Mercy asks:

Like you I want to create beautiful funeral ceremonies. Because I think funerals can be beautiful. An assignment in my celebrant course had me visit a local funeral director with a bunch of questions on how they work with celebrants. The funeral director I met was uncharacteristically young and cool, and he said to come back when I have a business card. Which I’ve done. But how do I approach other funeral directors? One other I did go and visit was very friendly and I could tell he liked me but also felt my lack of experience would prevent him from booking me. It’s different when it’s not the clients so much who are finding you, but other professionals. Any suggestions?

Getting into the world of funeral celebrancy is so, so, so difficult. I am yet to meet a busy funeral celebrant who developed a marketing plan and made it work. For every single person I’ve spoken to, it’s been about being in the right place at the right time. All I can do is tell you what I personally have done, and hopefully some ideas will come out of it for you 🙂

After completing my Cert IV in Celebrancy in July 2013, I undertook a short course in Funeral Celebrancy in August the same year. I knew I wanted to be a celebrant who provided all kinds of ceremonies, not just marriages, so taking a funeral course was important for me. I wanted to know the ins and outs of creating an appropriately sensitive funeral ceremony, and of working with funeral directors.

I’d heard during the face to face component of my course, and in conversations with busy funeral celebrants, how difficult it was to get a foot in the door with any funeral director. They have their favourites who they rely on, they get bombarded with calls from wannabe celebrants every day, and they’re unlikely to take a punt on an untested person. Nevertheless, I persisted with my training, knowing I would make it work somehow. 

Even during my course I had trouble finding a funeral director who would give me any time; I lived around the corner from a branch of a well known funeral company and I managed to interview the manager there on the phone for a few minutes, but when I asked to come and watch a ceremony he said he’d need to check with the family and never got back to me. *sigh*

I got my marriage celebrancy registration at the end of October 2013, conducted my first wedding on 2 January 2014 (they found me on the Attorney General’s Register of Marriage Celebrants), exhibited at an expo on 3-4 January 2014, and I was off. I had no problems at all attracting wedding clients; it was easy when you were going straight to the source. I conducted 21 weddings and booked 46 in my first year as a marriage celebrant. But funerals proved to be just as elusive as I had been warned they would be.

During that first year I went to two funerals that strengthened my resolve to conduct my own funerals. One was for an old work colleague who suicided, and it was held in a Catholic church. The service went for more than an hour, but included only about five minutes about the person who’d died. It was awful. There was a lot of sermonising about how God had called his child back to his arms, but there was certainly no mention of how or why she died in such a tragic manner. Ugh.

The second funeral was for a boy I’d grown up with; his dad was my dad’s university friend and had introduced my parents to each other. There’s a long and tragic back story, but he died of a heroin overdose at his own “getting out of prison” party. I was gutted; I knew he was out of prison and I hadn’t done anything to try to reconnect. I offered to do his funeral, free of charge, but his parents decided it was most appropriate for their Anglican minister to conduct the service. In the last years of his life this boy had converted to Islam, and to me it was completely inappropriate to have a minister of another religion conduct his funeral. His family didn’t announce the funeral in the newspaper or anywhere else, and they didn’t tell his friends about it, because they didn’t want “any trouble”; his friends weren’t afforded the opportunity to farewell him. The service turned into an opportunity for the family to say what a difficult child he’d been and how they’d tried their hardest but he was just too much hard work. It was awful, and I will never really forgive them for it. 

So I was determined that I could do better than that; I just needed an opportunity to show someone. In early December 2014 I got the call: a woman I’d done some admin work for earlier that year rang me as her mother-in-law had passed away, and did I think I could do the funeral? As awful as it sounds, I was pretty damn elated! Here was my first opportunity to get some experience and get in front of a funeral director! 

I worked really hard on that funeral, meeting twice with the family, seeking advice from my funeral mentor and other celebuddies, and being completely honest with the funeral arranger that this was my first time. She was great, talked me through anything I was unsure of, calmed me down when I was nervous before the ceremony, and made me a copy of the video of the ceremony. A few weeks after the ceremony I received a lovely handwritten letter from the deceased lady’s husband, thanking me profusely for my wonderful work. Despite all of that, I never heard from that funeral director again. *sigh*

In May 2015 a celebuddy called: a groom she’d married in December the previous year had died, and she’d been asked to conduct his funeral. She hadn’t done a funeral before, she hadn’t even done a course, and she wanted me to send her some resources. No problem, I did just that. Then she decided she wasn’t actually up to it, so she suggested to the family that I do the funeral instead. So my second ever funeral for was a perfectly healthy 36-year-old man who’d dropped dead at work one day for no apparent reason. There were over 350 people at the service, which included multiple speakers, a photo slideshow, and plenty of music. At the end of the service the funeral director approached me, saying what a great job I’d done and asking for my card. I thought this is it! Someone actually wants to work with me! Three and a bit years later, I’ve only heard from that funeral director once. *sigh*

I did contact him in early 2016 to say I was leaving my part-time job so was a bit more available for work; he told me that all new celebrants needed to be vetted by the “celebrant manager” of his company. So I made an appointment, went and met with said “celebrant manager”, took my two scripts and talked through my approach with him, and he agreed to put me on “the list” of approved funeral celebrants for all of Invocare in Victoria. Great! I’m on the list, surely my phone will start ringing now! No, no it didn’t. 

