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Lynnette Olsen holds three Diplomas. Ribbons are awarded at Graduation Ceremonies.


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Best Practice Funerals

Keynote Address
Sept 26, 2005

by Dally Messenger III

Principal, International College of Celebrancy
www.celebrancy.com
0411 717 303
dallymessenger@mac.com 

LESSONS FROM THE HISTORY OF CELEBRANT FUNERALS. WHAT IS A BEST PRACTICE CELEBRANT? DO WE HAVE A FUTURE?

An address given by Dally Messenger to the

Best Practice Funerals Conference,

sponsored by the International College of Celebrancy,

at Queens College in the University of Melbourne,

28th – 30th September, 2005.

Colleagues

A very special welcome to you all. It is most gratifying to have students and colleagues from all over Australia present with us this morning. I thank you for having the good sense to come to this seminar, and I thank you particularly for your support for the College of Celebrancy.

In the context of Funerals, I could talk to you about what I love about their meaning. I could talk to you about how the social anthropologists actually define the transition from animal-ape to homo sapiens i.e civilised man, as when he first began to bury his dead.

I could talk to you about the deep psychological effects of a good ceremony on people wounded by searing grief.

I could talk to you about what a high standard of funerals means to our society and our nation, and the meaning it has to individual lives and families.

I could talk to you about the family history and genealogy that emerges in a good funeral and how it gives people a feeling of worth and belonging and links to their past. And so on.

But today I have chosen to be eminently practical. I believe we are at a turning point and we could go one way or another. This morning, I seek to persuade you of the way I believe we should go.

So, I consider this one of the most important talks I will ever give.

I have not been involved in a Funerals Seminar in Australia for some ten years at least.  The challenge I confront you with this morning, I believe and as I say, is basic to the survival of Best Practice Funerals celebrancy in Australia.

So, first of all, I am going to dwell on the History of Funeral Celebrancy and to pass on to you some of the Lessons of History we have learned. The axiom is true. Those who do not learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them. I then want to give my vision of Best Funeral Practice, and dwelling on the lessons we have learned, present to you a practical and achievable plan for the future.

This Conference was Remi’s idea. Apart from getting away from the overwhelming shadowy presence of the Attorney-General’s Department, Remi saw that the real opportunity for celebrants to progress as a profession is through funerals – the best work we do. So thank you, Remi.

Qualifications

I am well qualified to address you.

I was the First Marriage celebrant to officiate at a celebrant funeral in Australia (image). It was the Funeral of Helen Francis (July 2, 1975). It caused enormous public interest and a great deal of controversy. It got me onto the Mike Walsh show, the 1970s equivalent in Australia of Oprah or Andrew Denton. But more of that later.

I was the Founder and foundation President of the Association of Funeral Celebrants of Australia (image) – a group about which more will emerge, but which, despite the support of celebrant founder Lionel Murphy, was marginalised and ostracised by the majority of celebrants and the Attorney-General’s Department.

I also have another related distinction. Attorney-General Lionel Murphy had made me the first National Secretary of the ACMCA. This same ACMCA later debarred me from their Committee, by a motion of no confidence, for advocating that some celebrants officiate at Funerals.

Also and for the record, I have officiated at nearly 2000 funerals including five near State Funerals (Members of Parliament) and one State funeral.

And as most of you know I am Foundation Principal of the International College of Celebrancy, and the writer of the course for the Diploma of Funeral Celebrancy.

I am also the proud author of Ceremonies and Celebrations, (image) published in its first form in 1978, the first book every to publish examples of Celebrant Funerals, and if imitation and illegal copying is the finest form of flattery, a much flattered achievement.

My friend Dr Watson and myself are also qualified in a different way. As those of you who do the college course know we require Learning Journals as part of our pedagogical methodology. It is just so interesting to read the experiences of our students as they visit funeral after funeral. We know what is happening in the scene out there from the reports of our students.

History

Let me fill you in briefly on the beginnings of Funeral Celebrancy in Australia. It divided the celebrant community. Times were so different I almost feel unbelievable, as I begin to speak about it.

But imagine the culture – talking about death before the visit of Elizabeth Kubler Ross, who, incidentally was brought to this country by Diane Storey, was taboo. You simply did not raise the subject of death in conversation. There was an instinct among the more thoughtful that it should be talked about, but it was the social equivalent of saying today that Iraq was much better off under Saddam Hussein, and we should bring him back.

But, you see, the inevitable happened and had to happen. Marriage celebrants, to give rights to, and rites to, secular and non-church people, did not have to happen, but once they happened, funeral celebrants had to happen. The reason is simple – you become a ceremony provider for a couple in a marriage. They are very happy with you. Sooner or later, one of your brides or grooms will die and the surviving partner will say to you – “He really liked you, Dally, and I know he would like you to do his funeral.”

