to be at the home of the person who has died, as the surroundings there say so much too. However, matters of geography, timing, or a pandemic(!) sometimes dictate that our meeting has to be over Zoom. Although this isn’t quite the same as meeting in person, I still marvel at the ability of technology to bring several people, sometimes from all over the world, into the same virtual room to chat!

This meeting is normally around 2 hours long and we’ll cover everything from their favourite stories about their loved one to who will be reading a poem and what music we’ll play. I might give them some ideas about things to include, and we might need to discuss logistics depending on where the ceremony is being held (for example, if it’s in a private venue we’ll need to think about how to play music). 

Lots of people worry about this meeting and think it will be quite the grilling, but end up surprised that they actually enjoyed it. I try to allay their worries by sending them information on what to expect from our time together.

I take tons of notes during this meeting and always make a mental note to learn shorthand (never actually end up doing it though!) I also ask for a photo of the person, if there’s one available. This isn’t one that I share with anyone or put on an order of service, but I like to take a picture of the photo on my phone so that I can look at the person when I’m writing their ceremony. It really helps to feel connected.

Inevitably, things will pop up in people’s heads once I’ve left, so I’ll always encourage them to call or email me with anything else they remember or burning questions they might have.

Creating the funeral ceremony

After I’ve visited the family, one of the first things I do is to get in contact with the Funeral Director and give them the draft running order. Whether they are printing an order of service or not, they are usually the people who arrange the music if the funeral is to be held in their chapel, a crematorium or a private venue. If it’s me who is organising it, I’ll still let them know the running order.

Sometimes, I’ll be writing and saying everything in a funeral ceremony. Sometimes, there will be someone else who has written a tribute and either I will read it or they will. Sometimes, I will act as a sort of ‘MC’ between tributes, music and other contributions from others.

If other people are contributing to the ceremony, I like to know what they are planning to say before I start writing the funeral, so I can weave it in properly and avoid saying what they were going to say. I think of these tributes as like the keystone in a bridge – it’s much easier to build it starting from there rather than the other way round! 

However, sometimes that means I need to chase people up for their contributions. Or I might need to call and chat to people who couldn’t be there at the meeting. There might be quite a lot of phone calls or emails made before I have all the information I need, so I have to make time for that.

I’ll also check out the lyrics of the songs that the family have chosen to see if there’s anything that I can take from those to echo in the words of the funeral itself.

Once I’ve got everything together, it’s time to write the script. By this time, I’ll have had the person’s life, interests and stories about them swirling around my head for a little while, and I often feel as though I know them. I shut off distractions, sit down at my desk, take out my notes, look at their photo and get into the zone…

Funerals: a celebrant’s eye view  ~ Sussex celebrant Claire Bradford of Creating Ceremony
Photo by Joseph Watson on Unsplash

It takes, on average, 4-5 hours to write the first draft of a funeral script. I don’t have any templated ceremonies where I just change the person’s name – every funeral starts with a blank screen and is built around everything the family has told me about their loved one and their needs and wants when it comes to saying goodbye. It’s an intense process but, if I’m lucky, I’ll have a robin for company whilst I write…

Once I have finished and I’ve read the draft several times over, I send it to the family. It’s so important that they feel 100% happy with what I’m going to say, so this gives them the chance to make sure that I’ve got all my facts straight and that the tone is just right. If there are any changes to make, we’ll go through them either on the phone or over email, and this continues until it’s perfect.

The day before the funeral

I reformat the script into a big font and transfer it onto my tablet and I print out a presentation version of it to give the family. I decide what I’m going to wear depending on what the family have said about the dress code, and I try to nod to a favourite colour or similar if I can.

Just as important as having petrol in my car to get there (something else I check!) I need to make sure that I’m well hydrated and haven’t eaten much dairy, as both of these things can really impact the quality of my voice, which is my stock in trade!

The day of the funeral

I arrive at the crematorium, chapel or private venue around 30 minutes before the ceremony is due to start. This gives me time to liaise with the FD and any other people who are involved in the ceremony, make sure that the music is right, that everything is in place that needs to be, and to ground myself. I’ll have warmed up my voice in the car on the way (so if you’re ever driving in front of me and catch me making very strange faces in your rearview mirror, don’t be alarmed!), so I’m ready to go.

When the family has arrived, I’ll go and chat with them and make sure they’re all ok. I’ll check that any readers feel alright about what they are going to do, give them some calming tips and reassure them that I can take over if needs be.

We’ll have established in the meeting whether the family want to be seated first or whether they’ll follow the coffin in, and so we prepare them accordingly. When the hearse arrives, it is customary to bow to it, and when the coffin is brought into the chapel and placed on the catafalque (the name for the platform it sits on), we bow again, everyone is seated and the ceremony begins.

Funerals: a celebrant’s eye view  ~ Sussex celebrant Claire Bradford of Creating Ceremony

People often wonder at the ‘buttons’ on the lectern, but they’re quite straightforward: the green button plays the music; the red button fades it. More recently, there are satnav sized screens that show you the piece that’s playing too, but it’s nothing too complicated. There are also buttons to close the curtains, if desired, but they’re not easy to press accidentally despite what many comedy sketches might suggest!

Despite having an agreed script and music, it’s still important to keep a weather eye on how the family and their guests are doing throughout the ceremony and to be prepared to fade music early or keep it playing according to their reactions, or to adlib a little if the situation arises. Whilst a script is important, it’s also important not to be too glued to it – and this can be a delicate balancing act that is informed by intuition on the day. 

At the end of the ceremony, after another bow to the coffin, I will make sure I’ve reassured the family that they don’t need to rush out, and I make my exit with the FD.

When everyone comes out, I stay around to make sure that the family is ok, to answer any questions about donations and so on, and to smooth their transition on to wherever it is they’re going next. Then I thank the FD and any other people who have worked with me, before making my way home. And in the evening, I’ll always light a candle or raise a glass to the person whose service I conducted that day and take a moment to think of them and to reflect on what an honour it was to help to tell their story.

So there you have it! A celebrant’s eye view of a funeral. If you are planning a funeral and you like the sound of how I work, please do get in touch.

And if you think this sounds like the most fantastic job in the world (you’d be right) and you’d like to do it too, take a look here.