According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, 56 million Americans have no religious affiliation. This makes “nones” the second largest religious group after evangelicals. And their numbers are growing.
In 2018 and 2019 Pew Research Center conducted additional telephone surveys. They found 65% of American adults described themselves as Christians when asked about their religion. This is down 12 percentage points over the past decade. Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular,” stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009.
Americans who choose “none” as their religious affiliation have few rituals to guide them when a death occurs. Many don’t know what to do for a funeral or memorial service.
In addition to the “nones,” there are those who haven’t attended religious services in years and feel uncomfortable around members of the clergy. But when Mom or Dad dies, the kids may feel the need to have a religious official do a traditional funeral service. Unfortunately, a traditional religious service won’t help the non-religious effectively process their grief.
Plus, there are a growing number of interfaith families. A 2016 Pew study indicates that 20% of Americans were raised with a mixed religious background, either from different religions or one religiously affiliated and one unaffiliated. When there’s a death in the family, how will the religious traditions of each family member be honored? This is where a Certified Funeral Celebrant can make all the difference.
The Start of the Celebrant Movement
The civil celebrant movement started in Australia in 1973. The Anglican and Roman Catholic Church liturgy wasn’t working for the general population, especially for those who were divorced. The government started licensing celebrants — non-clerics who could perform weddings and funerals outside of a religious ceremony. The movement recognized that nonbelievers, secularists, and the non-practicing have a place of equal respect in society.
Doug Manning, a former Baptist minister, brought the celebrant concept to the United States in 1999. He founded the In-Sight Institute to train and certify funeral celebrants. They work with national and state funeral director associations to hold intensive 3-day celebrant trainings at conventions. The In-Sight Institute provides online listings of their upcoming trainings and a directory of their certified celebrants by state at www.InSightBooks.com.
The non-profit Celebrant Foundation & Institute also trains celebrants in a range of life cycle events, including weddings, births, coming of age and deaths. Their training program is much longer than the In-Sight Institute’s program. The Celebrant Foundation & Institute offers a list of celebrants through their website, www.CelebrantInstitute.org.
What Celebrants Do
Celebrants provide completely personalized memorial services designed to reflect the personality and lifestyle of the deceased. People want to avoid a “cookie cutter” funeral that has a predictable sameness, often with religious overtones.
Funeral celebrants are trained to construct a meaningful, memorable “good goodbye” for all kinds of family situations, including if the deceased had many negative traits. Celebrants have created services that help families recognize and start healing from estrangement, alcoholism, abuse, and other bad experiences.
A good celebrant creates a theme for the memorial service, incorporating the unique stories, songs and experiences that defined that person. Celebrants have a library of resources available for readings, music, ceremonies and personal touches, and the training to put these elements together for a healing, memorable memorial service.
Prior to the funeral, a celebrant will meet with the family and listen to their stories about the deceased. They will lead a discussion of what was important to the person and the family. Learning about the impacts the deceased made in life is also important. This family meeting and discussion provides an opportunity for grief to be expressed and healing to start.
Based on this conversation, the celebrant formulates the elements of the memorial service, consulting with the family on specific aspects. Elements include the setting, eulogy, readings and music, ritual participation, and other speakers. The celebrant may provide a surprise memorial takeaway gift for all attendees or discuss what memento would be appropriate and let the family coordinate a parting gift.
If you work with an interfaith or non-religious family, knowing about the option of celebrant-led funerals or memorial services can make a valuable difference when a death occurs.
Gail Rubin is a Certified Thanatologist, a Certified Funeral Celebrant, and a pioneering death educator who uses humor, funny film clips, and outside the box activities to encourage people to plan ahead for end-of-life issues. Called “The Joan Jett of Death Education,” Gail was one of the first people in the United States to hold a Death Café and has coordinated Before I Die events in multiple cities. Her website is www.AGoodGoodbye.com.
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