Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Celebrant: A Conversation with Dorry Bless

funeral celebrant ideas

Celebrant Dorry Bless

Ritual is a powerful and important part of our lives, whether we realize it or not. As a community, we recognize, and acknowledge milestone events. We celebrate and mourn the passing of the old, and the promise of the new. Without life cycle markers like baptisms, bar mitzvahs confirmations, graduations, marriage ceremonies, anniversaries and funerals, we lose essential opportunities to share our joys and sorrows. These ceremonies are not just for the benefit of the community; they help us to orient ourselves, give us perspective, and provide us with reassurance when we face new roles and challenges in life.

For many people today, the tried and true ceremonies from our religious and ethnic traditions no longer seem relevant. The message of a traditional ceremony may not fit the life or values and needs of those involved, or an event that is important to us may not have a traditional ceremony or officiant to mark it. Ritual and ceremony are still vital to us, though, so new, more meaningful events must be created.

Dorry Bless, a certified celebrant and the founder of Circle of Life Ceremonies, works with clients to create distinctive and unique ceremonies for rites of passage events. She is one of a growing group of professionals who help to craft and enact these ceremonies. Ms. Bless has graciously agreed to share her thoughts and experiences as a celebrant on The Daily Undertaker.

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Pat McNally: You work with a diverse group of clients in creating ceremonies for a wide variety of milestone life events. What are some of the elements that are common to all these ceremonies? What do you see as some important differences?

Dorry Bless: The universal element I see in the varied ceremonies and rituals I create in collaboration with my clients; is the desire for my clients to express themselves in a meaningful and significant way. They want to do this surrounded by their loved ones. They want to feel supported and understood. They want to feel connected to themselves and to others. Inevitably, they are drawn to work with a life-cycle celebrant® because they feel a deep need, even a longing, to mark the life passage they are experiencing in a way that resonates for them. Together, we explore and discover where the meaning and significance lies for them in the life-change they are meeting. My training as a ceremony specialist allows me to guide them on this journey and suggest those elements and rituals -- whether they originate from a world tradition, a faith tradition, mythology, pop culture, classic or contemporary literature; or even from their everyday life -- assuring that whatever is chosen speaks to them. All this is accomplished while considering the purpose of the ceremony, the tone, the physical space, who will be present, who will participate, the flow and the parts of the ceremony, and certainly the order of the ceremony. It is most important to consciously 'hold' the physical/emotional/spiritual space or container for the ceremony so that the individual(s)along with their community can mark and acknowledge the particular transitional life moment in a safe and gratifying way . Life-cycle celebrants®, as you know Pat from your work, are specialists who build their ceremonies within that traditional structure and framework but pay special attention to and care for the client's heart.

The most significant difference lies in the beauty of each individual's story; and as result the composite of all the parts creates a singularly unique and one-of-a-kind ceremony. 20th century scholar and philosopher, Martin Buber said, . "Every person born into this world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique. It is the duty of every person to know and consider that she is unique in the world in her particular character, and that there has never been someone like her before. For if there had been someone like her before, there would be no need for her to be in the world. Every single person is a new thing in the world and is called upon to fulfill her particularity in the world."

We tend to see our clients and their lives as a 'work of art'. The ordinary is truly recognized as the extraordinary when we look closely and pay attention. The small gestures are the big ones - -the kindnesses that make life wonderful and worthwhile. We paint their story with the words, readings and rituals selected. Everyone experiences their own version of the hero's journey throughout their lives -- even when they veer off that path due to circumstance. Ceremony allows us to view this and experience it on a heartfelt and cellular level. Each client's story is reflected in a way that is truthful, authentic and genuine to them so that each ceremony is ultimately different. Although a wedding ceremony is still a wedding ceremony, a memorial or funeral still a memorial or funeral; still when you learn about Megan's initial reaction when she met Seth while watching Monday night football at a bar, or in the case of a memorial, you hear the beautiful poems Carol wrote as the cancer was ravaging her body; or we do a sunflower ritual graveside to pay tribute to Heidi's life -- a sunflower lover whose whole house was directed with them, or the lullaby that Nick's mom use to sing to him when he was just a little boy is sung aloud --then the context becomes one in which it's possible for the heart of participant and witness to meet one another and merge. Good ceremony creates an opening for both the one experiencing the life-change along with those that have come to be the witness. Kathleen Norris in "The Cloister Walk" says: “Good liturgy can act like an icon; a window into a world in which our concepts of space, time, and even stone are pleasurably bent out of shape. Good liturgy is a living poem, and ceremony is the key. Good ceremony makes room for all the dimensions of human experience in the hope that, together, we will discover something that transforms us. This is why I suspect that individuals can’t create true ceremony for themselves alone. Ceremony requires that we work with others in the humbling give and take of communal existence.”

