The Celebrant Foundation & Institute, a nonprofit educational organization that trains Life Cycle Celebrants, is changing the way we think about ceremonies. In particular, end-of-life celebrations are transcending the traditional funeral idea, with people opting for the personalized, meaningful ceremonies that celebrants offer. We spoke with the Celebrant Foundation & Institute’s International Director, Charlotte Eulette, and Board Member and Funeral Committee Chair, Dorry Bless, about the work of a Life Cycle Celebrant.
Liz: For our readers who aren’t familiar with the term, what is a celebrant?
Charlotte: A celebrant is an officially-trained person, or a ceremony expert, that creates personalized ceremonies for individuals. We are called certified Life Cycle Celebrants. We create womb-to-tomb, rite of passage ceremonies.
Dorry: That includes all life cycle ceremonies, from baby blessings to welcomings to namings, adoption ceremonies, coming of age ceremonies, elder ceremonies, retirement ceremonies, milestones, birthdays, anniversaries, vow renewals, weddings, celebrations of life, funerals, memorials. We are trained to reflect the values of their client. We take each experience without judgment or agenda. We sit with each client and interview them and look at what they are looking to achieve with the ceremony and what tone is important to them.
The celebrant believes that it’s in the personal story where the meaning and the goal lies. We use their story within the ceremony. But a celebrant ceremony also has a lot of nuances and subtleties that really include the community, the family and friends that have gathered there. They are a part of what’s happening, not just passive witnesses. That doesn’t mean they’re speaking, or jumping up and down, but their presence is attended to in a nuanced kind of way—in the way the celebrant stands, or in the way the room is set up. All of those aspects are taken into consideration.
Our ceremonies really run the gamut of where they can be held. They can be in a park or in a funeral home or in an individual’s home or at the beach. That’s part of how they achieve their very personalized touch; also, in our meetings with our clients, where we learn about their story, talk about traditions and rituals that might have existed in their families, the faith they were brought up in, the faith they identify with or practice at this point in time, and we include those. And they get to see every word beforehand. There isn’t a surprise the day of the ceremony: “Is the celebrant going to know my name and how to pronounce it? Will they know anything about me?” We work very closely with them. We easily spend 15 to 20 hours with them.
Liz: Tell us about the Celebrant Foundation & Institute, your organization.
Charlotte: What the Celebrant Foundation does: we are the premiere organization in North America that trains or teaches and certifies people to become Life Cycle Celebrants in one of three certifications, or all three: Funerals, Healing and Transition; Family and Children Ceremonies; and Weddings and Ceremonies for Couples.
People come and take our course, which is an online live course with a teacher and seven or eight students—we only accept 100 students a year. The classes are one hour a week, with four hours of homework. It’s a Jungian-based course, and it’s not just theory; we teach celebrants how to actively listen, how to interview and find out the client’s story, and how to write the ceremony in a specific way.
We study the art of writing a ceremony according to certain authorities in the field over the last 150 years. Then we learn how to officiate and how to use our voices, whether you’re doing a ceremony that requires you to be solemn, or happy, or that need you to speak slower and louder for children or elderly people—all of those kinds of things. And then, we teach celebrants how to have their own practice, whether they’re doing one ceremony or are a full-time celebrant.
And after they graduate, we don’t just throw them to the wind. We have a community of celebrants, an association where we refresh, refuel, and nurture them. We help them with every aspect of their vocation: marketing, PR, building a chapter. We create other kinds of ceremonies together as a collective; for example, we have a ceremony project called the Tree-bute Project, where communities get together and honor the fact that they’ve lost trees in their community. Our school is not just a school; it’s sort of a celebrant movement.
Liz: In what ways is Life Cycle Celebrant end-of-life ceremony special and different from a traditional event?
Dorry: I think that first of all, most importantly, it’s the story. It’s the individual story. The loved one is not getting plugged into a template. The celebrant is spending time with family and friends to learn about the loved one. And that might be followed up afterwards by phone calls to more family members, more friends, to get different aspects of the story.
The celebrant often spends time looking at pictures, video, possibly meeting in the loved one’s home, so they really get a sense of who this person was. And then they talk with the family about aspects that would be meaningful. Perhaps the loved one didn’t make it clear what they wished for, so with the family the celebrant thinks about what the loved one would want, and what the family wants: blessings, readings, music.
For example, I did a service a few weeks ago for a 60-year-old man who died from a rare form of Parkinson’s disease. He was an environmental engineer and was involved in the 9/11 clean-up, so it’s possible he got sick from that. The music at his funeral was Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower,” Led Zeppelin, and a Santana song. That music and where it was placed in the ceremony created a ceremonial space in such a way that people felt welcomed into the purpose of why we were all there, which was to celebrate and honor Joe’s life.
