Kirstie Atherton – Celebrant

This week on WHITEBALLOON INSIGHTS Kirstie tells us how her own personal experience of bereavement and her training as a counsellor and writer have shaped how she approaches her role as a funeral celebrant.

Q: Many people will know that celebrants officiate at wedding ceremonies and baby naming ceremonies but may not know that they lead funeral and memorial services too.  Briefly, what is the role of a funeral celebrant?

A funeral celebrant takes charge of all that happens between the body being handed over (usually by a Funeral Director) and that body being committed, either to the earth or to the care of cemetery staff if they are to be cremated.

We help those who grieve to design an acknowledgement of the life and death of the person they have lost. The most common way this is done is through a funeral, usually (but not always) with the remains of the deceased present, followed by a cremation or a burial.

We work very closely with a bereaved family for a very short time. Spending time with those closest to the deceased and getting to know as much about them as possible. We use this information (along with any thoughts they have about the ceremony) to craft (with words and actions) something completely bespoke which acknowledges the life, give thanks for it, grieves its passing, and celebrates the love which burns on for them. Finally, it’s us who deliver the ceremony on the day.

Q: What drew you to this career and are there other aspects of your life that you feel prepared you well for it?

When I was a teenager, my dad died. He was unconventional, larger than life, and as down to earth as a man could be when born from generations of water gypsies. He was also an atheist. Losing him was monumental. After much deliberation about how to pay tribute to his life, we decided that one of dad’s friends would just talk about him beside his coffin before his physical remains were cremated.

It’ll be 30 years ago next spring and I think about that ceremony most weeks. I cannot remember a single word that was said, or action that occurred, but I can vividly remember it bringing me comfort. It still does.

It took many years to reach a place in which I felt I could offer others the opportunity for similar comfort. The first days of grief are some of the darkest of our lives, but thoughtful words and actions, carefully chosen and delivered with love, respect, humour, and sometimes a little irreverence, can be transformative. A step in the process of loss which is much too important to be left to chance.

There are two strands at the core of any truly impactful celebrant: listening and writing. My previous background in counselling has prepared me to listen openly and truthfully. My master’s degree in Creative Writing has prepared me to transform that which I have heard into words which reflect, resonate, and comfort.

Q:  Many celebrants undertake all types of ceremonies, but you chose to focus on funerals, memorials and celebrations of life.  Did you decide this at the start of your training or is it something that evolved over time?

As is often the case, my heart knew this before my brain acknowledged it! I trained in couples and naming ceremonies as toe in the water to gauge how suited I felt I was to the profession in general. Although I do love conducting these ceremonies, before I’d completed this training, I acknowledged what my heart already knew – that it lay in funerals. My reluctance to accept this from the beginning was, I feel now, purely related to the reactions of others. People have such a primal response to death and most want to avoid even thinking about it, I was temporarily swayed by this then had a word with myself. I don’t share this response (I don’t know why, maybe because I experienced such a massive loss at such a young age?), so I feel blessed to be able to support people when the inevitable happens.

Q:  Where can people hold a service with a celebrant and does the service have to follow a set format?

Funeral services have evolved just as everything else in life has evolved. A celebrant-led service was traditionally held in a chapel of a crematorium or at a graveside, and the vast majority still are. However, people are becoming increasingly aware, in thanks partly to services such as yours, that the choices available to them for funerals are really varied. Services are now increasingly held in people’s own homes or gardens, in village halls, outdoors or in pubs. Anywhere which holds significance for the deceased and their loved ones.

Although there’s a traditional format to funerals – which includes a eulogy or tribute, a committal or farewell and usually some music and, often, a reading – there is absolutely no need for people to feel compelled to follow this convention if it doesn’t suit them. Just as with locations, people are becoming increasingly aware that they are free to choose whatever feels most appropriate for them.

Q:  I imagine that many services are filled with both joy as well as sorrow.  How do people balance this and are there any elements to a service that you feel are particularly important?

Absolutely right, yes. Even when a death is especially tragic, there is usually some space which can only be filled by joy. It’s a specific type of joy though, one rooted in gratitude and often anchored in specific memories. The way in which this is balanced is led entirely by the family. Family meetings are always a mixture of tears and laughter. The more I get to know the deceased, the more stories about them and their adventures and loves, the more I’m able to gauge how much focus on this is appropriate. For me, the only element that is important is that the funeral ‘fits‘ for those closest to the deceased. If it does, then the joy naturally finds a place. That being said, every element of a funeral is particularly important if it’s what the loved ones/the deceased have chosen.

Q:  Based on your experience in this field, are there any changes around how we traditionally deal with the end of life that you feel would make what is always a very difficult time a little easier for people?

Oh gosh, where to start? YES! I am passionate about getting people to talk about death and dying. We need to remove the silence that surrounds the whole subject. It’s a silence which festers fear and leaves us unprepared for the emotional and practical parts of someone’s death. Someone once described funerals to me as ‘the most emotionally charged impulse purchase you will ever make’ and for most it is, unfortunately, true. I’d like to see a change that normalises discussing what we’d like to happen as our lives end. So much conflict and heartache arise from families being unaware of someone’s wishes, and clashing over decisions, which could all be avoided with a simple conversation or by noting down wishes long before the time comes.

I’d also love to see people feel empowered to ask for what they want. To get the funeral that most suits their loved one, rather than feeling so overwhelmed that they just opt for the first Funeral Director to spring to mind and the standard package that they’re offered. When else would you spend thousands of pounds on something without first shopping around or reading reviews? This is why I’m so delighted to see what you’re doing at whiteballoon. We’re never going to remove the pain of grief, nor should we want to – it’s love’s echo – but we can work to ensure that people are able to choose the funeral which best reflects the one they grieve for, and therefore maximises the potential for it to comfort.

Q:  And finally, I imagine that whilst being a celebrant is very fulfilling and rewarding, it must also be emotionally demanding.  What do you like to do to switch off and unwind?

Even with a conscious focus on looking after yourself, it’s inevitable that the grief of those you’re working with will have an impact on you. The weight of someone else’s grief manifests very differently to the weight of one’s own, and it’s important that celebrants remember that the grief of those we work with is not our grief.  But, of course, this can still take a toll if you’re not focused on self-care.

The first thing I do after a funeral is have a little walk, just 5 minutes even, often around a cemetery (one of my favourite places to walk anyway) just to feel the air and have a conscious breathe before home. The deceased is still at the forefront of my mind at this time, and this is when I try to consciously let them go. I have a dedicated Spotify playlist – called Ceremony Detox – which I often play on the drive home, full of inspirational and uplifting songs. So, if I’m driving along tunelessly belting out ‘Together in Electric Dreams’ you know where I’ve been.

Self-care is a massive priority for me. My main way to switch off is to do yoga – it’s an enormous part of my life and is vital to my wellbeing. Other than that, I love to walk my dog – particularly through wooded areas as trees give me life, and to spend time with my husband and daughter who consistently make me grateful and constantly make me roar with laughter.

Thank you Kirstie for sharing these insights

To find out more about Kirstie and the services she offers, click here to visit her website.

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