Thoughts on becoming a Celebrant

By Alice Maxwell, musician, teacher and Arran resident

Recently a friend became ill. I visited her in hospital, and she told me of the discussions taking place with social work as to how she would manage at home once discharged. After a couple of days however, these discussions were no longer relevant. My friend had deteriorated and would die within a week. I continued visiting, and sat by her bedside. She slipped away when I had gone home for lunch, and the hospital allowed me to sit with her body for a few hours before she was taken to morgue.

Despite the suddenness of her death, she was incredibly peaceful and accepting of her situation. All her affairs were in order, and she had no fear. Her presence was somehow magical and uplifting. I was however, painfully aware that this is not always the case.
Our society is so obsessed with youth and glamour that death has become unfashionable, unmentioned and taboo. The dying person is all too often left without guidance, and the corpse is immediately whisked away – perhaps to avoid reminding us of our own mortality.

Meaningful conversation with the elderly about death is rare. “I’ll be dead soon” they say. To which, all too often, they receive the reply “Good heavens No! Where ever did you get that idea from!”.

Many elderly folk are quite content, happy to look back on a fruitful life, and happily accept their lot. Others are tormented by confusion, physical pain and frustration that the life and body they once knew have all but disappeared.

The elderly are my best teachers and from them I learn to appreciate my healthy, painfree body and my wonderful life. Being able to walk to the shops or cycle to work is a gift, but the plight of these elderly folk is a stark reminder that these gifts will not last forever.
My observations of death, and the way society views death, has inspired me to train as a celebrant so I can perform meaningful funerals. I must learn to create a sacred space in which the bereaved feel comfortable to talk about their loss, and tell tales of their loved one, if they wish to. While I must choose my words carefully and appropriately, I must ensure that my own opinions, beliefs and daily concerns become irrelevant. Leaving behind my own agenda, I am free to engage completely with those around me. But perhaps more important than words, is my own state of mind – how wonderful it would be to provide a stable, gentle presence, a space in which the bereaved feel secure and listened to, and in which they can start to make sense of their loss.

What exactly is a sacred space and how does one hold it? A sacred space allows those within it to feel cherished and safe. In order to create this, one must allow internal chatter and everyday trivia to evaporate, thus allowing our innate vast peace and goodness to manifest. The power of good is magnificent and it lies within every one of us, but mostly we fear it – it is too bright, too effective, and requires too much “letting go” of our egocentric view of life. Once we gain the bravery to let go of our small comfortable view of ourselves, we are free to be utterly humble and great at the same time. As we learn to see our own brightness, we begin to see it in others also, and our holding of a sacred space for them becomes a joy and an honour.

As we learn to see others’ inner beauty, judgmental thoughts towards those in the space dissolve, especially towards strange behaviours that may manifest due to grief, and a mutual trust will develop. Trust is vital – the bereaved have opened their hearts to us, so we must reciprocate by being totally trustworthy, and treat all that is told to us with great respect.

While the bereaved may be over powered by grief, we, as space holders must be as solid as rocks, and yet have empathy for those around us. We may like to spend a few minutes truly imagining what the bereaved are going through. We become that elderly person who has lost their beloved spouse, and is now faced with isolation, illness, and nothing but a lonely death to look forward to. Their pain and loss course through our veins.

But we must shed our tears in private, and not allow the grief to overwhelm us. Our attention must be completely devoted to serving those around us. Every single person in that space should feel noticed, loved and cherished. We must make eye contact as we speak, and not have our heads buried in our computers or notebooks. We must include everyone – giving a special smile to a son engulfed in tears, or encouraging a shy little girl to place her home-made card at her grandfathers’ graveside.

Another important way to hold the space is to create an environment that is meaningful to the participants. The bereaved may wish to light candles, thus illuminating the path of the deceased on their new journey. Flowers may be offered to signify beauty and rejuvenation. Or perhaps the deceased was a huge fan of Glasgow Rangers, so the space can be decorated with football stripes and scarves.

The celebrant should try to hold a space whereby grief and happy memories of the deceased can exist side by side, reasonably balanced, so once the sadness has subsided the bereaved can look back on this day with a smile, confident that their loved one had the best possible send-off.