The eulogy for Deb Keller achieved a delicate mix of laughter and sadness, revealing enough details about her life that her brother asked if the woman delivering the remembrance was a close friend.
She wasn't. Diane Grigg had never met Keller, yet for 15 minutes she described Keller's love for softball and her habit of hopping when she pitched. She noted awards Keller had won as an auto-parts manager and even mentioned her nickname, "Dimples."
People left the memorial saying they had discovered new elements in Keller's 47 years of life. That's precisely what Grigg intended. She is, as a funeral celebrant, a paid emcee of sorts, and part of a new, increasingly popular twist in the way the newly dead are memorialized.
"I was really, really happy that I went that route as opposed to a church service," Keller's sister, Kim Van Bortel, said of the service in August 2003, "because I think they're just too sad. It really was a nice way to step back from the depression of losing my sister and smile a little bit and have some happy memories."
As formal religious affiliation declines and baby boomers complain that traditional funeral services are impersonal, funeral celebrants are stepping in. For $150 to $450, they will meet with the family, compose and deliver a eulogy, and manage a memorial service.
"Change is afoot in the way we are saying goodbye to people," said Grigg during a presentation on the concept. She is one of about 550 certified funeral celebrants in the United States and Canada, and she came to the work after quitting her job as a training manager at a hospital.
Celebrant Maureen Sullivan said the celebrant format updates the sometimes stale and impersonal church-based memorial services.
"I think people are looking for something that strikes a chord with them, and ritual in the church is pretty much one size fits all," Sullivan said. "When we hear the same prayers and the same songs over and over, we're not moved. We're just present."
The concept of a paid funeral celebrant came to the United States from Australia and New Zealand, where the governments have been licensing "civil celebrants" for decades. Former Baptist minister Doug Manning, who has written more than 45 books on grief and bereavement, had heard about the concept and observed celebrant memorials while visiting those countries in the 1990s.
"I came back and really mulled that concept over," Manning said. He believed traditional funerals were less than fulfilling for many mourners and providing inadequate memorials for people who hadn't attended church regularly.
"I didn't feel that they really were as healing as they could be for people in grief," Manning said. "And it was even worse for a family that didn't go to church."
Manning analyzed how funerals could be more fulfilling for mourners and came up with a training and certification program for funeral celebrants, the first of which was presented for free in 1999 in Boston. Fifty people attended, Manning said.
"What it did for me is that it affirmed some of the things I was doing," said the Rev. Bob Kasperson, 78, a Lutheran pastor who was ordained in 1962 and became a certified funeral celebrant about three years ago. He presided over 51 funerals last year.
"There are some people who don't want any religious emphasis at all," Kasperson said. "It's one way of memorializing them. It leaves people with more choice, and there's nothing wrong with that, usually."
Celebrants must be adept listeners, comfortable speaking to groups and detail-oriented. They must be organized and competent at managing on the fly. And, they must do all that during what may be a family's most stressful and mournful time.
But celebrants say they derive fulfillment from the solace they provide, an aspect that can be lacking from traditional funerals.
"I give people consolation," said Betty Murray, a celebrant who worked in funeral home management for 30 years, "and sometimes an understanding of the people who died. And I often feel inspired by doing that. When you hear some of these people's stories, they can be very beautiful."