Meet Your Funeral Celebrant

Episode 1 - Terri Shanks

A Funeral Celebrant based in Worthing, Sussex

5 years ago

Episode 1 - Terri Shanks

Terri is a Funeral Celebrant based in Worthing, Sussex, England. As well as her work as a celebrant, she also trains Funeral Celebrants for the Fellowship of Professional Celebrants. To find out more about Terri, visit her website or see her listing on Funeral Celebrants UK.


Tony Piper: Welcome to Meet Your Funeral Celebrant. My name is Tony Piper, and in each episode of this podcast I'll be talking with a funeral celebrant. As well as getting to know them and exploring their approach to funerals, each guest will also share some useful tips. I hope this helps you find the right celebrant for you so you can create a good send off. Let's begin.

This episode I'm delighted to be talking to Terri Shanks. Terri is a funeral celebrant based in Worthing, on the south coast of England. As well as her work as a celebrant, she also trains funeral celebrants for the Fellowship of Professional Celebrants.

Hi, Terri. Welcome to the podcast. It's great to have you here.

Terri Shanks: Thank you, Tony. Lovely to be here and to talk to you.

Tony Piper: Wonderful. Now look, why don't you fill in some of the gaps and tell us a little bit about yourself.

Terri Shanks: As you've already mentioned, I live in Worthing in West Sussex. I live down here. This is my hometown where I'm born and bred. I live down here with my two children. I have Georgia, who is 19 now, and Cameron who is 5.

Tony Piper: Aww. That's a nice part of the world to live in.

Terri Shanks: It's a lovely part of the world to live in. I always think we have the best of both. We have the South Downs, the sea. It's lovely, lovely place to live.

Tony Piper: What a dream.

Now look, Terri, how did you end yup becoming a funeral celebrant? It's an unusual profession, isn't it?

Terri Shanks: It is an unusual profession. To be honest, it was a sort of a series of lots of things which would probably take me all day to explain, but I used to work as, I suppose, and [amateurist 00:01:35] singer, a cast call singer. But I was always asked to sing at a lot of funerals, both in churches and crematoriums. I sat through a lot of funerals where, to be honest with you, you could have at anybody's funeral because it was very much one size fits all. I felt the people were there, but not necessarily present, and not healed and not touched and not moved. For me, that was really important.

It was actually after several years of doing this that I met actually with a humanist celebrant at a wedding and just got into discussions with her. I thought, "Wow, I could actually do this as a profession," but it took some further investigation. For me, I was actually raised as a Roman Catholic. Whilst I don't attend church and to be honest haven't done for many years, I would still class myself as spiritual person. That led me into the path of becoming an independent celebrant where I knew I could offer funerals for people that were very personalised, very meaningful, but didn't completely eradicate religion or spirituality, that actually we could have a blending of both. That, for me, was very important as I know it is for a lot of people. There are many, many people out there who don't necessarily have an affiliation with any organised religion but also wouldn't class themselves as atheists either, and therefore like to have a light element of religion or spirituality included at a time of a funeral, which obviously is hugely important.

Tony Piper: Sure. Yes, there's a big group of people who consider themselves spiritual but not religious.

Terri Shanks: Yeah, absolutely.

Tony Piper: It's very important.

What do you love most about the job?

Terri Shanks: Oh, I love all of it. I truly do. People always comment about how much passion that I have for my work. I think that's true. I love the families that I work with. I feel that it's an honour that people welcome me and take me into their homes and their hearts at such a difficult time. I love spending time with all the families, learning about their loved one's life.

To be honest, I'm fascinated by people's life stories and personal memories. You hear personal stories of people who served in the war or were evacuated, all that things. I remember one thing that really stuck in my mind was conducting a funeral for a 92 year old man, who not long before he died had actually written down his personal memoirs of being a 17 year old having to leave his family and going off to war, and then the stories that unfolded from there. I just remember reading it with just tears just streaming down my face and just being so moved by this just one individual's story.

It's all those things, but then, from the other side, there are people where somebody might say, "She didn't really do much. She was just mum." I always think that, kind of just mum. I'm a mum myself, but that was the person who carried you and raised you, who cooked and cleaned for you, who grazed your knees and dried your tears, guided you to be the person that you are today. It doesn't matter how elaborate somebody's life has been or fairly simply lived, there's always lots of positive and lovely things to say about people.

Tony Piper: What a wonderful thing.

What's your most useful skill?

Terri Shanks: Oh, there's a question. I think a celebrant needs many different skills. I guess an obvious one is that ability to be able to write and deliver ceremonies that are personalised, creative, and engaging, but you can only do that if you truly engage with the families, that you listen to what is being said, but also sometimes you have to listen to what isn't being said.

Tony Piper: Of course.

Terri Shanks: The body language and those hidden words that sometimes people just can't communicate to you in words at time of bereavement. For me, I think possibly my most useful skill is communicating with people and really understanding them so that I can be their voice on the day, and being able to connect with people very quickly at a deep level. That is privilege really of being able to offer that understanding and care.

