Funeral celebrant is a formal term denoting members of a group of non-clergy professionals who are committed to preparing and delivering high quality funeral ceremonies, which are not closely linked to any religion or to belief in an after-life. The concept of funeral celebrants is analogous in Western countries to that of civil celebrants (for marriages). It began in Australia in 1975. On 19 July 1973 the Australian attorney-general Lionel Murphy had appointed civil marriage celebrants with the aim of creating ceremonies of substance and meaning for non-church people. As secular (civil) marriage ceremonies became accepted, first in Australia and then in other Western countries, it was inevitable that a similar philosophical paradigm would be applied to secular funerals.
- 1 Descriptive definition
- 2 The first civil celebrant funeral - Helen Francis
- 3 The inaugural association of funeral celebrants
- 4 The pioneer civil funeral celebrants
- 5 Setting standards and prices
- 6 Training and education of celebrants
- 7 TIME Magazine report
- 8 The Australian Institute of Civil Celebrants
- 9 Australian States other than Victoria
- 10 A further decline in standards in Australia
- 11 Funeral celebrants in NZ, UK and USA
- 12 References
A civil funeral celebrant is an individual person, quite often, but not necessarily, an authorised civil marriage celebrant, who offers to perform civil funerals in a dignified and culturally acceptable manner, for those who, for whatever reason, do not choose a religious ceremony. Civil funeral celebrants also serve people who have religious beliefs but do not wish to be buried or cremated from a church, temple or mosque. More frequently, people choose civil funeral celebrants because they wish a professional person to co-create a service centred on the person, their history and their achievements.
This is often in contrast to the established set-ritual ceremonies of most religions. In celebrant ceremonies decisions about the content of the ceremony are made by the family of the deceased in consultation with the celebrant. Therefore, the civil celebrant can be defined as a professionally trained ceremony-provider who works in accordance with the wishes of the client. Depending on circumstances, best practice is usually for funeral celebrants to interview the family, carefully prepare and check the eulogy, brief those persons chosen to give reminiscences, and finally to provide resources and suggestions that will assist the client family to choose the most appropriate music, video/photo presentations, quotations (poetry and prose), symbols and movement or choreography. Sometimes a rehearsal is indicated for a funeral. More often a planning session is sufficient to ensure that the ceremony that is delivered is the one that is planned. In this task the funeral celebrant works in cooperation with a funeral director.
Thus the celebrant is usually the central person who delivers the ceremony. He or she is the facilitator, the adviser, the resource person, the co-creator of the ceremony, and the director.
A celebrant, by this definition, does not come from the standpoint of any doctrinal belief or unbelief. A trained celebrant usually operates professionally on the principle that their own beliefs and values are not relevant.
The first civil celebrant funeral - Helen Francis
An acknowledged pioneer of civil Celebrancy, Dally Messenger III claims to have officiated at the first funeral celebrant ceremony. This was in the sense that the client sought a service from Messenger, as a government appointed civil celebrant, and as a professional ceremony provider. There had occasionally been secular funeral ceremonies before this date, but they were extremely rare and informal, e.g. some words spoken at the graveside by members of the Communist party. In general, funerals were considered to be the province of the clergy - even for unbelievers. For example, many funerals for non-believers were performed by the Salvation army.
Dally Messenger III records that this first celebrant funeral was for Helen Francis (née Grieves) on 2 July 1975 at the Le Pine Funeral Parlour in Ferntree Gully, a suburb of Melbourne in the state of Victoria. Helen Francis was a young woman who had engaged Messenger as a celebrant for her wedding to Roy Francis some four weeks previously. Roy Francis convinced Messenger that just as his wife was entitled to a civil celebrant marriage, she was similarly entitled to a civil celebrant funeral. Some 200 people attended and many urged Messenger to continue the work as "much more important than weddings." Messenger credits Dennis Perry, then brother in law of Helen Francis, of being a decisive influence.
The inaugural association of funeral celebrants
Support of the funeral industry and the clergy
From this time on some marriage celebrants began to quietly and carefully officiate at funerals when they were asked to do so. On Tuesday 3 May 1977 a group, consisting of some authorised marriage celebrants and some other persons formed an association - The Funeral Celebrants Association of Australia. Dally Messenger III was elected the inaugural president. Funeral Directors and clergy attended as supportive members of the Association. For them it solved the problem of appropriate ceremony providers for the increasing number families for whom a religious ceremony was no longer an authentic option. For many years this had been an uncomfortable problem for which there had been no good solution.