I had officiated at the marriage of Helen and Roy Francis. Helen died before her time, and when Roy approached me to do her funeral, he had an open and shut case. So I did. I had to. Hundreds were at the funeral. They thought it was “wonderful”.

I could entertain you with stories but as I have a limited time, I must cut to the chase. Marriage Celebrants went into a state of fear and controversy. I was mercilessly attacked by the majority. The two main arguments were:- –

We were not authorised by the Attorney-General to do Funerals, and that

I was a greedy exploiter, using my marriage celebrancy office to try to get money out of grieving vulnerable people, and consequently was bringing marriage celebrants into disrepute.

The vicious attacks of the majority intimidated the few marriage celebrants who supported me originally. They went to ground. It was an enormous controversy in the press. (image)

The Attorney-General’s Department supported the majority – they did two things – forbad any marriage celebrant to advertise in any media that they would do funerals and namings.

The second thing the Attorney-General’s Department did was more vicious. Let me explain.

The few marriage celebrants who had supported funerals had backed off, but the public was demanding non-church funerals all over the place, so we (I) had to go out into the highways and byways and seek out people to do this work.

 

I gathered a group around me. But for twenty five years, anyone who was known to be a funeral celebrant, or mentioned in an application to be a marriage celebrant, that they had officiated at funerals, were not appointed. Known Funeral Celebrants were blacklisted.

Diane Storey is a case in point, she was only made a celebrant under the new system which had rejected her up to the recent change of system last year.

The MacInerneys, Brian and Tina, were two others – they were even left out of the mass creation of celebrants of 94-95 as was Diane – but I did something clever about that, at least for the McInerneys. There were others. So that is what we had to deal with

The Funeral Celebrants Association became the Institute, became the AFCC, and when the National Council of Celebrants was formed by the Attorney-General in 1995, the marriage celebrants associations combined together to expel me from the National Council, as we had members who were not Marriage Celebrants. Their move failed. But that is the reason there are two streams of celebrant associations – the marriage celebrants and the celebrants.

Let me say this as a positive. Our small group actually changed the face of Funerals in Australia. There was virtually no such thing as a non-church to speak of funeral in Australia before we started. We put the wedge in, and within a few years it was commonplace for non-church celebrities – everyone from Don Dunstan, premier of South Austraia,  to Charlie Perkins, the Koori leader, to have huge celebrant funerals. We started it. It is an unacknowledged achievement, but no less an achievement for that. During the last few years our work has been eroded. We are due for a leap forward.


Lessons of History

I

I could tell you a lot more of interest but as this lecture has some practical import, I want to move into what I am going to call the Lessons of History. The original celebrants group expanded and in time we were joined by many more people – marriage celebrants and non-marriage celebrants.

I want to particularly pay tribute to Rick Barclay, who when I fell into a stressed out jelly-blubber heap, exhausted by funerals themselves and the controversy, he assumed a wonderful leadership role. But by that time, we had progressed into Funerals in a big way.

I want to talk about the essence of this task. Those who do funeral ceremonies well, and there are some sitting in front of me as I speak, know a profound truth. They know, you know, it is the best work you do, and we do.

Spectrum your life and look at it – spread your achievements out before you, and you will tell me that a good funeral is the best thing you have ever done for others. It is demanding, it is intense, but it is creative and fulfilling, the job satisfaction has no equal, the appreciation is overwhelming. The good you do, the help you give to grieving people is almost measurable, almost palpable. When you walk out of a well done funeral, people queue up to shake your hand and to thank you. Then they ask you for your particulars, so that they can write you into their will to do their funeral. You know, then, that you are doing something good.

Lesson 1 The story of the fruit barrow man

Let me follow through with one story. The story of the fruit barrow man. My first job at fifteen years of age was with the ANZ Bank. On my way to work I passed the Fruit Barrow Man. His name was Frankie Rudd. What a showman. “There goes young Dally every one – grandson of the famous!”

Just as an aside, he sold fruit all day but couldn’t eat it. Meat only, he told me. But they were everywhere – the fruit barrow men. It was Graeme King who insisted I do this Funeral. The last of the Richmond fruit barrow men.

I went to town – I talked about how the Fruit Barrow man related to everyone, knew everything, knew what officials were straight, knew who were crooked, knew where you could get a good deal, knew where you would get ripped off.

He had opinions on who would win the football, the third race at Flemington, and what the weather would be like at the weekend. They were the pinnacle, the social stimulators, of shopping strip life.

But then the lurk detectors, as Frank Hardy used to call them, moved in and legislated them out. This man was possibly the last of the fruit Barrow Men of Melbourne. He was a personality, and I honoured him. But, just the same, he was dead, and there is nothing good about that, that I have even been able to work out.

