“Why would you want to do funerals?”
This is the unspoken question I often see in the face of a new acquaintance when I explain that I help families create funeral and memorial ceremonies. Writing and officiating custom-made wedding and baby ceremonies makes sense to people—after all, they’re happy occasions! But to choose to work with funerals on a regular basis…the very thought makes most people uncomfortable.
It is not an easy vocation, to be sure. It can be unpredictable, testing, and heart-breaking. So why do I feel a strong pull to end-of-life ceremonies? The seeds of my involvement were planted over sixteen years ago.
When my sister, Kerry, died in 1999, just shy of her 21st birthday, I was devastated, even though I knew it was coming. I felt like I was trapped under a boulder of profound, heavy pain while storms of emotions moved through me. Kerry was not only my sister, but also my best friend.
When I found someone who could validate my experiences or who would listen, really listen, to what I needed to express or share about Kerry, their support was an oasis for me. Somehow, I had the saving instinct to wade directly into my grief rather than try to push it down deeper or try to get past it. I immersed myself by writing and talking through the pain and fear, and creating images in my artwork to help myself find hope and healing.
Not quite two years later, I was introduced to a family with a seven-year-old girl, Kayleigh, who had a brain tumour. They were hoping to commission me to paint her portrait. What was incredible, was that instead of wanting to avoid the situation—as I would have in the previous year—I felt called to engage with this family.
After a sun-filled glorious day with Kayleigh, taking photos of her for the portrait and playing “pretend,” I felt so attached to her, and she to me. Having overheard that she only had 4-6 months to live, every moment with Kayleigh was precious and I spent as much time with her as I could. An only child, she liked to call me “Sis.” The significance of this was not lost on me. Even knowing what lay ahead, somehow I was not afraid. I felt strong, purposeful and overflowing with love.
Four short months later, as I stood at the pulpit of a full-to-bursting church, sharing the eulogy I had written for Kayleigh, my body was electric with the power of the moment, each chosen word my gift to her and to her parents. Her Mom and Dad looked up at me as I spoke, a silent, quiet “Yes…yes” in their eyes as I described the miracle that was their daughter.
How can I describe that feeling? For it is that feeling that makes working in the arena of loss, so worthwhile.
I feel honoured and privileged to serve others in this way. When listening to families’ memories and stories, assisting them in bringing their vision of the ceremony to life, I feel purposeful. If I can validate the complex, sometimes conflicting emotions the family experiences while we are planning, it allows me to feel connected. Yes, this occupation is challenging and can be emotionally charged, but it is also rich, and meaningful.
At the closing of my sister’s memorial, when my musician friends played a slow Irish reel that gradually, and perfectly, quickened to dance tempo, my heart overflowed with thanks for a service that had been the perfect tribute to Kerry’s beautiful spirit. When I am told that a ceremony I have co-created for a family is just what they had hoped for, I feel a warm gratitude, to have fostered a glimmer of light in the most difficult of times.
We all serve Love and Life in different ways. End-of-life Celebrant work is one that I reverently lay claim to.