I get the opportunities to work with some very talented and clever people, none more so than funeral celebrant’s! These guy’s have to sit with grieving families and listen intently to their individual stories, often many different family members throwing lot’s of different memories at the celebrant. Whilst taking notes the celebrants will ask questions to dig out those intricate insights, that make the eulogy ever so personal, I work with many many exceptional celebrant’s one in particular is Lisa Newman, an exceptional celebrant, who connects with families so personally, thus creating a truly moving and fantastic eulogy and memory for grieving families. Below is a piece written by Lisa I wanted to share with you a little personal insight from Lisa herself. For anybody wanting to contact Lisa directly to talk to her about what she does, or to simply connect her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
“So, Lisa, tell me what careers are you interested in finding out about?”
My mum and dad squirmed a little bit – maybe they were each even holding their breath slightly – as fifteen-year-old me responded to the well-meaning careers’ adviser who had posed the question.
“I want to be an undertaker.”
I have to give the careers’ adviser his due: whatever thoughts might have crossed his mind, externally there was barely a flicker of a reaction to my pronouncement.
Looking back more than three decades later, I can’t clearly recall any longer whether I was being sincere, or whether I was merely looking to … shock? Surprise? With my blackcurrant and liquorice coloured crimped hair, black eyeliner and spider-web ear-rings (this was the mid-1980s, in the days before schools banned any trace of self-expression and individuality in the ways pupils – sorry ‘their young people’ – wore their school uniforms), I was the only Goth in the year group – and I relished in my ‘uniqueness’. What’s the perfect career choice for someone who modelled her look of choice on one of the undead? The funeral industry, of course!
My commitment – or rather lack of – to the industry of my choice was quickly challenged when my dad announced he wasn’t going to support me going to university for three years if all I was going to do was bury the dead. Unsurprisingly, I chose a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Drama over courses in embalming and funeral arranging – and went into teaching.
But … some sort of seeds had clearly been sown that day in the careers’ advice room; they just took more than three decades to begin to ripen. Always a confident public speaker, it was me who would be asked to deliver the family eulogies, first for my grandad and then, a few years later, my grandma. When the mother of one of my closest friends died about ten years ago, we both commented at the wake that we could do what the celebrant did. “It’s not bad when you think about it,” Gail commented. “You spend a couple of hours with the family having a nice chat, write a script, turn up and read it out, take your fee and off you go.” (Looking back now, I smile at the naivety). In 2016, I delivered the eulogy at my mother-in-law’s funeral and, as delicately as possible, asked the celebrant who had led the service, how she had gone about training and qualifying.
And then I parked the thought. As an Assistant Head Teacher in a challenging urban school, I was very well paid; how could I justify putting aside my career of over 20 years? Maybe it was something to consider doing when I retired?
But life has a funny way of throwing curved balls, some of which cause all the certainties and assumptions you’ve used to navigate adult life to be thrown into question. For me that curved ball arrived in October 2017, when I was diagnosed with early stage, but an aggressive form, of breast cancer. Everything I had taken for granted – everything I had known, understood and worked towards since leaving university – went out of the window. With surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy all being factored into my treatment, I made the decision to take time off and focus on getting well. A year later, I went back to school and realised that I wasn’t the same person I had been before my absence. Having effectively been in school since I was four years old, I decided it was time to do something different.
Fast-forward in time and land in the early months of 2020. I was 48 and the impact of pandemic was just starting to be felt. A friend of mine happened to mention that he had been to a funeral service and all he could think was: “Lisa Newman would have done this so much better.” Having had my work in schools supporting mental health stopped in its tracks before it had properly got going, I decided to take the plunge – and signed up for my training.
One or two people suggested I didn’t need to train, really, but I wasn’t convinced. Maybe it was the teacher in me, but I felt that a formal qualification would give me the grounding I needed to do the best job possible – and I was right. After completing my NOCN Level 3 in Funeral Celebrancy I walked away from the week’s residential training with a new group of friends and confidence that, if a funeral director phoned me the following Monday an asked me to take a service I would be able to do it – and do it well.
Establishing myself in a slightly over-populated field (at least in my area), took time – and a little bit of serendipity. It was thanks to my mum’s cousin allowing me to conduct her husband’s service that I came to the attention of the local funeral director I now receive a significant proportion of my work from. I also spent a lot of time visiting funeral directors (armed with biscuits) and arriving early to services to make connections with others and to get my face known.
But I digress; back to the question posed in the title of this blog: Why A Celebrant?’ rather than a funeral arranger, FSO or FD? So many of the skills I had developed thanks to my educational background were instantly transferable: along with being a confident public speaker, as an English graduate I love stories, words and the art of writing. Many families struggling to come to terms with losing someone they love find it hard to think of stories and memories to share – skilful questioning was one of my strengths in the classroom and it has certainly stood me in good stead as a celebrant – along with listening, often as much to what remains unsaid as to the words that are spoken. Timing and organisation are essential skills in both the classroom and the chapel; finding the balance to honour a life in a way that doesn’t feel rushed can be tricky, especially if the chapel has timeslots of less than an hour, as many still do.
But more than anything else, it’s the opportunity working as a celebrant gives me to ‘only connect’ (as E.M. Foster urges us to in the novel ‘Howards End’) that brings me the greatest joy and fulfilment in this role. Through empathy and compassion, I walk side by side with families at a time when they are at their most vulnerable and fragile; working with them I help them find a way to say goodbye that brings solace and helps them start to heal. It is a privilege to be entrusted with the story of their loved one’s life and trusted to tell it well, honouring a life that will not be lived again. I sometimes wish Dr Who would whisk me back in the TARDIS to visit my 15 year old self – just to tell her how my career has ultimately panned out. She’d probably be shocked to find out just how comfortable I am now in my own skin, meeting all sorts of characters from all walks of life. But I hope she’d be happy, too. Would I hope she stuck to her guns and went into funerals from the outset rather than teaching? That’s a bit of a ‘Sliding Doors’ moment, isn’t it? But I think not – everything I learned, all the experiences I have enjoyed (and endured) as an adult has contributed to creating the celebrant I have become – and for that I will be forever grateful.