WHAT! well it’s all true after one of the most extensive surveys and research ever conducted with the American publics attitudes towards funerals, all signs points to vast majority of the public would choose to use a Certified Celebrant for their loved one’s funeral. The problem is that the vast majority of the public still doesn’t know what a Celebrant is. And many funeral professionals still have their heads in the sand as to the value of offering Celebrant style ceremonies.
This post is in conclusion of our on-going series relating to the 2012 Funeral Foundation Study performed by Olson Zaltman Associates; which confirmed what many in the funeral professional already know: there is growing dissatisfaction among consumers with what can be called the “traditional funeral”. You may remember the conversation got started way back in November of last year with “Public Opinion Concludes Funeral Service Has Dropped the Ball!” where I noted the study found there is no emotional or psychological transformation at a typical funeral. In fact, most respondents felt the event left attendees feeling sad and depressed; instead “they yearn to connect with the life that was well lived”.
As the series continued, it should have become clear that I felt there was a solution: Certified Celebrants who are trained to make and energize those connections. But there’s something getting in the way, and that’s consumer ignorance: in a really casual survey of folks on Facebook, Kim discovered most folks have little or no idea what a celebrant even is or can do for them. And some of those people (believe it) were funeral professionals.
“Okay, Remind Me Again: What is a Celebrant?”
In words from the home page of the Celebrant Foundation & Institute) “celebrants are individuals trained to compose and perform the highest quality personalized ceremonies for couples, individuals and organizations.” I wrote about celebrants and what I thought they could do for the funeral profession in a blog post earlier this year, “How Celebrants Can Help the Funeral Industry“:
“In the current social environment there are many people who do not define themselves as religious, thus they may prefer to keep religion out of the funeral ceremony. Instead they may prefer to celebrate the life of the deceased live with stories, music, and videos. They may want to share funny or poignant stories that show who they were in life. Grieving family members may ask for certain songs to be played instead of hymns, certain poetry recited rather than psalms. A funeral celebrant understands these different expectations and can help…say goodbye the way they want to say it: with meaning, with words, with love, and with joy.”
When asked to describe the “perfect” ceremony a participant in the study summed up the consensus of all: “It’s closing the book. We all have books, we all have chapters. We have our history and experiences. It’s a summation of events.” Families and individuals today want the event to be a celebratory summation that cements the legacy of the meaning of one’s life; one where the personality, talents, gifts and even the quirks–those things which made that person unique and memorable—are “center stage”. The mood, according to the study participants, should be “Transformative one of true celebration, not grief”. They want to feel better, not worse, for the experience.
What’s All This about Transformation?
It seems we human beings enjoy seeing transformation happen before our eyes; just consider the “oohs and ahhs” from the audience during a performance of a really talented magician. We enjoy watching the sky lighten at sunrise; and we often eagerly anticipate both the colors of sunset and the first star sighting which follows.
And we really enjoy reading or watching stories of personal transformation. A favorite of mine is Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol“, first published in London in December of 1843. To this day (some 172 years later) people the world over continue to enjoy this story of a bitter, greedy, and totally unhappy man who is transformed (thanks to intervention by the ghost of his dead business partner) into a loving, gentle man. The kind of fellow you’d really like to call “a friend”.
As humans part of us hungers for transformative experiences like his; we hold onto the memories from a profoundly meaningful episode in our life which caused us to become “more” than what we were before. That’s exactly what a certified funeral celebrant brings to a family’s and a community’s experience of loss. And here’s the thing: a celebrant initiates transformation in a couple of different ways.
Certified Celebrant Kim Kirkley was quick to tell us of the transformative power of the event itself: “Unlike marriages or other ceremonies, funerals go to the heart of what it means to be human.” And if you read her story online at her funeral celebrancy website Life Story Funeral NYC you’ll find this beautifully-worded observation: “It is one of the few occasions where we have the chance to stand in the power of ceremony and notice that each of our lives has meaning.”
Yes, the celebrant-led service can transform sadness and enrich emotional connections; but there’s something she’s discovered during her years of service: transformation doesn’t just happen during the service. The very process of preparing for a funeral or memorial service with a celebrant enriches the overall experience of loss for families; the interview process, the memories shared and the review of the events and accomplishments within the deceased life becomes a long-remembered “milestone moment” for them, where this sought-after transformation takes place.
What’s It Like to Work with a Certified Funeral Celebrant?
Kristan McNames provides insight into the process in her guest blog post, “How Becoming a Funeral Celebrant Transformed My Funeral Home; as did celebrant Kim Kirkley during her interview with Kim. Despite the fact both were trained at different institutions, there are processual similarities. Both women have a set of questions which acts as a framework for an informal interview either in person or over the phone. “I’ve found that with several open ended questions, it’s fairly simple to get most people to open up and share stories and memories,” wrote Kristan. “I follow all of the guidelines that I was taught in the celebrant training.
Both celebrants try to include as many family members and friends as possible in the interview segment of the creative process. Once they feel they’re ready, each steps away into solitude to write the presentation which is shown to the family representative prior to its public delivery. (In fact, it is a part of the Celebrant Institute’s Code of Ethics “to ensure that clients have complete choice of and final say over their ceremonies, and that the Celebrant’s personal beliefs are immaterial to this process.” This caveat “encourages clients in choosing and/or approving a ceremony that is satisfying to them.”)
