How Becoming A Funeral Celebrant Transformed My Funeral Home

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This article is a guest post written by Kristan McNames, CFSP, Certified Funeral Celebrant, and owner of Grace Funeral & Cremation Services in Rockford, Illinois.

As a funeral director I’ve planned and have been present at what seems like a million funerals. I’ve cringed when the open mic (“Hey, come share a memory with the family”) has either been eerily silent, or veered off course and gone horribly awry. (Just ask me about the time someone stood up and started going on and on about the deceased contracting an STD back in the day.) I’ve rolled my eyes when the minister stood up and started his funeral sermon with the phase, “I never met (fill in the blank), but I’m here to share some words with you today.” I’ve shuddered when the hospice chaplain stood at the podium and started the service with the ever so poignant and touching reading of the obituary… You know, the obituary that I wrote with the family in 20 minutes to meet the deadline, that I left as many words as possible out of, because they wanted to make it as inexpensive as it could be.

Funerals aren’t like modern day marriage – there’s no do-overs. We only have one chance to rock it, to make it memorable, to make sure that everyone in attendance leaves the room feeling like the time they spent meant something. There’s too many meaningless funerals, too many people telling me at community events that they want to be cremated and thrown to the wind, too many people with funeral horror stories about how awful their loved one looked, or how much of a jerk their funeral director was. It makes me sick, and makes me fear for the future of my profession. We have one chance to get it all right. And becoming a Certified Funeral Celebrant has helped me get one step closer to getting it right for the families I serve.

The Road To Becoming A Celebrant

In my gut, I knew that becoming a celebrant would be really great for the reputation and longevity of my business. But initially, I was almost too afraid to take the leap. I was afraid of offending clergy members and hospice chaplains. I was terrified that I’d suck and disappoint the families that trusted me with their funeral arrangements… Sometimes it’s just easier to not be the lone funeral director paddling up-stream and to just play ostrich. But I pushed all of those thoughts aside and I jumped in anyway.

I registered for the training through Insight, and traveled to my local mortuary college on a beautiful fall weekend. It was the best training… ever. And then I came home and did nothing for nine months because of all the reasons I mentioned above.

Then the stars were aligned one day. The moon was in the proper quadrant of the sky, and I met a lovely family who didn’t have a religious affiliation and really just wanted people to stand up and take turns talking. I had a flashback to every awkward service I had witnessed in my life. They seemed super nice, so I took a leap of faith and I offered to serve as their celebrant. Done. Once I took that first step, there really wasn’t any looking back.

A Transformation In Service Leaders

The average consumer doesn’t grasp that the clergy person (or officiant, or chaplain) isn’t a part of my funeral home team. But unfortunately, when a sub-par funeral officiant takes to the podium, that person is perceived as part of my brand. If they do a horrid job, consumers think that my funeral home is a horrid place to have a funeral. This is not okay. It’s bad for the family, the people in attendance and for my business. However, my celebrant service is an extension of my overall brand that I can control.

I obviously can’t conduct every funeral at my funeral home, but I can make it clear to the attendees that the officiant is separate from the funeral home by making a simple announcement. If I’m the one conducting the service, I say, “Thank you all for coming today to celebrate the life

of Mary Smith. My name is Kristan McNames, and I’m the co-owner of the funeral home. Today, I’m honored to serve as the funeral celebrant as we celebrate the life of Mary Smith.” If people in attendance love the service, they remember that I’m affiliated with the funeral home. Eventually, they may call back for either a service at my funeral home, or to utilize me as a celebrant at a service elsewhere.

If it’s an outside clergy person, I’ll add the introduction of the officiant: “I’m honored to introduce Rev. Bill Jones, of the Second Congregational Church. Richard was a member of the church for 40 years, and we’re blessed to have Rev. Jones conducting the service today.” This comment establishes a separation between the funeral home and the officiant.

My hope is that if the officiant reads the obituary, says a few bland generic comments and throws in The Dash poem for good measure, people in attendance will remember that we did an excellent job caring for the family, provided custom printed products, and went above and beyond in every other aspect of the service… and that Rev. Jones is employed elsewhere.

