Penelope Hamilton: Being a Humanist Celebrant Part 2

by Penelope Hamilton, originally published in the 2013 Spring edition of Humanitie magazine.

Challenging Ceremonies is the title of a popular training workshop at the annual celebrants gathering, and it crops up on the celebrants’ private online discussion group. It’s beneficial to share experiences and concerns with colleagues, as well as seek their advice, because celebrants are me times faced with daunting situations, as I’m sure you can imagine. It’s especially challenging the first time you’re asked to officiate at a funeral for a baby, child or teenager, for the mother or father of young children, or for the victim of a tragic accident, suicide, drug addiction or crime. This is mainly because you’re profoundly moved by the anguish of the bereaved family, just like everyone around them, and you may feel embarrassed and inadequate too.

You can’t change what has happened to them, or stop their suffering. All you can do is create a funeral that will aid and comfort them a little, as they take their first steps into the wilderness of grief.

In this you’re assisted by the training you’ve received and all the assets you possess – including the suggestions, advice and encouragement of your colleagues. You’ve also got your inner resources, forged in the fire of your own life.

Losses and sufferings, whether major or minor, public or private, whether they result from personal weakness or mistakes, are inflicted by others, or brought about by random events, are part of being human. From them, in time, comes a kind of compensation, in the form of compassion and understanding. You welcome these qualities into your celebrancy work, and they become your silent, sympathetic companions. But when you visit a grieving family, you may be accompanied by other, less welcome, thoughts and feelings.

Your everyday concerns, prosaic as they may be cry out for attention. You’ll leave them at home, of course, and deal with them later, but what should you do with your distress about the death, and your fear of others’ emotions, and of failing to do your job well?

You can try pretending, and put a cheerful mask on over your face. But you’ll seem unreal if you do. And suppressed feelings can slyly undermine you, or burst out of you like wasps escaping from a jar.

It’s best to seek support from people with whom you can be honest and expose your fears: celebrants who’ve been in similar situations, or others in your life who can boost your confidence, encourage and reassure you and give you practical help.

Then, trusting yourself again, you’ll have the courage to embrace your difficult feelings and take them with you into the room. You’ll be detached enough to do your job without being raise or remote, you’ll be whole and human and. if a wobbly moment comes, no one will mind, because it’s natural in the presence of terrible loss and grief.

Are there other challenging situations for a celebrant? Well, you might be invited to conduct a funeral for a murderer, drug baron, paedophile or rapist, in which case, could you ‘Celebrate a Life’, as our funeral leaflet suggests?

Think of their families, and perhaps you’d say yes. I hope I would, if I received such a request.

On a lighter note, there are many everyday challenges involved in organising ceremonies, some of them practical, but most arising from disagreements and upsets within the family. People are in a state of heightened emotion, and very soon they’ll find other members of their family involving themselves, telling them what to do.

How I long to tell someone to stop interfering in a couple’s wedding plans. Or, when a bereaved son come from afar, carps and complains, I want to say “Where were you when your dad was sick, or when the funeral arrangements were being made?”

But it wouldn’t help anyone.

Can’t live with them; can’t live without them: I’ll say more about families another time.


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