What follows is an article I wrote to assist people who are considering hiring a Celebrant to officiate at their loved ones funeral or memorial service. It is my personal take on what a Celebrant is, what he or she does, and what a client has the right to expect when going that route. It was written for general distribution to American funeral directors to pass on to their customers, and was also delivered as a speech to funeral directors taking advanced continuing education courses.
As a Life-Cycle Celebrant and officiant, I specialize in helping my clients to mark all the milestones of their lives. I put my heart into every ceremony I am asked to do, yet I get special satisfaction from performing funerals and memorials services. Those ceremonies allow loved ones and the extended community to note and appreciate the fullness of an entire life, and to reflect in a safe, yet focused way on what that life meant, and to say farewell. I am touched and honored when grieving family members tell me “it is as if you knew him,” “you helped us say goodbye,” “your words made it seem like you were a part of our family.” The following might be helpful when working with an officiant in planning your own loved one’s funeral or memorial service.
Many modes or themes can be effective in a funeral or memorial service, from eulogies, to music and song, poetry, scripture culled from the world’s religions, inspirational readings, even dance. For a well-rounded effect, it is helpful to use as many senses as possible in a ceremony, so frequently candles and even aromas can be used. I have often performed services where the deceased was an artist, photographer or musician. In these cases, it can be moving to have examples of their work for the assembly to see and experience, or to have work that the deceased loved made visible in the program or at the front of the room. If he or she loved a particular piece of music, it can be meaningful to hear it played or sung; a single unaccompanied voice or lone musical instrument can be powerfully effective.
In my experience, the heart of the ceremony is usually the words and emotions of the people who knew and cared about the deceased, and in as many of the roles as that person played in life. For example, for a man who was a doctor, it might be touching to hear about his professional competence and healing warmth from a patient, or a fellow physician or nurse and perhaps someone who knew him when he was a young intern or resident. Perhaps the same man volunteered at the local pet shelter, or believed firmly in some political or social cause that demonstrated his values and human qualities, and what he was passionate about. Maybe he was a father as well as a husband and friend. Each role will carry its own nuance and meaning. And while no life can be summed up entirely. the more facets of a person we are privy to, the more his or her essence can be humbly approached, understood, appreciated and honored by those that gather to mourn.
So it behooves those who knew the deceased best to give the Life-Cycle Celebrant or officiant the names of people to interview in a structured and empathetic way. What did that person love? What would make him smile? What couldn’t he abide? Is there one thing you could always count on him or her for? What could you count on him never to do? What are three words or qualities that come to mind when you think of this person? What would he or she be wish to be remembered for?
On one level, these talks are so the minister can say something true from his own heart during the service, as he synthesizes and expresses the perspectives and themes and life patterns the conversations have elicited. Not incidentally, these talks also give the bereaved the opportunity to communicate their thoughts and emotions at a critical and painful time, and to put them in perspective in the witnessing of another who did not know the deceased. That’s one place where the “ministerial” side of a Celebrant’s job comes to the fore.
For religious clients, carefully chosen scripture and music may express their traditions and provide comfort. Readings can be read by friends or family members during the service. That gives a personal touch, and honors a connection. It can also be a way for someone to contribute to the service when, either out of modesty, emotional “overwhelm,” or other reasons he or she does wish to speak about themselves and their own personal feelings directly.
Many clients I have worked with describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious,” or “non-religious.” Ideally, in every meaningful and sensitively thought-through ceremony, all concerned will find some clear and authentic expression for their feelings. There is a limitless wealth of music, song, poetry, scripture and other inspirational literature from around the world is available for me to draw upon. As a Celebrant I consider myself a resource for appropriate materials from which the client can choose.
Often, unique ceremonial elements can be tactfully introduced. For example, each mourner can pick one flower from an assortment of types that reminds them of the one who has passed away. In outdoor ceremonies, a stone can be placed on the grave, or some special bauble or written phrase can be cast into a body of water as a farewell prayer or wish. Devising and offering these elements, if desired, is also a part of a Celebrant’s job.
In my experience, it is also good to take a breather during the services and reflect without words. This pause can be with or without music or other man-made sounds. Measured silence can indeed be “golden.”
Whatever the culture, personal style, temperament, beliefs or wishes of the bereaved, the constant in any officiant’s job is to set forth the context of the gathering, to bind those assembled into a community, to hold the space safe and sacred, and to offer respectful, compassionate and authoritative guidance.
End-of-life ceremonies are usually solemn, but there is an important place for humor as well – the telling anecdote, the touching memory, the little joke that illuminates a theme, or a characteristic that embodies the deceased, that “could only be him or her.” Laughter also releases tension and balances things out.
Speaking of balance: while it is the modern convention (and one that I welcome) for funerals and memorial services to be “celebrations of life,” in my experience, funeral attendees also often find it viscerally satisfying to directly acknowledge the harsh sting of personal loss and the blunt truth of death during the service, even briefly. Doing so can serve as the gateway for personal reflection, gratitude, and ultimately, a nuanced and full-bodied affirmation and celebration of the entirety of who the deceased was. The whole assembly can then begin to “move on” together.
That “moving on” often takes the form of symbolic words and actions. For example, if time permits, I often invite people at my services to come up to light a candle on the altar or “nature table” at the front of the room and to briefly express, either aloud or inwardly, some quality, memory or lesson they are grateful for from the deceased, or to offer some word, thought or prayer that can serve as a leave-taking. This moment can inspire people to ask “what was made possible for me as an individual and for my family and community because that person lived and was among us?” If the proper groundwork has been laid, most participants will take the opportunity to come up and light a candle. As more people do so, the light on the altar itself grows, and bears poignant, silent testimony to the life that was lived, the life that has passed, and the eternal abiding mystery at the heart of our human journey.