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We believe in meaningful ceremony from beginning to end of life - CANZ Vision Statement 

As celebrants, we are often exhorted to “move out of our comfort zone’, to explore new things, to take on challenges which extend our experience, or to get us out of a rut. Being a life-long learner is another way of expressing it. If we are willing (and able) to delve into unknown territory and build on our knowledge and expertise, personal growth will be assured.

On the other hand, being so far out of our comfort zone that we are severely out of our depth can lead to disaster - especially if we take on a task that is unfamiliar or hazardous.

Andy Molinsky, Professor of International Management and Organisational Behaviour at Brandels University, in Massachusetts, says comfort zones get a bad rap. He says that we need a balance of “stretch” activities and tasks that we’re comfortable with and competent at.

Crucially, however, he warns us that we should know ourselves enough to realise when something is too much for us to handle. [In Psychology Today, 29 July 2016]

Celebrants who officiate at funerals (“life celebrations”, “memorials”, “farewell gatherings” - a rose by any other name...) are often plunged into the unknown. Especially when a family asks a friend to be the celebrant, there is the possibility that, in wanting to please the family, the celebrant accepts the invitation and is sometimes confronted with tragic circumstances, high grief and complex issues beyond their capability to handle.
Suicide, motor vehicle accidents, sudden death from natural causes, life cut short in a multitude of ways - all carry with them the need to address the heartbreak honestly and openly- even when the bereft want a “celebration”.

As celebrants, we have a duty to honour the family’s wish. But we have an equal obligation to help everyone over the hump. To confront the devastation caused by a sudden death is not to twist a knife in their wounded hearts. Rather, it is to provide an honest recognition of their feelings and a starting point for everyone to take a few steps - albeit hesitantly and tearfully - towards a resolution of their distress.If that is too much for us to handle, we should graciously decline the family’s request and pass the heavy lifting on to another colleague.

It might seem counter-intuitive to start a “celebration” with words to the effect that “shit happens”, we are devastated and that we’d much prefer to have no reason to be there. But to acknowledge that there is no magic wand we can wave and all will be well; that grieving takes time, courage, support and a lot of hard work; and that the funeral is a vital moment to pause and confront the reality of the situation, is to allow an openness of feelings and emotional relief.

To do that, however, the celebrant has to have the wisdom and emotional courage to face the issues which others might not be able to. People present at any funeral are hurting - a lot, if it’s a tragic death. To ignore the elephant in the room is to add to their burden of grief. It has to be called for what it is. Surely we have a professional obligation to capture and articulate the unspoken feelings of those who are there.

That’s where being out of our comfort zone is not a happy place. Not having the knowledge and resources to deal with high grief is not the best way to help our clients at a funeral. Training that targets grief, and our own responses to deal with it, and developing specific skills in ceremony design go a long way to extending our areas of comfort and therefore our ability, as celebrants, to support the bereaved.

Doug Manning, an American grief expert and counsellor, has said: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”.

If we are celebrants, it’s taken for granted that we care. But caring is more than being empathetic or friendly. Caring without the insight and knowledge required is ultimately not helpful. All celebrant training must include the resources needed to deal with high grief.
In a chance conversation at The Auckland Branch APM, it was encouraging to discover the variety of ways this is addressed in The Celebrant School‘s Certificate and Diploma programmes.

If a funeral (by whatever name) does not engage with the mysteries of our existence and the deep emotional issues arising from the life and death of the person who is mourned, the “meaningful” part of the CANZ Vision Statement is missing.

Ultimately, it’s better to stay within our comfort zone and graciously step aside, than to leave mourners unfilled.

Legally, anyone can officiate at a funeral. - No registration or even training required.
Anyone can join CANZ, pay the annual sub and enjoy the status that membership brings. Celebrant-specific qualifications do include assessment of ceremony design and delivery, so this one way that celebrants can receive formal feedback and consciously develop and build their skill base.

Our clients rely on our expertise, and the Association’s reputation relies on our competence, integrity and all the other things embodied in the Code of Ethics. As members, we have a huge responsibility to uphold the standards people expect of a professional organisation. In short, we must be competent.

Is it time, then, for some kind of foundation training to be required before we can be a member of CANZ? - Regular ongoing assessment? Practising Certificate? Limitation of membership if we don’t measure up? Compulsory supervision? Client feedback forms?

We do our clients and the Association a disservice if we’re not up to the job!

Norm Murray
MA(Hons) Dip Tchg Dip FS
29 March 2021