It was over a year between funeral bookings, but in August 2016 the mother-in-law of a wedding venue owner I was friendly with died, and she asked me to conduct the funeral. Coincidentally the funeral director was the same as the one I’d worked with at funeral number two; he remembered me but didn’t have much to say, however his wife also worked with him and she was also at that funeral, and she booked me for funeral number four a few months later. 

In November 2016 I decided I needed to make a concerted effort at marketing myself to funeral directors. I had a few funerals under my belt, and some scripts and testimonials I could show off. Plus I’d done over 150 weddings and I was sure that had to count for something. I rang every funeral director within a 15km radius of my house, and only two agreed to meet with me. One of those cancelled the meeting on the day of and never responded to my requests to reschedule. The other met with me, but she was already using my dear friend Fiona as a celebrant, and I knew she would be the first port of call.

There was one other funeral director with whom I had a lengthy phone chat at the time, but he never responded to my emails about a meeting. In January 2017 I followed up with him, and he was deeply apologetic; they’d had their busiest month in their history of their business in December, but he’d be delighted to meet with me now. Having worked for a big chain for a long time, he was now working for his father’s independent funeral company, and was keen to get some more younger celebrants on his books. I went to his office and we talked for almost two hours; we just clicked, and it was lovely, but he warned me that 85% of their work was religious ceremonies, so although he was super keen to use me, I might only hear from him a couple of times a year.

In February 2017 it finally started. The FD I’d had a lengthy meeting with booked me for two ceremonies over a three-week period. Having followed up and met with him just a few weeks earlier, I was in the right place at the right time, and although he only books me sporadically (because most of his work is religious funerals), we have an excellent working relationship and friendship. I conducted my largest ever funeral for him; it was for a 56-year-old man who died in a motorbike accident. There were over 600 people in attendance. There ceremony involved 20 speakers and four separate photo slideshows, and went for two hours. When I rang the FD the next day to make sure he was happy with my work, he said, “Sarah I don’t need to give you feedback; I trust you implicitly and you never let me down.” 

In April 2017 , Fiona was busy one day when the other FD I’d met with needed her, and suggested she call me. I was in the right place at the right time. I now not only conduct funerals for that company, but also help out with audio-visual requirements at religious funerals, and create slideshows and order of service booklets for them. I have my own email address with them and I even went to their Christmas party last year. 

In June 2017, an old work colleague’s father died and asked me to conduct the ceremony; the FD ended up being the one who’d cancelled on me the morning of our meeting and never rescheduled. He told me that over the preceding few weeks he’d started hunting for a new young, female celebrant because he didn’t like the behaviour of his current one anymore. I was in the right place at the right time for him, and he now says I am his number one female civil funeral celebrant. I even officiated at his wedding a few weeks ago. 

I attended every funeral industry training or networking session I could find. One of the women I’d called in November 2016 ran a conference in February 2017 that I attended. I still couldn’t pin her down for a meeting, but she ran a few other training sessions for funeral celebrants in that year, all of which I attended, and in January 2018, completely out of the blue, she booked me for two funerals in the same week. 

There is a funeral director who is also a marriage celebrant and attended one of the OPD sessions I taught last year. She’s used me on several occasions this year as a funeral celebrant. There’s been a few more times when I’ve been requested by the family and therefore been exposed to a new funeral director; when I see those FDs at networking events I make sure to go and say hi, and they’re always pleased to see me and have a chat. 

I’m finding that my preference is to work with independent and family-owned funeral companies rather than the big chains such as Invocare, but quite frankly I’ll take funeral celebrant work from wherever it comes. I’m not in a financial position where I can say no to a funeral simply because it’s come from one of the big corporate providers, and I don’t agree with the notion that “all funeral directors are evil”. The funeral directors I work with, whether for a corporate chain or an independent company, are all compassionate, sensitive people who want the best for their clients.

I know I create and perform beautiful funeral ceremonies, and I know I can make a difference to a grieving family. I still have a lot to learn, but this year I’ve done funerals for people ranging from a 22-year-old murder victim to a 97-year-old who died of old age. I’m yet to be booked for a baby or child’s funeral, but I know it will come, and when it does I will be ready. I continue to take every opportunity to learn (I’m taking the six-day intensive Silver Celebrants course next year) and network. Although I’m certainly nowhere near being a full-time funeral celebrant, I did 26 funerals in 2017 and today I’ll do number 17 for 2018. I know the work will come when the time is right. 

So what’s the take away from all this?

  • Don’t bother spending too much time and energy trying to market yourself to funeral directors before you’ve done a funeral; they won’t book you until you have some experience.
  • Tell everyone you know that you’re a celebrant and make sure they know you’re available for funerals. Almost every funeral celebrant I know got their start by performing a celebrant for someone they knew. 
  • Network, network, network. Go to as many industry events as you can find and meet as many people as you can.
  • Continue learning all the way through your career. Attend conferences, workshops, courses, whatever kind of training and personal development you can find. There’s always something new to learn, or at the very least you’ll find that you’re happy with the way you’re currently doing things. 
  • It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen. 😉 

I’d love for other funeral celebrants to tell us about their experiences in the comments!