‘Leading funerals’ probably isn’t the most obvious career pathway for an average 13 year old. But looking back, the pathway to becoming a celebrant was already ahead of me by that age.
I am the Grandaughter of a true matriarch – her strength of character runs through my veins many years after she has died. Born in the early 1900’s she told me about traditional funeral rites – keeping the body at home for family to ‘visit’ stopping the clocks and closing the parlour curtains if anyone in the street had died.
If I was walking with my Grandad and a hearse passed by he would insist we stopped, face the casket and bow our heads as it passed – and there were a LOT of those as they lived just a few doors up from the local “undertakers”.
Surprisingly, I didn’t find those stories scary or macabre. If anything I was quietly curious and intrigued by the deference shown to the dead by those leading funerals.
Sitting with the dying
An uncle died when I was still quite young. I was ‘expected’ to take my turn amongst the family to sit by his ‘deathbed’ as his health deteriorated. Fortunately he was a distant uncle and I wasn’t particularly close to him. And so, I was able to observe his fragility without being traumatised.
The day after he passed I was asked to accompany my mum to ‘view’ him in the hospital morgue. My friends thought I was crazy to consider and shared lots of scary images with me!! And yet again I was gifted with an unexpected perspective when we entered the room. His last days had not been peaceful – and yet there he was -relaxed and looking calm. I guess that is what some people mean by being “finally at peace”.
Over the following years I would be asked to write and read the Eulogy at both my Grandparents funerals. I had always been able to capture emotions through writing and I was never afraid to stand up and speak in public (thanks again for that confidence Grandma!). I guess I was the obvious choice – and it wasn’t as if people were fighting me for pole position on the lectern!
Talking about death openly
I think the greatest gift these opportunities gave me – was the ability to discuss death, openly, honestly and with compassion. If a passing acquaintance mentioned the loss of someone they loved, I didn’t simply sweep it under the carpet with an embarrassed look. Instead I would open the conversation and ask them to tell me about that person. I would ask how they were managing emotionally within that moment of time.
It wasn’t unusual to find myself in the most bizarre situations with people sharing their innermost feelings with me. It might be a total stranger sat next to me at a wedding telling me about their lost baby. Or perhaps in a supermarket hearing about a grand father that had just been buried. Either way they always thanked me as we said goodbye; for the opportunity to talk openly and without fearing they would ‘upset me’ if they cried!
I don’t know how those conversations started – its not a go to introduction “Hello, please tell me about your sadness”… And yet they did. I can only surmise that on a vibrational level those people resonated with me and sensed an opportunity to open their hearts to a stranger.
Anyhow, there is no point in trying to understand the unfathomable – I just feel gifted to be able to share those moments. And privileged to now be leading funerals for families as they grieve.
Realisation of a vocation
A few years back I attended a Death Cafe. An open meeting for all to eat cake, drink tea and talk about death. It was here that I began to really understand how most families DON’T discuss death openly. I was shocked to hear that even in the face of death most families can’t have frank discussions. Unfortunately, lack of that conversation leads to missed opportunities for a meaningful farewell.
There are only two things that we TRULY can only experience once in a lifetime. Birth and Death.
For the past 15 years I have worked with pregnant couples as a birth doula – preparing them for birth, helping them make informed choices, and making sure they are ‘heard’.
The skills required as a birth doula are exactly the same at the end of life. Respect and recognition for the deceased and the grieving. Ensuring that each family is aware of all the choices available to them. And offering emotional support throughout one of the toughest processes of life.
I hadn’t realised that I had been collecting a skill set piece by piece over the past 40 years that would help me to be a great funeral celebrant.
Understanding that my true vocation was to hold families as they say goodbye to their loved ones was a gradual awakening.
I didn’t guess that the path was just gently guiding me through the garden of life. Just a mere 35 years later I would finally understand what I wanted to do ‘when i grow up’. I was destined to be leading funerals that were meaningful, memorable and TOTALLY unique!