Celebrating Life
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A Celebrant's Journal

Volume I, Issue 1--A Celebrant's Mission
Volume I, Issue 2--Meaningful Services
Volume I, Issue 3--Personalization
Volume I, Issue 4--When Faced With Unexpected Death
Volume I, Issue 5--Backyard Memorial Services
Volume I, Issue 6--Planning Your Own Funeral

Volume I, Issue 1--A Celebrant's Mission

The first year of tackling a new mission in life involves a learning curve. If your heart is in the right place, the process is easier. I've met so many great families whose lives have been affected by unexpected or tragic deaths. It is not easy. A Celebrant needs listening and writing skills along with a resource library, a strong heart, and a dedicated spirit.

I love working with families. They know their loved one best. Families who understand the Celebrant movement are more than willing to share the smaller moments of someone’s life that make a service unique. My life is forever changed by the families I meet.

I also love working with funeral homes. Why? In my experience, the counselors, funeral directors, and service arrangement staff are wonderful people who are working toward a common goal: To give a grieving family a special way to honor their loved one. A Celebrant is a new option to attain that goal.

My mission is now clear: Be the best Celebrant I can be, one family at a time. I am always an advocate for the family first, trying to deliver a funeral or memorial service that they envision to remember their loved one honorably. Personalization is key. Done right, it takes time, of course, but it is our time well spent.

At each service I have conducted, mourners have seen something new and approach me with smiles and questions. That is why I've decided to share my journal. If you have a question, please send it to me on the contact page. I will answer as many questions as I can each month through this journal. I believe in this cause, because families only get one chance at a funeral service - it should be the most effective, honorable moment to close out a life story.

As I am receiving many calls and e-mails from families, my final advice to families facing a death is simple: There are always options. Think the options through. Don't be pressured by anyone to just walk through the motions of a trivialized, unemotional service, because the choices are yours. It is up to each family who will conduct a funeral service. Ask the funeral director about your choices and options and then focus on what your loved one would want. Being a part of the process and expressing a meaningful life will help the healing begin.

Best wishes to all, Pam

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Volume I, Issue 2--Meaningful Services

A funeral or memorial service does not have to put you into debt for years in order to be poignant. One of the most meaningful services I have conducted to date, was also the least expensive. The casket was a simple choice. The burial plot was the least expensive. The flowers were not extravagant. The music was some of the deceased’s favorite songs by well known artists. We played them on CD. The items placed in the casket with the loved one cost less than one dollar.

Most importantly, the words that were spoken in the eulogy, the stories that were shared among family and friends had meaning. The entire day brought emotion from tears to laughter, sadness to joy. Why? Because the family invested their time into the process. They were willing to get involved and sit down and share the stories that made the difference. They shared the stories and I tended to the coordination of other details.

If you can afford all of the bells and whistles a funeral has to offer, from the solid wood Mahogany casket or a Bronze casket to extraordinary sprays of flowers, thousands of roses, the most expensive burial plot or a top-of-the-line urn, a horse drawn hearse or a scattering at sea, a soloist, a pianist, a harpist, a full band, an orchestra, a choir, a dove release, a multi-media DVD presentation, or an expensive reception at a famous restaurant, I think that’s great. But, most of us have to choose what we can afford. Funeral homes do not want you to go into deep debt to honor your loved one. Services can’t break the bank and they don’t have to in order to honor a life. Simple is sometimes more poignant.

Bottom line, you need to ask yourself: What do I need to Celebrate a Life? The life had meaning and to express that meaning brings grand emotion. To me, emotions should not be crushed. Those big emotions have to go some place. In my services, it is safe to grieve. I grieve with you. There are times with a family that we share tears at their heartache and we share laughter at a funny story. Sometimes, we catch ourselves losing it and as a group, we pass around the tissue box and we laugh at our heartfelt tears.