And the younger people there, the teenagers, commented afterwards how surprised they were by the ceremony in a positive way. That it wasn’t mournful or depressing, that it felt real: they could relate to the ceremony. In a sense, they felt closer to Joe and really appreciated that his story was told. So my point here being, it can be something as simple as music—practically everyone has an iPod these days, so whether the ceremony is at a funeral home or outside at a park, music can be added.
There can also be personalized rituals. One of our celebrants in Indiana told the story of an elderly man who was remembered by his children in a very warm way: He gave them an allowance until they were 22, and it was a quarter every week in an envelope. It didn’t matter how old they got, they got that quarter. So the celebrant suggested that each (grown) child come up and put a quarter in an envelope and put it in with their dad. And though that sounds like a whimsical, lighthearted ritual, they all commented afterward how meaningful and poignant and tender that was to them. They really learned about the value of money from their dad, and to be able to pay tribute in this way was important to them, because sometimes words can’t express what we want to say.
Other celebrants have done special ceremonies in the Jewish style, where at the graveside it’s a sign of love for the family and mourners to throw dirt on the grave. But one family felt that was harsh with young children around, so instead the celebrants suggested chocolate kisses. Grandma liked chocolate kisses, and it was an easier way for the kids to say goodbye but still pay tribute to this tradition. So anything can be personalized, ritualized—it can be something like growing a garden.
One of Tony’s schoolmates said, “As I grow older, this is a moment I will remember for the rest of my life: that he will not be forgotten, and that people are not forgotten.” He hit the mark.
Charlotte: There was a celebrant who did a ceremony for a young boy who died in a motorcycle accident. What they did was they created Miles’ Memorial Garden, where the family came and tended to the garden. Also, Miles loved music, so they got the local radio station to play his favorite songs. Exactly like Dorry said, the celebrant made that happen. And now it’s a ritual: every season they tend to the garden, and it keeps growing and continues to touch everybody’s life.
Also, we had a young boy here in Montclair that died saving a little girl’s life, stopping her from crossing the tracks. The family could not deal the first year. Around the second year, they employed a local artist to commemorate a bench and the celebrant worked with the artist. He covered it with blue sand from the Aegean Sea—the family was of Greek heritage—and students and people came and put wishes into the bench before they put the sand on there to solidify.
The bench is across from the high school, and the celebrant mentioned in her presentation that even though Tony’s not alive, all of these moments of people sitting on the bench, having their first kiss, waiting for a test score, all these memories will live on in other people and his bench will be a part of student life. One of Tony’s schoolmates said, “As I grow older, this is a moment I will remember for the rest of my life: that he will not be forgotten, and that people are not forgotten.” He hit the mark, and it made a definite impression upon him.
Another story: a man in Chicago had died eight years before, but his wife wanted to do a ceremony for him now because when he died, he had died so quickly that no one could mourn. So we took eight people in his life that represented who he was. One was an 80-year-old friend that he went to school with, who painted a picture of his boyhood. This friend actually dated his wife, while he dated another girl, and they ended up switching and marrying the other woman! So that story was told.
Later in life, the man had worked as a politician in Chicago, so a representative spoke about that. He had a very rare disease that took his life, so his doctor came up and spoke about him. Some of his best friends, his sons, his grandsons, his wife. His grandsons came up last. We knew we hit the mark because, from his place at the end of the room, the bartender said, “Excuse me, everybody; let’s raise a glass to this man, because you definitely brought him into the house. I feel like he’s right here with us, and not to raise a glass would be to do a disservice.”
Then we also do specific ceremonies for traumatic deaths like suicide. For example, a living funeral: there was a woman in her 80s who decided she didn’t want to live anymore. So everybody brought potluck, and she made sure she was able to introduce people she knew who had things in common: “Steve, you’re a writer for an arts magazine, and Cara, you’re a ballet dancer; Steve, you should cover her performances!” She was still sharp as a tack.
It was amazing. We were all also able to give her gifts, whatever skill set we had: one woman danced ballet, another played the harp, another guy made a wonderful cake, which everybody cut and then gave her a piece. All of these symbolic things where people were all invited to participate. That’s the thing that we do: work with the families and loved ones to create a ceremony that really rings true. We’re simply the vessels; it has nothing to do with us. It’s a great honor.
Check back next week for the conclusion of our 2-part interview with Charlotte and Dorry, in which we’ll discuss the religious and cultural aspects of a celebrant ceremony: what accounts for the growing interest in celebrant-officiated events?
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