June has been a very busy month for funeral ceremonies - making time in my diary to reflect has been even more important. The following words by Ralph Waldo Emerson, have been particularly poignant and have served as a constant reminder to me of the reasons why I choose to do the work that I do:
"The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well."
I feel so honoured to have helped families through the critical stages of their grief and bereavement and to have helped make a difference for so many people. I am of course, humbled by the endorsements and cards received from them. Thank you.
Achieving happiness has never been my chief aim in life but it turns out to be, quite naturally, the result of living life well in terms of helping others.
“Excellence is doing ordinary things extraordinarily well” - John W Gardiner
I used to work closely with a woman who would frequently tell me to, “only do what you need to do and no more, or they’ll expect more from you all of the time.” They, being our employers. We were meant to finish work each day at 5.30 pm, but from around 4 pm she would very slowly begin to down her tools. At 5 pm she would be ready with her coat on - poised for the hand to strike half past the hour. She was a nice enough person, but her work ethic grated on me. She wasn’t prepared ever, to go the extra mile.
You see, I believe the quality of our work is the measure of who we are as individuals and I suppose I like to think of myself as someone who will always strive to be excellent – meaning that my talents, abilities and skills are always exercised in the best feasible way. I’m not perfect by a long stretch, but I do like to think I’m excellent. By this I mean that I daily practice the art of being brilliant; that is by giving my level best and more to every situation.
I do not ever strive for perfection. This would only serve to disappoint me and the people I serve, because perfection is an ideal - it is never a reality. I would advise caution with anyone who claims to strive for it, let alone achieve it.
Sadly, there are those within our profession who are content in doing just enough to raise a pay cheque. This does not acknowledge the level of professionalism required to do what we do well. We are in the business of dealing with people who are at their most vulnerable; whether that be through the excitement of arranging a wedding; or the profundity of becoming a new parent; or indeed by helping people at the most critical time with their loss and bereavement.
It is true that helping others regardless of what’s in it for us, will always exceed expectations. Should we not try therefore, to look at every situation in terms of the value we can add to it? We must be cautious not to accept everything at face value. Excellence comes from by contributing and by expecting the best from ourselves and others. We can’t save the world single-handedly, but we can make a difference in how we deliver the service we provide.
We can decide to do just enough, or we can choose to excel in it. The choice is ours. I will always choose the latter.
Holding Dear is supporting a new Grief Surgery in Stone, Staffordshire. For one hour every Wednesday, between 09.30-10.30 there will be free access to professional counselling and support, courtesy of Holding Dear and the CO-OP. The surgeries are being held in the consultation rooms at Stone's CO-OP Funeralcare. If you would like to arrange a 30 minute appointment, please call CO-OP Funeralcare and speak to Paul or Leah, who will arrange the appointment for you.
Tel: 01785 813375
There are plans underway to provide surgeries in Newcastle Under Lyme and Shrewsbury in the not too distant future. Watch this space for further details.
Counselling is provided by therapists and grief consultants.
Before becoming a Celebrant, I used to be a local minister within the Church of England. When I left the Church, I gave a great deal of time to consider whether I could function as a Celebrant or not. Whilst I was in ministry, I was quite critical about the after-care or the lack of it that clients receive from Celebrants. The Church are very well equipped and extremely well positioned to offer their pastoral care to people and have a legal responsibility for the ‘cure of souls,’ to do so. This is something that many but certainly not all, licensed ministers within the Church take very seriously. Despite now being a Celebrant myself, this is something I continue to value too. This responsibly exists for very good reasons.
Now, there is quite a legitimate argument I hear frequently amongst Celebrants and FD’s alike, who would say that if a person wishes to receive this level of support, then they should opt instead for a service that will be led by their local church and not a Celebrant; legitimate to a point. There is a flaw in this argument and that is that it fails to take account of their clients wish for no religion. We must move away from the assumption that the Church and pastoral care go exclusively hand in hand. A client’s wish not to have any element of religion in their ceremony should not leave them short-changed and certainly should not exclude them from the level of support and professionalism that could presumably have been afforded them by a cleric. This would be extremely unjust.
I have maintained for some years that Celebrancy must move forward in this area. I believe it should share in the responsibly of pastoral services. Provision should be made for a civil ‘care of clients.’ In this sense, Celebrants would share in the ecclesiastical obligations of caring for clients before and after the ceremony. Like clerics, Celebrants are intricately involved in marking our human rites of passage. As human beings, our emotional wellbeing can be greatly influenced by how well they are managed; they require a great deal of care and forethought. I fear the relationship between client and celebrant being merely one that is transactional and that just isn’t good enough. My view is that those who take this element of their work seriously make the better celebrants and ministers. This can be substantiated by the clients themselves if we were to ask them (and I have) and if the celebrant searches deep within their own conscience, they will discover this to be very much the case too; which brings me on to another point that is intrinsically related to the matters of pastoral care.
I make considerable time each week to reflect and to be mindful. Like prayer within the church, this time is set aside and plays a very significant part in my work. Prayer is something a lot of people outside the Church value a great deal about the ministers who conduct ceremonies on their behalf. It would be a mistake to underestimate this.
Prayer and mindfulness share very similar characteristics. Mindfulness and reflection is good practice and can contribute hugely to the clarity of a Celebrant or minister’s capacity to assist their clients professionally and with due consideration. It gives them time to think outside of the box and this is very important indeed.
Mindfulness and reflection allow us to interpret our human experiences in the context of faith or no faith at all. It reinforces the celebrant’s identity within the relationship and orientates one's work style to be more congruent. Models for reflection generally begin with an analysis of the client’s experience. In addition to gathering information on the factual level when visiting the client in their home, the carer afterwards seeks to discern the experience's that are the dominant meaning of life for the client. The next step is to identify and explore a theological or humanistic parallel to the experience. The decisive step is to enact the reflection, that is, to apply interpretation to the client’s situation. Besides sharing in the interpretation with the client, the enactment may include changing one's style of ceremony to fit the need. We cannot simply leave it to guess work and chance. We must enter in the situation.
I recently witnessed an abysmal funeral ceremony taking place at a crematorium. The officiant was conducting a religious ceremony. He followed the structure of the Church of England’s Funeral Office. He attempted to make the ceremony marginally personal by mentioning the name of the deceased in the appropriate places, which he got completely wrong. He looked harassed and embarrassed and hugely over-worked. Of course, my heart went out to him but that very quickly made way for the considerable concern I had for the bereaved family. They were devastated and left the chapel feeling cheated. I have since discovered that the officiant had a reputation for giving very little time in his diary to rest, refreshment and reflection. The relationship with his clients had become merely transactional. He worked very hard to be there for his Parish but forgot the crucial ingredient they required most of all from him and that he required most of all for himself – that is, space to reflect. He was unable to enter in, and so give the care and attention his clients so desperately needed. He failed himself and his clients. I have seen many examples of this amongst celebrants too, in fact, often more so.
Jon Kabat Zinn said that, ‘The best way to capture moments is to pay attention….mindfulness means being awake….it means knowing what you are doing….and to see reality as it really is….”
The best way to take a meaningful and active part in serving the needs of those who look to us to help them with their human rites of passage, is to put our compassion into practise; to be mindful and to know what we are doing with absolute clarity. The only way of ensuring that this happens, is to make space in our diaries for reflection and to see it as a part of our work and mission. It is to move away from seeing what we do as being transactional and seeing it more as a caring profession and an essential link with what makes for good responsible Celebrancy.