Tony Piper: And connecting with people at a time when connecting with them is not the easiest thing in the world for them.

Terri Shanks: Absolutely. That's so true. People are bereaved and they have 101 different things going on logistically and emotionally. Quite often, I'm a stranger going into somebody's home, so that trust and connection, it is hugely important for me, but moreso, obviously, for them.

Tony Piper: Of course. Look, what makes a good funeral?

Terri Shanks: Oh, what makes a good funeral? It is quite difficult some time for people to actually think about having a good funeral, because a funeral is often a time that people dread. I hear it time and time again,"I'm absolutely dreading next Wednesday at the funeral," so to be able to turn that around and make it a positive experience is something very special in itself.

For me, I think a good funeral is giving the family exactly what they want. What would be right for you, Tony, wouldn't necessarily be right for me. There are still people out there that do deliver these one size fits all funerals, but every life is unique, and therefore every funeral should be completely unique as well. My experience over 15 years now as a celebrant has been some of the best funerals has been where there's been the most involvement from the family. When they can stand up and be involved or give tributes, that's really, really important.

Tony Piper: That's really interesting because I wondered whether sometimes families want, in a way, for the celebrant to do most of the hard work because it is such hard work to do on the day, but what you've just described is a sense of participation as being important.

Terri Shanks: Absolutely. Participation is hugely important, but it doesn't necessarily have to be participation on the day, because I'm aware that people's emotions to stand up and deliver a tribute to a loved one ... Even as a celebrant, I've done this for family members of my own, and being on the other side you suddenly realise how difficult that is, but being present to participate in that meeting, maybe being able to write their own memories, either for myself or somebody else to read on their behalf, it might be just participating in way of choosing music, choosing readings. All of that involvement is hugely important. Maybe even just family carrying the coffin in to the chaplain and acting as pallbearers on the day, that's a huge honour to carry somebody's coffin into a chapel. There's lots of ways that people can be involved, can be hands on, either on the day or simply in the preparations of the funeral.

Tony Piper: Very interesting, so it sounds as if participation and what you say and what you do is maybe more important that some other aspects of the funeral.

Terri Shanks: I guess so. I guess so. It just depends. I think what's important is the family have what they want, and knowing that the unique needs and wants of every single family is different.

Tony Piper: Sure. What's not so important then, when it comes to funerals?

Terri Shanks: That's a difficult question to answer because what's not important to me might be hugely important to you. I think the way I can answer that is that if it is important to a bereaved family, then it becomes important to me. I don't think I can answer and say, "That's not important," because somebody else would actually say, "Well, actually, that's hugely important to me." But perhaps, I think, in a sense what's not important is what other people think or expect. For the bereaved family, they should try and put together a funeral, which is exactly what they want or what their loved one wanted, and not be influenced just to sort of impress, or that's what we've been to before so that's what we should do. A lot of people will follow tradition because that's what they know, but to question and to say I would like this or I would like that. That's hugely important, to know that you can have exactly what you want, and ask the funeral director, ask the funeral arranger, ask the celebrant because so many things are possible, but people might not actually think or feel comfortable about asking for certain things.

Tony Piper: Sure, and as well as the emotional nature of that early grief, just having to organise the funeral, what about the time aspect? How long does it take, typically, for you to prepare for a funeral?

Terri Shanks: I always say that a funeral, realistically, is a day's work by the time you, as a celebrant, that I've gone out and I've spent time with the family, really listened to them and found out about their loved one, and then I've gone home and spent several hours writing that service, and all the preparation that goes into it, and then obviously delivering the funeral on the day itself. People often think, "Oh, a funeral celebrant's work is easy. You turn up for half an hour at a crematorium." It's not like that at all. All the time, realistically, goes into the preparation, the time spent with the family, and the writing of the funeral. That is what is hugely important, because I do know there are people out there that will just use set opening words, set closing words, and just pop a eulogy in the middle. For me, it's about writing a completely bespoke funeral that's written for that person from start to finish, because you can't have the same opening words for somebody that's maybe 90 years old who's had a long, happy life and passed away peacefully in their sleep to perhaps a 19 year old who may have died under very tragic circumstances, and you're holding the emotions of that whole congregation in your hands, so it's important that every part of the service is as personalised as it possibly can be.

Tony Piper: Very useful to know. What was your most innovative funeral?

Terri Shanks: Gosh. There are so many. I think it's hard to pick out one in particular, but as I said, I think some of the most unique ones have been where family and friends have had lots of involvement, either in the preparation or conducting the ceremony myself. Sometimes I will conduct the whole service from start to finish. Other times, my role becomes much more of a master of ceremonies, just sort of linking everything and everyone together.

