A memorial can be casual or formal. Guests can arrive in jeans. Or they can be dressed in formal black attire. It can be in person, on Zoom, or some combination. There’s no “good” or “bad.”
However, an end-of-life celebration does need some organizing in advance to avoid confusion or even hurt feelings. Everyone in attendance needs to feel they understand what to expect. Family dynamics combined with grief can be stressful enough.
A celebrant is a trusted facilitator during a funeral or memorial. The celebrant is the host you appoint to help those gathered follow your programme. It can be very short (15 min.) or relatively lengthy (90 minutes and up). But, there needs to be a plan. The celebrant can help you draft this programme.
Six Key Tasks for Your Celebrant at the Memorial or Funeral
Offer words of welcome and provide an overview of how the event will unfold.
Introduce speaker(s) who offer a eulogy.
Facilitate symbolic practices such as lighting candles, releasing balloons, laying flowers, and religious or cultural traditions.
Facilitate an “open microphone” when speakers briefly share a special memory.
Thank everybody for coming (or introduce an appointed family member to do.)
Announce next steps to ensure all guests feel confident that they can also leave appropriately. (e.g. where to gather for refreshments or to encourage the signing of a guest book upon leaving, etc.)
Your celebrant will meet with you prior to the funeral or memorial to discuss your family’s ideas. Many families add other elements: music, singing, “words of wisdom” (a poetry reading, spiritual or religious texts), or a movie about the deceased person’s life. Families often wish to engage grandchildren if applicable. The time to discuss such ideas is prior to the memorial so all gathered can focus on celebrating a life well lived.
If you want to learn more about the tasks fulfilled by a funeral director and how they are different from your celebrant, click here.
Lately, due to COVID-19 many families end the obituary for their loved one with a simple note: “A Memorial will be held at a later date.”
This statement holds out hope for the future when families plan to gather and celebrate the life of the person who passed.
However, how do we keep our promise to come together at a later date? Maybe the best way forward is to simply pick a date and put it on the calendar. Putting a memorial date on the calendar today will help you keep your promise to give your loved one the Celebration of Life so richly deserve.
How should we pick a meaningful date for the Celebration of Life?
One obvious date to plan a memorial may be the anniversary of your loved one’s passing. But, that’s likely close to an entire year away. Perhaps many relatives and friends would rather pick a significant date from within the life of the deceased, such as their birthday or their wedding anniversary, or the day they achieved a major milestone in life. Or perhaps a significant date in the life of their most significant other could work, say, the day a spouse may have pre-deceased them.
Families could also pick a date from a religious calendar that was meaningful to the deceased. For example, using an example from the Christian calendar, families may consider Good Friday or maybe the first Sunday of Advent. Families without a faith tradition could consider Canadian Thanksgiving in October or Family Day in February. Both days may provide an excellent spot on the calendar to celebrate your loved one who passed during COVID-19.
Last but not least, there’s never a “good” time or a “bad” time to celebrate a life well lived. Everybody processes the passing of a loved one in his or her own way.
Why do officiants need to remain professional? Or in other words, would you appreciate a crying, sobbing funeral director? Can an officiant show his or her emotions at a Celebration of Life?
First and foremost, families expect the persons they retain to plan and guide a memorial to care — a lot. But that’s not the same as showing one’s own raw emotions.
A few years ago, one of my friends and colleagues had to conducted the funeral for a 17-year old teenager. That’s a tough assignment for anybody and everybody involved.
At the event, my dear colleague stood in front of a crowd of over 1,000 people. So many showed up! Everybody wanted to demonstrate their support for the family of that young man.
Emotions ran high and it felt like all 1,000 people in attendance may be on the brink of a collective breakdown at any time, he told me later. The empathy for the teen’s distraught family was palpable.
I asked my colleague if he himself broke down at any point. I would certainly would have understood if so.
“No,” he said. He added, “Me breaking down would have been unkind. Everybody needed me to stay a little bit, even if just a little bit, in control.”
I agree. Kindness, respect, and even love for grieving families, asks professionals to stay professional. It’s our job to keep the focus on helping others to grieve. Not because we don’t care, but precisely because we do care.
Maybe you’ve heard someone talk about events that “trigger” some other experience.
For example, one quite elderly person I talk to regularly during the Covid-19 pandemic survived as a refugee during World War II in Europe. Surprisingly, her current self-isolation is bringing back war time memories of when she was just a young girl. She is now well into her 80ties! That’s remarkable, isn’t it? The Covid-19 pandemic is “triggering” memories of almost 70 years ago.
I experienced triggering emotions some years ago after my own mother’s passing at a relatively young age. I was just 36 year old and the dad of two young children.
About a half a year later, I casually decided to attend a funeral for the distant relative of a work colleague. I wanted to go to this funeral simply to be supportive of my colleague. I did not know the deceased person. However, I felt myself becoming very, very emotional when the service of commemoration began. Why? I didn’t even know the person who had passed away!
Later, I realized my emotional reaction was caused by the fact that I had not yet attended any other funeral since my own mother’s Celebration of Life. This new memorial, which I had expected to be a low-key event just to be supportive of my colleague, “triggered” me to feel all the sadness I had felt at my mother’s memorial.
Everything and anything can bring back memories we never knew we had not yet fully processed. Triggers are real. During the Covid-19 pandemic we need to try to be patient with ourselves when we feel emotional in unexpected ways. As we self-isolate and feel alone, other times of our lives when we felt isolated may come back to us in powerful ways.
In the course of my career, I’ve been asked repeatedly if young children should attend a Celebration of Life or funeral.
Ultimately, that’s a decision only a parent can make. It will depend on the maturity of the child, his or her relationship to the person who passed away, and if any other children will be at the funeral.
If at all possible, I suggest it is important to ensure a very young child has somebody to “watch over him or her” during the memorial. Maybe a family friend or an older cousin. Preferably someone with a bit more distance to the deceased.
Some years ago, I officiated at a funeral for a community leader who was widely loved and respected. A large crowd gathered in his honour. At least 400 people filled the church.
On the front bench sat a little grandson, about 12 years old. From the beginning of the service to the very end, he was quietly sobbing inconsolably. The dissonance between the wonderful notes of honour, love and praise shared about the grandfather and this young child’s sorrow was difficult for me, as the officiant, to watch. Yet, in this case, this boy was given the opportunity to cry for a man he adored and loved. The funeral will likely be a memory he will carry with him likely for the rest of his life. I have every reason to believe it will be a memory he will cherish