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.