For hundreds of years, particularly in the West, funerals have been officiated by religious leaders – priests, ministers, rabbis – in pious ceremonies that focused on the passing of the individual. In the last 50 years, however, a new, non-denominational official has been growing in popularity: the ‘funeral celebrant’.
The demand for these celebrants is growing in direct proportion to the rise of those who claim to be “spiritual but not religious.” Every seven years, the Pew Research Center releases a comprehensive Religious Landscape Study. In 2008, 16 percent of those polled claimed no religious affiliation. By 2015, that number had grown to 23 percent, with the drop noted across denominations, genders, generations and racial groups.
The concept of funeral celebrants is analogous in Western countries to that of civil celebrants, the non-denominational equivalent for marriages. The idea started in Australia in 1973, when then Australian Attorney-General Lionel Murphy appointed civil marriage celebrants to officiate ceremonies of substance and meaning for non-church people. At that time, there were only two options for couples who wanted to be married: a formal religious ceremony in a church or a very basic civil ceremony, which was held in a municipal office. The celebrant role was quickly established and by 2014, 74% of all Australian weddings were officiated by celebrants. From Australia, the idea spread to other areas: in the 1980s it spread to the U.K., and the in the late 1990s, to North America.
As civil marriage ceremonies became accepted, it soon followed that a similar official would be useful for secular funerals.
As of 2016, there are well over 1,000 trained funeral celebrants in North America. The USA Celebrant Foundation, established by graduates of the Australian-based International College of Celebrancy in 2003, has emerged as one of the leading organizations doing training for civil celebrants in the USA. Although originally focused on wedding and naming ceremonies only, since 2009 they have added a focus on leading funeral observances. Funeral celebrants help in planning and overseeing the funeral proceedings much as traditional clergy do. They differ primarily in that they conduct non-religious (or semi-religious) and spiritual funeral services.
There is also a different focus: the funeral service tends to be a ‘celebration of life’ intended to honor the person’s memory. This approach places greater emphasis on how the person lived their life, their personality traits and the memories of mourners, as opposed to a traditional religious service, which often encourages people to consider the afterlife and emphasizes religious ritual.
Of course, how we a deal with end of life takes many forms across the planet. In Mongolia and Tibet, Vajrayana Buddhists believe in the transmigration of spirits after death: the soul moves on, while the body becomes an empty vessel. To return it to the earth, the body is chopped into pieces and placed on a mountaintop, which exposes it to the elements — including vultures. It’s a practice that’s been done for thousands of years and, according to a recent report, about 80% of Tibetans still choose it. In Victorian England, a funeral mute was hired to stand around at funerals with a sad, pathetic face. These professional mourner (usually a woman), would shriek and wail (often while clawing her face and tearing at her clothing), to encourage others to weep. In Ghana, people aspire to be buried in coffins that represent their work or something they loved in life. These so-called “fantasy coffins” were recently popularized by Buzzfeed, which showed images of 29 outrageous ones, from a coffin shaped like a Mercedes-Benz for a businessman to an oversized fish for a fisherman.
While these ideas may seem extreme to modern Westerners, they show a diversity of ways to handle the passage of a loved one. For those who are spiritual but not religious, a funeral celebrant may be an ideal assistant.