In 2012 my mother died. She wasn’t religious and a vicar didn’t seem appropriate. I asked the funeral director what our options were. A celebrant was suggested. I had never heard of a celebrant led funeral service before but became intrigued and several months later I trained with the Fellowship of Professional Celebrants to become one. If you are reading this blog, by the way because you are interested in becoming a funeral celebrant a word of warning. There are now far too many of us and the competition is extremely tough. Each funeral director, I am told has around 20 celebrants on their books and they tend to stick with the tried and tested! In other words their favourites! All of the training colleges keep churning out more and more new celebrants but there simply isn’t the work for everybody who goes through the training, despite the rise in celebrant led services in recent years.But let’s not get into the politics of it all here! For more information on celebrancy please see my other website www.beautifulfuneral.co.uk.
In 2012 I knew very little about funerals and back then had no idea that I would be conducting funerals in peoples’ homes, village halls, hotels and the most glamorous of all – a marquee overlooking a lake with a small bridge adorned with floral tributes and canapés and champagne to follow. I had imagined that I would only conduct funeral services at the crematorium. (90% of my services however are conducted at the crematorium.)
There has been a big rise in this type of alternative funeral. These are funerals not held in a crematorium chapel. There are woodland burials for example, (*see note below) burials in peoples’ homes (see note below *) services held at sea and I have conducted several funerals where families organise everything themselves: from building the coffin, preparing their loved one through to arranging a limousine to the venue. I have also conducted mixed faith services.
When I conduct alternative funerals my role is wider than just a celebrant. I see myself more as a meeting facilitator, a coordinator, a toastmaster or a professional public speaker. (Which I am by the way. I belong to the Toastmasters’ International. (A non profit organization training members in public speaking and leadership skills.)
In West Sussex where I live some of the demand for alternative funerals comes from a sleepy village called Forest Row. Nestled in the Ashdown Forest on the road to London Forest Row has always attracted alternative groups of people because it’s on the Greenwich meridian line: from Green warriors to veggies, tree worshippers to hippies and there are several alternative religions based close by. It’s an interesting place and its people are vibrant and in touch with what is going on in the world, from environmental issues to concerns about big business and big government. I like going to a cafe called Seasons on a Sunday afternoon after a walk in the Ashdown Forest. Forest Row has a certain charm to it. There’s an air of wealth but also a feeling that it’s cut off, neglected and in need of bringing back into the folds of the wider society. Forest Row has a curiously Wild West feel to it. It reminds me of West Yellowstone, where I holidayed a couple of years back. (And incidentally the setting for my next novel, due out next year.)
If you are a celebrant or a humanist reading this and have been asked to conduct an alternative funeral in a venue other than a crematorium there are certain things you need to consider. When you meet with the family find out who is responsible for playing the music. Will there be a PA system? Make sure it has been tested. Or will somebody play the music through an ipod or other device and who will press the buttons during the service? Make sure the family don’t think you will do this as well as speak because you will find this very difficult to do two roles and it could add to the stress. Sometimes families will think you can do both. Who will guide the mourners to their chairs? Will you announce the start or a family member? Will you be required to be at the venue earlier to help set out the chairs. Will there be a lectern or music stand to rest your script on? Or can you manage without? Where will you stand? Will you walk up and down, move around more as if you are performing on stage? How long will the service be? Do you need to charge more? Bear in mind the funeral director may not be present. (Sometimes these services are held after the cremation, even a week later). Who will get a glass of water for someone who coughs persistently? Will somebody be on the door to welcome and seat latecomers? Check that everybody knows what their role is.
Next comes the fun part. Yes there is fun in the word funeral. Alternative funerals offer so much more scope for a celebration of the person’s life. It’s vital to stick to timing at the crematorium and in our part of the country services are only 30 minutes. In a village hall you could have an hour long service and be flexible. Be careful though. If the deceased is taken from the venue to the crematorium for the committal and cremation make sure the timings work out. How will you close the service to allow the family to make a quick exit to go on to the crematorium? You could ask them to remain seated while the family leave and then invite them all to stay for drinks and the family will join them later.
Alternative funerals allow scope for several speeches and even some improvisation/drama. During one service a family member handed round articles of clothing for the mourners to touch and smell, their favourite flower and favourite book as well and even a plate of their favourite food! These props helped to tell the story of the person’s life.
You could suggest a dove release afterwards or encourage mourners to share their memories in a book or bring a photo to put on a pin board or add to an album. You could suggest a singer. Your role is to help the family make the most of their special day but putting forward interesting suggestions. Your role is also to ensure the occasion runs smoothly – as well as writing the funeral service!
Alternative funerals are a great personal way of sending a loved one on their next journey!
* Regarding home burials. As long as certain guidelines are followed to avoid potential public health risks, there is no law against being buried in your own garden, or on private land. After all wealthy families with large estates have for centuries, built a mausoleum or burial chambers and vaults on their land, for the burial of a family member.
* Green burial (also known as a Natural or Woodland Burial) is all about keeping things as simple and natural as possible – returning to nature in a way that will not harm the environment, but will actually preserve the landscape and enhance opportunities for wildlife – it’s about leaving the world a better place, and is increasingly becoming the environmentally friendly choice.