Obituary Guide

Helping Families Deal with Death "Most Satisfying Work" for Funeral Celebrant

Brandon Sun, September 13, 2011

David McConkey

To chat with funeral celebrant Lawrence McInnes is to explore the changing ways we recognize and remember life and death.

The funeral celebrant is a relatively new role that fills an increasing need. More and more people do not have a religious affiliation and so do not have a pastor to turn to when a death occurs.

Sometimes these families assume there is no need for a funeral service. But McInnes disagrees.

“Every life is worth celebrating,” he says, “When there is no funeral, there is no opportunity to start the grieving process.”

The notion of the funeral celebrant is “such a great idea,” McInnes says, “as it is extremely important to a family to have a memorial to celebrate the life of the person who has died.

“It is a passage of life that needs to be recognized.”

McInnes brings to this work a background as a lawyer and crown attorney. He is also a very involved member of the community, including being a lay worship leader in the United Church.

In retirement, he took the opportunity to become a funeral celebrant. He is certified by the In-Sight Institute in the U.S. and is associated with Brockie Donovan Funeral Home.

His approach is infused with an obvious depth, curiosity and empathy.

Being a funeral celebrant, says McInnes, is the “most interesting, most satisfying work I’ve ever done. It is such a huge privilege to be able to share those people’s lives and experience those memories.” 

As a celebrant, McInnes starts by meeting with the family to plan the funeral.

But “funeral” or “memorial service” often do not adequately describe the possibilities to mark a death.

Because there is no need to follow a traditional religious or other pattern, the options are open. Choices include venue, music, speakers, readings, ceremonies (like candle lighting or balloon release), and participation of the people attending.

And modern technology is creating even more opportunities. Some services, for example, are broadcast over the Internet. They then can be experienced live anywhere in the world by those who cannot be there in person.

During the preparatory meetings, family members tell their stories of the deceased, often revealing perspectives that have never been told before. McInnes says that families find it very helpful to share these stories, even those of abuse and other unhappy experiences.

These stories also provide information for the eulogy. (Often the celebrant will do the eulogy, although others may as well.)

Composing the eulogy can be assisted greatly by any oral histories or memoirs that have been prepared earlier. Such accounts, McInnes points out, can be invaluable in keeping alive for future generations the memories of those who have died. 

McInnes believes that the eulogy should reflect the totality of the deceased – the good and the bad. 

“You don’t have to dwell on the bad, but if it exists, you need to deal with it.”

Funeral celebrants are playing an important role in changing how we think about death. Old traditions are not being observed as commonly as before. New customs and practices are being developed.

Changes at the individual level are also transforming how the community remembers the lives of its citizens. And as funerals, memorials and obituaries are posted on the Internet, there is often a forum inviting everyone to participate.  

McInnes notes that our commemorating of life and death is also being inspired by ideas shared in the wider society.

One is the “handprint” that recognizes how the deceased has touched the lives of others. Each person participating touches the urn or casket to leave a symbolic handprint.

This practice comes from the memorial at the site of the 1990’s terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City.

Visitors there have created their own meaningful tradition. They first wet a hand in the reflecting pool. They then make a fleeting impression of a handprint on the metal face of the memorial.

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