Sharing my story, through the book "The Big Finale: An Event to
Remember," shows readers how involvement in funeral planning improves
the healing process.
My sister planned her own funeral. For her it was a way of dealing with
her impending death from cancer. Imagine you're given a death sentence
from your doctor on your 49th birthday in late Feb. 2004 and weeks
later by April you're dead. She couldn't wait to get things in place as
there was no time. She told me it was her last gift to handle the
Without any death education in this country, our family thought it was
better not to discuss her death, especially with her. Often, I was the
only one to listen as she went through the stages of grief in facing
her own mortality.
She set out to plan her own funeral and met with the funeral director
of her choice. She chose her own simple casket and said she wanted to
be buried in a specific cemetery. As a teacher, she wanted to record a
brief farewell message to her students to be played at the funeral.
She hired an inexpensive videographer, who recorded her final message
for the service. She appointed me the eulogist, asked my uncle to
preach in her church, and mentioned some songs she liked. She pre-paid
for nothing. The responsibility fell to our family to organize the
entire thing and follow-through on her plans, which seemed like a
no-brainer. Her wishes had become our wishes and there were still
plenty of details to organize that she hadn't handled.
It became a nightmare. The pastor of the church, where she had been a
member for 15 years, said NO to most of her suggestions. It was his
church and his service, so he reminded me. He made us negotiate for
elements she had asked for, including the videotaped farewell. The
funeral director delivered on the casket and burial - both of which had
nothing to do with the commemoration of life, but he never helped us be
heard by the pastor. We felt no one cared about our need to honor my
sister’s life. A generic reading inserting her name into a script was
not what she wanted and it was not what we wanted.
The announcement had already been in the newspaper - so we couldn't
change locations. It was her big finale and honestly, the show must go
on. I negotiated for the playing of the videotape, but I lost the
song. My uncle was also denied the opportunity to preach, which she
had requested. On the day of the service, I was determined to honor my
sister. So, I sang the song the pastor denied mid-eulogy and the
pastor's mouth dropped while the packed church applauded. Healing? No.
In the midst of our grief, her pastor hi-jacked the service from the
family and even delivered a generic 20 min. sermon focused on Aids, the
Iraq war, and religion. He never mentioned my sister's name. My sister
would have been horrified that her life was reduced to a generic
reading that didn’t include her. We felt he trivialized her life and
our need to honor her.
Trivializing the needs of our grieving family was not healing. We were
all left behind in our own way to find a path toward healing. My
sister’s funeral, while powerful in spirit that it fought the system of
generic service, wasn’t healing because her needs and our needs were
not met. Grief nearly cost me my marriage. Grief cost my elderly
parents time they did not have. The first year after my sister’s death
was difficult for all of us as we were reminded of her final farewell
every day. Recovery starts through involvement, which in our case, was
Now, I realize, had we been welcomed into the process and had our
wishes been honored, our healing would have started the day of the
service. Instead, we were forced to fight a system that robbed us of
our sister’s big finale.
Eight months after my sister’s death, I started researching funerals,
death, and grief. Death education is lacking in this country and yet
should be a requirement because everyone will go through it.
In doing my research, one of the first websites I found was the
Funerals Consumers Alliance,
which reminded me, as a consumer,
I had rights. I also went on a book-buying spree of education. One of
the books I bought was written by Lisa Carlson entitled, "Caring for
the Dead: Your Final Act of Love." Carlson’s work led me to the website
Funeral Ethics Organization.
Each step in educating myself led to the next. My world changed when I
found the website for
and the In-Sight Institute
that trains Celebrants to help families be heard in the funeral
process. Prior to training, I found myself volunteering to speak at
funerals for friends who faced an unexpected death. I tapped into my
gifts of writing and public speaking to create and deliver original
tributes that actually allow people to shed tears or share smiles in
remembering a life lived.
I flew to the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science and through the
training offered by In-Sight, I became a Funeral Celebrant to help
other families have the funeral they envision, without censorship of
life stories, message, or music. It isn't about spending more money;
it's about families being heard. A more expensive casket absolutely
doesn't make a better funeral.
My own family talked about death and funerals often since my sister’s
death. As a result, my father requested military honors for his service
in the Army, a reading with the flag folding, and for Hershey bars to
be handed out at the end of the funeral service to represent his
heritage as he was related to Milton Hershey. Jump ahead to Feb. 2007-
my father dies - a different pastor, different funeral home, a creative
Celebrant, and no censorship - and there is healing for everyone in the
family. We honored his wishes, we felt heard, and he also influenced
his own farewell.
While I think there is a more common experience of having to organize a
funeral for a loved one, rather than yourself, there is room for
everyone to be heard and put their own personal spin on a funeral to
fulfill their needs.
The final service always belongs to the family.
I’ve written the book, "The Big Finale: An Event to Remember," to help
families see the options available to them as they face the most
difficult time in their lives. Knowledge is power and I believe
everyone should be prepared when the time comes. The healing begins now…
By phone call (818) 313-9009.
For more information on Celebrant Pam Vetter link to