ICFM Magazine, March 2005
Funeral celebrants are trained laypeople available to work with a deceased person's family to plan and conduct a funeral service that celebrates the person's life. They are used most often when the deceased was not religious or had no relationship with a local minister or house of faith.
Celebrants are more widely used in Australia and New Zealand, where church attendance rates are low and cremation rates high, but they are becoming more common in North America. This is the story of how one celebrant provides a caring service to a Calgary funeral home and its families.
Bonnie Roddis operated veterinary clinics for 30 years and regularly takes animals to visit schools and nursing homes, but it is her role as a funeral celebrant that this resident of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, considers her life's calling.
Since attending celebrant training two years ago, Roddis has led approximately 200 services through Foster's Garden Chapel of Calgary. She considers a personalized service that enables even family members to learn more about the deceased to be "The last gift we can give. I just help the family find the right wrapping paper."
Several of the earliest services Roddis conducted were for indigents who had no money for funerals.
"I feel very strongly that everyone should have appropriate words said over them," Roddis said. While she received no money for these services, she described "the greatest payment I've ever received" as eight photographs of scenery around Banff in the Canadian Rockies taken by a man who died a pauper.
Learning about the person
Roddis' work begins when a funeral home contacts her to let her know it is serving a family that may be interested in her services.
She calls a family member, expresses condolence for their loss and arranges a time to meet at their home or at the funeral home. She then outlines what her role would be and what would be involved in preparing for the service.
If the family decides to engage her as celebrant, Roddis begins with a list of questions designed to obtain the family history and biographical facts about the deceased.
She then moves to a more open-ended approach and may say something like, "Give me five words that describe your dad," or "What was your mom like on holidays?"
During the interview, Roddis draws out information about pets, athletic pursuits, hobbies and anything else a family member thinks is important.
A young child once asked Roddis if she was going to speak about her grandmother and Roddis immediately asked the child if she had something she wanted to share.
"She could take her teeth out," the child replied. Roddis carefully crafted a way to use the story and drew smiles from family members in the process.
In another instance, Roddis worked with the family of a 37-yearold woman who had died of cancer. During the family meeting, Roddis learned the woman was an alcoholic who had joined Alcoholics Anonymous and stopped drinking three years earlier.
At her service, "we focused on what a fabulous thing she did when she joined AA and helped others at the same time," Roddis said.
"I speak for the immediate family about what they want people to know about their loved one," she said. "They want someone to talk about their love for the person. They want it put right."
Writing a good eulogy takes time
To get it right, Roddis spends two to six hours in the family meeting and then three to six hours putting the service together. As she writes a eulogy, she imagines one person in the service who never met the deceased. By the end of the service she wants that person to feel as though he or she did know the deceased.
For the family, Roddis wants "to give them a mental picture that's not as sad as the one they saw in the casket or at the hospital. You have to give them something good."
Roddis also works with the family to decide where the service should be held. She has officiated at services in funeral homes, private homes, yards, parks and a historic building.
"Not everyone's cathedral is made of brick or wood. It may be on a river bank or on a mountainside," she said.
Roddis, who is 56 and has multiple health problems, believes being a celebrant may be her last vocation. She also doesn't believe she could have done it at a younger age. "There is a wisdom that comes to a woman in her 50s," she said.
She is sometimes asked why she has chosen to be involved in such a "sad" line of work.
"I don't hear about sadness," she said. "I hear about courage, selflessness, love and many other human traits. I'm not making a fortune, but I'm making a difference."