Controversy among celebrants
These innovations soon produced a bitter controversy. In a time when death and funerals were almost taboo subjects, the majority of marriage celebrants were viscerally opposed to being associated with funerals. Most, supported by the public servants of the Commonwealth’s Attorney-General’s Department, viewed the situation of civil marriage celebrants also being funeral celebrants as "using their appointment as civil marriage celebrants, to commercially exploit vulnerable people in their time of grief".
Most of those marriage celebrants who had attended the inaugural meeting then withdrew their support. The few "marriage celebrant associations" declared their opposition to funerals. However, Lionel Murphy, then a judge of the High Court of Australia, encouraged Messenger to go out into the "highways and byways" and find non-marriage celebrants to fulfil the societal need.
Murphy urged Messenger and his colleagues to prepare each ceremony well, to charge a reasonable fee to ensure long term sustainability, and to see the civil ceremony as a cultural bridge between ordinary people and the rich world of the visual and performing arts - especially music, English literature, and poetry.
The pioneer civil funeral celebrants
The few marriage celebrants of that time (1975-1976) involved - notably Dally Messenger III and Marjorie Messenger - were in the years and months following (to 1980) joined by non-marriage celebrants, Brian McInerney, Diane Storey, Dawn Dickson, Jean Nugent, Ken Woodburn and Jan Tully. A decisive influence later was marriage celebrant, mayor of Croydon, and public advocate Rick Barclay. Messenger credits these persons with establishing the profession in Melbourne, and subsequently throughout the western world.
Setting standards and prices
As with marriage celebrants, public acceptance of funeral celebrants was enthusiastic and rapid. The early celebrants reported the commonly expressed need of non-church people to have a funeral that was personal in nature, with a minimum of platitudes, and also a personal eulogy that was well prepared, and substantial in its coverage of the life of the person who had died. There was a strong antipathy to mistakes which people had experienced in funeral services, such as factual errors: the deceased being called by the wrong name, or a mispronounced name, as was characteristic of many under-prepared and ritualistic funeral ceremonies provided by the churches. The public also required that music, quotations and individual tributes be appropriate to the deceased person. (Clergy were then induced to compete with these standards and were thus led to provide more personalised ceremonies.)
The problem of fees
The new Funeral Celebrants needed to establish working relationships with the Funeral Directors, whose role was to collect, prepare, and store the bodies of the deceased. Funeral directors were then (1970s and 1980s) mostly smaller family owned firms. Funeral Directors John and Rob Allison of John Allison Monkhouse (Melbourne, Victoria) were particularly supportive of Funeral Celebrants. So was the active idealist Des Tobin, General Manager of Tobin Brothers Funeral Parlours of Melbourne. The fee that funeral directors had customarily paid to the clergy was not a fee for service but merely an "offering", since the general presumption was that the client was a churchgoer, who had donated to the upkeep of the clergy all his or her life.
Funeral Celebrants argued that those who required a personally prepared service, which required many extra hours of preparation, should pay more. Rob Allison agreed, and a two-tiered structure of fees was established. The Funeral Directors argued that the fee should be fixed so they could quote costs clearly to the client. The resulting two-tiered fee acknowledged that civil funeral celebrants had no other sources of income such as the clergy had. However, this happened only in Victoria. Funeral Directors in other states of Australia refused to pay celebrants any more than they had decided to pay the clergy. This led predictably to unsatisfactory standards and uninspiring funeral services. See below under "Australian States other than Victoria".
Training and education of celebrants
It also became clear, as funeral celebrancy became an organised profession, that it was not appropriate for funeral celebrants to learn how to carry out the work by learning from one’s mistakes and experience while ‘on the job’. Celebrants observed that mistakes made in funeral ceremonies could leave lifelong psychological scars. It was clear that skills such as creative writing and public speaking, a knowledge of suitable poetic, literary, symbolic and musical resources, an awareness of punctuality and time, appropriate dress and similar were essential. It was clear that a formal educational and training process was required.
Experienced celebrants maintained it was crucial for trainee celebrants to achieve an understanding of the "grief process" and how it impacted on their work. The Australian lecture tour of a renowned scholar in this area, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, organised by funeral celebrant Diane Storey, received wide media publicity and was credited with changing social attitudes to death and dying. Training, in the informal sense, began by constant reflective interaction among the original celebrants who all knew each other. Later on when more funeral celebrants were attracted to the vocation, programs of seminars were set up by celebrants Beverley Silvius, Diane Storey and Brian and Tina McInerney. This body of learning was later incorporated into the courses more formally prepared by the College of Celebrancy in 1995.
