Several years ago I took funeral celebrant training from American Doug Manning and his daughter Glenda. It didn’t seem that big a stretch from my work as a marriage commissioner. For more than twelve years I’ve officiated civil, non-denominational marriage ceremonies. That meant fulfilling a need and providing a service for couples, who for whatever reason, opted out of a traditional religious wedding.
It doesn’t take much research to learn that traditional church funerals aren’t meeting the needs of a significant number of families. Obituary after obituary announce that, based on the wishes of the deceased, a celebration of life is being held. That’s where someone like me comes into the picture. To make it happen.
It hasn’t been easy breaking into the market smack dab in the middle of church country but through funeral directors I get the odd referral. What sets celebrants apart from most clergy is our willingness to centre the service on the deceased as opposed to scripture and church traditions. I remember once actually timing how long it took for a priest to mention the deceased person’s name—about forty minutes.
With fewer faithful churchgoers, the priest often doesn’t know the person in the casket. The family is simply coming back to the church for the final goodbye. Often it’s seems as though it’s a matter of [insert name here] in the template, sing this hymn there, repeat. In our church, the family can’t deliver a eulogy unless they do it at the dinner following the burial.
That is not to imply criticism of the church or its practices. But it does go a long way to explaining why families seek alternatives. I recently spent a couple of hours with a grieving family. I got to see them cry and hear them laugh as we talked about how best to honour their husband, father, and grandfather. I went home to think, look for appropriate quotes, think some more. I pondered how to structure the program to allow for family involvement, to keep things flowing, to humanize and customize the ceremony, and to give this man his due.
This work tests my ability to empathize, to listen, to get to the essence so I can write, to organize, to speak in public, to show respect and compassion, and to bring comfort. It gives me the privilege of helping a family at a time of profound need. And I am grateful for the chance to do it.
What I find disturbing is the growing number of people who choose to do nothing to mark the death of a loved one. It may be a financial decision. It may be cynicism or a lack of belief. I hope they are at least, doing something privately. There is no escaping, avoiding, or delaying grief. A formal “something” whether religious or not is a vital part of the grief process. To try to skip that step is a mistake, from where I sit.
Hazel Anaka’s first novel is Lucky Dog. Visit her website for more information or follow her on Twitter @anakawrites.