Improving The Way Families Celebrate Life

We’ve marketed and believed from day one that every funeral should be, “As Unique As Life.” When we incorporated the celebrant offerings into our business, we hit the mark. Previously, we went above and beyond to personalize services, with theme based printing, memorial videos, awesome customer service, appearance of deceased people that exceeded the expectations of the family, and special keepsakes that varied based on the family. Providing the services of an on-staff celebrant just helped to add one more thing to differentiate our funeral home from the competition. They’re all still stuck and doing the same thing that their grandpa did in 1975. We’re the only funeral home in our community that offers this service.

The process is fairly simple: I have a series of questions in which I conduct an informal interview, or informational gathering with the family members. (I usually schedule this meeting after the arrangement conference, so that the family has time to regroup, sleep, eat and get photos together.) I’ve found that with several open ended questions, it’s fairly simple to get most people to open up and share stories and memories. I follow all of the guidelines that I was taught in the celebrant training. We meet in a private place, with limited interruptions. The meeting is for immediate family only, and I ask permission to share stories at the service.

I try to include as many people from the family as possible, but not everyone is able or wants to get up and share their thoughts at a funeral. I’ll incorporate family memories in the stories that are shared and read letters that the family writes. I’ll also add poems and special music to the service. It’s something that is simple, but something that other officiants and I never considered doing previously.

If I read a poem, I tell the audience why I chose that particular poem. “This is a poem about a mother’s love for her children.” If there’s a variety of knick-knacks and collections around the room, and I make sure to tell them why the collection of cardinals and clown figurines were significant to the deceased. I’ve enlisted the help of grandchildren and great-grandchildren at the end of the service to pass out a special keepsake, selected by me for people to take with them. Little kids love to have an important job and their parents appreciate the inclusion.

The process isn’t rocket science, but it is time consuming. I have background in journalism, and an open and outgoing personality that people feel comfortable sharing with. The process would be an adjustment from the traditional role of educator/order-taker for many funeral directors. And in some cases, the funeral director probably isn’t the best person to select for the celebrant position. If you’re looking at your current staff, you want the person that serves as your on-staff celebrant to be outgoing, comfortable in front of a crowd and able to relate to all sorts of people. You can also hire a celebrant locally to work with your families and improve the image of your brand.

The person that’s in the celebrant role needs to be able to keep a conversation going, be able to hear what’s inferred or implied underneath what’s actually being said, and take great notes in order to put the pieces together after the family leaves. I try to write up my service the minute the family walks out the door, otherwise I feel like details could be missing.

How Celebrants Take Funerals To The Next Level

I’ve seen a huge difference in the responses that I receive immediately after the funeral service. People have consistently taken the time to seek me out when the service is over to tell me how great the service was. One attendee told me that he never knew the deceased, but that he felt like he was his old friend because of the stories that I shared and the way the service was conducted. Many people have taken the time to share both brief and lengthy comments about the impact of the service.

As funeral directors, how often do we see people that are actually excited and positive after a funeral service? It’s pretty fantastic to see people leave a service with a smile on their face, discussing funny or touching stories that they heard. They came through the door to express their sympathy and seeking meaning in a time of loss. They left feeling like their needs were met.

Celebrant services are really a reflection of the life of the deceased. They’re not boring, they’re not generic and they’re not all the same. They give family members and friends an outlet to share their stories and express their grief. They’re not just for people that don’t have a church affiliation, or for those who consider themselves atheist, agnostic, or humanist. People with longstanding relationships with traditional denominations can benefit from a celebrant service. I’ve performed them as part of an evening visitation, followed by a traditional Funeral Mass the following day at the church, officiated by their parish priest. Tradition and modern funeral customs can co-exist.

As far as I know, I have not alienated any clergy people or hospice chaplains. I’ve discovered that the service is a great way to utilize my journalism background and public speaking skills to provide a value added service to the families that entrust me with the care of their loved one. I’m not horrible at it, and the process has been a challenge and has helped me grow as a funeral professional. Offering this service is a way for families to have more meaning in the services that they arrange with us.

To learn more about how you can host a beautiful service that focuses on celebration, be sure to read our blog “4 Tips For Hosting The Non-Religious, Meaningful Service Families Want.”

kristan-mcnames-150x150ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kristan I. McNames, CFSP,  Certified Funeral Celebrant; graduated with a Bachelor Degree from the Mortuary Science and Funeral Service Program at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. After working for two corporate funeral providers, most recently as the General Manager; she decided to open her own funeral home in June of 2009, with her husband Bob McNames. Grace Funeral & Cremation Services is located in Rockford, Illinois, and has served over 500 families since opening.

