Sara Brown has turned her passion for writing and storytelling into a service that transforms funerals into personal and deeply celebratory milestones. Some of Sara’s earliest memories are of stories, both the ones she wrote and the faith stories she heard from her father’s congregation. We talked to Sara about the choice to do work many shy away from and how she stays contagiously positive and optimistic while walking with the grieving every day.
I first met you at a Women Entrepreneur Quick Pitch Competition at McMaster Innovation Park. I heard you tell your story about what you do and why, and frankly, I’ve never forgotten it.
Thanks! That means a lot to me.
Take me back to young Sara, were you always a natural storyteller and writer?
Oh yeah, I’ve always loved telling stories – and even more so, writing them! My two younger sisters and I grew up without a TV in our home, so play was often left to the imagination. If we weren’t playing house or school or some other imaginative game together, we were performing, reading or writing stories. I have early memories of my dad reading us three girls Little House on the Prairie at night by the fireplace. At one point, my sister asked, “Hey, Daddy? Is the fire like our TV?” [Laughs.]
If I wasn’t reading, I was off writing stories and poetry too. I remember when we got our first computer when I was about 11 or 12 and I used to love sitting and writing on it.
Any stories you wrote that you still remember?
Let’s see, there was “Vanessa and the Trouble Gang,” which I wrote when I was around 12 about a boy who had to choose between a "good girlfriend" and a “bad girlfriend.” Lots of strong morals and ethical themes in my stories! [Laughs.] And then there was “Insecticide,” a story about an ant who lives his life afraid of the shadows from people’s feet. The subtitle was “A tribute to all the insects who die in vain.” [Laughs.] No wonder I always felt like I was the weird kid!
When did you learn the power of storytelling?
Growing up as a minister’s daughter, I suppose I would have started to recognize the power of stories while going to church. I remember looking around me at “testimony time,” the part of the service when people would tell their faith stories of life before and then after "meeting God.” It was obviously inspiring to everyone, as there would often be tears streaming down people’s faces and applause at the end.
Later on, during my elementary teaching career, I’d learn the power of stories as I taught kids in grade 4. I remember even trying to turn a grammar lesson into some kind of drama. I’d pull a kid up and say, “Okay, you’re the comma and you’ve got to butt yourself in between these two sentences”, as I was calling up two more kids.
Was there a time when you realized you were going to tell stories for a living?
Hmmm... Well, I always knew I loved the stage and imagined myself doing some sort of public speaking. I was the keynote speaker or workshop facilitator for a few women’s retreats but never felt like I had found a topic that I was passionate enough to write a book about or speak on. Then I got introduced to the role of a Celebrant.
An Aha Moment you’ve had since you’ve started?
I had an Aha Moment during the first training night with Insight Institute where I became a certified Celebrant. I was obviously intrigued enough about the work to enroll in the course but still didn't really understand what I was getting myself into. We had had the first session with Doug Manning, who was sharing the value of a funeral and storytelling and the incredible impact it makes for the loved ones left behind rather than the more traditional, cookie-cutter services. I remember leaving that first session and going into the bathroom during the break and emotions hitting me hard and the tears just flowing. I kept thinking, "Wow! This is it! I’m in my mid-30s and I finally know what I want to be when I grow up."
I love that.
I had finally found a role that utilizes so many of my gifts and passions. I loved writing and public speaking. I loved helping people and knew I had gifts of compassion and empathy. And here was a way that I could tell stories of ordinary, extraordinary everyday people. I could pay tribute to them and at the same time help bring comfort to families and loved ones during a painful time in their lives. It was a long while in that bathroom stall of trying to collect myself before I went back in for the second session, puffy red face and all!
So there were no doubts in your mind about becoming a Funeral Celebrant, just full steam ahead?
Well, after the training, even though I knew I would love the work, I had some hesitation. The big decision was whether I was going to pursue celebrant work as a career or not. I had an entrepreneurial spirit, but having started other businesses, I knew how hard it was. So I was standing at this fork in the road asking myself, Do I really want to attempt my own business again? Do I have what it takes? Or perhaps it would be easier to simply find some kind of 9 to 5 job that provides more stability for my family.