The thank you letters I receive from families are an amazing gift to keep me on the path of being a Funeral Celebrant. If I were interested in getting rich, this isn’t the way to do it. Being a Celebrant is a calling. But, I feel there are rich stories to be shared and I am a tool in helping a family begin to heal. I will continue my work for anyone who asks for my help. I will invest my time, I will call relatives and friends around the country, I will go the extra distance to deliver a service that honors your loved one, because…

Everyone has a story… It is my honor to share their stories.

Best wishes to all, Pam

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Volume I, Issue 3--Personalization

Death is the result of living life. Is this cycle fair? No. Is it inevitable? Yes. We don’t have to own a house, we don’t have to own a car, we don’t have to own a television, we don’t have to travel the world, but we all have to die eventually. It’s an unfortunate fact.

Then, the question becomes, what do you want your funeral service to look like? What do you want your family to do for your memorial service? Do you want them to worry and wonder, is this what she wanted? Did I do enough to honor his life? Did she want a religious service? Did he want stories shared?

My husband and I have laid out our funeral plans ranging from the early stages to the actual service details. We have picked the songs we want to have played, we have chosen the stories we want to have shared, and we have made decisions that otherwise would have to be made by someone else. Why? Because even though we would be gone, we want our farewell to serve a purpose for those we leave behind. We want our children to feel good about the lives we’ve led. We want them to get on with living their own lives.

So many people lose a multitude of weeks, months, or sometimes years of their own lives after someone dies. There is no healing. An impersonal service compounds the problem. Grieving is different for everyone, but there can be a beginning to healing moments in a personalized service. It is no surprise that I provide free copies of my eulogies for family members. Why? They ask for them after the funeral services with an unexpected eagerness to reflect on the stories they had forgotten.

Many of my services are videotaped by family members. As I conduct the services, retelling personal stories, the family regains a personal history with their loved one. Beyond the stories, sometimes there comes a moment when a relative feels the need to speak. It is moving and emotional.

So, if you’re thinking about the future, think about your choices now, while you can do it with a smile before the time arrives. We never know when our time is up so educate yourself while you can focus. Dealing with an unexpected death and being uneducated on options, forces you or family members into a crash course of decisions. Don’t make your decisions too quickly. Think about each choice. It can be overwhelming, so I advise you to research things now.

My sister researched her options. She planned her own funeral, met with the funeral director, and chose her own casket. If she can make the choices when forced to by a diagnosis of the final stages of cancer at the young age of 49, you can review the options and be informed should you ever face dealing with these issues unexpectedly.

Did you know there are Veteran Benefits? If you have a veteran in the family, make sure they have their discharge papers in a safe place. Make an extra copy to be sure you have them. Check on-line at http://www.militaryfuneralhonors.osd.mil/ to see what benefits the U.S. Government provides to veterans for burial and military honors. There are options available to research now.

My husband has his funeral farewell planned down to the party napkins. Why? Because he wants his exit done his way. He has attended too many impersonal funerals that have trivialized a friend’s life or a family member’s life. He does not want someone to insert his name into a pre-written script used for many funerals and then mispronounce his name throughout the service. He does not want mourners to leave his funeral feeling empty. By providing his relatives with a description of what he wants for his service, that empty feeling is an impossibility.

Best wishes to all, Pam.

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Volume I, Issue 4--When Faced With Unexpected Death

The other day, a very smart man in the funeral industry summed up the biggest problems families face: Not knowing what they want or need for a funeral service. He offers choices but many times the families are overwhelmed and shocked by a death that they can’t make decisions. Most times, it is after a funeral service, at the reception, when he hears from families: "We should have done this. We should have done that. Why didn’t we have someone telling these stories?"

It is frustrating that the moment is lost, and now only a couple of people at the reception shared those special, memorable stories. The stories that rang true…the stories that made the person who they were…the stories that made you smile and remember…and yes, the stories that made you weep.

If you’ve ever been to a Celebrant service, you know what I’m talking about. The funny stories count but so do the poignant ones.

