I talk with people about death and dying every day. Everyone says the same thing. Those left behind wish they had discussed what should happen at the funeral when that person was alive. Since I became a professional funeral celebrant - someone unattached to a particular religion or faith who officiates at funerals - customers invariably wish they’d known what celebrants do earlier because their loved one would have appreciated the care it takes to create a ceremony that truly reflects a life.
Birth and death are the two things we all have in common. Almost all of us have the occasion of our birth celebrated in some way, often before and after our arrival. So given that death is equally inevitable, why don’t we make the kind of plans for our dying ceremonies that we make about the ones that celebrate other life events?
Someone dying always comes as a shock, even if you have been expecting it. And if they haven't been specific about their wishes, we often have nothing to go on, except what we think they would like. It was always an unstated expectation that my father would be the first to go. But it didn’t work out that way. My mother died before him. It was quite a shock and as she had never discussed the possibility of dying with anyone, there was no clue what music or readings she would appreciate, or how she would like to be eulogised. I wanted to honour her fellow church congregation and also those of us in her family who didn’t share those beliefs. It was challenging to arrange a ceremony that would have meaning for us all.
As part of my pastoral support, I spend time with people approaching end of life, helping them tell their stories and make decisions about their ceremonies. I do this individually at home and can visit hospices and hospitals. I also run group life-writing workshops in care and retirement settings.
This gives me the opportunity to help people talk about and plan the kind of ceremony they would like. It’s like storytelling for when you’ve gone. You can write about your life the way you’d like to be remembered; the friendship and love, the landmark occasions and happy memories, the successes and the challenges you have overcome. Sometimes people won’t know all the aspects that make up the story of your life, the person you really are.
There are two strong reasons to find and talk to a celebrant before you die. The first is because it will make it so much easier for your loved ones, who will be grieving your loss when you are gone. When my parents died, there was no real indication of what they would want or how it should go. Which given they both had very strong views on everything, left me feeling helpless and just made things worse, like whatever I planned for their funerals would be wrong.
Secondly, since we choose every other professional to work with in our lives, it makes sense to find a celebrant you trust will deliver a ceremony you would like. Talking about life can help to dispel some of the fear of death. You suddenly see the richness of your experiences. Planning your ceremony with someone you like will make all the difference and can bring some peace of mind to both you and your family. A knowledgeable person will also help you to think about other aspects of the funeral arrangements and point you to a reputable funeral director.
Despite being a comparatively new profession in the UK there are many celebrants to choose from, each of whom will have their individual approach. Some are strict humanists who simply believe in a rational atheistic approach to life and death. Others are excellent event officiants - talented people who can deliver lovely ceremonies. I consider my vocation to be more spiritual, spending time with people, really trying to understand the nature of their beliefs and reflecting those back in the funeral. While not believing in any specific religious doctrine, I draw on spiritual teachings and traditions from different cultures and faiths around the world, which can bring both intimacy and dignity to one of the most important events of our lives.
Whatever your beliefs it’s important to make choices before you die. Imagining your funeral isn’t depressing or morbid, it’s hopeful. You will be offering comfort to those you leave behind and sending them a message to live their lives to the fullest.