The end of the year is always a time of contemplation, reflection, gratitude, and renewed hope. I feel particularly grateful this year as my long-time companion developed a sudden and serious health condition, requiring emergency surgery, just days ago. A supremely healthy individual who takes excellent care of his physical health, my boyfriend’s illness reminded me of the fact that our personal fortunes may change swiftly. I am glad to report that his recovery has been, it appears, as speedy as the lightening-quick onset of the condition. No doubt, this has been an emotional jolt, requiring that I re-evaluate how I spend my time and life.
My entire career has been marked by jobs and charitable activities in the non-profit sector. Over the years, I have been involved in progressive public policy ventures, work with children and families, initiatives with arts and culture institutions, and women’s economic development work, among others. As I have fully embraced my Celebrant practice, performing weddings and other life-cycle ceremonies, I have found that my time—and, frankly my resources—have shifted away from front-line charities, to this endeavor. Indeed, serving as a Celebrant is amazingly rewarding. And, I do believe that connecting with people during some of their most transformative life experiences (both joyous and difficult) is a real form of service. But to be honest, my clients are generally firmly rooted in the middle-class.
A while back, I instituted a program, “Weddings with a Heart,” which sought to develop a more direct connection between my good fortune to work in this field with the great needs in New York and beyond. As I developed relationships with “my” couples, I invited them to select a charity that they found important in their life. After the wedding, I made a contribution to that non-profit, in honor of their new marriage. It has been fun to encourage couples to think of the fact that their happiness and union could be part of a “virtuous upward cycle of good.” People ensconced in meaningful relationships are simply able to give more of themselves, in all ways. Through “Weddings with a Heart” the celebration extended beyond the couple, immediate family members, and friends. My couples have selected charities ranging from the Central Park Conservancy to Food Banks to Little Flowers Children Services, serving the needs of foster and orphaned children in the New York metropolitan area.
As I pondered 2009 and this troubling decade, “Weddings with a Heart,” as sweet as it is, didn’t seem like enough. Suddenly, I was brought back to a discussion I had with a lovely colleague in my Celebrant community. Linda Donnell Stuart is a beautiful woman (inside and out) who lives in Toronto, Canada. Linda works in an inter-generational family business that provides products connected with the funeral industry. Linda trained as a Celebrant, with a particular emphasis on conducting funerals, memorial services, and other ceremonies of healing. During a phone conversation a few months ago, Linda revealed that part of her mission was to help people, while still alive, to think about how they would tell their life story. She conducts workshops to provide tools for participants to work on this project. I loved the idea. But then she revealed to me a component of her practice that absolutely took my breath away. Within the realistic constraints of her professional life and obligations to her husband and family, she planned to offer a personalized “Celebrant” funeral to those who could not afford to pay for such a service. In other words, she and her colleagues would identify families in economically challenging circumstances and offer a Celebrant ceremony on a pro-bono basis. Wow.
I do not know the details and implementation of Linda’s plan, but the concept did speak to me. I believe that everyone, despite “class” (or the more politically correct term “socioeconomic status”) or circumstance deserves to enjoy and relish beautiful ceremonies and rituals. A struggling single Mom would be moved by a baby welcoming just like a financially successful couple. A foster kid needs a coming of age ceremony every bit as much as adolescents who are nurtured in an intact family. And a woman leaving an abusive relationship would find comfort from a healing ceremony addressing a rocky marital break-up or divorce.
So, a big new year’s resolution for me is to reconnect with some of the wonderful New York charities I have worked over the years, and to offer my Celebrancy services as a volunteer. This will include the full-range of ceremonies: weddings, baby welcomings, home blessings, funerals and beyond. The nonprofit leaders will (I hope) locate people who might be in need of a ceremony, and I will provide them with the kindness and attention I try to give to all of my clients. Celebrancy is a somewhat foreign concept to many Americans, and I do not know of the reception I will encounter. Nonprofits, overwhelmed by financial pressures and ever-increasing demands for services, may simply not have the time or staff to be able to accommodate this kind of collaboration—but it is certainly worth a try. I will report back to you, as the year moves along. I welcome your thoughts about this idea. And, Thanks again Linda, for sharing your beautiful spirit with me.