Sunday, March 29, 2015

Think Outside the Funeral Parlor by Emily VanLaeys, Celebrant

  Wellington House

       We are so accustomed to attending funerals at a church, funeral parlor, and/or cemetery that it doesn't occur to many of us to hold a memorial service or celebration of life at another venue. But these days, when so many of us choose cremation for our physical remains, we don't have to have the ceremony in a building that can accommodate a casket. 

       Several years ago I led a memorial service for my father-in-law at the American Legion post where he had been a member.  When I conducted a service for a young woman who died of melanoma it was held at Wellington House in Lafayetteville, New York. This magnificent estate is used for private social functions - most often weddings, business luncheons, and parties - but why not invite your family and friends to celebrate the life of your loved one at such a gracious venue as this? If you're planning to host a meal after the service anyway, why not hold the ceremony at the same place, whether a restaurant, Elks Club, or community center, and save yourself the extra rental fee of the funeral home?

       A celebration of life may take place anywhere that a group of people can gather for a social event. It might take place at a park, in someone's back yard, at a beach, or on a mountainside. Think about the places where your loved one felt most at home or where he or she enjoyed spending their free time. Think of a place where your family and friends will feel comfortable as they remember the life of the one who has departed this earth for the next frontier. Then you can hire a life-cycle celebrant to create with your help a memorable, personalized, and even fun ceremony that reflects the essence of your husband, wife, father, mother, uncle, aunt, son or daughter. Find a celebrant near you at:Celebrant Foundation & Institute.

Emily VanLaeys is a certified life-cycle celebrant in Oneonta, New York. She provides end-of-life ceremonies throughout New York State.       

Friday, February 20, 2015

Catholic Priest Died for 48 Minutes

       I just read this article on "Sahifa." The priest's experience confirms my understanding that each of us will have a different experience when we die. The "motherly figure" that Father O'Neal met could have been one aspect of God or she could have been a loving spirit guide, an angel, a goddess, or any one of God's many faces. I believe that labeling God as a woman is just as limiting as labeling God a man. I believe that God is all-encompassing, All-That-Is, the epitome of Love and Light which is greater than anything our human minds can comprehend, even in death. Each of us is a child of God and a piece of God - the whole of God cannot be contained in one personality or one body, no matter how perfect and immortal that body may be. 

(Just my opinion. As always, I am open to comments. When making comments, please sign in before typing or your comment will disappear. Thank you!)


A Catholic priest from Massachussetts was officially dead for more than 48 minutes before medics were able to miraculously re-start his heart has revealed a shocking revelation that will change everything you once believed.
The 71 years old cleric Father John Micheal O’neal claims he went to heaven and met God, which he describes as a warm and comforting motherly figure.
Father John Micheal O’neal was rushed to the hospital on January 29 after a major heart attack, but was declared clinically dead soon after his arrival. With the aid of a high-tech machine called LUCAS 2, that kept the blood flowing to his brain, doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital managed to unblock vital arteries and return his heart to a normal rhythm.
The doctors were afraid he would have suffered some brain damage from the incident, but he woke up less than 48 minutes later and seems to have perfectly recovered.
father O neal
The elderly man claims that he has clear and vivid memories of what happened to him while he was dead. He describes a strange out-of-body experience, experiencing an intense feeling of unconditional love and acceptance, as well as being surrounded by an overwhelming light.
He claims that at that point in his experience, he went to heaven and encountered God, which he describes as a feminine, mother-like “Being of Light”.
“Her presence was both overwhelming and comforting” states the Catholic priest. “She had a soft and soothing voice and her presence was as reassuring as a mother’s embrace. The fact that God is a Holy Mother instead of a Holy Father doesn’t disturb me, she is everything I hoped she would be and even more!
The declarations of the cleric caused quite a stir in the catholic clergy of the archdiocese over the last few days, causing the Archbishop to summon a press conference to try and calm the rumors.
Despite the disapproval of his superiors, Father O’neal says that he will continue dedicating his life to God and spread the word of the “Holy Mother”.
“I wish to continue preaching” says the elderly cleric. “I would like to share my new knowledge of the Mother, the Son and the Holy Ghost with all catholics and even all Christians. God is great and almighty despite being a woman…”
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has not confirmed however, if they will allow Father O’neal to resume his preaching in his former parish in South Boston.

