When I first embarked on my journey as a Celebrant, I was all about the ceremonies that would bring me joy, particularly weddings and baby naming’s. Celebrating new life or a new union held the ultimate thrill for me.
And then some dear friends of mine asked me to meet them for dinner one evening in November 2018. I knew that Paul’s aunt, the infamous wee Rosie, had been quite ill for some time. He informed me that night that it was unfortunately terminal, and they were just trying to make the most of the time that they had left with her. I had met Rosie at their wedding and on a couple of other occasions. She was a woman with an amazing appetite for life and a great sense of humour. It hurt me to think of her not simply looking forward to enjoying her retirement with her sister Ann.
During their frequent visits back and forth to Glasgow, they had started the difficult conversation about what she wanted in terms of her funeral service. She kept saying how much she had enjoyed the celebrant-led wedding that Paul and his husband James had had the year before. The more informal and personal nature of that ceremony was far more suitable to Rosie’s personality than many of the funerals she had attended in the past. James and Paul said that they would look into it for her. And thus, our little meeting.
They knew that I had trained as a family celebrant and had performed ceremonies before, albeit not funeral services but they wanted something special for Rosie. Even if I were not able to do it, which I initially seriously doubted I could, I might be able to make some recommendations. I was apprehensive about the situation, but I agreed to fly to Glasgow with James the following week to meet with Rosie and help her figure out her options.
In the run up to that meeting, I was in a bit of a panic. I had never done any training for this; I did not even know where to begin. I sent a message to one of the celebrants from my training group begging him for some advice. He gave me a few suggestions and reminded me that the most important thing was to listen to what Rosie wanted and let her be my guide.
I tried to get together a list of questions that I wanted to ask her, like I would have done with a couple getting married. I realised straight away that there was one major difference. At those ceremonies, the focus is on the couple who get to bask in and enjoy the experience. At a funeral, while the focus is technically on the deceased, the service is really for the bereaved to get a chance to deal with their loss and say their own goodbyes. The person you are grieving for is already gone. Once we got down to it, that was what Rosie really wanted – to make things easier for those she was leaving behind.
Many of us do not have the chance to prepare for the end, and those of us who do, often find it difficult to face and talk about. Spending that day with Rosie, I was amazed at how calm she was and in turn, how calm that made me. I confessed that I had never done a service like this before, and she asked me how I was feeling (how I was feeling?! Thoughtful to the end was Rosie). As we discussed readings and song choices, I began to see her side of it. She wanted to make sure that it was a celebration and a true reflection of her personality and life.
After we had spent a bit of time just the two of us, we called the family back in. I got to sit and observe and take some notes on the interaction between them all, the stories they shared – some of which I was forbidden to repeat, all of which were golden! I got to bask in the overflow of love and appreciation they were all feeling at getting to spend this time together while knowing that it would not last forever. Any doubts I had about whether or not I would be able to do this vanished the moment I scooted up beside Rosie in her bed and asked her what she wanted her message to be to her friends and family that she left behind. I knew that I wanted to be the one who would share that message on her behalf.
Over the following weeks, I wrote and tried to rehearse the ceremony, but it felt very strange to be rehearsing for something that had not actually happened yet. I felt like I was almost tempting fate by preparing. The call came on the 23rd of December; Rosie had passed away peacefully at home in the company of her loving family. I flew back to Glasgow on St. Stephens’ Day for the funeral to take place the next day. I met with the family and the funeral director, who was very accommodating and comforting through the whole experience, both with the family and myself, and we went over the last of the arrangements.
When I woke up the next morning, it was the strangest feeling. On the morning of a wedding or baby naming, there are nerves and excitement, but these did not apply here. As I walked to the venue, I remember feeling extremely calm and thought that Rosie must have been sending me some vibes from wherever she was. Frasier, the funeral director, met me at the door and asked if I wanted to see Rosie before the service. I have experienced several open coffin situations, including my own father when I was a child, and it is not something that I am overly comfortable with. I steeled myself and went in. I read over the ceremony to her, had a little cry and thanked her for trusting me with such an important job. I took lots of deep breaths, centering myself like I did before every ceremony and put on my public performance face.
Looking back on it now, there are a lot of moments that are quite blurry. I know that it went well. I managed not to stumble over my words or cry. The music played at the right time and there was plenty of laughter as well as tears, which was one of the main things Rosie had wanted. I cannot remember who was there, even though I was introduced to almost everyone. I do not remember what the weather was like, except that I am nearly positive it did not rain. I can barely remember what I said, apart from one particular quote that I had seen on a poster in Rosie’s bedroom. She said it had always helped her to live her best life and she wanted to make sure that everyone else took it on board.
“You are braver than you think, stronger than you look, more talented than you know and twice as brilliant as the brightest star”
I know now that writing and performing an end of life celebration is certainly one of the most difficult things I have ever done. It is also one of the most rewarding. Thank you to Rosie and her family for letting me be a part of this special end of life celebration. I look forward to being able to help someone else in a similar way in the future.