The Power of Ceremony

I have written, some, of the differences between my grandmother’s funeral – the impact and influence it has had on me – and my grandfather’s funeral – how redemptive it was for me. The reason my grandfather’s funeral was so powerful for me, and for my family, was not just the act of telling stories in each other’s presence, acknowledging our shared family history, how it has impacted us, and opening the conversation through the eulogy for other members of my family to share their stories of my grandfather after hearing the eulogy, but also because we used ceremony and ritual to say with our bodies the things our words could not convey. Doug Manning, the founder of the InSight Institute, wrote in The Funeral, “When words fail, ceremony takes over.”

I will admit that I did not have a close relationship with my grandfather; that is one reason I could officiate his funeral. But that distant relationship does not mean that I did not feel the loss of my ancestor. If it were not for him, I would not exist, and neither would my mother, her siblings, my cousins. The world was completely changed, at least in a small piece of it in rural North Louisiana, because of his presence.

And, yet, here I am, in writing this, trying to explain with words what my family used ceremony (and the movements of our bodies, using symbols) to say. So, I’ll conclude with a script of the candle-lighting ceremony that we had before we went to the graveside. (Names shortened.)


Celebrant: Before we leave for the graveside service, I’d like to gather in prayer and light a candle for [my grandfather]

The candle (a pillar candle inscribed, “In Memory” with my grandfather’s name) you see lit is in memory of Paw, and each of his offspring carries him with us in our genes and our memories, our actions and our words.

S., the first born, will light the first candle from her father. (She takes a taper, lights it from the pillar candle, and carries the lit taper in its holder to her seat.)

We light the next cande for M. (Celebrant lights the next taper from the pillar, leaves it lit on the table with the rest of the candles.)

D., the first son, will light the next candle. (He takes a taper, lights it from the pillar candle, and carries the lit taper in its holder to his seat.)

We light the next candle for J., though her can’t be present due to illness. (J.’s son lights his father’s taper and leaves it lit on the table with the rest of the candles.)

Last, D. will light her candle. (D. takes a taper, lights it from the pillar candle, and carries the lit candle to her seat.)

From [my grandfather’s] children came his grandchildren and great-granddaughters.

M., M’s daughter, then C. and A., [my grandfather’s] great-granddaughters. (Celebrant lights three tapers from the pillar, leaves them lit on the table .)

J., J’s son. (J. lights his taper from the pillar, carries it lit in its candlestick to his seat.)

S. will light L., D.’s daughter, and L.’s daughter E.’s, candles. (S.-- D.’s wife and the mother of L., lights the two tapers from the pillar candle and leaves them lit on the table.)

J., D.’s son. (J. lights a candle from the pillar, carries it in its candlestick to his seat.)

Janelle, S.’s daughter. (I light a candle from the pillar, and hold it as I continue the ceremony.)

M., J’s daughter, whose candle will be lit by her sister-in-law, R. (R. lights the taper and leaves it on the table.)

Let us pray. Father of all, we pray to you for [my grandfather] and for all those we love but see no longer. Grant to them eternal rest. Let light perpetual shine upon them. May his soul and the souls of the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

(Each family member returns their candle around the pillar.)

(I, as celebrant, blow out [my grandfather’s] candle.)

(The funeral director announces the end of the visitation and gives instructions to continue to the graveside service.)

(Visitors file out, leaving the lit tapers in their candlesticks around my grandfather’s blown-out pillar candle. The funeral director blows out the lit candles after we all leave.)

The Funeral is for the Bereaved

A funeral is often perceived in the context of the deceased, mostly in following the thought process of what they would want were they there making the decisions during the funeral arrangement. And that line of thinking does serve a good purpose: putting personal touches that reflect the deceased makes them recognizable in death (This is what picking out their favorite clothes, jewelry, the makeup and hair styles, and other personal items to be buried with them does.) Making a loved one recognizable and the funeral process personalized-- and participatory-- helps the bereaved face the reality of death and the major change such a loss initiates.

Another function of a funeral is to give the family an opportunity to be supported by their community. I witnessed two examples in two different friends' lives. A man who was a respected authority figure to one friend in his teenage years had lost his wife to a brain tumor. I asked J. if he was going to the funeral, and he replied, well, I didn't know her. I said, you don't go because you knew her; you go because you want to support her husband. I did the same for a co-worker who is a dear friend. Her grandfather died, and the whole staff attended the funeral. We didn't know her grandfather, but we cared about my friend, and we went for her, to give her hugs and to show her that we were there for her.

Why Did I Become a Celebrant?

