Some American families are migrating away from funeral services structured by formal religions – and people who attended a 2015 seminar in Albany, NY know why.
It’s easy to imagine the empty feeling a group of motorcycle enthusiasts endured at a funeral for a fellow biker – that funeral was one of several stories shared by participants in a Certified Celebrant training program in June.
The pastor arrived to see the church building surrounded with motorcycles and the facility filled with leather and denim-clad bikers.
He walked in, went over to the casket and mumbled a few words nobody could hear.
Then he simply left.
There were several stories recounted – tales that underline shortcomings in some funerals that leave people no step closer to confronting the intense grief they feel.
Participants in the In-Sight Institute training course knew all too well how obvious it is when very little thought goes into a ceremony to honor the recently deceased.
A student described the scene as a church official went to the podium during a funeral service and started talking about the deceased woman with kind, flattering words.
He described her as a “gentle flower” and used other colorful phrases – while guests who knew the woman looked around bewildered, wondering who the priest was talking about.
It became clear to guests that the speaker didn’t know anything about the deceased woman whose life they were all there to honor.
She was a rough-hewn, boisterous lady who didn’t mince words and made her feelings known whether they were politically correct or not.
It wasn’t until a Hospice worker who spent time with the deceased during her final days began speaking that people at the funeral started warming up.
They became engaged because they were hearing words about the woman they knew.
They weren’t hearing generic statements that could be said about anybody.
These stories – representing only a few elements of discussion during the course – highlight the challenge funeral directors face trying not only to arrange a funeral service and care for the deceased – but also to help family and friends take meaningful steps as they face their grief.
One participant recalled guiding a family through a funeral service in a house of worship in the morning only to hear the exact same words spoken about a different deceased person at a second funeral later that day.
Celebrants are gradually playing more of a role getting friends and family involved in the last formal ceremony honoring their loved one – and they aren’t reading a generic script with a space in the text that reads [insert dead person’s name here].
They’re bringing an option to people who are less interested in organized spirituality and more concerned with ensuring they “do right” by their loved one and their family and friends.
That means holding a wholesome funeral service that truly honors the deceased.
Embracing Certified Celebrant themes can add to a funeral home’s capabilities, said Mary King, a funeral director in New York who attended the class in late June.
It can give funeral homes an option outside of the church funeral service which some people prefer and others seek to avoid.
“It gives you that leeway to make it more personal,” King said.
Sister Maria Lopez, a nun who meets with dying people on a regular basis, said principles she learned in the Certified Celebrant program do not have to supplant the faith-based funeral service either. They can add to them, she said.
Put in basic terms, the job of an officiant in a church setting is to pray for the soul of the deceased and get those at the service to do the same.
Outside of the confines of church rules and procedures, Celebrants see their task more as one to care for the living.
“Essentially, we’re meeting the needs of the bereaved, that’s what matters,” Lopez said.
Many in American society still appreciate the typical funeral service, Lopez said, but for the growing number of “spiritual” people who aren’t tied to a faith community, funerals are leaving a hole.
“We’re preparing to fill a gap, to offer an option,” Lopez said. “Everybody deserves a lovely send-off and every family deserves that kind of care.”
There is a critical interaction that often gets lost in the chaos after the death of a loved one – the conversations family members have when they’re brought together to tell stories about the beloved.
This interaction allows family members to express what the deceased meant to them, to tell stories that help define the love one who has died, and to take part in crafting the words that are spoken in a formal ceremony.
That interaction has become an integral part of Certified Celebrant teaching, said In-Sight founder Doug Manning, an author, grief expert and former minister.
It’s based on helping the family deal with the grief experience, he said. It’s important to establish and recognize the significance of the death to those who knew the deceased.
And it’s important to voice the significance of the deceased’s life, Manning said.
It’s important for the bereaved to “inventory” the life of the loved one – who were they, what was important to them – before they can truly deal with the loss of that person, he said.
With these factors recognized, the funeral can play a meaningful role in people’s healing.
Celebrants make a “family meeting” a priority in their work. They get the family together to talk about the loved one, share stories and anecdotes – providing the celebrant with enough detail to craft a eulogy that fits their life.
The three-day course included mock funeral sessions which gave students a chance to practice what they were learning. They used information gleaned from family meetings to mold a service reflecting the life of the loved one – regardless of the circumstances.
They were given difficult cases – the death of a child, loss by suicide, loss by gunfire during a crime and others.
The mock funerals maintained elements of the loved ones’ life, and brought guests at the service into the embrace of common grief.
They passed out snap peas during a funeral for a 100 year-old lady known for her gardening abilities; and asked guests to bring a wooden block with them – the favorite toy of little boy taken too soon – as a way to remember him.
The majority of students attending these courses are funeral directors, said Certified Celebrant trainer Glenda Stansbury, a funeral director and adjunct professor at the University of Central Oklahoma Funeral Department.
Others include life coaches, ministers, chaplains and end-of-life planning consultants.
Some funeral directors are accustomed to the structured, liturgical funeral process led by officiants from faith communities – but the course often changes their perspective.
Stansbury said they start out the first day of the training with looks of suspicion and resistance to the themes.
On the second day, they appear to be grasping the possibilities and considering how they might incorporate these ideas into their work to improve service to families, she said.
By the third day, after participants take what they’ve learned and organize a hypothetical funeral service, many of the funeral directors appear “excited” because they’ve seen the possibilities, Stansbury said.
“As a longtime funeral director, I have been asked more frequently to secure a person to officiate a funeral or have been asked myself to officiate at a funeral, for someone without a faith affiliation,” said Funeral director Walter J. Kent, of Elmira, NY, who joined others in the training program in late-June, 2015.
“Over the years, I’ve heard thousands of services, good and bad. We were provided an intense three-day training after which all participants had to create a custom service and present it to the class.
I was amazed at the quality of the mock services presented. Some of the most personalized, emotional and well thought out memorials I have ever heard."
"What a valuable tool for all the participants,” said Kent, who serves as Secretary/Treasurer of the New York State Funeral Directors Association.
Funeral director Mary King said it’s not a matter of whether or not funeral homes can or should weave these principles into their services.
“I think we have to,” King said.