So when the ceremony was over, I moseyed out to the mourners and had a word with the man’s widow. I asked her how she was bearing up. She turned around, looked me in the eye, and said: “I felt so proud.”

There are not many moments in life as rewarding as that.

Lesson 2 - The mother who fell asleep

T

he next lesson I had was what I call Indirect Therapy. It is about the mother who fell asleep. I was asked to go and see this family in North Dandenong – daughter, son-in-law, granddaughter and wife.

I sat down with the three of them and the wife was in the kitchen.

So in my youthful naievety I went out into the kitchen, and asked her would she mind joining us. She seemed hesitant, so I explained, in my bald kind of way, bald and kind way, that I had no hope of preparing a proper tribute to her husband unless she helped me.

So she joined us. I directed certain questions at her and my memory is that we had an extensive and comfortable interview.

So when I felt we had run our course, I said good night, and drove home.

I was no sooner in the door when the telep hone rang. “Dally how can we thank you? How can we thank you?” A bit taken aback I explained I had not done anything yet.

“Yes, you have,” said the daughter. “My mother has not slept or spoken to us for 72 hours - since dad died. She has just looked right through us. We were convinced she was going to collapse. We have been worried sick - out of our minds – and you got her talking  - and now she is sleeping like a baby, we are just so relieved and grateful.”

You, my colleague funeral celebrants, bring such wonderful therapy, unique and irreplaceable therapy, by simply being a good celebrant – listening and taking notes.

And can’t you see how awful it seems to me, when I hear stories of a certain celebrant, who, having used up his allotted hour, slams his notebook shut, stands, excuses himself, and walks out?

Lesson 3 – The privilege of being paid to read poetry in public.

When our small Melbourne team first started to officiate at Funerals, the Directors gave us the funerals the clergy didn’t want. Suicides and murderers mainly. Suicides were then considered by catholics to go direct to hell, as they had committed the mortal sin of despair, in the very act of suicide. It was not permitted to bury them in sacred ground. So we had lots of suicides. I think I had four in a row once.

I found early on that I could comfort families with the recitation of the famous soliloquy by Shakespeare, in Hamlet, as immortalised in the film of the same name by Sir Laurence Olivier.

In it Hamlet ponders whether he should commit suicide or live on.

Hamlet , Prince of Denmark, Act III, Scene 1

Enter HAMLET.         

To be, or not to be: that is the question:        

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer         

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,           68

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,      

And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;          

No more; and, by a sleep to say we end        

The heartache and the thousand natural shocks       72

That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation        

Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;         

To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;           

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come     76

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,     

Must give us pause. There’s the respect        

That makes calamity of so long life;      

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,             80

The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,        

The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay,           

The insolence of office, and the spurns          

That patient merit of the unworthy takes,        84

When he himself might his quietus make        

With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,          

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,          

But that the dread of something after death,            88

The undiscover’d country from whose bourn           

No traveller returns, puzzles the will,    

And makes us rather bear those ills we have           

Than fly to others that we know not of?           92

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;        

And thus the native hue of resolution    

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,            

And enterprises of great pith and moment      96

With this regard their currents turn awry,        

And lose the name of action.

There is a famous Mel Brooks comedy “To Be or Not to Be (1983)” wherein all the actors in this travelling theatre long to recite Shakespeare.

It hit me then, as it does now, what a privilege is ours, to bring poetry to the people. To comfort people with the great words of english literature by which you universalise their pain.

Lesson 4 – Control by the church to control by the client.

Let me dwell on the next positive. Keep in mind that when we started all the churches had Ritual funerals, and many still do. By this I mean that they had one ceremony, which applied to every person who died. The only difference was that there was a space, a dotted line, for the person’s name, and this was inserted in the appropriate place.

“I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.” .

Though these beautiful poetic words of the biblical translation comforted many, to others, especially to non-churchgoers, they were often inappropriate and offensive. Imagine what a revolution our small group engineered then, when we turned control by the church upside down, and replaced it with control by the client.

Brian MacInerney was one of our group. He had been executive Director of English Language Broadcasts for Radio Australia and was, and is, a highly self-educated man. He was released from the Australian Broadcasting Commission on health grounds. I mixed a lot with him once.

His family told me that by the age of fifteen, he had read the complete works of Dickens plus a lot more besides. His knowledge of poetry literature, history and the arts is extensive.

The famous story is of a eulogy he created about a man whose personal description reminded him of the Noble Knight in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. So he constructed this eulogy with those members of the family who were available. What he didn’t know was that the man’s daughter, who only flew in the day of the funeral from the USA, was Professor of Middle English Literature at Princeton University.

Imagine her sitting there in the chapel, expecting nothing, but hearing her father described in terms of the Noble Knight. Some of MacInerney’s eulogies were so famous that when people heard you were a funeral celebrant, they would buttonhole you and tell you about a MacInerney funeral.