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  1. Phillip Dearman

    As an ordained clergy person I too have cringed when some funeral director has come into the church that I pastor and the deceased was a member of and has tried to undermine the policies of the church that are in place for funerals. I remember that I had a funeral and the church had decided that the pall was to be used at every service. I was floored when i heard the FD telling the family that if they did not want to use the pall they did not have to do so. Needless to say me and the FD had us a “come to Jesus meeting”. Are their sub-par ministers, certainly just as there are sub-par funeral directors. Another thing, I would consider it very tacky before a funeral were to begin for the FD to get up and introduce herself or the minister conducting the service. Let the Funeral Director’s direct the funeral’s and let the clergy preach the funerals…

  2. Dave Savage

    Kristan,

    Thanks for the blog. As we have atterded and officiated at services our list of things to avoid and to suggest to families and professionals has grown. Our 230 page book is a compilation of ideas, resources and connections from us and other professionals. It affirms and supplements the training and experience provided by Insight and others. Detailed ideas are provided to help families create heartfelt activities and ceremonies before, during and after a death experience. Our website includes material from the book and supplemental articles and videos. We’d love to connect with you and other funeral service providers. You can add your content to our custom content editions to become a co-author in a couple of weeks. Dave Savage – co-author HeartfeltMemorialServices.com

  3. GLENDA STANSBURY

    Kristan captures beautifully the process and vision for Celebrants. We are not here to replace ministers–many of them are wonderfully equipped to provide services for their parishioners/members. Many are not, but that is between the clergy and his/her members.

    We are here to provide services for that 25% of the population who do not wish to have a religious service or have a minister participate. We are here to create unique and special services for every person who needs us.

    Part of the Celebrant training also focuses on funeral directors acting as Master of Ceremonies for services in their firm. As Kristan said, she can provide a great deal of welcome, personalization and explanation for the attendees in a very brief intro before the officiant begins their part of the service.

    The point to be made is that we (funeral directors and clergy and Celebrants) need to see ourselves as partners in providing service to the family. If a service is being held at a funeral home chapel, then certainly that owner/Funeral Director should get up and be a part of the introductions and the service. The family paid them to be their professional from start to finish. The status quo separation that the previous poster wishes to have is what has created some of the awful, painful and hurtful funerals that families have to endure.

    In the same light, I agree that no funeral director should undermine practices and rituals that occur in the walls of the church. If you do not wish for a funeral director to introduce you at your house of worship, that is perfectly understandable. However, the same courtesy needs to be extended to the funeral director when you are in their chapel.

    And rather than fighting over turf, perhaps we all should refocus on the most important part of this equation–the family. What do they need? How do we help facilitate their grief? How do we meet their needs. That should override any other considerations for funeral directors, clergy, Celebrants and any other death care professional that touches a family’s experience.

  4. Gail Hummel

    Great framing of something people dread. It doesn’t have to be a negative!

  5. Janis Hopkins-Nugent

    Kristan, What a fantastic article! I couldn’t agree more. I am a funeral director/location manager who became a Certified Celebrant through In-Sight just over a year ago. I, too, grow very tired of the same old same old that Rolodex ministers are giving to our families. While it takes me about 10 hours to create a meaningful story to share with the guests which focuses on the deceased and his family and friends, I feel very guilty asking a family to shell out $150 to someone who spent less than an hour to give the same service (insert dead guy’s name here) for a grieving family. Some of the clergy people we use are wonderful, but they do deliver the SAME service with a tweak here or there. And in a small community with baby boomers attending a lot of funerals, it isn’t just the funeral staff who is hearing the same story time and time again. I was raised in the Christian faith and I am able to insert scripture and pray when it is requested by the family. But my focus is on the deceased’s life and not his eternal salvation. The key to combatting the people who just want a direct cremation with no service is to celebrate the life with an uplifting event in honor of that person. I am glad you took this leap and see the difference as you continue to serve the families in your community. I wish you continued success. Let the preachers preach at church and let certified celebrants honor lives and tell the story at the funeral home! Let’s change the same old canned service which has caused people to switch to the disturbing trend of using a funeral home solely for the purpose of the disposition of a dead human body!

  6. Ali

    Hi there. I just wanted to say that what you’re doing is a welcome addition to funeral services, as far as families are concerned. MANY families that I deal with as a funeral director/embalmer are not religious and struggle to find meaningful ways of celebrating the life of their loved one without any mention of God or heaven. Thanks! Great write-up!

