Alternative Funerals

October 11, 2015

There’s an old saying, that when it comes to death, you don’t pull the chord until your ready to get off. But in a world where people are counted- or driven, out of the Catholic Church in increasing numbers, if you don’t pre-plan your own funeral you could end up being put in the ground showered- not only in soil, but in the words of an institution you didn’t agree with. Once on the highway to hell, or the stairway to heaven, what happens your corpse will most likely be against your wishes, if you don’t directly express them.

Thankfully there is a lot more options out there now then once there was, and to cope with demand Lorraine Mancey O Brien of the Irish Institute of Celebrants has launched the Certificate in Funeral Celebrancy.

Starting in June, ten people are already confirmed to undertake the course and when they graduate will join the six celebrants the institute already has in the field. “It came about through our success in the civil ceremony arena,” she says. “People attending, who may have lost some one recently told us that they would have loved to have had a similar option when it came to funerals. It’s not that they-or we, are anti-church, It’s just that people don’t feel that a church service is representative of who they are.”

The institute are stricter about who they take on their certificate in funeral celebracy than in their certificate in family celebracy. “They are going into a family’s life at a time that’s very difficult for them. We insist that they have either worked in the funeral industry before or that they are trained grief counselors.”

This can be particular helpful if they have to deal with families who try to over-rule the wishes of the deceased. “We work with them, try and find readings that don’t impinge on the wants of those gone or the feelings of those left behind.”

So far, she says, the church has not been willing to partake in joint services. “Much like with weddings, whenever we have asked the parish priest if they would do a blessing, they’ve declined. Which is very sad for people who may have grown up with a particular parish priest and may have wanted them involved.”

Dara Molloy is a former Roman Catholic priest. Now a married father of four, he left the Church in 1996 but remains a priest, performing ceremonies as a Celtic Monk for people who want to mark an event in their lives with a meaningful, spiritual ceremony. While he performs hundreds of wedding celebrations every year, there’s less of a demand for an alternative funeral celebrant, because of the convenience of grief.

“Families often say ‘to hell with it, we will go to the church’- even though he didn’t go himself in years,” he says. “It’s a crisis for them. They are too broken and too hurt to go to any difficult effort.”

Dara sees his role as a facilitator, to help those present remember those passed. “To tell, from beginning to end, the life story of the person. When people come for a funeral they may have known someone over a set period of years. They might not have known a person all their lives. My job is to get the full picture of that person’s life and give a summary of that.”

Like most other alternative services, there is lots of secular music and poetry. But Dara’s spirituality is deeply connected to the pre-Roman Celtic Church and some of the communal traditions he employs in the ceremony reach back as far as then. He uses a bowl of water and a bowl of oil to help in forgiveness and healing.

“Water is a means of apologising to the person about anything you regret about your relationship. If you didn’t get to see them to say you’re sorry or to put to bed a row you had years ago.

“While, with the bowl of oil (olive oil scented with lavender) I invite people up to apply that to themselves. It’s for healing. When someone dies you are hurt. It’s important that you recover from that healthily.”

The Rev. Helen Grubert is an interfaith minister who was drawn to such alternative funerals when her sister passed away 15 years ago. “She wasn’t a religious person but had very strong spiritual beliefs. Having gone through the traditional ceremony, I felt it was important to follow up with a more personal ceremony.

“It was amazing to actually perform. It felt more authentic and I realised, if this is how I was feeling, then obviously other people must be feeling the same way.

“Often with the religious ceremonies you get swept along like a tidal wave at the time of loosing a loved one. So it can be good to have someone take over and do your thinking for you. But when you reflect it doesn’t represent the true personality of the person gone.”

When approached to do a funeral Helen has to check her diary, to make sure that she would be available, not just for on the day, but also afterwards as well. “If people need a little extra help, by way of compassionate ear with spiritual company, part of our duty is to be available for them.”

“And it’s about bringing different energies. There’s a difference between how you hold the energy of a baby, who died suddenly, to someone who was an old, old age and lived a full life. The shock of the families is different.”

She speaks to the chief mourners, who are not always family, via phone, in person or Skype, and if possible looks at the deceased’s Facebook page and, as with the Institute of Celebrants, her ceremony is very much about capturing the personality of the deceased. She has presided over the personalized funeral of people as diverse as burlesque dancers to jazz musicians, knitting fanatics to airplane enthusiasts. “It’s important to tread a fine line that you don’t offend the other mourners.”

In 2012, Ireland’s 19 Humanist minister performs 78 funeral services. That figure rose to 95 in 2013 and 125 last year. “It’s growing big time,” says Brian Whiteside, Director of the Humanist Association of Ireland. “Between all the ceremonies we offer -naming ceremonies, weddings, funerals, 150,000 people will attend a humanist ceremony this year. Often when they see how we conduct one ceremony they start thinking about how they can mark the other major milestones in their life and death. More and more people are realising that they aren’t religious and if that is the case it is important to find away to find a way to mark these occasions that are true to you.

“A humanist funeral is really two things. It marks the sadness of losing a loved one, while at the same time taking opportunity to celebrate the life that was lived.” Brian makes it clear, from the off, that he did not know the person whose funeral he is a celebrant for, but facilitates the mourning of those who did, introducing family and friends who will speak about those who have passed and introducing songs, poems or anything else that symbolised the person who died.

“At the end of the ceremony the celebrant would say a few parting words, philosophical in nature about the cycle of life, of which death is a part of. It is the continuum of life. Through those the dead have touched in life, their legacy lives on.”

Most humanist ceremonies take place in crematoriums, but Whiteside has noticed that more and more people are renting out venues such as the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham to facilitate larger crowds.

Capitalising on this demand for funerals that are less about weeping and wailing, and more about celebration, Mancey O’Brien has hooked up with a funeral home in the Midlands so that they can facilitate the totality of peoples demands, not just the service they want but the type of coffin or hearse they may want also. Hundreds of healthy people have contacted her to pre-plan their funerals and she has recently developed a relationship with the countries only Green Graveyard.

“There’s not many places where people can be buried on non-consecrated ground,” Colin Mc Ateer of Wordbook Natural Burial Ground in Wexford, which has been in operation since 2010, says. “We believed in death and that’s it”.

“There’s a feel good factor here, even though it’s a graveyard. It’s stunningly beautiful, and peaceful. We cut the grass twice a year, at the start and end of season, to maintain the wild flower meadows. The trees are clamped and we trim the pathways. The rest is kept natural, which is more beautiful then a manicured lawn that has no nature in it.”

Instead of granite gravestones, there’s a tree with a wooden marker

At present there are 50 people buried there, although they have a significantly higher number of people pre-paying for plots. “Any graveyard takes ten years to get going because a lot of the older generation already know where they are going to be buried. Maybe the husband or wife is buried somewhere else and their intention is to join them.”

Added to that that there is a new concept in Ireland.

“A lot of times people don’t get buried here because the family mightn’t think that it’s acceptable,” concludes McAteer. “ One thing I would say in that situation is do what the deceased wanted. Its respect. Respect their wishes.

For more information on training to be a celebrant or to book a celebrant contact the Irish Institute of Celebrants at To contact Fr Dara Molloy about his funeral services contact him at The Rev Helen Grubert can be contacted at.


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