As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the biggest reasons I wanted to be a celebrant comes from a most universal reason: I had a bad experience and I never wanted to repeat it again. Not only do I never want to repeat it again, but I want to do everything I am able to make sure it doesn't happen to anyone else. My grandmother's funeral was traumatic for me-- think a movie mash-up of “Running With Scissors” with “Garden State”--, and I knew there had to be a different way to come to terms with death and to mark a person's life than what I experienced.

So, let's fall back a few more years. I have a degree in English and journalism, and I chose that training because I find universal truths in the stories I read, and referencing those stories are how I understand the world and relate to others. Dr. Juvenal Urbino1 proposes his friendship by way of music; I propose mine by way of books and stories. I also use these stories to build my own identity. Patrick Rothfuss wrote, “...Everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”2

I believe in stories, and I believe stories can heal. Telling our personal story is a powerful action, and telling the story of a loved one's life is powerful. When I discovered that I could help families do that-- help tell the story of their loved one, and tell their own story, too, in the role they played in their loved one's life-- I was impassioned. That is what I had been looking to do for years-- the years of college, and the years after when I volunteered in various roles, all of which had something to do with building community and strengthening relationships. The supportive work that I do in helping to build community and strengthen relationships is what I think matters in life, and it's what I want to spend my time doing. Support is the key word here, and the key word from the definition I use to describe what a celebrant is: "A celebrant seeks to meet the needs of families during their time of loss by providing support during the initial stage of grief and by creating a customized funeral and memorial service that reflects the personality of the person who died."

It came full circle when we buried my grandfather this year. I told his story, which is my mother's back story, and my aunts', my uncles', my cousins', and mine. We knew were we came from.


1 From Gabriel García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera.

2 From the book The Name of the Wind

3 Secret Bonus Material! One of my favorite movies is “Departures.”




On Participating in Planning a Funeral:

One of the biggest reasons I became a celebrant comes from a most universal reason: I had a bad experience and I never wanted to repeat it again. Not only do I never want to repeat it again, but I want to do everything I am able to make sure it doesn't happen to anyone else. I don't mean to be vague-- the bad experience was my grandmother's funeral. (You'll see references to this funeral several times; it profoundly impacted me. I still feel the shock and trauma of it to this day.)

Four years on from her death, I've come to some realizations: Mamaw planned that funeral as a way to face her mortality and that she was going to die from cancer. This is certainly a valuable function of a funeral, but it left no thought to the survivors-- her children, grandchildren, friends, siblings.

I was living in Seattle at the time, and no one expected me to fly to North Louisiana for the funeral. But at the last minute, my mom called me and told me she wanted me there. I went. A flurry of preparations, two time zones, and a four-hour drive from Dallas to Shreveport later, I arrived numbed and jet-lagged at the funeral.

And once there, I sat in the pew next to my family and the funeral happened to me, and I choked out a couple of sobs at the anguish. There was the shock that I no longer had any living grandmothers, and the shock of being yanked out of the life I had made for myself on the West Coast only to be pulled into the slow pace of rural North Louisiana.

Three weeks ago, we buried my grandfather, and I officiated the service. My aunt, mom, and I made the arrangement with the funeral director, we picked out the casket, picked out his clothes, and with my other aunt and my uncle and his wife, we had a family meeting where we told each other what we remembered about my grandfather's life. I planned the service, gathered supplies for a small ceremony at the visitation, scanned pictures, and I listened to my grandfather's easy-listening gospel songs and the tape he recorded of his ancestor's stories, and digitally recorded those so that every funeral attendee could download the files and listen to them to remember my grandfather by. We picked out flowers, we ordered food platters from the grocery store. I wrote the eulogy.

I didn't know what to expect as a granddaughter officiating her grandfather's funeral. I knew I was taking a risk, that I might not be able to do it, but I wanted to do it, especially after having my grandmother's-- his wife's-- funeral just happen to me and my family. Even an expected death is sudden, and I wanted us to be proactive, not reactive, in the face of death.

I knew my efforts were fruitful when I choked up while reciting a prayer for the candle-lighting ceremony at the end of the visitation. My grief lodged in my throat, and I paused. I finished the prayer, and my balled-up grief loosened, let go, and dissipated.

I gauged, too, the fruits of my family's effort and participation while I gave my grandfather's eulogy at the graveside service. My grandfather's children showed a gamut of sadness-- teary red eyes, wiped cheeks, and a most telling swallowed sob from his eldest, the child who did not cry at their mother's funeral.

Participation was healing for me and for my family. It made my grandfather's death seem real, it gave us a way to acknowledge how important he was to us, it allowed us to release pent up emotion in a healthy way, and it drew us together and broke down grief's isolating barriers. We buried my grandfather together.


