The Ascent of Female Funeral Celebrants

I find myself wondering what this line of work is like for all of the other women who choose to walk this path? How do I take the complexities and subtle communication skills that I have honed, and use and embody as a funeral celebrant, and express them to others in such a way that they, too, might benefit from them? In what format can I possibly portray the moving and transformative experiences I have become accustomed to participating in all these years?

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– Sandra Ollsin –

SandraOllsin

Sandra Ollsin is an ethnographer, death & dying educator, public speaker, interfaith researcher, intercultural activist and writer.  She is known for both her pioneering funeral celebrant work in Western Canada, serving individuals and groups experiencing grief-induced, liminal states of consciousness, and for providing advanced emotional and spiritual support to those receiving hospice palliative care and support. Her work is informed by years spent serving hundreds of families in the art of process-oriented, affect-rich and participatory end-of-life ritual and ceremony.

Sandra holds a Master’s degree in Intercultural & International Communication (focusing on the ‘spiritual, but not religious’ cultural movement in the West), a Bachelor’s degree in Professional Communication, and is currently writing a book based on her work. Her award-winning research ‘Between Worlds: Communication Perspectives of Female Funeral Celebrants in British Columbia’ can be viewed online.

For conference presentations or public speaking engagements Sandra can be reached at:

sandy@sandyollsin.com


My mother dies a slow and painful death in 2001. Afterwards, my family and I hire a retired clergyman to perform the memorial service. He is recommended by the funeral home as someone who can best satisfy our request for a non-religious service.

He arrives at our family home to meet with us, two days before the service is to take place. During the brief discussion that ensues he asks a few inane questions, half-heartedly listens to our responses, and assures us that what he has collected is enough information to create a lovely and fitting service for our wife and mother.

Throughout the meeting we make sure to clearly articulate that our mother was not a religious woman. We tell him how she did not believe in God and was not a churchgoer. Therefore, referencing scripture and/or using religious language of any kind during the service is to be strictly avoided. Each time we reiterate this to him, he nods in agreement, saying, “I hear you, I hear you.” And we believe him. In total, he spends a mere twenty minutes planning the service with us before hurrying off to his next appointment.

We are grief stricken and exhausted from the countless months spent providing palliative care to our beloved matriarch. So much so, that my father, two sisters and I put our trust in this clergyman to help us honour her memory in the most fitting way.

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Several days later we find ourselves sitting in the front row in the chapel of the funeral home along with a hundred other mourners, listening to the very same clergyman speak about the life and death of the woman we are sorely missing.  Several minutes into his rather hollow words and pithy refrains, he proceeds to intersperse three lengthy scriptural passages into the service. At the end of it all our jaws drop in disgust and disbelief. Our father’s wife of almost 50 years, our mother, has just died, and despite our best efforts her service ends up being about as inauthentic as it can possibly be. We are stunned, emotionally raw, and eventually, furious, which only adds to the burden of the sorrow in our hearts.

Nearer to the end of the service — as I gather myself up to deliver the eulogy I have prepared — all I can think to myself as I listen to him speak is, “I can do better than that.”

Some weeks later, while volunteering at a local hospice, I pick up a book to read while on a break. In it, I discover a small section on funeral celebrants and the work that they do. I have never heard the phrase funeral celebrant before, but it strikes a chord deep within me.

Later that year, I enroll in and complete the training to become a Certified Funeral Celebrant. I begin helping people co-create and perform over 200 end-of-life services: funerals, memorials, graveside interments, scattering of ashes, and celebrations of life of every kind imaginable.

Throughout the eight years that I perform this work, I try my best to affect positive, progressive change in the entrenched systems I find myself embroiled in. That is, between the death care industry’s bottom lines, and religious institution’s staid and archaic ways — as well as the tangled politics and androcentric stances that both of those inevitably invoke.

But something else happens during this time as well: I grow more and more curious about what it is that I am actually doing when I perform celebrant work? I mean, at a deeper, spiritual and cultural level, what is it that I am actually doing?

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I know what my own experience of occupying the role of funeral celebrant is, and based on client’s feedback, I know beyond a doubt that what I am doing serves something vital in human beings. I also, however, find funeral celebrant work to be rather isolating and solitary in nature, and I want to reach out somehow with what I’ve been experiencing.

I find myself wondering what this line of work is like for all of the other women who choose to walk this path? How do I take the complexities and subtle communication skills that I have honed, and use and embody as a funeral celebrant, and express them to others in such a way that they, too, might benefit from them? In what format can I possibly portray the moving and transformative experiences I have become accustomed to participating in all these years?

From research conducted on this topic during graduate school, I created a visual ethnography that is interactive and multimodal. I invite you to take time to engage with it at your leisure (about an hour for the complete experience, or less time if you prefer to selectively skim through it). Immerse yourself in the liminal work experiences of four female funeral celebrants in British Columbia, Canada (that reflect my own as well) by clicking on this link:

Between Worlds: Communication Perspectives of Female Funeral Celebrants in British Columbia

Postscript:  Please feel free to share this presentation far and wide to all those who may be interested, so they can learn what the role of the funeral celebrant is, what it involves, and how bereaved individuals might benefit from such services.  Only when people know that they have the option to ask for the services of a funeral celebrant after a death occurs, can those who identify as non-religious, spiritual but not religious, and/or have a number of faith traditions represented within their family systems be better served.

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– All photographs within this post were all taken by Sandra –

The first image is an arbutus tree taken at her home

All other images were taken at the Royal Oak Burial Park in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. A publicly owned, non-profit, burial park that instigated the first Green Burial plots in Western Canada a few years ago. Sandra performed the 2nd ever green burial ceremony there when she was a celebrant