The securing of celebrant professionalism
It was agreed that adequate training of celebrants must leave them capable of providing the standards the general public expected such as full personal interaction and cooperation with the family, careful preparation of a historical and personal eulogy, attentive choosing of readings (poetry and prose), music, choreography (processionals and recessionals), symbolism, and an appropriate setting and place for the ceremony. Another essential was that Celebrants should check the eulogy and the ceremony with a member of the family, so that harmful mistakes were avoided. In short, funeral ceremonies were viewed as a serious responsibility which should be prepared with efficiency and attention to detail, requiring an attitude of genuineness, empathy and compassion. The high ideals of the original celebrants and the ones who slowly joined their ranks changed the nature of the funeral ceremony scene in Melbourne and Victoria. They professed to offer the best and most personal funerals which existed in the Western world. This high standard is well acknowledged by Professor Tony Walter, lecturer and reader in Death and Society at the University of Reading UK. Professor Walter particularly singles out for commentary two celebrants he considered outstanding, Brian McInerney and Rick Barclay.
TIME Magazine report
International acknowledgment was provided by a comprehensive article in Time Magazine (September 2004) reporting that in the "liberal" cities of Melbourne (Australia) and Auckland (New Zealand) civil celebrants "conduct substantially more than half of the funerals." It reported that before 1973 only clergy funerals were available to the general public in Australia and New Zealand. The article describes celebrant funerals as "intimate and personalised". But it also cited an alternative point of view by atheist sociologist Mira Crouch who stated that celebrant funerals were "mawkish and sentimental".
The Australian Institute of Civil Celebrants
In January 1992 the ‘’Funeral Celebrants Association of Australia’’ had become the ‘’Australian Institute of Civil Celebrants’’. This new body was able to welcome marriage celebrants, who were increasingly in disagreement with the Marriage Celebrants Associations, which continued to oppose secular funeral celebrants. An active marriage celebrant with a public profile, Rick Barclay was voted in as President, Dally Messenger III as Secretary, and Ken Woodburn as Treasurer. These three administered the Institute until it became ‘’The Australian Federation of Civil Celebrants Inc’’ in January 1994. Although no reliable statistics were kept In Melbourne or Victoria by any reputable authority, informal checks of the funerals services as advertised in the Melbourne newspapers by celebrant John Dean concluded that in 1998 about 82% of all advertised funeral services in Melbourne were performed by civil funeral celebrants.
Australian States other than Victoria
Funeral Directors in states of Australia other than Victoria still refused to pay celebrants any more than they paid the clergy i.e. a low "stipend" or "offering". The results were predictable. With some notable exceptions, very few marriage celebrants were prepared to put the amount of painstaking time and effort into the preparation and checking of funeral ceremonies that was required to reach the Victorian standard. Many Funeral Directors in these states saw celebrants as a threat to their income and were openly hostile. Several firms declared every member of their staff a celebrant. Others employed an in-house celebrant who was required to perform 13 or 14 funeral ceremonies per week — compelling such employees to resort to one-size-fits-all impersonal ceremonies. A "celebrant funeral" in these contexts became the worst option available. As author and commentator Robert Larkins put it, speaking of one family’s experience-
Geoff was not a religious man so there was no minister of religion present, just a celebrant… Susanne had found the funeral experience to be deeply dissatisfying.
As church attendances declined, funeral directors in New South Wales pushed non-church people into organising "family ceremonies". A few families proved capable of this, but most were not.
A further decline in standards in Australia
As inflation took hold during the years 1990 to 2009 the value of money declined. Funeral Directors in Australia, who effectively controlled fees for celebrants, held out against any increases in payments.
The loss of support for celebrants due to the retirements of idealist Funeral Directors such as Rob and John Allison and Desmond Tobin was keenly felt. The takeover of the small and middle size Funeral Companies by the multinational company Invocare Limited, meant there was little interest in any celebrant standards of ceremony. Larkins lists five pages of Funeral Homes purchased by Invocare Limited  including such names as Simplicity Funerals, White Lady Funerals, Tobin Brothers Funerals and Le Pine Funerals. All these smaller firms kept their original names, thus misleading the public as to ownership. Notwithstanding the above, a core group of Funeral Celebrants throughout Australia still provide the public with funeral ceremonies in accordance with the original ideals.