  7. Marjorie

    I appreciate your blog post. I too am a funeral director and CFC. It makes a world of difference for the families when someone takes the time to get to know their loved one and speak to their life VS the generic “insert name here” services we’ve all been subjected to.

    I think introducing the clergy is far from tacky, not everyone in the audience knows the pastor nor his relationship to the deceased. It is honoring your role, not replacing it.

    I do agree that directors should not interject when in the church, that is your “space” and where the church tradition rules; but in the funeral home it’s our “space” and where the family rules. If the family wants introductions, there’s going to be introductions. Celebrants do not take the place of clergy, we serve families who do not attend any one church, or they are a mixed faith family and choosing one place of worship over another would cause division.

  8. Chris Roney

    What a terrific piece. So much of this was familiar to me. I am also a licensed FD and was trained by Insight in the summer of 2013. I have delivered about 25 Remembrance services as a Celebrant since then but had many of the same apprehensions as I began. This has become some of the most rewarding work I have ever done and I know these services provide families with something they so badly need and just never knew existed. I strongly recommend the Insight Celebrant training. Some of my peers were skeptical and gave me a hard time about this at first but I knew it was the right direction and have been proven right.

  9. Bruce Wadd

    We are singing the same tune. So agree with your article… so much so that I published by first book last year about it.
    Would love to chat with you sometime Kristan, because sometimes I find funeral director’s don’t see what we celebrants actually experience. it’s not just about getting things organised… it’s about journeying with the family in and through their grief to ceremony and beyond. Well done… great article!

  10. Ron Meyer

    Kristan….Thank you for your comments. I have taken every effort to make funerals at funeral homes you have managed and you and Bob own, as much about the person being buried as (positively) possible.
    My doctorate is from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and I earned it knowing the demands of ministry are not easy ones….neither is officiating at the end of any person’s life. You are right to celebrate the benefits that accrue with the end of someone’s life. When those benefits are the beginning of eternal life, I have the right to proclaim them. When your funeral home calls, I schedule time with the bereaved’s family and suggest family members who are not able to be present or friends
    who often tell authentic stories that honestly present the life and likes of the departed, must be included in the service. I almost always make it a point to ask permission to attend the “visitation time” and write down the comments made by family & friends and often they are the most remembered things said about the dearly departed. I enthusiastically endorse your role as a “celebrant” and thank God that I am free to practice the same role and celebrate the divine gift of eternal life.

  11. Peter Faulk

    As a Hearse dealer nationwide, we have thousands of directors as clients. We keep our business fun, light, and very respectful and professional… the same as most of our clients treat their customers. We service the service people and help educate the directors on newer tools of respect like integrated Urn Carriers that many people – and some directors still do not know about. It is about educating, sharing even in the funeral itself. Celebrating those passed with dignity, respect and laughter and tears… and smiling as you walk away from a funeral – full of new memories from shared experiences… what it;s all about. Thanks for the Blog – well said!

  12. Stephanie Longmuir

    Hello Kristan
    Thank you for your article. I am an Australian Funeral Celebrant and was interested to read about the trend in the US of Funeral directors taking on Funeral Celebrant training. In Australia, Funeral Celebrants mostly work independently. All of my work comes through a variety of Funeral Directors who employ me on a service by service basis. I am not employed by a funeral company. In Australia where celebrants lead 50% of all funeral services (we are a far less religious society) experience has shown that in-house celebrants don’t often work. This is mostly because the one size fits all theory does not work with celebrants i.e. celebrants are as ‘unique’ as the families that they represent. Funeral Directors will therefore have a team of celebrants that they can appropriately match up to a family, and they are usually very good at doing this. While I feel very much a part of the team at whatever funeral company I am working with, the roles and skills undertaken on by a Funeral Director and a Celebrant are very different. It is rare to find an FD willing to write eulogies or especially to deliver them. I will be speaking in Indianapolis in October about my work as a Funeral Celebrant in Australia and look forward to meeting members of the US Funeral Industry.

  13. John Porter

    I trained as a funeral celebrant in the UK last year and serve the people who live on the Fylde Coast in England. Blackpool with its famous tower is the largest town.

    Your article resonated with how I operate.Of the many topics I could discuss I want to highlight one pitfall that funeral celebrants must resist. It is the risk of becoming what I would term “a performance funeral celebrant”. This is when our ego gets so many positive strokes after a funeral ceremony that we get puffed up with pride in ourselves.

