‘I could listen to you for hours’.
People often say this to me. I’ve never quite worked out why, but many people book me for ‘my voice’ and say ‘the minute we heard your voice we knew’. Some don’t even feel the need to meet me. My voice is one significant factor in what makes me different from any other Celebrant. If here is something totally unique and intangible about me that no other Celebrant can offer you…it’s that. Our Human voices are as unique as fingerprints. You choose particular vocalists for their individual sound and how that resonates with you. If you love my voice you’ll love my style. It is my best advertisement. At a Celebration of Life this is particularly important and seems to matter even more to people at that time in their lives. Some people say to me that it is not only the words I use but the way in which I say them that really affects them. Some people say my voice is calming to them on the day of the funeral. Somebody once said to me that when people grieve it is not the words they hear at a funeral that they remember, it is the way the experience made them feel. I’ve always held on to that. I’m told that the way my voice makes people ‘feel’ is helpful.
‘Are you family? Or a friend of the family?’
People always say this to me after a ceremony. Building an intimate portrait of a person demands careful use of language and listening. It involves creating a very intimate connection and relationship with people extremely quickly and this is reflected in the words that then come to me. The words aren’t really mine; they are yours and in some ways those of the person who has died. I enable you to use your voices to tell your story of the person who had died and your relationships with them. Words should ‘fit’ people like a perfectly tailored clothes. This means that I tailor my vocabulary and style to suit the person and consequently the occasion. I try to inhabit the world of the person who has died. I often say that I metaphorically ‘invite that person to live with me for a couple of weeks, so that I can get to know them’, even though I haven’t known them in life. Someone once said to me that when they heard my eulogy about their person it ‘brought them back into the room one last time’. It turned out to be a common experience with my work. My words do this for people, they re-animate the memories and return that person to you by telling their story. I approach my work as a detective and as an artist. Some characters demand a poetic style, other personalities are better served by biography, others a non-linear narrative. Some need formality and yet others need idiomatic, colloquial prose. My writing style is as unique as my voice because of its versatility. The words I use will vary dramatically depending upon the person we are celebrating but they always engage people.
‘It’s not about my CV. I value quality of relationship over qualification.’
I don’t list my working life on here like a CV, If this is not unique I’ll be surprised. When we grieve we don’t always need a list of professional development courses, we don’t ask for certificates, I can happily provide both, but what people really need is for me to really care. This is my starting point. You need to know that your Celebrant can intuit and interpret your grief. You need to be heard. One family said the following about interviewing some Celebrants. “One Celebrant came to visit us with a badge, a folder and a long list of options and qualifications. Jess turned up on her bike and said “how are you?” This is what I bring. You may or may not need someone who is wearing a badge and holding a folder. I’m not that person. Other Celebrants will invariably describe impressive working lives with backgrounds in Public speaking, Therapeutic contexts, Education and Performing Arts, former Priests and Ministers. You might need them and I am sure that most are brilliant. But this is not me. Being a Celebrant is not a result of any particular career or transferable skill, though I count Hospice work among mine. I experience being a Celebrant as a Vocation. I’m not a Humanist. I’m not a Priest, I’m not a Pagan either. I have a First Class Theology Degree, focussed on Contemporary Spirituality. Even for retired Religious Officiants this is unique too. Theology is about people and finding meaning in the world. I have become captivated by the concept and purpose of ritual, ceremony and Rites of Passage and in how they bring us meaning. My background has taught me to seek shared humanity and value connections and relationships.
‘We want the ceremony to be a colourful as she was; she’d have loved you.’
I am not unique in being ‘colourful’ in every sense, but in the Funeral ‘industry’ I am unusual. In fact I only have 2 dresses in black in my wardrobe for the rare occasion when a family asks me to wear them. Often I celebrate a life wearing pink or a gold suit and I have a special emerald green dress for my Irish families. The Undertaker I work with most often tell me that I have a ‘young vibe’. It isn’t a hollow compliment and this doesn’t mean I only work on the Celebrations of younger people, although sadly I often do. Many 95 year old Grandmas can be just as ‘young’ on the day they died as they were at 19. I have celebrated many colourful, youthful 95 year olds. They had much more exciting lives than mine. Youthfulness is a way of being and a colourful life is something many people live. There is no reason whey they should be celebrated in black if they never wore it in life. Having a ’young vibe’ indicates a certain informality, vivaciousness and humour. My personality is such that I can celebrate people in this way with sincerity and respect alongside the humour, informality, creativity and colour.
‘We loved your creativity. We would never have thought of that.’
I hear this often about my Celebrations. My approach is, perhaps uniquely, creative. I spent 10 years working in an Arts Centre and with Arts Projects and I approach my work as an Art Form. I collaborate creatively with you. We craft something beautiful together. I don’t do it for you and then stand at the front and read it. My approach is less systematic and more organic and results in some wonderfully surprising ceremonies with people being delighted with the freedom they discover. It might lead to a family doing something quite conventional, but in a slightly unusual way. Perhaps you might have a simple crematorium ceremony and then stand around the coffin holding hands and attaching garlands. Others might choose to have a slideshow, a painting workshop or even, as happened on one occasion…a Skateboard ‘guard of honour’ in a Woodland Burial site. I have created ceremonies involving Harry Potter theme tunes played live by cellists. There have been celebrations with bags of sweets on the pews, buses decorated with yellow and black faux fur zebra fabric. I’ve even worn sequinned dresses and disco lights around my neck for festival goers. I am equally comfortable with a ceremony based around a classical Requiem. My Celebrations vary this much because the people I celebrate and their families vary so much. You will often hear novelists say that their characters ‘wrote themselves, they kind of come alive’. This is also my experience with Ceremonies. When we involve our creativity wonderful things emerge and they are by nature personal.
A Celebrant’s work is as important as Heart Surgery.
If I ever make a mistake in my ceremonies, and all of us do, I cry. I have even been inconsolable. Sometimes I say to myself ‘at least you’re not a heart surgeon”. But that makes it worse. My responsibility in creating a healthy environment for your grief feels like holding your beating heart in my hands. I am not exaggerating. I am not a heart surgeon, obviously. But I feel like one. A good funeral can make the difference between prolonged grief and the beginning of healing. An unhelpful funeral can scar children for life. Creating a ceremony with you at a vulnerable time is an immense privilege and a huge responsibility. Nothing ever feels so important to me. I always hope for you to leave feeling a tiny bit better about facing a new future. I also believe that healthy mourning rituals are fundamental to our wellbeing as individuals but also as human societies. A Celebration of Life, done well, enables you to feel supported in community. It should enable you to continue living, and will help you to find meaning and comfort. It might make only the smallest difference but that tiny difference can be the difference between emotional survival and despair.
My theological studies and my life experience have led me to the conclusion that a ‘good funeral’ is as vital to life and health as heart surgery. I believe that there is space for Spirituality and Religious Belief in that too should you need it. I don’t know if I’m unique in any of these qualities, but I don’t think it commonplace.