Because of McInerney we came to realise the worth of Education for doing funerals well,and how knowledge of the Humanities could enrich the power of Funeral ceremonies enormously.

---

Lesson 5a - The MacInerneys and the attempt to raise fees.

My recollection is that the Funeral fee was reasonable in the beginning, because it matched the Lionel Murphy Marriage fee. There were a select band of Funeral Directors who believed in us. We were so buoyed up by the job, that it sustained us in a pretty high standard for several years.

But then the rot set in, high inflation was rampant, the worth of the fee decreased, and we realised we were not making ends meet. Then the Americans moved in, competition became fiercer among Funeral Directors, and, as we were on their bill, the pressure from them was not to make any rises.

Because of the federal Attorney-General’s Department “policy” of appointing anybody at all as marriage clebrants, anti-intellectual, anti-academic, and anti-education attitudes started to dominate those entering the marriage and funeral celebrant ranks. Funeral Directors favoured those, who undercut with the cheaper fees.

Brian and Tina MacInerney revolted and put their fees up. There was a ring around among the Funeral Directors. They did not get a job. They were blacklisted. They couldn’t feed their kids, so they were forced to eat humble pie and accept the Funeral Directors fee. They were very deeply shocked because they thought these Funeral Directors were their friends and really appreciated them.

So guess what Brian did, he lowered his standards. He had no choice. He started to read eulogies from his rough notes, from the interview.

By now too, you had the rise of the self-declared celebrant, totally outside the influence of the original group, who did low class funerals for a low class price.

There were, and still are, some ex-clergy who called themselves civil funeral celebrants. Some thrust their residual religion down people’s throats. But they were cheap, so they got the jobs.

A couple of asides on where we are at the moment – admittedly not in Victoria. Just follow “Dust to Dust” and see how celebrants rate. We do not rate at all.

There is book on Death and Funerals that came out this week, How to kick the Bucket in Style, written by two women, in which celebrants are mentioned nowhere.

Lesson 5b - The Funeral of Darren Millane.

M

y personal moment of truth came with the Funeral of Darren Millane. For those of you who are not from Victoria this is going to be hard to explain. There is a form of what is called football down here, which is commonly known as Australian Rules.

Though it poses as sport it is, in every sense, a religion. Followers of this code assemble in the place of worship every week, sing hymns, dress in special sacred clothes, eat sacred food, drink sacred drinks, and worship a holy icon that in some cases they may not touch for 72 years. They believe in their team with an insanity based faith that would do Osama Bin Laden proud. The most extremist group in this religion belongs to the sect known as Collingwood supporters.

At the time of which I speak, the proudest god in this sect’s pantheon was a player named Darren Millane. He was a wonderfully fearless and skilled Australian Rules player, who won many prizes within his club, and was a leading member of the winning team that won the premiership for Collingwood in 1990.

He tragically killed himself by driving his car under a truck while under the influence of alcohol. I was asked to organise his funeral ceremony.

Let me tell you in advance that 8500 people attended the Funeral, that they packed the Dandenong Town Hall, that we could hardly get the coffin in, that they packed the lofts and the stalls, that they spilled into the street, blocked the traffic, and listened to the Funeral on loudspeakers. The Herald-Sun newspaper broke all records in the deaths column for one person – pages and pages of messages. Millane’s record Death Notices in this newspaper still stands. That the funeral was broadcast on radio, also meant that one mistake would have had every Collingwood supporter in Australia baying for my blood.

The preparation of the service meant that I had to deal with, and interview, three differing divisions of the family, the Collingwood Football club officials, and the Collingwood Football Club players. I had to liaise with the Police, the Dandenong Council, the Press, and, of course the Funeral Director.  I had to check the ceremony and the eulogy with the five groups mentioned, and brief and assist the two other speakers.

It easily took a week out of my life. It exhausted me. In a sense it took two weeks out of my life. At the end of the ceremony, Michael Tobin of Tobin Brothers Funerals handed me a cheque for $150. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It didn’t even pay half the rent on my office. It was a real moment of truth.

A week later, I received a letter from Michael Tobin telling me I had done a really good job – the only such letter I have ever received. I will draw some conclusions about this later.

Lesson 6 – The public is not the problem

The next lesson of history is short. I have now done about 10 -15 Funerals in the $1000 to $2000 range. This is based on my advertised fee of $95 per hour. I have never had a complaint about the rate, or the price, or the service I prepared, checked and delivered.

Quite the contrary, only gratitude and appreciation.

Lesson 7 – There is no short cut to a Best Practice Funeral.

I would like to make it clear that within our declared standards there are many short cuts. Our standard is clear:- 

1. Visit the family.

2. Prepare the ceremony and eulogy.

3. Check the ceremony and eulogy.

4. Deliver the service with compassion, dignity and competency.

Let me talk about some shortcuts. The obvious one is the celebrant who who, more or less, has the same framework for every ceremony but inserts an appropriate eulogy. This is not too bad. It misses opportunities, but it is generally acceptable.