Eventually, I obviously decided to take the leap and jump in.
What made you decide to go for it?
It was because I had written and spoken about the importance of living a “purpose-driven life” for years. And now I had found a place where, I think it’s Frederich Buechner who said, “where my great joy meets the world’s great need.” And here was my chance to not just prove to myself that I could make a living going after my dreams, but to try to model it for my children as well.
That’s inspiring. Did becoming a Celebrant change your experience of storytelling at all?
Yeah, I think it changed in the way I’d never realized the power of storytelling as a critical piece of the healing process in grief. This really hit home when I first started my work as a Celebrant. I was serving a family who had lost their 50-something year-old wife and mother to cancer. It had been a really heavy family meeting and they were all clearly overwhelmed. But I’ll never forget walking with her husband from the chapel where we held the service to the grave where we were about to bury her body. He said to me, “Sara I feel like a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I feel lighter than I’ve felt for the last few weeks. Is that weird?”
I smiled and told him, “No, not weird at all.”
That’s the power of storytelling at a funeral. Doug Manning said to us over and over again during our training, “The best way to get through grief is to grieve.” The funeral or memorial is a huge piece of helping that grief process begin. It’s rarely easy, but when you commit to going through the “work” of grief and mourning, you begin to find glimpses of light.
Help me understand the full role of a Funeral Celebrant.
The official definition of a Funeral Celebrant is “a person who has been trained and certified to meet the needs of grieving families by providing personalized and meaningful funeral or memorial services that reflect the lifestyle and personality of the deceased.”
That’s the official definition, how do you take that and make it uniquely Sara?
That “meet the needs” phrase of the definition has always been important to me as I understand that each family has different needs for what will help them start their grief journey well. We Celebrants are part funeral planner and part officiant like a minister would be and, of course, almost always a storyteller. But the #1 goal is always to meet the family’s needs.
I meet with families in their homes to discuss their needs and the design of their ceremony or celebration of life. But the majority of the family meeting is all about the loved one, giving me a good idea of who they were, the story of their life and often the legacy they’ve left. I offer suggestions for music and poetry and other types of ceremonies and give the family the option to incorporate as much or little of the spiritual or religious elements they wish to have. I love when families are open to more creative elements too – like once we ate some of the deceased's favourite foods while we sat in a circle and shared stories.
After the family meeting, I go home and write the service quickly. I often have to incorporate the information the family gave me into a meaningful service in one or two days because of the quick turn around that happens with funerals. Then, I conduct the service at the location of the family’s choice.
So each service is unique? No two are alike?
Each of my services are unique because I believe that as unique as your loved one was, so should their farewell be.
If you could visit young Sara, would she be surprised to know that you're a Funeral Celebrant?
Hmm… Good question! I would say Yes and no. Little Sara might have been surprised simply because she’d have no idea what a Celebrant was and no one to tell her since they didn’t really exist. But mostly I would say, “No, young Sara wouldn’t be surprised”, because I remember always having a fascination with death and being more curious about it than most kids my age. Even some of the stories and poetry I wrote were about death and dying. Even insects dying! [Laughs.] Plus, like we talked about earlier, I was always a natural storyteller and loved being the centre of attention. I was often referred to as “the drama queen” in my family. So if I knew what a Funeral Celebrant was, I probably wouldn’t be surprised.
How do you deal with people who feel you work in a dark or morbid business?
You know, I get those kinds of comments all the time and I usually just talk about how although it’s obviously often sad, it’s such a rewarding career – to be able to help people during such a difficult time and to see the healing that begins to take place at a family meeting or service.
At first those comments were frustrating, but I’ve come to understand how much it shows the value of my work and the importance of us talking about death and dying more. We, in our North American society, tend to avoid the subjects at all costs. It’s almost like we think if we don’t talk about it, it won’t touch us. I actually talk a lot about this in a workshop that I offer various groups and businesses called “Walking with the Brokenhearted - Helping People Help People in Grief." We all need to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable when it comes to the topics of grief and death and dying, not just for our own sakes but for those in our lives who go through loss.
