Illustration by Dave Cutler
Midway through the funeral of an elderly gentleman in Ohio, USA, last year, the 70 people in attendance began to howl like Tarzan. The coordinated outburst was the idea of Kevin O’Brien, the celebrant hired to create and conduct the service.
“Grandpa was a pretty shy man, but after a couple of beers, when the grandkids asked, he would do a Tarzan yell for them,” O’Brien explains. “It seemed like a good idea to all do that together.” At another funeral service, he organized a toast with moonshine made by the father of the deceased.
“Little things like that make a ceremony unique,” O’Brien says. “I’m pretty open to doing anything that makes a funeral ceremony meaningful, personal, and memorable.” He adds that the most important step in designing a satisfying funeral service is meeting with and listening to family members. “The more of the family and the less of me, the better it is,” he says.
The celebrant movement traces its origins to Australia in the 1970s, when the attorney general, Lionel Murphy, recognized a need for nonreligious celebrations to accommodate an increasingly secular population. That led to the founding of the International Federation of Celebrants, says Charlotte Eulette, director of the North American chapter of the Celebrant Foundation and Institute (CFI).
CFI has trained more than 600 people, who now work in 46 U.S. states, five Canadian provinces, and several other countries, performing about 4,000 ceremonies a year. About 70 percent of them are weddings and 20 percent are funerals, with the other 10 percent being observances of what the institute calls “life-cycle events” – baby namings, new-business blessings, renewals of marriage vows, even divorces.
One celebrant whom Eulette knows presided at an event for a woman who had decided it was time for her to stop driving. “The woman said, ‘Everybody makes a big deal about a 16-year-old getting a license. How about when an 85-year-old gives up her license?’” Eulette recalls. “It confronted a challenging situation in a celebratory way, with style and class.”
Celebrants often appeal to people who think of themselves as spiritual but aren’t affiliated with a particular religion – a segment of the population that’s growing at a faster rate than the number who say they are affiliated, according to a 2007 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The survey also found that one-fourth of Americans ages 18 to 29 are not affiliated with any particular faith.
The CFI training consists of a live online course that meets one hour a week for seven months. The institute’s 14 teachers instill in students the concept of ceremony, and instruct them about the role of ritual and myth in different cultures. Many of the students are hospice workers or hospital chaplains; 85 percent are women.
An exception is O’Brien, who has worked exclusively as a funeral celebrant over the last year, after six years as a pastoral counselor. He knew he had found a new calling after one of his first funerals, when a woman clasped his hand and said it was the best funeral she had ever attended. “Because we aren’t affiliated with any religion, celebrants don’t have the restrictions of clergy,” O’Brien says. “You can bring in poems, music. The hallmark of it is storytelling.”
Marta Adubato, a celebrant near Terre Haute, Ind., conducts mostly weddings, but three years before she’d ever heard the word celebrant, she led the funeral service for her brother, Jon, who had died suddenly at the age of 43.
“I had worked as an assistant pastor, so I volunteered,” she recalls. “Jon had no church affiliation, and I was not going to let someone send him off with a religious ceremony that would have meant nothing to him. Instead, I simply told his story. I told funny and serious anecdotes, I acknowledged the grief in the room, and I addressed his son, his friends, his co-workers, and their loss. A week later, my dad told me that seven people had called, saying they wanted me to do their funerals when they died. I had no idea I could be involved in this type of work without being a clergy member.”
Adubato has performed about 60 ceremonies over the last four years – including an annual year-end event at which people who have lost loved ones decorate a tree in their memory, and a “croning” ritual at which eight women whose mothers had passed away drank margaritas in a hot tub. But weddings bring her the most satisfaction. “Too many people think of a wedding ceremony as the boring part before the party,” she says. “I try to make it much more than that.”
Being certified as a celebrant, however, does not qualify someone to conduct a legally binding wedding ceremony. One way to achieve that status is by ordination.
That process, which for non-seminarians once involved filling out a form in the back pages of a magazine and mailing in a check, has been simplified by technology. That’s what Chicago attorney Don Erickson discovered one evening 10 years ago when he stumbled on the website of the Universal Life Church. He decided to fill out the form and become instantly ordained. “At the time, for some reason, it seemed like an opportunity I should not pass up,” he says.
Erickson mentioned his newfound status to a friend, who remembered it a few years later when a friend of his wanted to get married in a simple ceremony. Erickson, who also serves as president and chair (or “bacchus”) of the Chicago Wine and Food Society, presided at that wedding and has performed three others since. Although he became a minister on a whim, he says he takes his role seriously, meeting beforehand with the bride and groom to plan readings and making sure that the legal paperwork is in order. As for the ceremony itself, Erickson says he tries to keep his remarks brief. “My skills in public speaking are eclipsed by my skills in public drinking and eating,” he says.
All kidding aside, Eulette observes that because we all lead such hectic lives, we often focus on getting past important events rather than experiencing them. “People don’t need closure,” she says. “They need opening.”