I had dinner one night with a woman who had been married to a Funeral Director. She told the amused gathering about the Funeral Director’s staff who imitated the celebrants who did the same service every time. They mimicked the words with the celebrant, intonations and all, which they knew by heart, with great mirth, outside the closed door of the chapel, while the Funeral Service was taking place.

Another shortcut – don’t mention music. Music can cause you heaps of time and trouble. And if it is mentioned leave the total organisation to the family, even if you know they can’t cope with it.

Another short cut isnot to check the eulogy. There is the story of the very clever celebrant, who could get a fact and extrapolate it seemingly safely, into quite a number of words in the eulogy e.g. if he was told that the woman had children, he would talk about the wonderful moment of joy she had, when after months of pregnancy, dreams, and expectation, the great moment came when she gave birth to her first child.

The problem came when the woman in question could not have children but had adopted them. Away goes this person into his lyrical eulogy, beautifully phrased and delivered, describing the aforesaid birth. But everyone in the congregation, who knew the facts, got the embarrassed creepy-crawlies. To this day, this celebrant does not know the painful mistake he made, and the mistakes he still makes, with such confidence. He is firmly convinced he is so good, he does not need to check.

Another short cut is to get the family to do the eulogy on the seemingly valid grounds that they knew the person best, it is wonderful and therapeutic for them to express themselves, and they knew the person much better than the celebrant could ever do.

Now I am totally in favour of this providing it is not done as a short cut. I also think that the celebrant usually can create, in a framework eulogy, the context, the historical record, and the genealogical links to the past, which family eulogies never do comprehensively.

It is also the case that many people fear public speaking more than death and persons should not be pushed too far, if they are not capable.

I might add that it is necessary work to brief eulogists on the necessity for preparation and timing.

At the state funeral at which I officiated four speakers were given 5 minutes each – three stuck to time, the fourth, a Minister of the Federal Government I might add, dismissed preparation suggestions from me. After he had gone more that half an hour the widow asked me in the middle of the Funeral to ask him to stop, which embarrassingly, I had to do in front of this huge crowd.

Another short cut is to make the eulogy too short.

Another short cut – one, which I practised, and the best celebrants practise, is to read back the eulogy to one person. I will comment on this in the context of Best Practice shortly.

Another short cut is to do one interview when more than one is obviously needed. I will comment on this in the context of Best Practice shortly.

Now most, not all, of these short cuts are more or less acceptable. Let me go on to the sort of short cuts that are not acceptable.

Lesson 8 - Short cuts, which are not acceptable. The West Australian who does 13 Funerals a week at $100.

I was at a celebrant meeting in Western Australia when I was approached by a character who bowled up to me and told me he was a Funeral Celebrant. In his next sentence he told me that he did 13 the previous week. Before I could draw breath, he told me he always rang up people the night before. I was taken aback, but I realised the guy was really out to insult me, when he told me that he had never opened my book Ceremonies and Celebrations and never intended to.

I still had not got a word in, and wasn’t quite sure I wanted to, when, almost spitting in my face, he said “The Funeral Directors and the general public are very happy with me!”. Then he walked away.

I checked up on him later with some celebrant friends, and they told me that this guy was very popular, because he was personable, cheap, and the six or seven personal sentences, he put into the funeral ceremony were six or seven sentences more than most West Australian families had ever received before. Expectations are often low.

There was another man I met, a lot more friendly, and whom Daniel Williams interviewed for the TIME magazine article. He gets a salary from a funeral firm in Sydney but he has a quota of twelve funerals a week, which he must do for the firm. Via a friend he asked me could he join the AFCC in the time when I was President and Administrator. I told him to leave it for a while!

And then we have the number of self declared “funeral celebrants”. Many of these are ex-clergy after a few extra dollars. The call themselves civil celebrants but in practice ram quite a bit of their residual religion down people’s throats, because they know no better.

Lesson 9 : Many Celebrants I know have burned themselves out.

I know at least twenty people, maybe more, who have started out as high quality Funeral Celebrants. They loved the work but did too many funerals for too little money and, after a time, burned themselves out.

My brother Ken Messenger is one, my late partner Kathleen Hurley was another – but there are many more. They went from a period when the couldn’t say no to when they couldn’t say yes. I am somewhat in this position myself.

I do not know what more to say here, except I think this is the most important point I make.

Lesson 10 – The Funeral Directors are not aware that we give them business.

Another scene I experienced was salutary. Russ Allison, a Funeral Director, I like, was deputised by the Funeral Directors to inform us that a number of them had decided to pay active funeral celebrants monthly instead of per funeral. It was to do with the GST.

