Undertakers, Funeral Directors, and Funeral Celebrants

A sad fact, we will all die. Many people do not like to talk about death and dying, but for those of us who are in the funeral industry, it is our living and our working life. Talking about death isn’t morbid or taboo, it is essential so our loved ones know what we would like to happen to us when we die. This helps them grieve and celebrates our life as they come together to attend our funerals to say goodbye.

Undertakers and Funeral Directors

In our Grandparents day, the local Undertaker was a known member of their community. Usually male they inherited the business from their father, who came into it from his father, who came into it from, his father, you get the idea. Undertaking was passed down from father to son. In America Undertakers adopted the title of Funeral Directors, a title which has arrive in the UK with the majority of Undertakers now being known as Funeral Directors.

There are still some independent, family run businesses who use the title of Undertakers.

Undertakers undertake the wishes of a family who’s member they have in their care. They prepare the body of that person for their funeral. They make the required funeral arrangements and in times gone by (and still some smaller communities), they may have known the person who has died.

Funeral Directors do the same thing, some outline the role as directing the funeral. Every family or person who requires the services of an Undertaker/Funeral Director should be the decision makers. They are the ‘funeral directors’.

While it is not known when the term Funeral Director was first used It is thought to have been around the time the British Undertakers Association became the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD), this was in 1905.

The First Undertakers Were Carpenters and Woodworkers

The first Undertakers were carpenters and woodworkers, they had the skills needed to make coffins. During these times nearly everyone died in their own homes and family and friends would carry the coffin to the local churchyard.  If it was a lengthy walk, and the woodworkers had a horse and cart, they would provide an additional service to transport the coffin to the churchyard.

As villages grew, walking to the churchyard became less practical and there was a greater need for funeral transport. The carpenters and woodworkers saw an opportunity to expand beyond making the coffin and transportation of the body and over time they took on all the elements we now consider the roles of today’s Funeral Directors. From caring for and preparing the body to organising the funeral service.

Independent Undertakers/Funeral Directors

As mentioned, independent Undertakers/Funeral Directors are small, mainly family run businesses serving the local community. They could be up to eight generations of Undertakers who have learnt the business from their family.

Some independents have started without a family connection, run by those who have a calling to help and support people when they have had a person die. They not only look after the body of the person who has died, they have a genuine interest in helping those saying goodbye to do so in a personal and fitting manner.

There is usually a small team of staff at an independent meaning clients will deal with one member of staff throughout the whole process, this is comforting to grieving people as they can build a rapport with that person. Staff usually remember family members. From personal experience independents are more likely to match the celebrants they work with to each family, trying to ensure the celebrant’s style matches the needs of the family.

Funeral Companies

Larger companies such as Dignity, Co-op and Funeral Partners have many branches nationwide. These companies seem to favour being known as Funeral Directors rather than Undertakers.

They carry out the same services as independents but have a larger amount of staff who may travel between branches.

Larger companies may have a selection of celebrants on their books and favour these few for all ceremonies.

Funeral Celebrants

When searching on Google for a date when the first Celebrant led funeral took place and where, nothing really showed. Information found on Wikipedia has been changed multiple times (anyone can change this information and it seems they regularly do), and such information had been replaced with information from celebrant training organisations on the quality and success of the celebrants they have trained along with the job description of a funeral celebrant.

Funeral Celebrants may now lead more funerals than religious leaders do. An exact ratio isn’t available, just speculated information from the owner of another celebrant training organisation. What is known is traditional funerals as we know them are going to become more niche as people of a certain time die and the next generations do not have a Christian belief. This is the reason for the success of funeral celebrants, not their training. Purely supply and demand. As a funeral celebrant, I can verify this.

Funeral celebrants should have undergone a training course (there are many who haven’t, and it shows in their ceremonies). What we are taught is variable and currently there isn’t any legislation or guidelines in relation to funeral celebrancy. A properly trained professional funeral celebrant should help grieving people say goodbye and celebrate the life of their loved one or person.

Celebrant led funerals aren’t filled with religion, but religious inclusion can take place. Favourite songs, poems, personal tributes from others, non- traditional looking coffins, alternative transport such as tractors, lorries, a bus, or other vehicles will be most likely to be seen at a celebrant led ceremony.

We focus more on the life and achievements of the person who has died rather than a religious belief which may dwell on the death and the afterlife.

Religion and Spirituality in Funeral Ceremonies

Undertakers/Funeral Directors and funeral celebrants will all accommodate funeral and celebration of life ceremonies. Religion and spirituality can be included by all celebrants unless they are Humanist celebrants.  It is worth knowing the difference between a non-religious and a Humanist funeral.

The Humanist belief is that this life is the only life we have, that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side, and that we can live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. They have trusted to the scientific method, evidence, and reason to discover truths about the universe and have placed human welfare and happiness at the centre of their ethical decision making.  A non -religious funeral can include anything you wish in a ceremony, spiritual or otherwise which reflect your beliefs without any influence from the person who is leading it.

At times when a family request a non-religious funeral, larger funeral companies of Funeral Director may decide a Humanist celebrant is needed. This is not necessarily the case.

Working as Part of a Team

Independent Undertaker or nationwide team of Funeral Directors, Humanist funeral celebrant or funeral celebrant, we all have one thing we agree on and conform to. That is to serve those we work for, to support them and to help them say goodbye in a personalised and fitting way.

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