By Guest Contributor Barry Slocombe
The life of a funeral celebrant is rewarding. It can also be highly challenging. Earlier this year, Celebrant Barry Slocombe found out just how challenging. He decided to share his experience with us so that we could get a peek behind the curtain and see just what life is like for a Celebrant. Here is his story:
In a unique set of circumstances, I was contacted on August 15 by a family member requesting an Inurnment and Celebration of Life service on September 16, 2021. As Celebrants, we usually have 3 – 5 days’ notice to prepare for a service. The preparation includes: meeting with the family, conducting research on prose, poetry, music, and prayers, creating the text and structure of the service, and securing family approval. With 31 days to prepare for this service, I accepted with an enthusiastic “yes.”
As I mentioned, this service presented a unique set of circumstances to which my contact then explained the details. Four decedents from the same family had all died within the past 13 months. Due to Covid 19 service restrictions, the family could not hold individual services. While most Celebrants have dealt with Covid 19 related death services over the past 2+ years, this was not the case. Only one decedent had passed away due to Covid 19. The other three passed away from natural causes. However, with service restrictions now sufficiently lifted, the family felt it was appropriate to hold a single service for all four decedents. The relationship among the decedents was interesting–3 were biologically related, and the 4th was previously married to one of the decedents.
My contact requested that the Inurnment service be held first, followed by the Celebration of Life service with about 45 guests attending. This was to be followed by a light lunch. Typically, a Celebration of Life or Memorial service is held first. The service will typically include family members and guests and is followed by the burial service of either a casket or urn. An Inurnment can involve placing the urn in a niche or a mausoleum. In this case, it was an inground Inurnment. This means the urns were placed in the ground at a designated site, much like a casket burial.
During the initial conversation with my contact, he inquired about my fee to handle the multiple services. Because I had to give this some thought, as I had not conducted a service of this nature, I advised him that I would get back to him shortly. To determine the fee, I took my standard charge for a Celebration of Life and an Inurnment and multiplied it by 4. I applied a 20% discount to achieve a fee that I felt would be fair to the client yet profitable.
My fee was accepted. I advised him that I would require 50% of the fee at the family meeting, which was arranged for five days out. I do not ask for a partial payment when I initially meet with the family if I receive the service from a funeral director. The funeral home pays my fee after the service. I request 50% of my fee to be paid when the family contacts me directly. In this situation, I was not only contacted directly, but the service was complex. So I felt my request was justified.
There are many essential components in creating the service. One that I feel is of the utmost importance is the “family meeting.” I meet with the family, usually 2 -5 members. A typical meeting lasts about an hour and a half. I prefer to meet the family representatives at their home as this is their “comfort zone.” They are likely to be more at ease than in a public space like the local Starbucks.
The Family Meeting
The family meeting consists of securing information about the loved one to create the service. I also assist them in creating an Order of Service, so the service flows smoothly and professionally. The Order of Service acts as a guide for the Funeral Directors. It advises them when to play music, start a video or slideshow presentation, and usher guests. At the family meeting, I also consult on poems, music, prayers, eulogies, mementos for the service, how they accept condolences from guests, etc. The final list can be lengthy depending on the family’s wants and needs.
For this service specifically, I decided to prepare a mock-up of the Inurnment service that I would present to my contact and family members during the family meeting. I included a Bible reading and two poems. The poems were great fun. As you know, poems usually refer to “him or her” and not “they,” which I needed to change and still make them rhyme. It was an interesting challenge, particularly on one poem, as I recall.
I have created a 38 question Service Planner that I use during family meetings. Using the planner allows me to secure the information I need to prepare the service. Since four lives were being celebrated, I revised the Service Planner and reduced the number of questions to 20. Each decedent’s immediate family member(s) would have the same questions, so they would all be treated equally in the telling of their loved one’s life story. I also prepared an Order of Service for both the Inurnment and the Celebration of Life. Armed with this and my music stand, I met with four family members, one family member for each decedent, and delivered my mock presentation to them in the living room of their home.
You may ask, ‘What is the significance of a music stand?’ While all funeral homes and event centers have a wooden podium, cemeteries do not. I feel it is more professional to have a stand to rest my service script rather than hold it. My script is organized in a binder rather than having loose or stapled pages. When I attended the family meeting, I took the music stand with me for those reasons, and it gave the family a better idea of what to expect from me as the Celebrant.
We then set about determining what the families wanted to occur at the Inurnment, i.e., Who would place the urns? Was anyone going to speak? Etc. The family chose to have only family members attend the Inurnment service, and the Celebration of Life service included both family members and guests.