So he came to a meeting at our office in Richmond to explain the changes. Several of the Funeral Celebrants who were scratching for money politely objected, and asked were the clergy being placed on the same system.

Russell replied “Of course not, they give us funerals.” I sat there a dumbstruck. I had referred hundreds of my clients to Funeral Directors I preferred. I told him so.

The lesson is that most Funeral Directors think they give celebrants work. Most have no awareness at all that quite often we give them work.

Lesson 11 – Anyone, anyone can be a Celebrant according to the Funeral Directors of Sydney.

This final experience comes from my brother in Sydney. My brother visited Funeral Directors in his period of initial enthusiasm. One firm was very dismissive and off hand when he approached them. So he asked what they did when people asked for a celebrant, to which the woman replied – every one of our staff is Funeral Celebrant. Subsequent investigation revealed that everyone in the firm – drivers, embalmers, bookkeepers, the lot – were all declared funeral celebrants.

Lesson 12 – Put up your hands if you want to be funeral celebrant

I was guest speaker at the Bankstown Leagues Club of the ACMC of NSW and ACT. It was about 10 years ago. The President asked if they could conclude the meeting, before I was asked to speak.

He then announced that the local Funeral Director had asked about funeral Celebrants. “Would you,” he said, “put up your hands if you would like to become a funeral celebrant.”  The hands went up – just like that. And a list was taken and distributed.

Once again I was saucer-eyed and open mouthed. Funeral celebrants were a nothing. People in grief, the challenge of paying tribute to a life, were the province of unskilled labourers. It was taken totally for granted that no training was necessary and that the Funeral Directors set the fee - with predictable results, as we see today.

Lesson 13 – Be aware of the smokescreen.

I’ve sat in on a number of interviews of families with Funeral Directors. I have had to deal with deaths in my own family on at least four occasions. When people enquire about costs there are some Funeral Directors, who charge up to $6000 for a funeral, who immediately dive into a patter, about how they know a florist who will give the person $70 worth of flowers for $50 (so we can save you $20 there) and a clergymen who will do the funeral for $100 (so we can save you $50 there).

This smokescreen is a diversion from their own fees, which they want to keep intact. The fee quoted in the article we provided you with for sundries is $2200. My own educated assessment is that this is $300-$400 per person hour for this Funeral Director’s firm.

Rob Allison was a wonderful Funeral Director. He has now been retired for some years. He is the only Funeral Director to negotiate a higher fee for me, when he knew I was in for a lot of extra work.

But he once called me in and asked me to reduce my fee for a family who was really needy. I said, “Sure, I’ll reduce my fee for the same percentage, Rob, as you reduce yours”. He said “Dally I can’t, I have overheads and expenses”. “Look at me, Rob”, I said “I do too!” “Point taken”, he said. (I just want to put on record that I have done many funerals for no charge when people were really in need.

On the other hand, I want to acknowledge that it was because of men like Rob Allison that we made some progress in Victoria.

Lesson 14: Angela Catterns – talk back radio.

For many years I was the media spokesperson for the celebrants.  I had a fan for a while in ABC presenter Angela Catterns. One day I did talk back radio on Funerals. I mean not just celebrants, but funerals in general. The telephone board lit up. Caller after caller had grievance after grievance, Many callers had nursed resentments that had lasted years and years.

“My grandmother was this, and you know what this clown said?”

“My father Fred was baptized George, but no one ever called him George, you would think that this idiot, would have enquired about what to call him.”

“We had this horrible religious ceremony for a woman who hated religion and who had never darkened a church door.”

On came the calls but there was not one call about coffins, or about embalming, or about limousines to the funeral. It was totally about the ceremony – the words that were said at the ceremony. What happened at the ceremony.

I learned that day that, even though the industry treated me as of no account, even though I was paid a pittance compared to the Director, mine was the most important job of all.

Lesson 15: Education is important. And it is our problem.

Gerry Lonergan, a Melbourne Funeral Director died a couple of years ago. I met him shortly before he died at the Celtic Club at a dinner, and politely asked him why he did not recommend celebrants. He told me straight that he preferred the clergy because they had education and it showed.

The celebrants were not educated and that showed.

He told me bluntly that he talked people into clergy. They were cheaper and better educated. If he had to get a celebrant he got Brian McInerney. If he couldn’t get Brian McInerney he told his clients that there were no competent celebrant available.

I told him that with the fees he paid we cannot and could not keep educated people in the job. To which he said that that was our problem. And you know what, Gerry was right. It is our problem.

Lesson 16: The meeting with the Funeral Directors.

I was then President of the AFCC and with three of my friends I went along to a mutual interest meeting with the Australian Funeral Directors Association. It was a bad experience. The three others, who in fairness were struggling for money like you wouldn’t believe, simply grovelled.

