Funeral celebrant

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Civil Funeral Celebrant
Celebrant funeral.jpg
Funeral ritual at graveside
Occupation type
Activity sectors
Cultural and social "infrastructure"
CompetenciesPublic speaking, creative writing (including eulogies), literary and music knowledge /resources, inter-personal skill and empathy, organisational skills
Education required
study and field work (by mentoring) to gain competencies (as above),
Related jobs
Officiant, clergyperson

Funeral celebrant is a formal term denoting members of a group of non-clergy professionals who organise 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). Civil celebrant funerals began in Australia in 1975.[1] 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 such as New Zealand,[1]:56 and much later in the United States of America[2] it was inevitable that a similar philosophical paradigm would be applied to secular funerals.[3]

Though initiated in Australia, and recognised as such,[4][5] the program and the process has been followed and is now established in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States of America.[3]:148–192[6][7][8]

Descriptive definition[edit]

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.[3]:164–165

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.[3]:164 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.[9]

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.[9]

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.[9]:148–154

Early History[edit]

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.[3]:157 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 simply the playing of music.[3]:151

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.[3]:157 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, as being a decisive influence.[9]

The inaugural association of funeral celebrants[edit]

Support of the funeral industry and the clergy[edit]

Major religious affiliations in Australia by census year. This graph illustrates the dominance of the three Major Christian Groups in the years of the White Australia Policy. The growth in the percentage of secular, "no religion" and "no particular church" people, and the corresponding decline in church attendances intensified the need for meaningful alternative non-religious "civil" ceremonies.[10]

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.[11]

Controversy among celebrants[edit]

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".[3]:88–91,162

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.[3]:161

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,[12] English literature, and poetry.[3]:99

The pioneer civil funeral celebrants[edit]

Brian McInerney: Pioneer Funeral Celebrant of Australia - arguably the doyen of the original 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.[3]:147–192

In 1980, the media noted that a surge in demand for civil funeral celebrants had become apparent. In an article on Jean Nugent, characterised as the Mornington "peninsula's first civil funeral celebrant", Tony Harrington, headlined that "Business grows for civil hatchers and dispatchers".[13]:8

Setting standards and prices[edit]


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.[14] 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.[9])

The problem of fees[edit]

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.[15] 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.[16]

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.[3]:147–192

Training and education of celebrants[edit]


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.[3]:148–150


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.[3]:153 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.[3]:226 & 260

The securing of celebrant professionalism[edit]

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.[9] 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.[17]

TIME Magazine report[edit]

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".[1]

The Australian Institute of Civil Celebrants[edit]

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.[3]:91 He was also the Mayor of Croydon, a Melbourne suburb</ref> 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.[16]

Australian States other than Victoria[edit]

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.[16] 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.[18]

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.[16]

A further decline in standards in Australia[edit]

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,[19] meant there was little interest in any celebrant standards of ceremony. Larkins lists five pages of Funeral Homes purchased by Invocare Limited[20] 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.[21] Notwithstanding the above, a core group of Funeral Celebrants throughout Australia still provide the public with funeral ceremonies in accordance with the original ideals.[22]

Funeral celebrants in NZ, UK and USA[edit]

In the late 1970s New Zealand followed Australia in establishing funeral celebrants and have had an untroubled history.[1] 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.[23] 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.[24]


  1. ^ a b c d Williams, Daniel (6 September 2004). "Funerals Are Us". Time Magazine (35): 56–7.
  2. ^ "Celebrant USA Foundation Launches in Montclair". The Montclair Times. 13 June 2002.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p 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 pp148-192
  4. ^ Wilson, Sherryl (2018). CANZ from the beginning : a history of the Celebrants' Association of New Zealand. PO Box 27192, Marion Square, Wellington NZ: The Celebrants Association of New Zealand. p. 10. ISBN 978-0-473-44837-0.CS1 maint: location (link)
  5. ^ "Start a second career or change jobs, Become a Celebrant". Celebrant Institute. Celebrant Foundation and Institute USA. Retrieved 6 August 2020. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  6. ^ NOTE:see for the USA Celebrant Foundation and Institute
  7. ^ NOTE: for the United Kingdom see Humanist celebrant and Humanists UK
  8. ^ NOTE:for various other countries see Dally Messenger III (section Civil celebrancy in the UK etc.
  9. ^ a b c d e f Messenger, Dally, Ceremonies and Celebrations, Hachette Livre, Melbourne, 2000 , ISBN 978 0 7336 2317 2
  10. ^ "Cultural diversity". 1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2008. Australian Bureau of Statistics. 7 February 2008. Retrieved 15 February 2010. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  11. ^ NOTE: Explanatory: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.
  12. ^ Adams, Pamela, "Music suggestions for Funeral Ceremonies", Celebrations, Australian Federation of Civil Celebrants Inc 2009
  13. ^ Harrington, Tony (18 January 1980). "Business grows for civil matchers and dispatchers". The Town Crier, Melbourne-Mornington Peninsula.
  14. ^ Marinos, Sarah, Prepare Yourself to say Goodbye, Family Circle, June 1997 pp40-41
  15. ^ Messenger, Dally, Victorian Celebrants Lead the World, The Australian Funeral Director, December 1994
  16. ^ a b c d Messenger III, Dally (26 September 2005). "Best Practice Funerals; Keynote Address". International College of Celebrancy. Retrieved 27 August 2020. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  17. ^ 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
  18. ^ 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
  19. ^ Henly, Susan, Death of a Salesman, The Sunday Age (Melbourne), Extra section p.18, 28 August 2005
  20. ^ McNicol, D.D., Lifting the Lid on the Funeral Industry, The Australian, Summer Living Section p.12, 2 January 2006
  21. ^ 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
  22. ^
  23. ^ Meaningful non-religious ceremonies just for you, , British Humanist Association, Retrieved 24-02-2015
  24. ^ Machelor, Patty,, Arizona Daily Star, 30 December 2012