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  • Writer's pictureRuth Jewell

What does being a Funeral Celebrant Involve?

Slate heart on a Cornish beach
In my job I often experience very raw grief, and believe that it is just love, finding another way to express itself.

As is often the way with a job like mine, most people only see a part of the role. There is a huge amount of work to get me to the point where I arrive at the venue on the day of the service, which is the bit where most people see me do my job; delivering the service. So, I thought that I would shed some light on what goes on behind the scenes. (Having written this post I realise that it is a long one, which I suppose just goes to show how much work is involved for a Celebrant)!

Initial contact is either from an Undertaker, Funeral Director, Funeral Arranger, or directly from the deceased’s next of kin. This involves a chat, a diary check, and then puts the wheels in motion. I only ever do a maximum of three services a week, but prefer to do two. This allows me time to dedicate to my families, and means that I am never rushing too, or from a service.

I make a call to book in a visit with the family. The visit is usually in person, but can be via video call. I then create the appropriate files on my computer, so that I can ensure that I store everything safely, and can keep track of what needs to be done, when. I then let the chosen Funeral Director know when the meeting will take place, so that they know when they will next hear from me.

A visit/video call, can take anything up to two and a half hours, and for me there is often a half hour drive to and from the chosen meeting place. This can be the deceased’s home, the home of a family member, or the arranging room at the Funeral Directors.

I come away with a host of notes (they definitely wouldn’t mean anything to anyone else, and often look completely haphazard, but I know what they mean!) and as soon as possible on returning home I create an order of service. This is then emailed to the Funeral Director, along with a bullet point list of all the things that we have talked about and agreed. Some of these things have already been noted by the Funeral Arranger, but I like to cover all the bases, to ensure everything flows as smoothly as possible on the day.

Next, I email a copy of the order of service to the family. This isn’t the one that will be given out on the day, but gives them a clear outline of what we have agreed will happen and in what order.

Sometimes I start on the script immediately, at other times I need to take a walk, or sleep on it before I start to write. Usually, I know exactly how I will approach it, but in some cases I need to take time to allow me to think about how to craft the service and tell the story. (I often wake up in the night and know exactly what form it needs to take)!

I have a set order in which I write, with the life story usually being the last part that I work on. I create the framework around it, and then get my head down and go through from start to finish. When I get to the end I work my way back through all of my notes, marking off everything that I have included, just to make sure that I haven’t missed anything.

Sometimes The family or next of kin don’t know much about the family history, so I ask permission to do some research on their behalf. I can often find out some important facts, that help to tell the story and give it depth and meaning. Equally, I will often research workplaces, roads and areas, just to get an idea of what it was like when the person was there.

Once I am happy with the script, I set the timer on my phone, set up the read aloud option in Word, sit back and listen to the service being read to me. This allows me to instantly pick up any errors, and to gauge if I have the timing for the service right. I then make any changes that I have noted, and have a quick read through again to check that I am happy.

I am then ready to send a copy to the family. This allows them to check the details, as well as ensure that they are happy with everything that I will say on the day. It is just a draft at this point, so can be added too, or tweaked, as much as necessary.

There is then an email exchange regarding the script over the coming days. Generally, there will just be an odd tweak, sometimes the script prompts the family to add to the story, or I need to add in contributions from friends and family who will be speaking. (Sometimes I hold onto the script until I have received these, then send it across).

If I feel that a family is going to struggle to deal with collating contributions, then I will happily take the contact details and deal with that side of things on their behalf. After all, they need time to grieve, and have enough on their plate already. Having to chase people for contributions is usually the last thing they want to have to do.

Once the script has received approval from the family, and they are happy to sign it off, then I save a separate copy that I can format and print ready for my presentation folder. This copy has large font, an odd note or highlight as a reminder, and is only ever printed to two thirds of the way down the page (so my chin doesn’t need to drop to my chest when reading). I pop it in my folder, and then have a full read through. I often only need one read through, but may have another on the day, or check a couple of paragraphs, if I need too. (Sometimes I need to check out the pronunciation of a name or place, so make sure these are written phonetically, alongside the word, so that I know exactly how to say it).

I print off the email with the bullet points, that I sent to the Funeral Director, so that I have an accurate list with me of everything that will happen, which I keep in my folder, then I email myself a copy of the script. This is a back up so that I have a copy that I can easily share should anything happen to prevent me getting to the service.

On the day, if I feel that it is appropriate, I pop a message across to the family, just to let them know that they are in my thoughts. I then do my hair and make-up, choose an appropriate outfit (this may be a black or navy dress and matching jacket/winter coat), or something more colourful if the family have requested it). I always try to add a scarf or brooch that nods towards a colour, hobby, or something else that the deceased loved. I always wear my watch, as I leave my phone in the car. (Can you imagine if it rang or even vibrated during the service)?

As soon as I know where the service is being held, I add a note in my diary telling me what time I need to leave home. This takes into account my arrival half an hour prior to the service, and any traffic delays. It means that I don’t have to keep working out what time I need to be ready, and stops me worrying! I always make sure that I have plenty of fuel in my car too. The last thing I want to do is have to stop at a petrol station enroute!

I pull up in the car park, pop on my jacket (or winter coat), have a sip of water, pick up my folder and head in to check the music on the system, make sure the staff know exactly what is happening when, and then I wait by the main doors, ready to welcome the mourners (and always to reassure them that they are in the right place, and direct some to the toilet), and the hearse when it arrives.

The part I dislike the most is walking in ahead of the coffin, not because I don’t like doing it, but because it is the only time the family aren’t in my eyeline, and I prefer to be able to see them so that I can support them if needed.

At that point I am absolutely on public display and, more recently, often being beamed around the world. I fortunately don’t have any nerves, and all my planning and preparation (and my Diploma training) enables me to know that I am ready to deliver the service as smoothly as I possibly can.

The family are always my priority, I keep a close eye on them throughout the service. I may not have eyes in the back of my head, but I have good peripheral vision, so even if I am not looking directly at them, they are in my line of sight!

When the service finishes, then I wait to one side, ready to help anyone who needs it. I love being able to chat discreetly to the Funeral Director at this point, or to mourners who seek me out. I never leave before the family.

When I get home, I remove my heels or boots and pop the kettle on. I always need a cup of tea and a few minutes to just sit and think about the family. I then assess how the service went, just to check that everything was done as it should be, and to see if there was anything that I could have done to improve it. I feel this is really important. I never want to get into a rut; every service should be unique and reflect the person we are saying goodbye too.

I remove the paperwork from my folders, pop it through the shredder and tidy everything away. I ensure that my accounts are up to date regarding mileage and invoices, and usually pop an email across to the Funeral Director to thank them for their support.

Some families keep in touch with me, some choose not to. Whichever is fine by me. I love to hear happy news, so often ask to be told when an expected baby arrives, and it gives me pleasure to be able to celebrate a new life with them.

I am often in my families lives for just a few weeks, and that is just how it should be. At the end of the service, they often tell me that they don’t want to see me for a very long time, and I absolutely get that! However, for me it is such an honour to have been there for them, to learn about the life of their loved one, and to be able to deliver the service on their behalf. Every single thing I do, from start to finish, is done with the aim of creating the very best send off possible for their loved one, and I am privileged to be able to do my job.


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