 

They told the representatives of the AFDA how much they appreciated the work, how they saw themselves as members of the Funeral Director’s  team, how they were there to enhance the Funeral Director’s reputation etc etc. At a certain point, I could stand no more. I was so embarassed.

I declared that I wanted to disassociate myself from the other speakers. I told them I saw myself as a professional in my own right. I said I respected the professionalism of others but, if they wanted to know the truth, I felt they were luckier to have me, than I was to have them.

This put a stop to the groveling and actually, I thought the AFDA members were somewhat relieved.

---

Celebrants, I am on my knees to you. This grovelling to Funeral Directors is counter productive, and leads some of them to think they are superior and powerful. It is just so wrong. Please don’t do it. The sensible Directors do not want it, and you shouldn’t do it. It was as if I saw these three saying.

“Please Madam, can I have some crumbs that fall from your wonderful table.”

“Oh Sir, you have power over me, can I please beg you for some work, any crumb, you set the price, sir. Three bags full, Sir.”

Such groveling strips us of our dignity and puts us in a place of contempt. There is a prominent Funeral Director woman in Melbourne who held a conference – “Women in Funeral Service”. Not one celebrant was invited! We had no dignity or place because we had not empowered ourselves, nor claimed our place.

Lesson 17 – the clergy appreciate us

My friend, an Anglican priest, used to recommend me, for certain people, to prepare the eulogy for his funerals. I was paid the normal celebrant fee. But when he received the $120 for his fixed ritual funeral, he used to make a point of telling me he was overpaid.

  • - -

Is this Job important?

Can it be done by just anyone?

Before I pull all this together. Let us ask  - is this job important?

I watched the Sunday program last Sunday!

A segment was about our Australian United Nations Troops in Kubayo in Rawanda, who watched the massacre of up to 100,000 people. It was about how they witnessed horrible slaughter with guns and machetes; they saved a few people, but were forbidden to become involved in the fighting.

They had deep psychological wounds after their horrifying experience, but the deepest wound of all was that they were, like the Vietnam veterans, unacknowledged. The human way we acknowledge is through the device we call ceremony.

What we do as funeral celebrants is to acknowledge complete lives. Sometimes lives of great achievement. The psychological balance of loved ones, and indeed the health of society depends, in part, on what we do. It is an enormous responsibility. The better it is done the more everyone benefits.

So should we not have Best Practice Celebrants?

If we are doing something good then isn’t the good increased, if we do it well, rather than satisfactorily. And isn’t it better to do it really well, the best we can do, rather than just well.

So what is Best Practice?

Let us examine it by starting with the basic standard that our group set so many years ago.

  • We visit and interview the family.

  • We prepare a suitable ceremony and write a eulogy.

  • We check every word of the eulogy with the family.

  • We deliver the ceremony with compassion and competence.

To do that is quite a wonderful thing relative to the past and to many current others. But let us ask what constitutes Best Practice. Remi’s way of doing this is to imagine that she has been given $10,000 to get together the very best ceremony possible. And you have, let us say, a calendar week to do it in.

When a family put me on an hourly rate I discovered I had given them a certain freedom. They felt free to ask me to interview important friends and to ring relatives to gain additional perspectives. Best Practice may indicate that.

It would mean using a imagination and creativity in the writing of the eulogy not just writing it in a minimalist way. It would mean drawing on family history and the history of the society in which the life of the person is contextualised.

It would mean personalising each section of the ceremony, searching for, and recommending, not just any good poems, or any good music, but that, which was most suitable. It would mean searching out any meaningful symbolism and photographs, which would enhance the meaning of the occasion.

It may mean a rehearsal with the Funeral Conductor to satisfy the family e.g. that the music played would be at the volume they want and that the equipment worked. It may mean that readers and eulogists may mean to practise. Big funerals like Sate Funerals always involve a rehearsal as some level.

It will mean a lot more attention to music. Music to many people is much more important that words or symbols or anything else. And sometimes music is not easy to organise.

 

These days it could mean assisting in the collection of photos and presentation in a way that they are easily and appropriately presented on the Plasma screen.

It could mean presenting the finished ceremony and eulogy in written form so that a number of people from the family could ensure that all is totally correct and that obvious omissions are picked up.

It may mean assistance with the Order of Service.

It may mean any or all of these things and a few I may not have mentioned, depending on what is important to the family so that the ceremony could be the best possible.

Best Practice means doing everything possible in the allotted time.

Fees

I am not a mercenary person, and I find talking about money difficult. And as someone in a leadership position for several years, I am somewhat ashamed that I have not really done something more about proper payment for Funerals. I am not exaggerating here.

And I am discussing this because there is no chance of keeping good people in this job doing Best Practice Funerals unless they are paid properly. You may have all the love and idealism in the world but the bills keep coming in. As my great aunt used to say “fine words butter no parsnips”.

