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Speechwriter, consider becoming a "funeral celebrant"

I met a guy at the U.K. Speechwriters’ Guild conference earlier this month, who has an idea for you.

Neil Dorward has written and given more than 2,000 funeral orations, usually at non-religious funerals where no minister or priest presides. Dorward, an ex-priest himself, has a relationship with a number of funeral homes in his native central Scotland, whereby he gets about $300 per speech as an official “funeral celebrant.”

The typical job: He interviews the family for about an hour and a half. He writes a kind of eulogy, that the family then approves. He delivers the eulogy at the service, often held not in a church but at a crematorium.

Dorward has written a book about his work—he hopes to parlay his experience into a less grinding professional speaking career—titled The Guide to a Dead Brilliant Funeral Speech, and subtitled, “Because you only get one chance to make a last impression.”

Dorward has granted us permission to excerpt a few sections of the book, to give you a sense of the job. —DM

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Some people say to me, “Isn’t it a morbid job, going to funerals every day?” but it is anything but depressing. Conducting funerals is a wonderfully exciting and reflective job. Not many jobs help you think about the most important things in life. Why are we here on this ear? Why do you do your job? What are you passionate about in life? … Working as a Funeral Celebrant helps me focus on the greatest passions within my life.

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The family interview is a one-off opportunity for the Celebrant to sell themselves as someone who can be trusted. Imagine a stranger walking into your home and asking you to open your heart, asking deep and sometimes intimate questions. In effect the Celebrant is inviting the family to say, “Trust me, I will look after you, I will do you proud.”

That same compassionate and warm person the family met in the living room and to whom they possibly poured out their hearts must be the same person the family meet on the day of the funeral. You cannot arrive late, you cannot forget the CD you said you would bring, you cannot stand there at the end of the funeral service and hand out your business card to other mourners in hope of getting further business. Believe me it has happened!

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The first time I was asked to do a PowerPoint/photo slide show for a young man in a hotel, I was not convinced it would work and the photos would be a distraction from the words that were spoken (or should I say a distraction from me and my words!). How wrong I was. The slide show was a huge hit because the photos themselves spoke and the slide show was right because this is what the family wanted. This was their way of coping with and being healed from this terrible tragedy. They knew this person best, they knew many of those who were coming along and how they would appreciate these photos.

Who was I to even think that I knew the best way to lead that funeral? Yes, I have tremendous experience in leading funeral services and yes, people do need guidance and direction so that the correct funeral service is crafted but there should always be an element of caution for the Celebrant so that the family’s needs not the Celebrant’s needs come first.

On this particular occasion the family were absolutely right in their decision to have a photographic slide show. The photographs showed this great big smile from a young face that so many people knew and loved and although I had not rehearsed the act of turning round and commenting on the photos, I was able to turn around and look at the photographs whilst talking and referring to his wonderful dress sense, his silly hats and those skinny black jeans he was famous for.

On that day, I communicated in a far more effective way than I ever could have imagined because of the slide show.

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I have conducted several services for those bereaved through murder and manslaughter and, from a ceremonial point of view, I have often found that the family’s feelings and thoughts towards the perpetrator of the crime tend to be put to one side on the day of the funeral. It is as if the family are saying their lives have been in so much turmoil and grief in these last few days that they are determined to have as normal a funeral as possible. In all instances where I have had to prepare a funeral service for a family bereaved by murder or manslaughter the general aim was not to let the cause of death drastically affect how they felt about their son, daughter, mother or father. There seems to be an understandable need to have a service for that person as if they had died of natural causes. …

…. Suicide causes a lot of pain for those left behind because people now know one of the most intimate secrets of that person’s life, namely that they took their own life. We all have secrets that we would rather not be told at our funeral, but here we are in the full knowledge of what has someone has done with their life and this can affect the way we might have thought about that person. A common reaction being, “I never would have imagined …” There is therefore a role of the Celebrant to realign the character of the individual to ensure his/her truest nature is celebrated on the day and people do not leave with a distorted impression of who they were.

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This is a wonderful job. I am offering comfort, closure, healing, dignity, and meaningful words. I am invited to be part of their precious lives for a few days and I know, I truly know, that what I say and how I say it, makes a real difference to people’s lives.