What Families Tell Celebrants

Date Published: 
January, 2004
Original Author: 
Linda Haddon
The Care Foundation
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, January 2004

Why do people choose cremation?
What is most important to families planning a service for a loved one?
What should the funeral director's role be during the service?
A celebrant who has worked with families for several years shares with fellow funeral service professionals what she has learned.

A few years ago, I became certified as a celebrant through the Doug Manning—In-Sight Books training. I dabbled in the field for the first couple of years by doing a service now and then.  Recently, however, I have made a true career change. Now I do celebrant work full time and find it to be the most rewarding endeavor I have ever embarked on.

My experiences with families are wonderful. It is an honor and privilege to help people create a meaningful tribute to their loved one and provide a service that meets their needs.

I have been to the ocean and performed scattering services. Many ceremonies are graveside services, some at the local national cemetery. A few have been in funeral home chapels and some have been in retirement homes.

I find it interesting that the majority of my referrals come from immediate disposition companies. Much of the time someone from the firm attends, passes out folders and arranges flowers, helps with the music and performs other tasks.

The majority (86 percent) of the families I have served chose cremation. There have been many different reasons why, but not one has told me it was because it was less expensive.

One reason I've heard is that a deceased parent wanted to be placed with a predeceased spouse but the surrounding space in the cemetery had been used and the only option the survivors could think of was cremation so that the cremated remains could be placed in the existing grave site.

In several cases, those making the arrangements told me they were following the wishes of the deceased. In those cases of "following orders," scattering always seemed to be the final disposition after cremation.

In some cases, placement in niches or walls where other family members were memorialized was chosen.

Only once have I been told that the person had wasted away with disease and the person handling arrangements thought the deceased would not look good for a viewing.

Cremation, Viewings and Value
About 50 percent of the cremation families I have served have seen the body and held a viewing for family and friends. Some said that the body didn't look like their loved one, but many commented that seeing the body helped them. If the body is available, I view the deceased, too. The majority of the time, the body is beautifully prepared and presented.

I try to meet with every family I serve to gather all the stories and memories I can to create a meaningful service. Only twice have I failed to bring the family together for this purpose. Once it was because the family was out of state. (I did manage to talk to them the evening before the service.) In the other case, because of a huge family rift some of the children simply refused to be in the same room with one another... but that's another story.

Sometimes we in the profession think that folks who choose cremation for their loved ones do it because they care less about the deceased than those who opt for traditional services. This simply is not true!

In talking to cremation families, I find that they care very deeply about their loved ones. Cremation is not the enemy. These families are willing to do things that matter—things they see value in doing.

Merchandise probably is not nearly as important to the consumer as it is to the funeral service provider. To providers, it is a revenue stream, right? Well, for many consumers, it is a necessary but unwanted evil. I have officiated over many cremation services with the plastic box containing the cremated remains right up front. If it doesn't bother the family, it doesn't bother me.

When I ask, as I always do, "Will the urn be present?" usually the family says yes, they would like to have the urn present. They see value in the cremated body being at the service.

I don't ask them questions about the urn itself unless the conversation happens to go in that direction and it turns out there is a special significance to the style or color chosen. A number of people have replied to my question about the urn by saying, "Yes, the urn they provided for us will be there."

For how many years have vendors been advising funeral service providers not to "provide" the family with an urn (or container, if you will)? How many times do suppliers have to say, "Ask the family to select the container they want to use" for the message to get through?

If you glean nothing else from this article, remember this: Stop providing a temporary container for cremated remains. Instead, always ask the family to select a container. They will be happier, and so will you.

The reason is simple. Out of all the families whose loved ones' remains were in a plastic box, only one told me they didn't like anything they were shown. All the rest told me no one offered them anything else and they would have liked to have something other than the plastic box.

If you're thinking, "that can't be true," remember that a person in grief does not always understand what is being said to them. It is possible that in some cases the funeral service provider did try to offer the family a selection of containers and the family members simply didn't hear.

When you are going over the General Price List and doing the paperwork and you tell the family that the cremated remains will be returned to them in a container, why would they want to see anything else? After all, you are providing them with a free container, right? They have hundreds of decisions to make and you're making it easy for them in this one instance by not giving them a choice. But who is the loser?

Take Charge of the Service
Many times the family has chosen to contact me directly. Sometimes they are determined to be in charge of everything. They also choose to pay me directly. (And 20 percent of the time, they give me more than I charge.)

Newsflash: Personalization is not about products, it is about the person who died. Many suppliers will think this is sacrilegious. Sorry—it's true. Personalization is not about the bells and whistles of the "stuff," it is about the service, the body and the celebration.

The consumer wants something other than what they have been getting. Families want a true celebration of the deceased's life, a reception with some food and a celebrant who will tell the story of their loved one. They do not want a minister who only provides a sermon and an altar call.

It is very gratifying to have people come up to me and say, "Wow! I have never been to a service like this. Why aren't all funerals like this?" Many participants have asked for my card or for a brochure. They are truly hungry for meaningful celebrations.

When you meet with a family, even one with a church home, when discussing plans for the service, ask them, "On a scale of 1 to 10, how religious would you like this service to be?" If their answer is five or less, call a celebrant. Suggest to them that they would be better served by someone who feels the same way they do.

Yes, there are some ministers who can provide a celebration versus a sermon, but perhaps the funeral home would be better served if the event was "awesome" and the family was thrilled by a service that knocked their socks off.

Don't be put off by the family who says, "We have a minister." Ask the question! I have handled services for families in which the deceased had been a member of the same church for as long as 35 years, but the children wanted a celebration, not a sermon, despite being regular churchgoers.

I agree with author and Baptist minister Doug Manning: Funeral directors gave the service away to the clergy, and that has hurt the profession. How many times have you, the funeral director, stood outside the door of the chapel and heard people say as they left, "Don't you do anything like that for me! I don't want a funeral!" How many times did you yourself feel the same way about what you had just heard?

It must be frustrating, especially when the problem wasn't something you did as the funeral director. You worked hard to do everything right for the family, made sure there would be no mistakes, no glitches. But then you handed over the service—and the limelight—to a minister who got up in front of everyone and, in less than two minutes, ruined the experience for the family.

The solution: Take back the service!

For me, it is wonderful to work with a funeral director who acts as master of ceremonies. Please, get up in front, introduce the celebrant or minister, tell folks who are singing and what the music will be and why those particular songs were chosen. Tell people how to get to the cemetery and invite them to the reception afterward.

YOU do it—don't turn that over to the officiant. That is your time to shine, to make sure everyone there knows who did the work. Don't stand in the back with your hands folded and your mouth shut. You have worked hard to provide a meaningful experience for the family—take credit for it. Be seen and be heard.

If you don't get up front and everything you do is behind the scenes, when the minister blows it, what do the attendees think? They think what they just saw is what a funeral is. If you get up front and are visible and then the minister blows his portion of the service, they know it was the minister, not the funeral director, who didn't do his or her job.


I love the families we serve. I love funeral directors for their hearts of gold and their tireless dedication to families, and I love feeling like my life matters. Helping a family create a meaningful tribute to someone they dearly loved is an honor and a privilege. I love being part of funeral service, and I hope I will be for many more years.