Fortunately, the four sites were located within 6 feet of each other, so we were not faced with traveling through the cemetery. The Inurnments took place in the oldest cemetery in Vancouver, and members of the family had purchased the sites several decades ago. Consequently, the decedents were placed beside several other family members inground.
When conducting a single Inurnment service, I use a white wooden stool to set the urn on so it has a place of honor at the service, rather than sitting on the ground. However, in this case, the stool was not wide enough to handle four urns. I had to devise an alternative to accommodate the urns. I used a 4-foot piece of wood, painted it white to match the stool, and secured it to the wooden surface of the stool. It was solid and allowed for a more pleasing visual than being crowded together.
As part of planning for the Inurnment service, the family identified a member from each of the decedent’s immediate family who would place the urn. We also made minor amendments to the Order of Service, made the final selection of 2 poems, Their Journeys’ Have Just Begun, and I Am There and two songs, Tears in Heaven and Over the Rainbow, and the reading of The Lord’s Prayer.
Creating a Personalized Service
Interestingly, this family had Hawaiian heritage. The Inurnment service would begin with playing a conch shell and reciting, in the native tongue of a beautiful Hawaiian poem about life, death, and ancestors. Not being familiar with this tradition, I researched the meaning and significance of a conch shell ceremony. I discovered that the blows of the conch shell symbolize the journey of the ancient Hawaiians and our own journey in that eternal moment.
Conducting research and applying that research allows me to feel that I am part of the Celebration rather than an MC reading notes. I have found, and have been told by families, that those touches of understanding and connection to the service are felt and appreciated. Celebrants are presented with interesting issues at services ranging from cultural or heritage and even a family’s request that all guests will be wearing baseball caps, as the deceased was a ballplayer or hockey jerseys, for the deceased’s love of the game.
It’s then a Celebrant’s responsibility to dig deeper into the decedent’s favorite team, a player who made a significant impact on their life and incorporate that into the service. Celebrants must be flexible, creative, well-researched, and able to incorporate and accommodate the family’s wishes. It makes for a far more personal, thoughtful, and memorable service for the family and friends of the decedent.
I was advised that I would be working with a sign language interpreter at the Celebration of Life, something I had not done before. The family arranged the interpreter to accommodate the deaf guests. There were 11 deaf or hard of hearing guests, and two of them offered to give eulogies at the Celebration of Life. As you can imagine, the sign language interpreter was invaluable as her “signing” allowed the deaf guests to understand what I was saying and allowed the two deaf eulogists to convey their message to all the other guests. Again, this allowed and welcomed all guests to be part of the service.
As I’m sure you can appreciate by now, this service was unique and very interesting to undertake. It was challenging to some degree and entailed a lot of work and coordination.
After my initial meeting with the family and over the next two weeks, there was a flurry of emails and phone calls from various members of the four families. This entailed writing four short eulogies, having the respective family member review their eulogy and make revisions. I was asked to deliver the eulogies on behalf of the family member at the Inurnment service. In most circumstances, a family member or friend delivers the eulogy. But because the family members did not feel comfortable speaking in a public setting, I was asked to write and read the eulogy on behalf of the family member. There were also revisions and additions to the Celebration of Life service as new information was given to me.
It was a lot of work, a little stressful at times, but very satisfying. As I reflect on this opportunity that was presented to me, it was a very gratifying experience. It entailed a lot of thought, effort and, at times, offered its challenges and tested my organizational abilities. However, I received a sense of joy and satisfaction from handling it as I created and led a service for four decedents.
When you are entrusted with organizing a Celebration for one decedent, you work with one family. In this situation, I had to consider the dynamics of working with four families. How could I co-ordinate a service encompassing each family’s wishes yet deliver a service for four individual families that had flow and consistency? By reducing the number of questions from 38 to 20, I garnered more specific information that was relatable to all decedents. Another top-of-mind issue was the timing factor; what is an acceptable timeframe for each service, the Inurnment, and Celebration of Life? I had to allow the same amount of time, or thereabouts, to each family and yet not have the services drag where the family and guests become anxious. These issues, and more, had to be taken into consideration when planning the entire service.
After a long 13 months for these mourning families, losing four loved ones over a short period of time, and being unable to deliver them to their final resting place, a beautiful warm, sunny day welcomed family and friends to a very heartwarming Inurnment and Celebration of Life service.
A Note about the Author, Barry Slocombe
Barry Slocombe is a Professional Funeral Celebrant located in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. He became a Celebrant 5 years ago in 2016, following funeral home experience, broadcasting, and domestic and international public speaking engagements.
You can contact Barry at www.funeralcelebrantvancouver.com.