I have done several services for families who have lost a child early in their marriage. Each time, we included the story of the loss of the young child because it was a significant part of their lives. That death, although sometimes decades ago, was as significant the day of the service as it was when it occurred. The grieving may have taken on a different form over the years, but the grief is still present. They are part of the person’s history.

Celebrants do not gloss over life changing events. Celebrants include everyone and every story they are asked to share, no matter how painful or difficult it is to tell. No one should have to bury their child at any age. For someone to go on with their life after such a painful loss, go on contributing to society, go on helping others, is also a lesson to others on how to continue living after the current loss. Celebrants celebrate every life that is lived no matter what hardships are faced or what successes are won.

Life is a balancing act. My friend, another Celebrant, always reminds me to keep focused because this movement is growing. There will soon be a Celebrant available in every city in the United States. I welcome each one of them. Why? One more story at a funeral is one more family that will start healing.

After we held the funeral service for my sister, I had no regrets. We told her stories, we shared her history, and we shared her videotaped message for everyone’s future. My sister’s final words, which she recorded on videotape, are hard for some people to watch. But, anyone who watches and listens to them is forever changed. She tells it to everyone straight:

      "Each and everyone one of you have a limited amount of time on this Earth.
       You each have a job to do. Find out what your mission is and get it done."

My sister inspired me to be a Funeral Celebrant, that is my mission. I will continue on the path to help people, one family at a time.

Best wishes to all, Pam.

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Volume I, Issue 5--Backyard Memorial Services

Imagine you’ve designed your own backyard hand-in-hand with an architect, every step of the way, and as a result of your hard work, it is beautiful. Birds flock to your yard because it is so amazing. Friends love to visit and sit with you in your backyard. It is the one place you go to sit by the pool and read a book or relax and listen to your favorite music. It is your perfect sanctuary just the way you designed it to be. A dream come true. It may not be the most expensive design in the world. It may not be the biggest yard in the world, but just the same…it is yours…it holds a special place in your heart.

Now, you’ve passed away. Where would you want your relatives to hold the memorial service? In a nice church you attended regularly or from time to time…in a nice funeral home, non-denominational chapel where you held the service for a relative, where details are perfectly organized by a staff…or in the backyard you designed, a place that brought you pleasure for a large portion of your life, where details and stories are shared among family and friends? The choice is obvious only to you.

I recently conducted another service in someone’s backyard. Everyone at the service felt as though she was watching over us the entire time. Her friends shared stories as the birds continued visiting the feeders. It was an amazing gift to everyone who attended. A moving service because of her life stories as well as her history which were shared in her yard with her family and friends. Funny stories and poignant moments. At the end of the service, we handed out elegant bird seed bags with a memory note attached to each one. I was moved. I cannot thank the family enough for letting me be a part of this special service.

My friends, memorial services may be held anywhere you deem appropriate, where it seems as though the life and personality of the deceased will ring through. Where people can be overheard after the service saying, "She would’ve loved that service. That‘s exactly what she would have wanted."

There are many places to hold a memorial service. The opportunities are limitless: In a church or funeral home chapel, in a community center or banquet room, in a music hall or a theatre, on a yacht or a boat, at a park or on the beach, in your living room or backyard. Choices, choices, choices… Families are choosing specific elements from traditional funerals while adding more personalized moments that will be cherished and remembered.

When you think about it, where was your loved one most comfortable and happy?
Where do you feel their presence most?
Would they want a church memorial service, including a testimonial of God’s will?
Would they want something more non-denominational at a funeral home chapel?
Would they want a memorial service at the beach, where they loved taking the family every summer?
Would they want something more personal in their own house, where they were most comfortable?

The decision is yours.

There are so many options available to families and the bottom line is clear: You can’t do anything wrong if you do your best under the circumstances. Have no regrets in your decisions. Have no regrets in who you have conduct the service either. Ten different people officiating can deliver ten completely different funeral services. Each person has a different approach and a different result. None of them are wrong. Whether you decide upon a freelance Minister or Celebrant, each person is doing the best they can with the experience or training they have sought over the years. You can always sense the sincere heart.

