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The Three-Way Relationship – Celebrants, funeral directors and families

Mark Taylor on what drives the successful three-way relationship that involves conducting a successful service

What do I want from a funeral director? As a celebrant the first thing is obvious, I want a call to ask whether I am available. No doubt the first thing a funeral director wants from me is availability. However, the funeral director also wants a celebrant they can trust to deliver a good ceremony that is right for the family.

When the funeral director telephones me, I hope they have assessed exactly the kind of ceremony the family wants. I hope it will be for a non-religious ceremony and preferably not a Pascal’s Wager one, with ‘Oh, they would also like the Lord’s Prayer.’

I do make some compromises, usually allowing a prayer if one of the family reads it, or a hymn for the entry or the reflection. I really want to avoid the awkward situation of telling the family that I cannot take their funeral, then going back to the funeral director to say that the family actually require a vicar. That hasn’t happened to me yet, but I know that it can. I can only imagine the difficulties it can create, to say nothing of the additional distress for the family.

I would also worry about souring my relationship with the funeral director – I want to work with them again!

Unfortunately, some funeral directors take the easy option of always using celebrants who do all sorts, religious, non-religious or some kind of mish-mash of both without any ethical worries. To me that seems hypocritical but I know it saves time for the funeral director. I don’t think it provides a good, genuine service for the family or the best ceremony possible for them.

What does the funeral director want next from the celebrant? I think we both want the same thing; good communication. I want an email containing all the details. It saves asking the family questions they already answered the day before.

I want my calls and emails answered, or at least acknowledged promptly. I try to do that with families and funeral directors, in fact with everyone with whom I communicate. It’s simple courtesy for others to do the same. I may not get that from families but I accept that, they are bound up with grief and may not be familiar with business courtesy.

Almost every funeral director I have worked with has communicated well but it makes my life difficult when there is one who will not answer the telephone and responds to my message by asking me to email instead – then doesn’t answer the email. Yes, it happens!

What else does the funeral director want of the celebrant?

I have to guess, but it must be obvious that they want to be able to trust the celebrant to deliver. They want to know that the family will receive the best possible attention and the best possible ceremony. I want that too, I’m not a celebrant for the money, although it is very welcome. I am a celebrant because I like doing the job; I like meeting the families, I like the challenge of writing the funerals and I like delivering the ceremony. I also like chatting to funeral directors, particularly outside of the time constraints of the ceremony.

On the day, the funeral director wants me to arrive in plenty of time and interact appropriately with the family and themselves. They want professionalism. I expect the same from the funeral director and it’s rarely otherwise. However, I have taken funerals when ‘the men’ have made jokes about the choice of music and even about the family themselves, just out of their earshot – I hope! It’s one thing to speak freely on the telephone between funeral directors and celebrants who know each other well, but never ever at the ceremony.

Once the coffin is on the catafalque or the puttocks, it’s all up to me. I have to deliver a well-written ceremony in an appropriate manner, well-rehearsed, solemn and light-hearted in the right places and most importantly, it has to run to time. I know all about additional charges at crematoria.

What about the families?

They have to deal with all that surrounds a death; registration, probate, informing friends and relatives, and much more. In amongst all that there is a funeral to sort out. I’m sure most just want it all to go away. There is an almost universal desire to mark major life events with a ceremony, death is one such event. Some families want the smooth passage of a soul into heaven or other religious equivalent and the funeral ritual is vital in that process. That’s not my role.

Some families don’t want a ceremony at all. I don’t think that is wise but it’s not my job to try to change that.

Between those comes a range of other beliefs and needs. At the heart of it, what families want is for their wishes to be carried out well – ‘a good funeral’.
They want the funeral director to deal with the body, book the ceremony, usually the celebrant too. They want everything carried out smoothly and well and they trust the funeral director to do all those things.

From the celebrant they want to know that the ceremony will be carried out well, the story well told and the accompanying words spoken appropriately, but they often want more than that. Celebrants are not counsellors but listening with a sympathetic ear, responding to queries and presenting a friendly, confident face has many similar elements. That’s important too. They want the celebrant to give them time and be attentive to all their feelings. I hope that I give all those things to all of them – and please the funeral directors.

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