    We need to be good at what we do but ALWAYS keep our full focus and attention on the family and the person that died – and away from ourselves and what great orators we are or wish we were.

    After a funeral ceremony that I have helped to create and lead with the family I leave the chapel or other venue and stand a fair distance away. I do not stand at the door to shake hands. This prevents a line forming back into the chapel. I am not looking for “nice service” comments from people. I stand at a respectful distance away and am available if anyone wants to talk with me about anything. They often do. before I leave I will always go to the key family member to say goodbye, remind them I’ll send the presentation script in a few days and call them in a few weeks.

    The paragraph above is just one of the behaviours that prevents me becoming a performance celebrant. If I was a priest I would behave differently although there are many performance priests too who need to keep their ego in check.

  14. Jeff Hardwick, CFSP

    I was considering taking a celebrant training. After reading your article I am no longer considering it….I WILL BE ATTENDING the next class I can enroll. Your article was spot on & very enjoyable to read. I’ve been in the funeral business since 1979 & have felt exactlly what you said in your article about celebrants and clergy relationships. I too did not want to offend our local ministers or chaplians. I know most in my town very well & have a good relationship with them. I do not want to officiate every funeral & also direct the funeral as well. However, I am now finding that a vast majority of the families I serve do not have any religious connetions at all. These are the families I will offer celebrant services.The families that are active intheir church & have a religious connection need to use their pastor that they feel comforatble with. So with all that said……I will proceed with taking a celebrant class & just wanted to let you know that your well written article has changed my mind. Great job & keep up the good work. Thanks.

  15. Graham Burton

    From someone who as possible been with the family from day one ,it is a honour and a privelage to speak or even say a few words at a funeral .As the funeral director as been employed by the family to look after their loved one one can only help them through their time of grief and reassuring them at all times in their sad loss .
    Funeral Directors must ask themselves or look at the situation as if it were a family member of their own they were taking care with this you would you would want to get things right ,purely common sense ,adding standards etc to the service yet one thing of which must be shown at all times is compassion .Keep up the good work Kristan

  16. Grace Beattie

    Hi Kristen, I read your article with great interest. I too am a Funeral Service Professional having trained as an Assistant Funeral Director here in the UK. I too qualified as a Funeral Celebrant and as such became the company’s in-house Funeral Celebrant.

    I have since moved on and set up my own business as a Funeral Consultant & Funeral Celebrant which I am trying to get off the ground.

    I think the British way of Celebrancy may be a little more reserved than say the American or Australian. Not that a celebrant is subdued or reserved as such but because the British people are and when it comes to funerals, they are not (on the whole) “showy”. Ofcourse as a Funeral Celebrant (or Funeral Director) we take care of our families and deceased as they require, being mindful of personalities, character, emotions etc. I recently carried out a service whereby the family gave me very little information, no matter how I prompted them. In the end they even took out a lot of the information given which was in presentation form and the service read like a check list with the added official statements as necessary. In the end, this is what the family wanted.

    In the UK, Funeral Dirctors do not introduce the celebrant or clergy. The Funeral Dirctor arrives at the graveside, crematorium or place of service. Assists the families out of the cars and oversee’s the coffin being removed from the hearse (if this is the case). At that point they step back. The Celebrant is then in charge of leading the service. It is only after the service that the FD assists the congregation in departing the chapel. At this point the Celebrant has stepped back, away from the family. The celebrant is still viewable for anyone who wishes to speak but not in the midst of the mourners. The celebrant only leaves once final conversations and goodbyes with immediate family. Once the family cars have departed and celebrant has thanked the FD and Bereavement staff, then they leave. Usually a time lapse of a few days passes before contacting family with a courtesy call, email and check all is ok.

    I don’t know about other celebrants but I never go to the funeral tea afterwards. I am often asked but once I have said my goodbyes after the service my work there is complete.

    It is interesting to see how other celebrants and Funeral Directors work especially in different countries.

  17. Barry Slocombe

    A Canadian perspective.

    Here in Canada FD’s deal with the family’s wants and needs as it pertains to the disposition of deceased, providing a location for the service and other related services, but for the actual Celebration of Life Service and how it is conducted, what it contains, who is going speak etc, that is left entirely to the Celebrant, I have never had a FD become involved with one of my services.