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So, she is saying that we need a kind of community to create ceremony. This makes sense to me in that ceremony is really a community event. Especially with end of life ceremonies, the public acknowledgement of the importance of the life and its passing is vitally important. At one time most people had a close knit community of faith and existing ceremonies. Today, many people describe themselves as spiritual, but not religious. There is also the trend toward ‘a la carte’ religion, where people pick and choose various elements that appeal to them, rather than accepting the whole package. In my experience as a celebrant, some people initially talk about a service without religious content, but later end up asking for the 23rd psalm or the Lord’s Prayer. Many just don’t seem to want a particular religious message forced upon them, or prefer the focus to be on the person’s life, and not on God. Do you find that even in secular services, spiritual matters are still seen as important? Do you find that you clients enjoy the freedom to incorporate various traditions within one ceremony?

Absolutely. I think more and more people are drawn to work with a celebrant because they themselves (the clients) are a product of our contemporary culture. They have been exposed to different religions and cultures, they might have grown up in an interfaith home or traveled extensively. Since people move more frequently these days, and live a great distance from their families, they are often no longer affiliated with a faith tradition, or no longer practice the religious faith they were raised in but still retain some of its' teachings and impressions. As a result they feel more at ease integrating different practices or prayers which are meaningful to them. Many identify themselves as 'spiritual' and are actually looking for guidance in how to express this. Many breathe a sigh of relief when they realize this is possible and that they will be able to memorialize a loved one with Tibetan Bells or have the handfasting at a wedding that also incorporates 'breaking the glass'. I find that even those with a religious background welcome the sound of the Tibetan Bells. I often ring them at the beginning of the ceremony (if the client approves) to sanctify the space and then 'close out' the ceremony with them at the end. The sound of the bells invites us to stop, be present, and recognize that wherever we gather to observe, recognize, acknowledge, pay tribute or celebrate is truly sacred space and sacred time.

Tradition and personalization are often seen as two ends of a continuum for funeral services. Certainly both are important, but unfortunately, sometimes they can be mutually exclusive. What ways have you found to get the right combinations or the best of both worlds for you clients?

Pat as you mentioned in the previous question -- many realize they want to include the 23rd Psalm or Lord's Prayer, or in the Jewish funeral -- the Kaddish. Time and again, I see how comforting it is to include an element that reflects some piece from their childhood - - often, just the sound of those words bring great peace and ease or confer authority or credibility in an important way. But there is room for both -- so we might do a stone blessing ritual or a tree planting too. Or ring the Tibetan Bells as I mentioned earlier. When elements that appear to be disparate are woven together with care, within the context and purpose of the ceremony -- they can fit together beautifully. There is actually room within the formal context of ceremony for both expressions as long as the placement and rationale for including them is part of the flow and overall purpose of the ceremony. Songwriter and poet, Leonard Cohen, says; "There is a crack, a crack in everything -- That's how the light gets in."

Celebrancy gives us permission to find the 'crack' -- it even welcomes it -- and from there one can create a custom tapestry and find meaning in the old and the new.

funeral celebrant

In many communities in the US and the UK, and probably elsewhere, celebrants and funeral directors do not always see eye to eye. Celebrants may feel that funeral directors are not presenting all the service options to families, and funeral directors may feel that celebrants leave them out of the picture in the services they create. What are some of your experiences working with funeral homes, and how can we work together to better serve our families?

Funeral home owners and directors are dedicated professionals. Often their service to the community is unnoticed. They work in the one building in the community most people never want to have to enter -- and when they do - - it is associated with sadness and grief. Life-cycle celebrants® respect the funeral directors dedication and integrity. I think the conversation between the funeral director and the celebrant is just beginning. Both serve with compassion. Both want what is best for the client family. The celebrant is looking to give voice to the family who would resonate with a personal ceremony/ritual -- the client who wants to have input and a 'say' in their loved one's ceremony. A life-cycle celebrant® is trained to work as part of the funeral home team. They communicate with the funeral home staff every step of the way and value their input. The celebrant often relies on the funeral home director to suggest a celebrant to the family during the arrangement meeting if they feel that would be the best 'fit'. Really, the celebrant wants the funeral home to shine and wants to service the client too. When we work in the funeral home, we do so as a representative for them and on their behalf. We thank them as part of the opening and closing comments of the ceremony -- this is our code of ethics.

More families are exploring the idea of home funerals. Is this an opportunity for celebrants to redefine the focus of end of life ceremonies? What challenges do you see facing families who choose to ‘do-it-yourself’?

