'I quit showbiz to help plan Norfolk funerals'

Fi Cottrell left the world of showbiz, and is now a funeral celebrant in North Walsham

Fi Cottrell left the world of showbiz, and is now a funeral celebrant in North Walsham - Credit: Kate Wolstenholme

From REM to Moby, Fiona Collett has worked with some of the biggest names in music, but she's left the showbiz world behind for an entirely different stage.

Today, Fiona is a funeral celebrant, conducting non or semi-religious services for families across Norfolk, allowing them to say a final goodbye in exactly the way they want.
"People who choose not to have a religious ceremony tend to use a celebrant,” says Fi. “It’s really being open to doing anything to help a family say farewell to their loved ones. They might want a ceremony which includes lots of music or poetry, or none at all. It's about being flexible and reading a family. My job is to translate what they want into a ceremony then present that to them and their guests."

This is still a fairly new thing in the world of funerals, but as an alternative to the traditional, more religious occasion, is, says Fi, in hot demand, with more people than ever before choosing to engage the service of a celebrant.
After someone dies, Fi is contacted by an undertaker when the funeral arrangements have been made. It’s then up to her to contact the family of the deceased and arrange to meet them, a meeting in which she finds out everything she can about the person who has died in order to create a fitting service.

"I'll go and sit with them in their home," says Fi. "I've got lots of questions that I ask them, but they're only the starts of conversations,  hopefully leading to more about where the person lived and worked, and the details of their lives. It naturally flows. I take notes, and they becomes the basis of my ceremony - the story of their life."

Fi uses her intuition and notes the non-verbal cues in finding out all she can for her services, noticing the way loved ones speak about those they've lost, their body language and the way they look while they're talking. "Hopefully you get it right and it helps the family to accept their loss and make it a little easier," she says. "Everybody grieves in a different way, so you can't go into it with a black and white 'this is how my ceremony is going to be'."

This is all a far cry from her former career, which saw Fi work with some of the biggest bands in the world. Employed by the Warner record company, she was involved in events and marketing, starting out in regional radio, then working with other record companies across international promotion.

"I've worked with everybody from REM, Moby and Slipknot down to newer rock bands as part of Roadrunner Records," she says. "When it came to regional radio it meant travelling all over the country in the car with the artist, going to radio stations and building up a rapport with the stations so the artist would translate well over the air, hopefully turning into sales and a number one hit! Then I worked for Vince Power doing music festivals and promoting two of his venues (Moose and the Bloomsbury Ballroom in London) and it flowed quite naturally through to doing other festivals too."

Fi's career saw a stint in artist liaison, working closely with artists and bands during a time where budgets were stratospheric in the music industry. "It was very much about what the artist wanted," she says. "I was taking them for interviews or out for dinner. At festivals, I had to make sure they had everything on their rider [their backstage requirements] and that they got to the stage on time!"
Working in such close proximity to these big artists, let’s just say that Fi has seen and heard a lot. But if it’s backstage gossip you’re after - and let’s face it, we are - prepare to be disappointed as she remains fully tight-lipped! "Yes, there was a lot of backstage gossip, but I think part and parcel of the job was that we didn't share it," she laughs.

Funeral celebrant Fiona Cottrell

Funeral celebrant Fiona Cottrell - Credit: Kate Wolstenholme

The advent of downloads and streaming hit the music industry and its huge promotional budgets hard, and that meant Fi had to leave the job she loved behind. After a subsequent decision to move to Norfolk, she wanted to do something using her experience in promotions, marketing and speaking. Initially she trained as a wedding registrar, and through that she was introduced to the funeral industry.
"I've always had an interest in death rituals in different countries," she says. "Quite naturally, I fell into it that way from having this voice and the experience of talking in front of a lot of people, which I'm very comfortable doing.” 

After training for a diploma as a funeral celebrant, Fi visited her local undertakers in North Walsham, who gave her a trial and then took her onto their books. "They've been really supportive," she says. "All celebrants have different ways of doing funerals, and part of the undertaker's job is to recognise if a family would work well with a particular celebrant. I've been really lucky with the families I've worked with that they've liked my style. It's gone from there."

So, does she miss the dizzy heights of working with some of the biggest artists in the world? Thanks to the stories she hears and the people she meets, the answer is no. Fi finds her new career just as rewarding.
“It's just so interesting because I’m incredibly nosey!” she laughs. “Hearing about people's lives and their life stories – sometimes they’ve done incredible things. It may be that their family doesn't think so or they’re used to hearing the story, but you're sitting there thinking, ‘This is amazing!'. But they've lived with this person and they're used to them so they don’t see it from the same angle I do.”

A graveyard at North Walsham

A graveyard at North Walsham - Credit: Kate Wolstenholme

And it’s perhaps no surprise to hear that in embracing her new role, Fi is currently renovating a house which is actually located in her local cemetery.

When it comes to death and funerals, it's really important to find out what people want, says Fi, who wants to encourage more of us to talk about what we would want for our own goodbye. “Talk to parents about their past, their history, what they did as children,” she says. “It helps when they pass away as the family won't need to say, ‘We don't really know what he/she did when they were a child,’ they’ve got all the information, which is wonderful.

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“I'd love to encourage people to talk. The more families can talk about death, the type of ceremony, big or small, if they want to be cremated or buried - what do they really want - the better. It’s the end of their life, so let’s finish their life in the way they wanted."

Although she loves her work and the difference she sees it make, Fi isn’t fully leaving the world of entertainment and events completely behind. She’s previously been involved in Trunchonbury, a three-day music, drama and arts festival in North Norfolk, and now she’s taken on the role for organising North Walsham’s Jubilee celebrations, which will see her pull together a full line-up of entertainment on June 5.