Since Julia Page changed careers in 2019 to retrain as a humanist celebrant, she’s conducted more than 600 funerals. Here she tells us why she loves what she does and what she’s learnt along the way.
“I have always been quite ok with the idea of mortality and never shied away from talking about it. It might sound funny, but even when I was in my twenties I remember asking friends what music they’d have played at their funeral*. They must have thought I was a bit odd, but it made perfect sense to me.
I’ve spent most of my working life as an English teacher which fitted well around bringing up my three sons alone. Teaching was a job I loved, but as my youngest headed off to university I felt like making a change and the chance to take voluntary redundancy came up. Around the same time I attended a funeral conducted by a celebrant and, as a member of the charity Humanists UK, the idea of becoming a Humanist Celebrant took hold, where ceremonies focus on the person who has died and the life they led, rather than on the idea of an afterlife. Following my training I started work in May 2019 and since then I have conducted more than 600 funerals.
I feel incredibly privileged in my work, talking to people about their loved ones and putting together a service that reflects them as individuals. Every family is different and every person is special.
But I also see families at their most raw, and I know how difficult it can be for them to make decisions and plan a funeral when they are floored by grief. Every week I see families stressed about what music or readings to have. It can be a real source of tension and comes at this time when they may not be thinking straight.
My personal and professional experiences led me to setting up My Way to Go, a free service which allows people to plan their own funeral, choosing things like the music and readings they would like, and even recording videos and making mood boards. Their wishes which can be shared with their loved ones either before or after their death.
Some people might struggle with the idea of talking so openly about death, but for me it is quite simple: we are all going to die. The more we accept that it's going to happen, the more we take away the fear and can talk about it openly, which is much healthier. In my own life, having lost my boys’ father when they were young, I have always felt I wouldn’t want to leave them with the headache of having to organise a funeral when I die. I feel that having things planned is a blessing and kindness to them.
Every funeral I conduct is a privilege, but three of them, where I planned them directly with the person themselves, when they were terminally ill, really stand out. It takes incredible courage for a human being to be able to talk about a world without them in it when they are at their most raw. Being part of those ceremonies was very special.
My work has taught me so much and truly made me live a better life myself. I believe we have a finite time here and that every day is a bonus. It’s shown me that I have to grab every bit of joy when I can.”
*In case you were wondering, Julia’s funeral music choices are:
The Power of Love by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Letter to Hermione by David Bowie, Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, and Whitesnake’s Ain’t Gonna Cry No More "because I like the idea of people having a bit of a head-bang when the guitar kicks in!"