Ask whoever conducts the service, to do research and use personal stories. If the first person you find to do the service is not willing to personalize the service, find someone who will. It is your choice. If you only get one chance at the funeral service, make it the best service it can possibly be. This doesn’t mean you have to pour more money into the service with extra elements…rather, focus on the message.

So, I leave you with this thought: Life is a combination of moments that have been lived. Now, you need to decide, should we share those moments and remind friends and family of the life we shared?

I publicly rejoice each life.

At the end of the last service I conducted, we played Frank Sinatra’s song, "My Way." While expressing the way the deceased lived life, that song also sums up the Celebrant movement. Listen to that song and you’ll nod your head in agreement as he reviews his life from beginning to end. And, yes, a funeral service can be done the way you want it. At the service, they will say, "He did it his way," resulting in a shared smile of satisfaction and shared healing.

Best wishes to all, Pam.

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Volume I, Issue 6--Planning Your Own Funeral

After funeral and memorial services, I am approached with questions from mourners about pre-planning their own services and what they have in mind for themselves. I always respond with the same message: Share your preferences with your family today. While no one is dying, while no one is overwhelmed with emotions, while decisions aren’t required today…sit down with your family in a casual manner and share your preferences. It’s okay to talk about it.

Do you want to be buried? What kind of casket?
Do you want to be cremated? Urn or scattering?
Do you want a church service, funeral chapel service, or memorial service at home?
What songs do you want played?
Do you like hymns or more popular music?
Do you want a testimonial to God?
Do you want scripture or poems read?
What personal stories do you want to have included?
Do you want a Celebration of your life?

If you cover these basic questions, your family will be more prepared when the time comes. You will not leave them in a quandary, searching for the right thing to represent you.

There are a variety of choices when it comes to burial. Think about the location where you would want to buried. Think of funeral homes you like and cemeteries where the property seems appropriate to represent your life. What would you want?

There are a variety of choices when it comes to cremation. I have dealt with families that have dealt with national cremation organizations. I have also dealt with families that have gone through their local funeral home for cremation. It’s your choice and check out your options. If you’re savvy on-line, there are options all over the internet from local organizations to worldwide plans.

One of the funerals I worked on was moving, not because the family organized it, but because the deceased expressed her wishes in the weeks prior to her passing. Ultimately, it was the celebration of her life that she wanted. In detail, she shared her thoughts with her family about her preferences. In turn, everything she requested was honored. When each element was explained with the meaning and the request behind it, the level of emotional involvement was higher and respected. It was exactly the way she wanted her service to be - an uplifting event filled with her personal stories, reviewing her life and the way she treated people. The music represented her personal stories as well. Her final resting place was, in fact, chosen by her.

As a result of her hard work and forethought, everyone left the service feeling as though we honored her memory, her way. It’s alright to talk about your wishes no matter your situation. It’s alright to discuss it.

I met a woman yesterday who found out what I’m doing full-time for a living now, and she couldn’t believe it. She said her parents recently sat down with her and told her that they’ve pre-purchased plots and made arrangements with a local funeral home. She tried to change the subject, but her parents pushed forward - explaining what kind of services they would prefer for themselves. She said, the whole conversation ended in a peaceful moment with quiet smiles. Why? She never realized that people could have a say in their own funeral and thinking back on it, she realized it was important to her parents to follow through on their plans. Her parents are both in their 80’s now and they’ve been thinking about it. She now is thinking about getting her life in order for her own children - so they don’t have to do guesswork as well.

My friends, I encourage you to talk about death - don’t make it the subject to avoid until you have to deal with it. Statistics show that most people only have to personally plan 3 or 4 funerals in their lifetime. You have an opportunity to make each one meaningful, unique, and special.

In the end, every life has a lesson to teach us.

Best wishes to all, Pam

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Copyright © 2005- Pam Vetter. All rights reserved.