I don't think it's the celebrant's role to redefine the focus of end of life ceremonies. I think our role is to serve our clients and meet their needs, reflect their truth and that of their loved one. One client might be comfortable and drawn to pay tribute to a loved one through a home funeral. They might want to bathe and dress the body, prepare or make the casket. For another, that might be too painful and difficult for them. Each individual has to feel their way into their grief and mourning. A celebrant is prepared to support that process as they work with the client to create the ceremony. I think families who choose a 'do it yourself' need to educate themselves, seek out experts in their community and make certain they are within the legal limits regarding their loved one's burial regarding their state's laws. It's much like the home-birthing movement -- that appealed to some, most still give birth at a hospital but many seek out a natural birth at a hospital. Everyone has to be true to themselves and then find the professionals that can support them in their decisions. Personally, I am not trained in bathing or preparing the body for a home funeral just as I'm not trained or certified in mortuary science (that's for the experts). I can support and guide my clients in creating the ceremony for their loved ones.

Each family you work with probably finds their own comfort level with the level of participation they take in creating and enacting their ceremony, but could you describe what a ‘typical’ consultation would entail for a family working with you on a funeral ceremony?

Yes, Pat each family is unique. Sometimes I meet with the family in their living room, some I've met at a diner, some over the phone, others communicate to me by email. Each seems to have their own comfort level and of course this is often dictated by the logistics of the situation. Some speak about their loved one with ease and share photos, artwork, cherished keepsakes with me. Others I gently interview. Often one question leads to another or a long forgotten story. Sometimes a family member who is hesitant and doesn't even know if they want to be involved in the meeting joins in and shares a story. My role is to listen, create a safe container for their stories to be heard and for their loved one to be 'known'. I take copious notes during our meeting and might be given phone numbers of additional friends or family members to call. Some might call me several times during the course of (hours/days) writing the script to share a story or a sentiment they just remembered. Even when a family member doesn't have a lot to say, or there is discord in the family - still there is a story and somehow it makes its way to me. For that I am always grateful. I just have to remind myself to trust in the process, that it's not about me and to get out of my own way.

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What do you see as the elements of a really successful and meaningful ceremony?

Again, this is individual. For some it might be the ability to access their emotion, their grief, for others it might be a heart connection to the deceased, to another family member, to themselves; and still others might experience a transcendent moment where time stops and they feel as if they've lost themselves (or the 'little me') and are present instead to the wholeness of life. In the end, it's really all about love. Even when it looks twisted -- it's still about love and hopefully that comes through. In the words of John Lennon, "it matters not who you love, where you love, why you love, when you love, or how you love, it matters only that you love."

Many people tell their families that they don’t want them to cry or mourn when they die. The term ‘celebration of life’ is often used instead of ‘funeral’ or ‘memorial service’, to indicate that a more uplifting, happy memory centered service is desired. Do we lose something important by avoiding the tears and acknowledgement of sadness in our ceremonies?

I think this is another product of our culture and of our conditioned societal core beliefs. We spend so much effort and money defying death. We view death as a defeat, a big failure. If we look at all the books out on happiness, how to find it, how to keep it, etc....we see where our focus is. Perhaps 'celebration of life' is getting overused and over-rated these days as well. We tend to 'fall in love' with branding and marketing and I think we -- even in the funeral industry -- are not immune to being seduced by this too. I think we do ourselves a disservice by programming our emotions or setting expectations. In happy moments there are tears. I see many tears at the weddings I officiate. I also see laughter at some of the funerals/memorials I officiate. I think we owe it to ourselves to be honest; our emotions -- our personal histories are complex -- they cannot be marketed and put into neat, labeled packages. Ceremony invites sincere expression. Mystic, Andrew Harvey, says; " If you are really listening, if you are awake to the poignant beauty of the world, your heart breaks regularly. In fact your heart is made to break, it’s purpose is to break open again and again. So that it can hold ever more wonders.”

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I agree, Dorry. If we are having an honest and meaningful experience, we have to open ourselves up to and allow ourselves to experience and express the laughter and the tears, and all the complicated combinations in between. Many families I meet with use humor in a wonderfully therapeutic way.
You can’t feel bad about laughing and you have to let yourself cry as well.
As a funeral director, I have learned a lot from the families I’ve served. In addition to healing laughter and tears, the rituals I have seen enacted turn into ideas and suggestions that I share with others. What challenges do you face in creating new rituals? What are some inspirational events or ideas that you share?