Certainly, I have to say that some of the loveliest funerals that I've conducted have been those that have actually taken place away from cemeteries or crematoriums. They've been held in different locations, where again I think sometimes people are actually scared or don't know of the option that they could hold the ceremony somewhere else where they're not restricted on time and this sort of, sadly, that the conveyor belt system that goes on in a lot of crematoriums where it's half an hour that you've got, and then you've got to come out because the next family are coming in. I've conducted some lovely ceremonies in hotels, in fields, in marquees. One I did not long ago actually for an elderly person was held in the residents' lounge of a nursing home because she didn't have any family.

Tony Piper: Oh, goodness.

Terri Shanks: A lot of her friends within the nursing home were too old and frail to attend the crematorium, so her coffin was taken to the nursing home and in the residents' lounge where that those who knew her could be present and be part of it, so there's some really lovely things that we're able to do.

Tony Piper: That's beautiful. Thanks for sharing that with us.

What was your most challenging funeral?

Terri Shanks: Oh, challenging, challenging. I think every funeral, to an extent, is challenging. The reason I say that, I've always said the day it becomes easy is the day I give up, however, certain ceremonies are challenging for different reasons. From an emotional point of view, naturally, I've got to say that babies' and children's funerals truly pull on every part of your emotional energy. There are some times you wonder how you're actually going to get through the service without falling apart yourself, but you can generally hold back your own tears until afterwards. Those are always emotionally challenging.

Having to conduct funerals for people that you've perhaps known and loved yourselves, or I've done a lot of funerals for parents of my own friends. Looking out into a congregation, seeing people that I love with tear stained faces are challenging.

The cause of death can be challenging. People that might have taken their own life or have been murdered or a victim of terrorism, the dynamics of people's emotions are going to be completely different then. You've got anger and bitterness and hatred and all those really, really negative emotions, which can obviously eat away at us and destroy us. Whilst they're perfectly natural emotions, we owe it to ourselves not to let the feelings and the evil involved in these become destructive to ourselves.

There are sometimes funerals for families where there's people within the family who are at war with one another and don't agree on anything, and you're trying to keep everybody happy. Of course, again, there are, sadly, funerals for people who have done terrible things to others in their life, who have killed people or been abusive. As a celebrant, again, those are incredibly challenging funerals to conduct because you're trying to do it with honesty, and yet trying to find positivity and respect in those as well, so getting the balance, it can be very, very difficult.

Tony Piper: But in doing so, what becomes possible?

Terri Shanks: In those scenarios?

Tony Piper: Yes.

Terri Shanks: I think for me, it's about giving people some element of healing, because quite often, I'm using the latter as a scenario, a person might have done something terrible to somebody else, but that person might also still be deeply loved by their family. Who are we to judge the cause or the reason of why they went out and did those things? It's very easy to judge and say, "Oh, what a terrible person. They did this," but who knows what they've been through in their life and things like that?

Tony Piper: Of course.

Terri Shanks: So it's about no matter what somebody's done, no matter how they've lived their life, what choices they've made, the ... I never like to use the word closure because I don't believe there's such thing, but a conclusion, I think, the conclusion of a life and the conclusion of people's emotions so that they can lay loved ones, people, and their own emotions to rest.

Tony Piper: Thank you. What would be one piece of advice that you have for anybody who's organising a funeral at the moment?

Terri Shanks: I think, too, it is difficult because people's ... We've said it before, emotions are all over the place. I think time is the one very difficult thing. Funerals are often arranged with a week to two weeks in between where, take an example, a wedding, they're being planned with 12, 18 months ahead. People look and choose the flowers, the cars, the catering, the venue. With a funeral it's easily to gratefully accept suggestions that are made to you at the time, but then later wish that you may have done things differently. I would just say to anybody, don't feel rushed into making those decisions, although time naturally is of the essence, take a bit of time. Even if you think, I'm just going to absorb this and think about it overnight. A funeral is a ceremonial ritual. It can be done in any place and by anyone, so think carefully about everything that you want, about who you want to conduct the ceremony, where you'd like the ceremony, and all those decisions, just to think carefully about it and don't feel rushed, even though time is of the essence.

Tony Piper: That's very helpful. Thank you very much, Terri.

Unfortunately, time is of the essence now, Terri, so I just want to say thank you very much for being on this podcast. It's been great to meet you and to find out about your life and work. Thank you very much for your insights into what makes for a good funeral and that useful advice about taking your time. I think that will be tremendously helpful. So thank you very much. Anything else you'd like to say before we go?

Terri Shanks: Thank you very much for having me. It's been an absolute pleasure to talk to you. Like everything, I think, in the funeral profession, it's hard to generalise with anything because I've said several times, it's unique, so if there is anybody who listens to this podcast who's got any further questions to please feel free to contact me either by phone or by email. I'm more than happy at any stage to talk to somebody without any obligation, just on a one to one basis, to help them make that right decision for them at such a very difficult time [inaudible 00:20:01].

Tony Piper: That's very kind of you. Thank you so much, Terri. Take care, and hope to speak to you soon.

Terri Shanks: And you, Tony. Lovely to talk to you. Take care.

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