When do people call on you? How do they find you?
Typically I get my referrals through various funeral homes in the Hamilton/Halton/GTA area. Families meet with the funeral directors and when they express the desire to have a non-traditional ceremony, the director will recommend me and direct them to my website. I have also had people book me because they attended one of my services or workshops, and they sometimes find me through my website or on social media like Facebook or Twitter.
As for the “when,” it’s generally after the person is deceased. But there have been a few times when I’ve gotten the opportunity to meet with the family before their loved one has died, typically when there’s been a terminal diagnosis. These are quite surreal moments – where I get the chance to ask the person what messages they’d like conveyed at their funeral or what they hope to be remembered for. I always walk away so humbled to be invited into such sacred spaces.
If you could tell people one thing about Funeral Celebrants, and your work in particular, what would it be?
I would tell them first that we are regular people. Well I mean, who’s “normal” really? [Laughs.] But we don’t walk around depressed all the time by all the grief around us. Most people see me as a fairly upbeat and positive person, so they can sometimes be surprised when they find out what I do for a living. Those of us who work in the death care profession can even have a sense of humor!
But most of all, I would say Funeral Celebrants are for absolutely anyone and everyone. Whether people are secular, religious, spiritual, non-denominational, part of an interfaith couple, it doesn’t matter. There have been times when I’ve even enjoyed sharing the officiant duties with a priest or minister when the family wants their religious leader present to share their thoughts, but they still want a more personalized or creative ceremony.
That leads me right to my most pressing question. How do you sit with a family in the midst of terrible grief, take in their story, get to know their loved one, lead the service and then manage to go on? How do you balance your own life when you’re a sponge for others’ grief?
Yeah, good question! I don't think that I could be a grief counsellor because you're sitting with the family week after week in that grief. As a Celebrant, I'm blessed with a gift that I'm able to be with you in this moment, one we share over a couple of days. It's not usually very long, I’m with you for the family meeting and then the service. I genuinely empathize with where you're at and what you're going through. But then self-care comes into it. It’s incredibly important with this type of job. I have to be really in touch about letting that burden go when it’s time.
You hold the stories of how many families?
I’ve been a Celebrant with over 200 families.
That is a lot of grief and stories.
Without good self-care and my professional training, I could not sit here and talk with you right now if I was carrying the grief of the 200 plus families. It would be too much of a burden to bear.
I know many people who simply say, “I don’t want a funeral.” Any thoughts on that growing sentiment?
I especially love to address those who tell their loved ones they don’t want a funeral or memorial. Most of these people don’t realize they have options outside of the traditional funeral. Everyone has a "nightmare story" of a funeral they’ve been to and they know what they don’t want. So they tell their families to simply “throw a party” or worse, nothing at all. But I’m passionate about my work because I so believe in the power of storytelling, of coming together as friends, family and community members and talking about the stories the person lived and the impact they made on the world around them. Every person has a valuable story worth telling and every life is worth celebrating. I’ll try to tell them, as gently as possible, of course, The funeral isn’t actually for you; it’s for your family and friends to be able to say ‘Goodbye’ to you. It’s to help them start grieving well. And you can play as big or little of a role in the planning of it as you’d like to.
One of the biggest compliments I ever received was when a friend of the family came up to me after the service and asked for my business card. She said, “I need to go back and tell the pre-planner at my funeral home that I’ve changed my mind; I DO want a service….because I didn’t know I could have one like THAT.”
What would you say to someone who thinks being a Celebrant might be for them?
I would say, number one: I can't highly recommend enough the training that I received with InSight Institute. They are a family-run business that is passionate, they recognize this need in the funeral profession and they do amazing work training Celebrants all over North America. I’m honoured to have recently been added to their Celebrant Trainer list for Eastern Canada and look forward to spreading awareness and helping others begin a rewarding career.