What to Expect in a Family Meeting

Ostensibly, the family meeting is where yours truly, as your celebrant, will gather material for the eulogy and will begin planning the personalized parts of the service. But to only see the family meeting in those business-like terms is misleading. The family meeting is an empowering step in the healing/grieving process.

All of the work I put into being your celebrant is a privilege and honor, but there are parts of the process where I feel that responsibility more heavily than others. The family meeting is one of those parts. Being allowed into the intimate memories and stories of a family takes a great deal of trust, and I hold that trust in great respect.

Part of the trust is that I won't air out family laundry. The family meeting is an open space for all memories-- good, bad, and ugly-- because death does not automatically make us saints (even Catholic saints have a vetting process). I understand certain things do not need to be spoken in the eulogy. However, to speak of painful memories is a part of healing, and a family meeting is a space and time to do so.

I also understand that to speak of difficult memories in front of a celebrant who was a stranger mere days ago could be unthinkable to private families. I hope then, the family meeting is a catalyst for a family to share memories and stories later. This, too, is healing. These stories are not for the deceased to hear; they are for the survivors.

So, in a family meeting, I will ask for stories. When did you laugh, cry, laugh so hard you cried with your loved one? When were you furious, joyful? What did you love, or hate, about them? What was annoying then and funny now? What were the defining moments of your life that they witnessed? What did you learn from them? What were the things they said, the things they saw, the things they did to make up their life?

And, one last promise-- there will be tissues, and I might cry with you, too. And I will want to offer you (whether I have it on hand or not) tea, or coffee, or a hot beverage that warms you up and makes the world seem a little more steady after death's blow. I will listen.

Who Needs a Celebrant?

A celebrant-led service is inherently flexible in order to meet the needs of every unique family during their time of grief, so, a generalized answer to “Who needs a celebrant” is, of course, everyone. However, a celebrant-led service is an especially good fit for families who identify as spiritual but not religious, have no minister/ church affiliation, want a unique personalized experience, or want a life tribute before a liturgical service. I’ve come across so many permutations of the above situations with families who, I am convinced, could have benefited from using a celebrant.

My paternal grandmother died after having lived several years with Alzheimer's. Her mind left her just as she left her home, and by the time she died, she had been gone from her hometown for at least five years. She was a committed member of the First Baptist Church, but having finished her life in a nursing home several hundred miles away so that her son (my dad) could better care for her, our family was left with no minister who knew her to officiate her service: her pastor was either retired or had himself died. We were fortunate to have a pastor who knew my dad and me, and he was the best option for my family even though he didn't know my grandmother or aunt. I often wonder how it could have helped my family in our grief if we had a celebrant to call on during that time.

There was a similar set of circumstances around a death in a close friend's family. His great-aunt was born, lived, and died in the same town, and was a member of the Catholic church there. Dementia took her presence from her community before death did, and the priest who knew her retired, to be replaced by a younger man who did not know her at all. Throughout the service, the new priest referred to her as “Janet” when her name was “Jeanette” until a family member, fed up, yelled out the correct name in the midst of the mass. (I promise to get the names right. I have journalism training, and getting the name wrong in that profession, like in this one, is nearly unforgivable.)

Even a strong faith is a nebulous, fluid thing, and while I am a practicing celebrant in the Greater New Orleans area, which has a strong Catholic culture, as well as in and near the Bible Belt, many people have moved away from attending church regularly for a myriad of sometimes complicated reasons. Priests and pastors have traditionally been the figures families look to in marking major life events (births, marriages, and deaths), but who can a family turn to when they have no connection to a congregation or a relationship with a priest or pastor? To whom do the wounded and disenfranchised go? How does a family who are spiritual but not religious pick some denomination so that a priest or pastor can officiate their loved one's funeral? I come to a family as a stranger, but we forge a bond during the family meeting as I listen to the stories about the deceased. I witness how their legacy is passed on, listen to their oral history, and I briefly come to know the context of being a member of that family.

Then there are the instances in which a family is a member of a parish and has a priest to call on. The funeral mass can be a wonderful thing, to participate in a liturgical tradition that thousands of Christians have participated in before then. Feeling connected through the unbroken chain of apostolic succession is a potent antidote to the shock, isolation, and disconnection felt while grieving. So what can a celebrant do? While liturgy can come off as stodgy and brittle, it has the advantage of allowing a time for almost anything, and a life tribute service from a celebrant can slip right in between the funeral rites-- for example, I can give the personalized eulogy, written from material gathered at the family meeting, during the visitation or before saying the rosary.

A celebrant-led service does not depend on the time of death. Grieving does not end after burial or cremation, and I don't believe the opportunity to observe a death should end then, either. A memorial service can happen at any time after death-- the death anniversary, birthday or other significant date-- and can be held almost anywhere that would be meaningful to the bereaved.