The moment Julia* had been dreading arrived. Even though she always knew her husband John’s* death was an eventuality, it was still unexpected. Somehow she had assumed that because he was only 34, still active and full of life, that his chronic illness would not claim him so soon. In shock and overwhelmed by grief, she had to make arrangements. She worried about her 4-year-old son, Jason*, who revered his father. She wasn’t sure what she should do–but she already knew what she wouldn’t do: a meaningless church service. A service with a minister who never knew John, mixed up his name, rushed through it, delivered a fictional or exaggerated eulogy, would be worse than no service at all. That had happened when her mother died and she couldn’t bear the thought of that happening to John. Julia shared her misgivings with the funeral director and he referred her to Marlene Esau, BSW a social worker and a certified celebrant who assists with funerals in the Vancouver area. Julia didn’t know what a celebrant was, but the funeral director told her that Esau would help her prepare a service that would honor her husband. She gave Esau a call-a call that changed the way she thought about saying goodbye.

Sharing Life’s Stories

A retired minister who has committed his life to studying grief, Doug Manning began training funeral celebrants because of people like Julia. Manning was concerned that the increasing number of people without church affiliation, many of whom opt to have a cremation with no service at all, were missing a critical healing experience. Manning first encountered celebrants in Australia, where lay people are trained to conduct weddings and funerals. Back home in Oklahoma City, he decided to design a funeral that would optimally support a healing process. For him, the critical elements are being present and being a listener to the family’s stories. “The celebrant goes in and sits with the family and begins the story telling process. As they do that the family begins to grieve together. They start the process of remembering that person, which has long-term impact. As a matter of fact, we think that the story-telling time is the most healing part of what we do. Sometimes, even more important than the funeral the next day.” Considered a pioneer in the art of healing and best selling author of Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal and My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge and Belonging,Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. shares Manning’s view that stories are important in healing:A good story is like a compass, points to something unchanging, and allows us to set our own direction by it. Sometimes we need a story more than food to live well.” Manning remembers an elderly gentleman that died of Alzheimer’s. The family didn’t care whether he had a funeral, feeling that he had already been gone from them for the last ten to fifteen years. Because all his friends were dead, there seemed to be little reason to have a service. “I said: ‘Trust me. Let’s do this.’ And so we did the story telling at the funeral home with the gentleman’s body, which may sound weird and morbid, but it really wasn’t. When they started talking about him he kind of came back to life among us. We started talking about him back before he got Alzheimer’s: about the time he fell off the windmill and the time they had the fishing trip from hell. It turned into this wonderful time of bringing him back among them, like he was before the Alzheimer’s took him away. “I always say that no one is dead until they’re forgotten. The story telling came about when my grandmother died, and my father said, ‘Let’s go visit her.’ We were with her for two hours, and began telling stories. From then on every time the family got together we told the same stories. And I not only knew the stories we were going to tell, but I knew the order that they were going to be told in. The result is that my children know my grandmother very well. And so do my grandkids. So that keeps people alive and among us, which I think is very valuable-very, very important.”

Celebrant Calling

Esau has been a medical social worker for 24 years. Assigned to palliative care in oncology, she often works with people that are dying and families that are grieving and going through end-of-life issues. Esau is comfortable with funerals not just because of her work as a social worker but also because her father was a minister. She grew up playing the piano or singing at funerals. “Death was very much part of our lives.” It never occurred to her to participate in the process as a celebrant, but one day she was unexpectedly called to officiate at a service for her sister-in-law who died suddenly. Esau did officiate at her sister-in-law’s service, with some trepidation. She wanted to have a healing role and was concerned about her nephews who had lost their mom. She also was struggling with her own feelings of loss. During the service she had an “ah ha” moment. She was looking over the faces and realized that what she was doing was meeting an important need. “What I was saying was actually meaningful to them; at that moment, I realized that this was exactly what I wanted to do.” Esau kept coming back to that moment. She didn’t know that there was such a thing as a celebrant, but a few months later she got the nerve to phone the funeral director where she had officiated the service for her sister-in-law and asked him if there was any avenue to do that kind of work; he told her about celebrants. After that Esau took Manning’s celebrant training and has been working as a part-time social worker and a celebrant since. Being a celebrant is a natural for a social worker. Trained to be empathic and to be good listeners, social workers are comfortable providing a container for people in grief. Paula Loring, LCSW, director of a bereavement program for a funeral home in San Antonio, Texas believes that social workers are particularly skilled at doing celebrant work because they can be more flexible and are trained to listen for cultural and spiritual differences. Loring also feels that social workers are better able to attend to the family’s needs and less inclined to make the higher religious purpose the focus of the celebrant process.