Kristan concludes “Celebrant services are really a reflection of the life of the deceased. They give family members and friends an outlet to share their stories and express their grief. They’re not just for people that don’t have a church affiliation, or for those who consider themselves atheist, agnostic, or humanist. People with longstanding relationships with traditional denominations can benefit from a celebrant service as well. A Celebrant style of ceremony can be held as a part of or can be followed by a traditional Funeral Mass officiated by their parish priest. Tradition and modern funeral customs can co-exist.”
Will Celebrants Ever Become Mainstream?
If we can take our casual Facebook survey results to heart (where we found very few people knew what duties a celebrant performed) it would be a short leap to the assumption that celebrancy will never “take off” in the United States. But Charlotte Eulette of the Celebrant Foundation and Institute would stop us in our mental tracks. In a recent interview she noted certified celebrants perform 40,000 ceremonies a year in this country and that number grows each year. She was even instrumental in the January 2014 signing by New Jersey Governor Christie of legislation adding “civil celebrant(s) who (are) certified by the Secretary of State to solemnize marriage or civil unions” to the list of individuals that are statutorily empowered to do so. (Read more on the New Jersey State Department of State Certified Civil Celebrants page. “This is an avalanche that’s happening. It’s huge. It’s not happened yet, but in the next 20 years, there’s no doubt it will become mainstream.” (We Have Proof) in Australia where the celebrant concept began over 25 years ago, weddings and funerals are NOW! being officiated by vast majority by Celebrants.
Here’s something else: if you’re a funeral home owner, adding celebrant services to your firm’s offerings can transform your business. It’s not just my opinion: Kristan McNames, CFSP and co-owner of Grace Funeral & Cremation Services thinks so too (enough so that she became a certified celebrant through the In-Sight Institute in 2012). In the post mentioned earlier, she wrote “We only have one chance to rock it, to make it memorable; to make sure that everyone in attendance leaves the room feeling like the time they spent meant something. There are too many meaningless funerals with those in attendance just going through the motions, too many people telling me at community events that they want to be cremated and thrown to the wind, too many people with funeral horror stories. It makes me sick, and makes me fear for the future of my profession. We have only one chance to get it all right. And becoming a Certified Funeral Celebrant has helped me get one step closer to getting it right for the families I serve.”
I couldn’t have said it better. But I’m sad to say Kristan is an exception rather than the rule: most of the funeral home owners and directors I’ve spoken to about celebrants stand in the other “camp”; the one where celebrants are viewed with caution. One director honestly confided “I’m not big on them. I’ve seen two. It’s all nice and everything, but I don’t think it does it for me. I think it’s strictly a fad.”
Celebrant Elizabeth Phaire says that celebrant ceremonies serve a genuine need, and with each of the over 50 funerals she has officiated awareness grows of her highly personalize services. She has experienced a steady increase in the adoption of celebrant services from funeral directors in her area. She is being requested more and more from both the public and the funeral homes she works with, and has received only positive feedback.
Glenda Stansbury of the In-Sight Institute is a practicing celebrant, adjunct professor at the University of Central Oklahoma Funeral Department and a licensed funeral director/embalmer) believes most funeral professionals see celebrants as quasi-clergy, which significantly limits their acceptance of their services. Even Kristan McNames was cautious and states that she “didn’t do anything” with her celebrant training for a long time because she “didn’t want to offend the clergy connections our funeral home had (and depended on).” Elizabeth does not see a conflict with clergy, the families she serves request a non-traditional Officiant and without her help would have no one to officiate.
Recently after Elizabeth served an interfaith family who lost a 19 year old to a drug overdose, the funeral director thanked her and said “Elizabeth, no one does what you do”. He was referring to the way she was able to work with the family’s multiple religious and spiritual beliefs, and weave them with creative rituals into a meaningful ceremony that was a comfort to all in attendance. Through the extensive and healing interview process that celebrants use, she captures the essence of the deceased as a person, and the many ways their life impacted loved ones and the world. She designs ceremonial elements that are emotionally significant to the family to the family, and facilitates their expression of grief and love. An intensive amount of work and expertise goes into guiding the family and creating a fitting ceremony for their unique needs, which speaks to the value of a certified Celebrant. Glenda’s very cautious about the idea that funeral directors can also be effective celebrants. “I love the concept, but there are major time constraints which make it hard, if not impossible to do both jobs well. Instead she advocates a funeral director partner with a celebrant and act as a “Master of Ceremonies” to introduce the celebrant and retain “ownership” of the family and the service.
There is hope for widespread acceptance of celebrants, sooner rather than later (20 years does seem like a long time to wait). In fact, the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association feels strongly enough about the worth and transformative power of celebrants to have committed to publishing articles written by celebrant trainer Glenda Stansbury, as well as stories from experienced celebrants like Linda Haddon, who works with Evans Funeral Chapel in Anacortes, Washington. In her 2014 ICCFA Magazine article “A Celebrant’s Goal: Wow! Every Family, Every Service” she wrote: “Celebrant services provide the best advertising you can have—word of mouth raves about what people can expect from your services. These services do involve more time and effort, from the family interview to the composing of the service, the staging, coordination of music and other detail. This is why the fee a Celebrant charges can easily be double the amount of the usual clergy donation fee. But if you weigh the importance of a well crafted funeral ceremony against all the other charges associated with a funeral, the cost of hiring a certified celebrant is the biggest bargain on the funeral bill! ” She ends on a cautionary note: “But these days, funeral professionals to not offer celebrant services isn’t really a choice, unless you choose to slowly but surely watch your funeral home go out of business. I guarantee, if you don’t offer families the choice of unique, personalized services, someone else will.”
Here Are Links to Previous Articles in This Series