Funeral celebrants in NZ, UK and USA
In the late 1970s New Zealand followed Australia in establishing funeral celebrants and have had an untroubled history. The Humanist Society of England and Scotland, after many visits to Australia in the 1980s, established a wide network of quality funeral celebrants characterised by a strong non-religious stance. Others in the UK have set themselves up as Civil Funeral Celebrants based on the Australian/Victorian model. They are gaining wide acceptance particularly funeral celebrants trained by the United Kingdom Society of Celebrants. The USA Celebrant Foundation, established by graduates of the Australian-based International College of Celebrancy in 2003, has emerged as the leading organisation in training and educating civil celebrants in the USA. Originally a force for secular wedding and naming ceremonies, since 2009 some civil celebrants in the USA have become more involved in high standard funeral ceremonies.
- Messenger, Dally (2012), Murphy's Law and the Pursuit of Happiness: a History of the Civil Celebrant Movement, Spectrum Publications, Melbourne (Australia), ISBN 978-0-86786-169-3
- see for the USA Celebrant Foundation and Institute
- for the United Kingdom see Humanist celebrant and Humanists UK
- for various other countries see Dally Messenger III (section Civil celebrancy in the UK etc)
- Messenger, Dally, Ceremonies and Celebrations, Hachette Livre, Melbourne, 2000 , ISBN 978 0 7336 2317 2 pp.148-154
- Messenger, Dally, Ceremonies and Celebrations, op.cit.
- "Cultural diversity". 1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2008. Australian Bureau of Statistics. 7 February 2008. Retrieved 15 February 2010.
- Readers should be aware that the vast majority of Australians were members of one of the five main churches - Anglican, Roman Catholic, Methodist Presbyterian and Congregationalist. It was still in the period of the White Australia policy and a strong Christian tradition without the influence of eastern and non-Christian religions - save a small Jewish community of pre and post war immigrants.
- Messenger, Dally, Murphy's Law and the Pursuit of Happiness: a History of the Civil Celebrant Movement. Spectrum Melbourne, ISBN 978 0 86786 169 3 pp88-91 and p.162f
- Adams, Pamela, "Music suggestions for Funeral Ceremonies", Celebrations, Australian Federation of Civil Celebrants Inc 2009
- Messenger, Dally, Murphy's Law and the Pursuit of Happiness: a History of the Civil Celebrant Movement. Spectrum Melbourne, ISBN 978 0 86786 169 3 pp147-192
- Marinos, Sarah, Prepare Yourself to say Goodbye, Family Circle, June 1997 pp40-41
- Messenger, Dally, Victorian Celebrants Lead the World, The Australian Funeral Director, December 1994
- Messenger, Dally, Lionel Murphy, op.cit. pp 147-192
- Messenger, Dally, Murphy's Law and the Pursuit of Happiness: a History of the Civil Celebrant Movement. Spectrum Melbourne, ISBN 978 0 86786 169 3 pp.148-150
- Messenger, Dally, Murphy's Law and the Pursuit of Happiness: a History of the Civil Celebrant Movement. Spectrum Melbourne, ISBN 978 0 86786 169 3 p.153
- Messenger, Dally, Murphy's Law and the Pursuit of Happiness: a History of the Civil Celebrant Movement. Spectrum Melbourne, ISBN 978 0 86786 169 3 p.226 and 260
- Walter, Tony, "Secular Funerals or Life-Centred Funerals?" in, Funerals and How to Improve Them, Hodder and Staughton, London, 1990, ISBN 978-0340531259, pp. 217-231
- Williams, Daniel, Funerals Are Us, Time Magazine (Asian Edition), 6 September 2004
- Messenger, Dally, Murphy's Law op.cit. p91
- He was also the Mayor of Croydon, a Melbourne suburb
- Larkins, Robert, Funeral Rights -What the Australian ‘death-care’ industry doesn’t want you to know, Penguin Australia, Camberwell Victoria, 2007, ISBN 978 0 67007108 1 p.ix
- Henly, Susan, Death of a Salesman, The Sunday Age (Melbourne), Extra section p.18, 28 August 2005
- McNicol, D.D., Lifting the Lid on the Funeral Industry, The Australian, Summer Living Section p.12, 2 January 2006
- Larkins, Robert, Funeral Rights -What the Australian ‘death-care’ industry doesn’t want you to know, Penguin Australia, Camberwell Victoria, 2007, ISBN 978 0 67007108 1 pp.231-235
- Time Magazine, op.cit.
- Meaningful non-religious ceremonies just for you, https://humanism.org.uk/ceremonies/non-religious-funerals/ , British Humanist Association, Retrieved 24-02-2015
- Machelor, Patty, http://www.celebrantinstitute.org/media/Arizona%20Star%20Story/Arizona%20Star%20Story.htm, Arizona Daily Star, 30 December 2012