Celebrancy — My Sister’s Parting Gift
It’s hard to conceive that a loved one’s death can lead to any good, especially when it’s a sister (who doubled as your mother when you lost your mum in your teens.) But losing my sister Iris set me on a completely different path — one that I would never have otherwise known. One that just feels right.
Iris died in 2006 at the age of 58. Her Unitarian minister was on vacation on the other side of the country and unable to perform my sister’s celebration of life as we’d planned. My two brothers, remaining sister, and Iris’s husband sat at the kitchen table with me as we tried to work out a plan. Within minutes they all pointed at me and said together “You do it!” Yup.
Maybe it was my affinity for public speaking, or my ability to be open regarding the subject of death. Who knows. I thought a funeral could only be done by ministers and funeral directors. Thankfully I was wrong.
We talked about Iris. The first step was writing her obituary. It was important that we found just the right words (she had a larger than life personality.) We were almost done writing when her husband reminded us that “We must mention her glorious red hair,” So we did.
Cousins flew in from all over and gathered with us to create the picture boards. It was a remarkable time of bonding in spite of the circumstances. Weddings and funerals are like that.
It was also a chance to reconnect with my oldest brother as we drove together to Michael’s craft shop in search of a two foot tall wineglass. (She did love her wine.) We planned to fill it with Irises (the flower), and place it by her photo.
On the day of her celebration of life my opening words were “If I dissolve into a heap on the floor – my notes are in this binder and I expect one of you to come up and carry on for me.” Everyone laughed at the implausibility of that happening. Just saying those words released an invisible pressure valve for us all.
It was important that there was an opportunity to share and hear stories from other people about my sister and her influence on them. So I made room for sharing in the service. The stories spoken drew strangers and family together and we could see who Iris had been to workmates, and friends, and not just through the family filter.
We closed with a beautiful video tribute enhanced by her favourite song - The Rose, by Bette Midler. Bittersweet in its appropriateness for the moment — it had also been her wedding song.
Afterwards people came up to me with smiles on their faces (and some with red-rimmed eyes.) They expressed their appreciation for a funeral unlike any they’d experienced before. One woman asked if she could book me in advance for her funeral. I did not see that coming.
I mentioned this to the funeral director who said I should become a funeral celebrant and take the training. I looked at the funeral director and asked — A “what-abrant?” “Where do you train for that?” She wrote down the details.
Months later I picked up the note and followed up by training to become a Life Tribute Professional at In-Sight Institute. A few years later I also pursued Funerals and Weddings certification with The Celebrant Foundation & Institute.
I’ve officiated at many services since. Often at the end someone would inevitably ask “How did you know them?” (surely I must have known them.) I answer the same way every time. “I knew them through the eyes of those who loved them.”
I have found there is no greater gift than working with families to give voice to grief by co-creating a ceremony that is real, and human, and reflects the life and values of the deceased (no matter what those values may have been). I feel similar about Weddings, giving voice to joy and love.
In a perfect world Iris would still be alive. But she’s not — except in my heart. But one thing that I will always treasure is her parting gift to me of Celebrancy.