Whenever I work with a family to create a new ritual I want to make certain they are comfortable with it. It's not about doing 'something different' just to be different, stand out or put on a show. It's about doing it because it means something -- to the individual, to the family and to the wishes of the deceased --at least how we interpret those. At one memorial I did at a restaurant, they were having a shrimp bar because the deceased LOVED shrimp. She told her family that's what she wanted at her memorial and I suggested that I could read the piece about all the different kinds of shrimp from the film 'Forrest Gump' to dedicate our 'shrimp altar'. That was right for this family and for this woman - others might consider it inappropriate. For another, Heidi, the sun-flower lover, the family prepared packets of sunflower seeds for their family and friends to plant. These were handed out as their community arrived for the ceremony. Graveside, we lovingly passed sunflowers and each had the opportunity to come forward with their sunflower infused with a blessing and place it on Heidi's grave. Usually it's clear when there is the 'space' for a new ritual. It almost happens organically and everyone is on board -- if not, there's no reason to do it.

Some families are easy to connect with and some are more difficult to engage. When we have a level of trust in one another, we can spend more time sharing and learning. It can be a challenge though, to make a connection like this with a grieving family in a limited amount of time. What ways have you found to build this trust more quickly, so that you can spend more time getting the information and understanding you need to create a great service?

Listen. Listen. Listen. Active listening creates a safe container and allows the necessary space for feelings to emerge. It also allows the celebrant or listener to really be present and non judgmental. It creates a vessel where the stories arise -- where what needs to be said can be said. In this context, you are given what is essential and from there you can create and compose an honest ceremony. You can also gently guide and direct the family from this place -- it is a quiet place but a powerful one. Also, I have learned to never underrate silence -- to honor the silence and revere it. Stories arise out of the silence. You don't need to push anything.

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Thank you, thank you, thank you! I think that especially when we grieve, we need someone to listen to us, and remarkably, very little listening usually happens. It’s about them and never us. What do you see happening in the future for end of life ceremonies? What are the dangers and opportunities? What can we do to make it a more positive outcome?

I see people getting more involved and choosing what suits them best from the growing array of possibilities, services and choices. The dangers are getting caught in marketing -- taking human loss, grief, mourning and sadness and seeing what we can 'sell' to the individual to help them stuff or repress their grief or have the 'best' experience imaginable given the situation. The opportunities always lie in practicing dignity, integrity, and compassion in our line of service. That is what funeral and death care professionals do -- and do best. That is why we were drawn to this business. The positive outcome lies in following and adhering to our professional code of ethics --- our gold standards. They lie in working together -- funeral homes and life-cycle celebrants® whenever those opportunities arise and stand for everyone's good. Your blog in and of itself, Patrick, educates the public -- while also advocating for the funeral and death care industry -- to the choices and possibilities out there. You are a leader in beginning the conversation. That's really important and means a lot.

Thank you for this opportunity.

Dorry, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

To learn more about Ms. Bless' work and Celebrants, follow these links:


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your interview with Dorry Bless. You got me reading the interview twice!

Charles Cowling said...

Wow. I've read this three times and I'm going to have to come back some more. There is a great density of wisdom and intelligence here.

It's good to see how well celebrants in the US maintain constant communication and sharing of thoughts and information throughout the process.

I may well have more to say about this...

Debbie Williams said...

Wonderful article. I agree that families need to find the joy in the memories and that all services need to be personalized, so the take home for everyone is uplifting and memorable. I have 2 celebrants I am working with here in Chicagoland who assist me in providing this to our clients. This has been so meaningful and touching watching our clients laugh and enjoy what is one of the hardest times in their lives.

Charles Cowling said...

This is a very good and a very important interview. There is so much that Dorry says which I believe to be very important. I have learned much, too. She is a very impressive thinker. As to the pre-eminence of love and honesty – I am with her all the way.
I am also interested in what she says about the role of community in creating ceremony. So true. Very often, though, that community is just the family, especially in the UK where families tend to be very private entities. But I am doing a funeral on Friday for the transvestite community of Birmingham, and that is going to be very much a community event. For this reason, I will also feel very comfortable officiating – because it will be very public.
I can never feel so confident presiding at a funeral for just family and close friends because the language, culture and customs of families are unique to that family. I can feel like an interloper! And in creating the ceremony there’s always that tension between this: “My training as a ceremony specialist allows me to guide them on this journey and suggest those elements and rituals” and this: “I just have to remind myself to trust in the process, that it's not about me and to get out of my own way.” In other words, you’ve got to be a bit of a bossy-boots and also very humble. That’s a tricky one to square.
Above all, though, I take inspiration from Dorry’s serene confidence. Having helped to create a ceremony, I would always like to take myself out of it. Because I have not that confidence: I feel obtrusive, too much myself.
But families and communities need good celebrants, and such are not self-deprecating celebrants. So I am going to read this a few more times and hope that some of it rubs off!

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Funeral service faces a crisis of relevance, and I am passionate about keeping the best traditions of service alive while adapting to the changing needs of families. Feel free to contact me with questions, or to share your thoughts on funeral service, ritual, and memorialization.