There are three major milestones in the journey of life, at least in my way of thinking. They are birth, death, and marriage. These are times when you need to stop and reflect – whether celebrating or grieving. 

Every week I try to share something interesting about weddings, but a friend recently asked if I’d write something about funerals (since I also officiate them).  I replied, the column is called Pocono Wedding Talk– but if you’re reading this it means my editor let it happen. (thank you!)

I approach creating any funeral, memorial, celebration-of-life, or simple graveside ceremony almost the same way I approach weddings. I create it with attention to the details, learning the specifics, the deceased beliefs (as understood by loved ones, naturally) with focus and sensitivity to the family’s needs and beliefs as well. This is similar to engaged couples who want their ceremony to accurately reflect their world-view and still take into account family members who might think differently. The deceased persons interests and hobbies, passions and general outlook on life will also inspire the script and ritual actions.

I might explore including music, candles, and other familiar rituals, because a funeral is more of a time to lean on the familiar and make the connections with the past. Funerals contain oft-repeated rituals because they provide continuity in a time of great and difficult change. This is why funeral homes still look so old-fashioned. People just want it to be the way they remember it.

The obvious difference is that the deceased can’t speak for him or herself, so I have to accept what the family is telling me. Unless, of course, I have met with the person before they died and talked this over – which I have done from time to time. Besides, as the cliché goes, these services are really for the living, not the dead. Still, ethically, it’s important to me that I respect and stay true to the deceased worldview. 

It’s sad to attend a funeral service of any kind and feel that the person is misrepresented. In fact, this was the one of my main motivations in becoming a celebrant.

Death makes us not only sad, but uncomfortable. I am interested in having conversations about death and dying and thinking about all it entails. Green funerals interest me, as does a return to a more natural way of caring for the dead. This is difficult in our society, but there is a small movement in this direction. It is rare for me to think that old ways were better, but in this case I do.

The best part of any memorial service is when family and friends speak about the person. I cannot possibly capture someone’s life and character, especially if I never met them. Officiating for someone you knew is different, of course, and I’ve done that fairly often. But my job is really to help people attending the service to understand that death is hard for the living and we are here to lean on one another through the worst part and acknowledge the continuing loss. I am keenly aware that grief doesn’t end with a funeral, that love doesn’t end, and I’m am there to validate the mourners’ feelings in an authentic way.

For those who do not follow a religious path, death rituals are problematic. There really are not many who choose a service without the religious component. Consequently, people wind up choosing notto have a service because they don’t know what to do. I think that’s a mistake.  I’m not saying you have to hire someone like me. You can create your own ceremony, even an informal get-together, something that works for you and your community.

Recently I suggested to friends who were intended to skip a funeral, that they simply meet, light some candles, share stories and just set aside a specific time to talk about their loss in an intentional way. They didn’t want that ‘service’ thing but skipping it all together I felt was a mistake. They took that advice and it worked out well for them.  I was glad I could help with just that simple suggestion.

Sometimes, as a funeral celebrant, I am in the role of an ‘MC’ – a master of ceremonies – just doing introductions and keeping things moving along. These are some of the best services, when people other than me have lots to say! 

For many it is more difficult to opt-out of tradition when the pressure of the funeral comes up – after all – these are short notice affairs, unlike long-planned weddings. It can be worthwhile to consider alternative options. If a house of worship is the right place for you, then there’s no problem, but if not, it helps to think about this in advance so when death occurs, you have prepared in some way.

A celebration of life, sometimes as much as a month after the death, is another option, giving more time for planning and more time for people far and wide to travel to be a part of it. There are more choices today than ever, so don’t be afraid to break from tradition, if that tradition doesn’t speak to you. 

Life’s biggest milestones are the times we get to step out of time and really explore our feelings and beliefs, and support one another on this crazy journey called life.

Lois Heckman is a certified Celebrant officiating in the Poconos and beyond. She writes about creating meaningful weddings, focusing on ceremony, ritual, and diverse traditions. Find her on Instagramfacebookand website:  

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