Supporting Someone in Grief

celebrant training funerals Jan 23, 2023

The celebrant plays a crucial role in the grief process for bereaved individuals. Whether the death of their loved one is sudden and unexpected, or a long time coming, grief is a normal and healthy reaction to their departure - and the celebrant is there to guide families through a vital part of this journey - the funeral ceremony. 

Funerals have existed for thousands of years. The oldest known intentional burial site is Qafzeh in Israel, which dates back almost 10,000 years. These early humans buried their dead in caves, in coffin-like structures. But funerals and rituals surrounding death will have existed before this, because it is a natural response to death - to mark it with a gathering or occassion. This process helps those left behind to honour the deceased, remember them publicly, deal with the death emotionally and then move on with their lives. 

What a Celebrant Does

Grieving families hire a celebrant normally via a funeral director, although increasingly independently of them. The celebrant will meet with the family of the deceased and ask questions about them in order to form a eulogy. This eulogy should capture the essence of the departed person, and the family will play a role in ensuring that the information is accurate and truly reflects their loved one. During this time, the family will be in mourning, which will present as a whole mix of emotions. Grief is different for everyone. Some people might be weeping and outwardly distressed. In these circumstances, a celebrant might offer empathy, words of comfort and space for the family to express their feelings. In other cases, a grieving person might be angry, stressed or flustered, in which case a celebrant can help provide them with structured, clear guidelines on the ceremony and funeral process, in a calm and considerate way. A celebrant is wise to remember that some people may not outwardly grieve, but are still very much feeling something inwardly, and they should keep this in mind even if the grief is well hidden. You can learn more about grief responses on the Mind website. 

In summary, a celebrant’s role within this process is to:

  • Guide families through the funeral ceremony

  • Prepare a eulogy with the help of the family

  • Meet with the family prior to the funeral and communicate with them about expectations and the funeral process

  • Provide a sympathetic, empathic listening ear as and when needed, and to be conscious of the complexity of grief and how it presents

Here are some practical ways this can be applied:

  • Use the deceased person’s name, as a mark of respect, when talking about them to the family

  • Use eye contact, open body language and sympathetic facial expressions

  • Use open questions and ‘actively listen’.

  • Stay in touch prior to the funeral and communicate any changes or ideas regularly

  • Avoid assumptions - never use phrases like “This must be painful” or “you can’t be feeling good”, because it assigns feelings to the grieving person that they may not have. 

  • Remain patient and calm if tempers flare or if families fight amongst each other. You can read more about this in our Conflict Resolution Skills post. 

  • Know your professional limits - which brings us on to the next section.

What a Celebrant Doesn’t Do

Celebrants have a specific role that they are specially trained to do. If you trained with The International College of Professional Celebrants, then you are equipped to write and deliver a funeral to the highest possible quality and professionalism. In the same way that the average, untrained person cannot do your job, you also cannot be expected to do other jobs you are not trained for. By this, we mean, you are not a trained grief counsellor or psychotherapist, you are not a trained listening samaritan or support worker, nor are you a priest, rabbi or other religious authority. Sometimes, your grieving families might (unintentionally) try to move your role into new territory you are not trained for (and not charging for), and it is your job to keep professional boundaries and know how to refer elsewhere for more appropriate services. 

Remember to also take care of yourself when dealing with grieving families. You can watch a video about mental wellbeing tips for funeral celebrants on our YouTube channel. 

Thinking about training to be a funeral celebrant? We can help. Take our quiz to find out if celebrancy is the right path for you. Click here