Can you train someone to be as amazing as you or does it come naturally?
That’s sweet of you to say. I think there are a lot of different gifts that you need if you want to do this. You need to be able to compassionately listen, write well and then of course be comfortable speaking in front of a crowd. You also need to be able to draw a line between your work as a Celebrant and your life.
Is there a time when you have to say “goodbye” and your part is finished?
We are taught that as Celebrants we cannot continue with a relationship past saying, “Thank you very much. Here's a copy of the service.” That is our goodbye point, until the next time.
The next time?
Yes, once there was a family that, within seven weeks, I helped them say goodbye to their sister, then their mother and then their father. That kind of stuff you just, well...it’s heart-wrenching and it requires a special approach. In that kind of situation, I'm walking with the family a lot longer and more closely.
Wow. You become part of a family life-team. We have doctors and professionals who help us our whole lives through different stages and phases. Having a genuine, warm and talented Funeral Celebrant seems like a profoundly good person to have on your team. The natural person to call.
Yes, that's definitely the hope.
Are some losses harder to stay professional with than others?
It’s hard when you talk about sudden losses, not that it's ever easy to say goodbye to somebody, but a younger child or a young adult, they are very difficult. There have been more than a couple of services where there are tears glistening or a catch in my voice when I’m officiating.
Funeral Celebrant versus what I would call a “rent a minister”, talk to me about the difference.
Typically ministers who rent themselves out for funerals have full-time jobs, they don't have the time to do what a Celebrant does. We spend hours with the family and then hours writing their personalized service.
A big part of being a Funeral Celebrant is to be naturally curious about people and their journeys through life. I love the story you tell about your trip to Nashville and the special thing you did on your way.
I don't very often get a chance to travel, so I was excited about not having kids and just travelling solo. I was on my way to Nashville and I thought, What if I just stopped to pay attention to the humanity, the people, right in front of me?
The first person to catch your attention?
I started with the guy who shined my boots, asking him questions about his story. He spent 26 years, I believe it was, working for the Indian government and now he's shining shoes at Toronto Pearson Airport. He’s been doing it for the last 13 years and he's so grateful to be in Canada, in a place where he's able to give his children a lot more opportunity. I took a selfie with him and posted it and did the same with my airplane partners, finding fascinating stories all along the way.
Any memorable airplane chatter?
One woman in the next seat was from Atlanta. She was heading back home from Halifax to Atlanta, having travelled to tell her sister that their brother, who was in Ethiopia, had died. It was such a gift that she opened up to me within just a few minutes of us sitting beside each other on a plane, telling me the hardship of telling her sister this tragic news. Their brother had gotten sick and died within four days. Her sister is in Halifax with one-year old twins and she knew she would not be able to make it back to the funeral. She needed to tell her in person. One of the things that unites us as humans is the way we can all relate to hardship and pain. I asked if she minded me sharing her story, and she said, “Of course not.” My Facebook feed blew up as I shared these strangers’ stories and it’s amazing to me how people just resonated with them. We've heard of Humans of New York, which really took off, where people are telling stories of everyday people and what they go through. The power of story. There's something that keeps us all united as human beings.
So coming full circle back to that fork in the road when you decided to become a Funeral Celebrant: Do you feel it was the right choice?
Absolutely. It was a big risk, but looking back now, I’m so glad that I decided to go for it. It’s not just changed my career and given me the opportunity to meet amazing people like you, but it’s also given me a whole new perspective on my own life. Sitting down with families at such a vulnerable time and talking about legacy obviously has an impact. It’s a constant reminder of my own mortality and it regularly gives me pause to reflect on what I hope my legacy will be.
Any thoughts about what you want for your legacy?
[Smiles.] Oh there is a lot! But part of it is this: I hope I’ll be remembered as someone who didn’t just dream but was up for the adventure of going after those dreams with everything I had.
Beautiful. That really captures the spiritual core of innovation. You could almost call it “The Innovator’s Creed.” Thank you, Sara.
Thank you, Sharon.
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