Daddy’s Song

Esau made arrangements to visit Julia immediately, as she always does when she gets a call to be a celebrant. “There is a lot of work to do and not a lot of time to do it in.” She meets with the family in a two to three hour face-to-face meeting. “It sounds like an ominous task, but the interesting thing is that when people have lost somebody, they want nothing more than to talk about that person. Especially around the time of death, all those memories come back, and all the things about the person that they loved or didn’t love. You have to earn the trust of the family for them to share with you in that way.” When Esau meets with a family she assesses their situation. “Everybody needs something different. It depends on the relationship and the circumstances, and of course how the person died. And so I always talk to them about the last few days of their loved one’s life. I also discuss the options for the service and what they want. Basically, I try to present myself as a ‘tool’ that they can use to do it in a way that’s right for them.” These meetings require Esau to use all of her social work skills and are reminiscent of the grief groups that she has run over the years. Esau interviewed Julia to understand John so that she can capture who he was at his service. “This is our last formal chance to say who this person was on the planet.” Getting to the essence of the person also helps Esau plan the music and the poetry for the service. Julia had a hard time planning John’s service with Esau. “We were trying to come up with a song that reflected him. John and Julia were both ‘science’ people and not into music and poetry and she couldn’t think of much. And then, all of sudden when we were talking, she said, ‘Oh, he was really into baseball. There was this song he used to play before he went off to baseball. But, that’s not a funeral song.’ And I said, ‘Tell me about it.’ So she told me about the song and it was so him. It talked about getting his chance in the sun-all around baseball-but the words were so suitable to his energy, to the way he lived his life. She still wasn’t sure that we should play it, but I said, ‘I think it will work perfectly. As long as I preface it, and tell people why we’re playing this.’ “As soon as that song played, people looked up. It really resonated with everyone, even though it was not a traditional church song. John’s little boy who had been quite somber and not looking up at all, looked up and said, ‘That’s Daddy’s song!’ “The service was profoundly personal. People came in with their heads down, thinking, ‘Oh, we’ll just bear through this.’ The circumstances around John’s death were very sad. But then they started looking up. And people started crying. And people started laughing. As I went on and talked about John and who he was, what his essence was, and told his stories, people in the congregation remembered when they had participated in one of those stories. They looked up and I could see light in their eyes. It was tremendously healing.”

Watch for Her Bird

Esau always counsels the congregation on grief and attempts to normalize their feelings of loss. “I know that everybody’s different, but essentially they need to know that people are going to be there for them and that people aren’t going to push the grief under the table. I talk about simple things that will help them to cope: like experiencing their emotions and not being afraid of them. I tell them that it won’t always hurt quite like this and that they will get through this. “What I say at a service for a 90-year-old is quite different than what I said about John who was 34 and left his little boy to grow up without him. So I name it. The heartache. The sorrow. I don’t shy away from it. I name the mixed feelings: the feelings of relief and sometimes anger, as well as sadness. People need to know that these conflicting feelings are normal. I also encourage the rest of the people there to surround them, to not be afraid of them, to help them in practical ways, to find ways to walk along side them in this journey.” Esau always asks what the person believed about an afterlife because she finds that acknowledging these beliefs can be comforting, even if they are not religious. She recalls the woman who died in her 60’s in a hospice. She was considered an agnostic, but she had come to believe that the eagles that soared around the hospice were coming to take the souls of the people who died there. She said to her grandchildren before she died, “You watch for my bird.” At her service Esau said to her family: “Watch for her bird.” “It sounds simple and maybe silly to some, but for the family it was everything. It meant the world to them. In this case, we captured what was meaningful to her. It’s a story that can be passed on to her children and her grandchildren and brings ongoing comfort to them.” The celebrant process is powerful because it gives people in grief the experience of having someone stop and listen to their stories, understand the meaning behind them and then reframe the stories in a memorable tribute that can be carried into the future.

Final Ovation

Loring believes that giving people permission to grieve is important. “Our goal is to help people lay down the pain and bring the person with them into the future in their hearts. We used to think that people needed ‘closure.’ The underlying message was that you needed to leave this person behind and they got stuck in their grief. Now our goal is to help them learn how that person lives on in their hearts and the world, and give them permission to continue what they started with their loved one.” Spiritual comfort is an important part of the funeral, but because it sometimes is emphasized in a way that makes people feel guilty or does not address ‘living on,’ concerns Loring. “The idea that the person is in heaven and that you should be happy is not always helpful. One man told me: ‘I’m going to write a country western song called, My Wife Went to Heaven and I Went to Hell.’ He knew his wife was fine, it was himself and his future he was trying to deal with.” Loring recalled the story of a man who had been active in the community. He went to an event in town where someone was honored and everyone stood up and clapped for him. He said to his wife later that night, “I hope that I can live the kind of life where that will happen to me someday.” At his service, when this story was told, everyone stood up and clapped for him for five minutes. It was a spontaneous, heartfelt final ovation that honored his life and who he was. It is a moment treasured by his bereaved. * Identifying information has been changed.

Author:   Dr. Lynn K. Jones

Certified Personal and Executive Coach