Who’s The Guy Up Front?

I spoke at the graveside service today of a man I wish I had known.  This often happens when I’m called upon to officiate at a memorial of people I do not know.  Now, before you allow your “quick trigger” brain to end your participation in this post . . . just stick with me a little longer before you say what you have prejudiced yourself to say out of past experience, “I hate it when the guy up front doesn’t know the guy in the casket.”

As people are less joiners nowadays, they have become less connected to churches and the services a minister might provide at the time of death.  Many, many people have church backgrounds, but few of the people I’m talking about could tell you where their denominational brand holds services, much less the minister’s name.  More and more people in our society have taken a sabbatical from organized religion.

Another trend sees us moving away from the religious emphasis at death and toward a celebration of a person’s life.  Don’t get me wrong, as a broken-down Protestant, I have found over the years to love the majestic words of the Catholic, Episcopal and Greek Orthodox funeral liturgies.  I’ve probably been in more liturgical funerals in the last fifteen years than Protestant.  Nonetheless, the man or woman on the street who, on said sabbatical, may have nowhere to turn for someone to design a service to celebrate the significance of their love’s life. 

Tradition says, “Let’s carry Harry up the marble steps.”  Practicality, rather, grips the heart and says to the religious wayfarer, “We’re in uncharted waters here, what do we do now?”

That’s where I come in.  I am a Celebrant*.  I was a pastor for 20 years before realizing I was actually a quiet guy who didn’t like being in the spotlight (or maybe that’s gunsight) all the time.  In the last third of my career, I became a funeral director and that led to my work with grief support groups.  As a part of what I do, I “help the dead get to where they need to go and the family get to where they need to go.” (Thomas Lynch)  That’s true as a funeral director, a grief support group facilitator and as a Celebrant.

People ask me, usually after I’ve been recommended by a funeral director, if I would celebrate the life of their loved one at a service to be attended by his/her family and friends.  In the two or three days between funeral arrangements and the service, I gather information from the family to be used in the celebratory service.  One would think this would be a terrible time to be asking questions, but, surprisingly, it’s not.  My presence and the family’s opportunity to tell the husband or wife’s, dad or mom’s or nana or papa’s stories is actually therapeutic to those who talk with me and one another.  The family often comes together and provides real, loving care and support as they remember the person they’ve lost.

By the time we come to the service we’ve put together music, discovered who wishes to give eulogies and I’ve stepped inside the deceased’s world in such a way that it’s almost mysterious.  I love it when the family creates a DVD presentation full of photos of good memories.  It allows those who gather, no matter at what stage in life they met the deceased, to discover who he/she was in other times of his/her life.  I often encourage a reception so further tales can be told and love shared in the spiritual presence of the loved one and friend.  My part in all this is to provide the canvas on which we paint the story of this person’s life. 

It is true, you know, no one is ever gone until we stop saying their name and telling their stories.

* Celebrant:  You can read more about what that means here:  http://www.celebrantcommunity.com/



  1. Beautiful.

    For years now, I have deemed this kind of service to be the most meaningful part of my ministry. For a few years, I was given the blessing of offering comfort as “our ministeron staff” – an option the local funeral home gaved to “unchurched” and “practically unchurched” families. What an honor for me to put Proverbs 25:11 into practice.

    Keep up the outstanding work, Norm.

  2. I appreciate your multiple hats. I think we might be following similar paths or maybe I should call them spider webs.

    One of my roles is as a hospital social worker and the grief and crisis work provides me with lots of challenges, however I think I learn more from the people I work with then the other way around.

    Keep up the writing Norm.

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