I get a lot of marriage celebrants contacting me after they’ve been asked to do their first funeral, asking for advice, information and templates. I thought I’d put all my tips in one place in the hopes that some of you might benefit from them!
I am by no means a funeral expert. As at 13 May 2019, as I write this, I’ve performed 83 funerals. Yes, I love funerals. Yes, I feel this is where I’m supposed to direct some of my energies. Yes, I believe I do an excellent job. But there are definitely funeral celebrants out there who are far more experienced than I am.
NB: I’m potentially going to sound a bit harsh in some of these points.This is purely because I am aiming to protect the families we work with, and the funeral celebrants I know who work really hard to perfect their craft.
Tip 1: Don’t say yes if you’re not ready
This is a big one. Pretty much every marriage celebrant will be asked to conduct a funeral at some point in their career. I’ve spoken to more than one marriage celebrant who has said “I know I’m going to get asked to do it one day, I really don’t want to ever do funerals, but I’m going to have to say yes.” NO, YOU DON’T HAVE TO SAY YES.
Some celebrants only want to perform marriage ceremonies, and that’s completely fine. Some celebrants are not interested in funerals, and that’s completely fine. Some celebrants don’t know how they would possibly hold it together if they did a funeral, and that’s completely fine.
If you don’t feel called to do funeral work (as wanky as that sounds), if you don’t feel passionate about helping a family at such a difficult time, don’t do it. It’s okay to say no.
I firmly believe that you would be letting a family down more by conducting a ceremony you didn’t want to do, didn’t have any experience in, and/or weren’t ready to do, than by saying to that family, “I’m really sorry, I don’t do funerals, but I can recommend my incredible colleague X who will look after you much better than I could.”
Tip 2: Do some training
On the other hand, if you do feel called to do this work, if you are passionate about working with grieving families and friends, get yourself set up by doing some training, so that when the time comes that you are asked to do a funeral, you have some foundations to lean on.
By the time I was asked to conduct my first funeral, about 15 months after I was registered as a marriage celebrant, I had done a training course, created a booking form with questions I would ask the family, written multiple scripts, performed one or two in class, observed an experienced celebrant performing a ceremony, and done lots of reading. I did not need to approach my network to ask someone to send me a script that I could essentially copy.
Here comes the harsh bit: why should funeral celebrants who have invested time and money in training and professional development, not to mention hours of work honing their writing skills and developing their information collecting systems, give you the products of that investment for free?
Yes, celebrants in general are a supportive bunch, and yes, I’m generally the first to jump in and help someone who needs it (particularly when it comes to Marriage Act questions), but to be honest I’m starting to get resentful of these requests, and I think people need to be mindful of what they’re asking for. It’s one of the reasons Josh and I developed the Celebrant Institute in the first place, so that we could be remunerated for the time and effort we put in to helping other celebrants succeed. (And yes, you can download my funeral document templates from the Celebrant Institute Shop; I’m okay with handing them over if you’re paying for them!)
So please, if you think you might ever want to do a funeral, even if it’s only if you’re asked by someone special, go do some training so you’re prepared when the day comes.
(As an aside, I insist my Cert IV students, most of whom are doing the course to hecome marriage celebrants, do a funeral unit as part of their general Cert IV training. I don’t provide intensive training for people who want to be full-time funeral celebrants, but I do provide enough information for marriage celebrants who may one day be called upon to perform a funeral; by the end of my course they will have a booking form and some sample scripts, and they will have written four funeral ceremonies and performed two. There’s enough there that they won’t need to ask anyone else for their hard-earned IP.)
Tip 3: Listen, listen, and listen some more
Of course we need to listen to our couples as marriage celebrants, but as funeral celebrants we need to listen even more intently. We need to listen to what is being said AND what is not being said. We need to listen to the silence and the pregnant pauses. We need to listen to the family members, the friends, and the funeral director. We need to listen to what a family is telling us rather than just ticking off the questions on your template list.
I had a student once who was performing a mock interview. At the start of the interview the family told her, “we don’t want any religion at all.” About 10 minutes later, she asked them if they wanted any prayers included in the ceremony. When I challenged her later, suggesting she shouldn’t have asked the prayers question because they’d told her they didn’t want any religion included, she said, “but that was the next question on my list.” Nope. Don’t do it. You’ve immediately told the family you’re not taking in what they’re saying.
The biggest compliment I have received from a family I’ve worked with (and it’s one that I often receive) is, “You really listened to what we told you, and somehow managed to create a narrative from all the disparate information we gave you that really reflected exactly who he/she was.” That’s when I know I’ve done my job.
Tip 4: Don’t make assumptions
This is pretty much tied up with tip 3, but it’s important to say it again: do not make assumptions. Don’t assume that because someone died by suicide, the family is ashamed of that and doesn’t want it mentioned: ask the question. Don’t assume that just because the boyfriend isn’t present during your meeting, he doesn’t want to speak at the ceremony: ask the question. Don’t assume that the funeral director has all the same information you do about refreshments or about how the family wants to leave the ceremony space or about anything else: communicate any information you gather that has anything to do with the funeral director to the funeral director.
I could go on and on, but just don’t make assumptions about anything.
Tip 5: Work closely with the funeral director
We’re taught in funeral training that the funeral director and funeral celebrant have very separate and different jobs. While this is true to a certain extent, the best results for a funeral are gained by the two parties working closely together.
It is far easier for me when I walk into a family meeting having been fully briefed by the funeral director (who has already met them) about who the major players are, what they’re feeling, how they got along with each other, and any tensions that might be in the air. I might have a different experience with a family from the one the FD had, but in general if I walk in pre-warned that there’s likely to be some friction, things just go more smoothly for me.
Likewise, it is far easier for the FD to continue to work with the family when I’ve passed on any information I’ve gathered during the meeting that pertains to logistics or other FD-related stuff, as well as any family dynamics or tensions I’ve picked up on. I always do this by email, because I was once told by an FD that he found it so much easier the way I put everything in writing, rather than him having to try to remember what I’d told him in a phone call while he was juggling 50,000 other things.
Just communicate. It’s actually pretty simple.
Tip 6: Be nosy
One of our jobs as funeral celebrants is to gather as much information as the deceased as possible so we can put together a personal and meaningful ceremony that reflects their life. This means we might have to be super nosy. I always tell my families that I’m going to ask them a lot of questions, and that some of them are for context rather than to be used in the ceremony. Some of those questions might feel uncomfortable, and they don’t have to answer them if they don’t want to, but hopefully by the time I get to the more difficult questions, I’ve built some rapport with them and they’re comfortable answering.
Remember you’re not likely to have to see these people again after the funeral, so if they thought you were too nosy, it doesn’t really matter! Ask the probing questions you need to in order to put together the most appropriate and respectful service.
Tip 7: Be humble
I would hope you’re doing this with your marriage clients to, but one of the most important things is to not feel precious about your script. I always tell families during our meeting that when they receive the script they should feel free to tell me they don’t like that word, take out that sentence, and rewrite that section. I tell them I will not be offended; it’s important to me that they are completely comfortable with everything that is going to be said at this ceremony for their loved one.
Now I’ll admit that when you get a script back that’s been heavily edited, it stings. It stings a lot. But as far as I’m concerned, that’s their prerogative. The last thing I would want is for a family to resent me or to hate the ceremony because there was a word or two in there that they didn’t like. Be humble, accept that their way of grieving may include needing to control every aspect of what’s going on, and make whatever changes they want you to make.
That’s all I’ve got right now. I’ll come back and add some more thoughts as they come to me. I’d love any other funeral celebrants to chime in with their own tips in the comments.