You can get all the job satisfaction you want but the mechanic still hands you the bill for servicing your car, and Telstra is very quick to send you the fearsome letters, if you are behind in your phone bill.

Let’s be conservative. I think that 40 hours spent on ceremonies should result in a net payment to the celebrant of between the minimum wage up to the average wage. It should include a loading that would include annual leave, superannuation, and attending conferences. Given that half to two thirds of gross income is expenses, to get the minimum wage – which is very low – around the $480 mark - one needs to bring in about $1100. To get the average wage one should bring in $1700 to $1800 per week.

A top professional should bring in more in the light of years of experience and years spent in study. Let us make a few comparisons. The man who fixed my antenna was $60 per hour. The personal trainers at my gym – 23 years old are $65 per hour. The locksmith who opened the door after my keys were lost cost $200 and included the first 15 minutes.

My close friend who is an accountant charges $160 per hour in 15 minute increments. When he is finished talking he is almost as fresh as when he started. It is all in normal office hours. He is not necessarily wrung out - if you get my meaning.

My friend, Golf Pro Michelle is $50 per half hour and has people lined up for the start and end of each half hour. She gets $100 per hour but, after all, she is 30, is qualified, and has 10 years experience

Mal McKissock almost spoke at this conference

His charges are.

Hourly Rate  (minimum 2 hours) $175.00 p/h i.e.$350+GST

HALF DAY: 2-4 hours morning or afternoon-$704.00+GST

FULL DAY-NSW - 4-8 hours $1,400.00+GST

OTHER STATES: 2 days or part thereof includes travel time @ per day           $2000.00+GST

What is the future?

I think we do have a future if we become professionals. I have a plan about how this should happen.

The Plan

T

he basic principle of this plan is that you, as a celebrant, must create your own constituency. I can absolutely assure you, that unlike Amway or Insurance, people want to know Celebrants and when an important ceremony comes up in their lives, they want someone they know – or have met.

Like the parish of old, your constituency is a database of all your clients so far, friends, people you have met, and lists of people with whom you share values in common.

You must keep expanding your database and you must keep it up to date. By email, or normal post, these people should get a newsletter every three months. (People should get cards from you as a celebrant on anniversaries and birthdays.)

When you, in your newsletter, mention funerals you should always state your hourly rate and the average number of hours you take (10-20).

Every time you mention funerals i.e in the unfortunate event of a death or and impending death, you should ask your clientele to contact you before they contact the Funeral Director.

When you get such a call, as you inevitably will. You must be prepared to ask you client can you ring the Director on their behalf and represent the family for the funeral. (You should have a knowledge of Funeral Directors and their prices, what their chapels hold, what church buildings are available to you etc.).

You should inform the Funeral Director that you recommended him/her and ask in a polite but meaningful way do they consider that one good turn deserves another.

The Plan for current operators

If you are in the mould of the Funeral Directors, here is what I suggest you do.

  • Go along with the current system and keep your income flowing.
  • At the same time implement the plan above.

  • When you arrange the Funeral directly simply inform the Funeral Director that you will be invoicing the family direct. They are usually very happy with that.

The Future

I predict that some of you will take my advice, hold the line, and they will really stand out from the plethora of el cheapos.

I predict that sooner or later a group of Funeral Celebrants will work together as Practice like accountants or doctors. They will help each other out, attend each others ceremonies and build confidence in each other. They will pool resources and advertise. The will work out annual holidays and have a superannuation scheme.

In big Funerals the celebrant will be assisted by colleagues. In the Greg Wilton Funeral, the member of Federal Parliament who committed suicide, I was assisted by Carol Huish and Janet Hussey.

I predict that the hourly rate will depend on a persons skill, experience, and depth of education in the Humanities and the Arts. The Diploma in Funeral Celebrancy will be one qualification which will bring a brader education to the fore.

I predict that part of the Funeral Celebrants job will be Funeral Ceremony Planning, a task by the way which we have been working on for several years to add more possibilities and depth to our graduates.

I predict that people will be able to pay in advance for a Funeral Ceremony with skilled celebrants as well as Funeral Directors.

I predict we will be involved in Memorial Services such as the Danny Haski one on Australian Story.

I predict real professionals will emerge who will be the organisers of national commemoration and grieving such as Anzac Day, and in times of tragedy such as the Port Arthur massacre, the Black Hawk Helicopter  smash, the eight fireman burned in the Bushfires, from which we are currently excluded.

 

I predict our education will get richer and more demanding, that we will have processes of evaluation, and ongoing professional development.

I predict we will find ways to educate the public and make them aware of what their options are.

I predict that we will start to respect ourselves, the value of our work, and thus earn the true respect of others.

© D.Messenger. Permission to reprint will be readily given to bona fide persons.

© D and R Messenger 2005


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