The nature of faith in Britain has undergone some dramatic changes over the years – most recently this can been seen through a continued general decline in church attendance, changes in the style and format of weddings, a move away from baby baptism/christening and a growth in non-religious funerals.
All of these changes are the outward signs of how people feel about religion rather than how they feel about spirituality and faith; following a formal religion has become less of a factor in the lives of many.
Having been brought up in a church-going family I had never been to a funeral that was not conducted by a minister until around 9 years ago when my friend died and his service was led by a celebrant. That service changed my view of funerals and gave me the impetus to eventually train to become a celebrant seven years ago.
Until very recently it was the norm for a family to accept a funeral that followed the norms of religion, even if they themselves were not regular communicants within that religion or regular attenders at the place of worship.
The reality is that, for many, formal religion is largely irrelevant, even to those who still label themselves Christian. Is there any wonder that families want a ceremony that reflects their real feelings, rather than a standard Christian view which, at their heart, they are not able to fully believe?
One alternative is to have a humanist funeral, which generally do not include any spiritual content and focused on the life of the deceased. While a celebrant will include whatever elements of faith a family feel are appropriate for them and the deceased. Celebrants can, and do, include hymns, prayers, bible readings and sacred music.
This change in funeral style and content will reflect the changing needs of those who are dying and their families, and present its own challenges to those providing end of life care – where traditionally the chaplaincy team has comprised ministers and lay-people from the key religious denominations.
How can celebrants work with hospices?
While hospice chaplaincy teams are there for patients of all faiths and none, I am aware that some celebrants have approached their local hospices and enquired about being part of the chaplaincy team only to be rebuffed because that was felt that this should be exclusively faith-based.
The Association of Independent Celebrants are interested in working with local hospices to explore how we can work together to support people at the end of life.
Celebrants can and do make themselves available to discuss end of life planning with individuals and families; helping and guiding in the planning of the funeral service. They will offer suggestions and ideas to help personalise the ceremony.
There have been a number of occasions when I have been privileged to meet and spend time with the terminally ill as they design the service that they would like to represent them after their death. When I have ultimately conducted the funeral it has been all the more meaningful and personal because of that time spent before their death.
I have also been invited to speak at meetings organised as part of Dying Matters event; it is surprising how many families do not know what a celebrant-led service is and how it differs from a service led by a minister of religion.
Peter is an independent funeral celebrant past president of the Association of Independent Celebrants and Fellow of the Society of Bereavement Practitioners.