Friday, January 30, 2015

What Happens Next?


       For many people, the afterlife is the great unknown; something to be feared. Some maintain they will simply cease to exist after death, although most believe in some kind of afterlife. The tone of a memorial service may vary depending on what kind of afterlife vision was held by the deceased and/or the family. When there is no belief in an afterlife, there may be references to the way our loved one lives on in our memories, but I have to admit, this kind of service leaves me feeling empty. I think it is rare that everyone who attends a funeral will share the same belief, and it's a good idea to address this spectrum in the service.

       A couple of years ago I conducted a service for a deceased atheist where I said: 
"Aaron did not believe in an afterlife, but he does live on in memory, and some of us here believe that he got a big surprise when he woke up on Thursday  morning and discovered that he’d been reunited with his deceased loved ones in a beautiful new world."

        Even among those who believe that death is the beginning of a new life, there are probably as many different visions of this existence as there are believers. Our images of Heaven, Paradise, the Other Side, the hereafter, or the afterlife can only exist in our imagination. Well, unless you're among those who have had a near death experience and actually saw the place where you'll end up when you die for good. 

       I have read about many of these NDEs in books such as Life After Life by Dr. Raymond Moody, What Tom Sawyer Learned from Dying by Sidney Saylor Farr, and numerous others including some by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. While reading these stories has strengthened my belief in the afterlife, the variations have convinced me that the life to come will not be the same for everyone. 

       The afterlife that each person experiences will probably vary according to the life led and beliefs held while we are in a physical body. Tom Sawyer was an atheist who, while clinically dead, was met by a Light Being that loved him unconditionally. After his return to this life, Sawyer never again questioned the existence of God and the purposefulness of his life - to share his experience with others and tell us how important it is to love.

       Common elements of the NDE are the tunnel that leads to a White Light full of love, and the meeting of deceased loved ones along the way. But the tunnel and the family greeters do not appear in every experience, and I have read of some NDEs in which the teller actually met demons. These stories have not convinced me that Hell, as a place of eternal damnation, exists. My thought is that the demons exist on the astral plane which many people pass through before they progress to higher planes.

       Perhaps the astral plane is the equivalent of the Roman Catholic Purgatory where souls go to be purified before they can enter the gates of Heaven. This concept brings me to a big difference between Catholic and Protestant beliefs. In the Protestant churches I have attended for many years, there is no concept of Purgatory, and praying to or for the deceased is not an approved practice. On the other hand, Catholics pray for their departed loved ones, especially if they think someone is in Purgatory and needs prayers to get to heaven. And if the departed loved one is believed to be in heaven, a Catholic may pray to that person, whereas a Protestant never prays to anyone other than God or Jesus.

       This is one of the places where I have parted ways with Protestant churches. The taboo against contact with the departed may exacerbate the grief that we already feel when someone dies. Many people comfort themselves by talking to the deceased, whether or not they receive a response. I know people who have seen and/or heard the spirits of their departed loved ones. If such contact was truly against "the rules," I don't think it would be allowed to occur. 

       While I have expressed some of my own ideas in this article, I think that we need to be sensitive to the fact that there are countless viewpoints about the afterlife and not push our own ideas onto others. I would like this to be an open forum for readers to share their own thoughts and beliefs. I welcome comments! 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Closure through Ceremony by Emily VanLaeys, Celebrant


       Now that we're in our sixties a day rarely goes by that we don't see someone our age or younger in the obituaries of our small town newspaper. