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Sat, October 1, 2011
Celebrants: Life Tribute Professionals
Celebrants have long been the person to call when a loved one dies . . . in Australia and New Zealand. But now there are 1,500 individuals in the U.S. and Canada who have been trained to provide unique, individualized services and life tributes for loved ones and their families.

Who Needs a Celebrant?

Celebrants are ideal for families who:
  • identify themselves as *“spiritual but not religious”.
  • do not have a minister or church affiliation.
want a special ceremony, tribute, or grave side service.
want a life tribute that will be as unique and personalized as the individual and the life that has been lived.
(*Note: In 2007, a USA Today Gallup Poll found that 33% of Americans called themselves spiritual but not religious.)

Of course, baby boomers are another large market, especially boomers looking for the personal “wow” experience in funerals and those who want to make their last hurrah a true reflection of the lives they have lived and the legacies they leave behind. Boomers, however, are not the only ones intrigued by this special approach.

Celebrants are also called when a family with a religious affiliation wants to create an expression in addition to the traditional funeral. The celebrant can serve at a funeral service, memorial service, grave side service, anniversary tribute, bench dedication, or any other gathering designed to honor the deceased. The idea is to be creative and expressive in the planning and leave a lasting and treasured memory. This might include the scattering of ashes at a significant location, a ceremony marking a tree planting, an interment, or the carrying of ashes in a parade of Harley Davidsons!

Why Use a Professional Celebrant?

Haven’t we all attended a “bad funeral” and hoped that will never happen to us? Haven’t we felt horrified for the family as the eulogy is delivered by someone who can’t pronounce the loved one’s name correctly and is unable to offer even a whisper of a familiar character for all to remember? Or have you felt as if the one leading the service has simply blown the dust off a tired old script? No one is made from a cookie cutter and neither should their finale. That is why the meaningful expression of someone’s essence, character, and mighty spirit is so important.

Many agree that most funerals today seem to be lacking the personal touch. Too many times the funeral is avoided altogether because the individual wants to avoid the fuss or messiness of grieving and loss. “Out of sight, out of mind?” As a professional grief counselor, I can say with confidence that nothing could be further from the truth. Avoiding a funeral robs the family of an important opportunity to express the significance of a loved one to their lives. Grief finds its way into our hearts one way or another. The sorrow and laughter that family and friends share at a funeral holds the family high for the times ahead. It bonds them and binds together the many chapters and dimensions of the life lived. Everyone participating re-enters their own lives with a stronger sense of who they are and the legacy they will leave.

What Makes Celebrants Special?

Funeral celebrants who are drawn to this work understand that each life lived is deserving of celebration, remembrance, and appreciation. They get that every single life is unique and precious and will never pass this way again. Naturally, celebrants feel honored when families include them in exploring and discovering the significance of the beloved person as together they collaborate to create and design a unique life celebration.

What Exactly Does a Celebrant Do?

Each celebrant performs a variety of duties for the grieving family. The celebrant often serves as the family’s “walking cane,” helping guide them through a maze of difficult decisions, while providing stability, experience, resources, and comfort during a disorienting time. A celebrant can explain options, act as a spokesperson, or bring clarity, but most important, they “hold space” for the grieving family and friends to allow a sacred experience, much like elephants encircle a birthing calf to ensure protection of the process. Humans do this for each other as well in many situations, especially when there has been a death. In other words, we reassure the grieving one that it is safe to express his or her feelings. And we remain quietly supportive, encouraging him or her to cry, laugh, reminisce, be angry — whatever that individual needs at the time.

A celebrant also spends 12 to 16 hours preparing a specially crafted service. This service includes gathering the perfect stories, poetry, music, videos, keepsakes, or takeaways to demonstrate to friends and family that this is a special tribute. Celebrants schedule special time for the family to share memories, anecdotes, and special moments of their loved one’s life, then draw upon these remembrances to carefully craft a service that reflect the values, character, and spirit of the deceased. The celebrant accommodates as much or as little family participation as the family desires. Creating this expression of significance and capturing the individual’s personality is what distinguishes this kind of celebration from traditional services.

Celebrants focus on the needs of the family, establishing the significance of the life and the loss. With guidance and support, the family feels safe to express their heartfelt thoughts to the degree that is comfortable to them. They ultimately come away from this experience feeling supported, cared for, and guided.

A woman in her 30s named Celeste died of cancer. But throughout her lifetime, she loved nothing more than spending time at the beach near her home, as a child growing up and while she endured her illness. As seemed fitting, her life celebration was held in a building near the ocean. When her friends and family walked into the room for her life celebration, they heard sounds of the ocean. Various stations around the room had tables with pictures and memorabilia of her life stages. As the service came to a close, each person received two shells that had been gathered by Celeste for this purpose. The processional visited the shore, and each person was encouraged to return one shell to the ocean and to place the other in his or her pocket as a keepsake to remember Celeste by.

The meal to follow included barbecued burgers, steamed clams, corn, beer, lemonade, and homemade ice cream, well known as Celeste’s favorite “happy meal.” Guests listened to Bette Midler sing Under the Boardwalk during dinner and to the Beach Boys later on around a bonfire. They shared stories and memories of Celeste, and laughter was abundant.

This is just one example of how meaningful, memorable, simple, and relevant a life celebration can be.

Whether a family is religious, interfaith, secular, spiritual, or otherwise, a celebrant can bring compassion, sincerity, and thoughtfulness to the design of a life celebration that reflects the needs, beliefs, and values of the family and the individual.

What would your life celebration look like? How will your family and friends remember you? What is the message, the impression or image you would like to leave behind? How will your life be defined? Now is the time to find your own answers to these wonderful questions. Eckhart Tolle reminds us that “when death is denied, life loses its depth. If you can learn to accept and even welcome the endings in your life, you may find that the feeling of emptiness that initially felt uncomfortable turns into a sense of inner spaciousness that is deeply peaceful. By learning to die daily, you open yourself to life.”

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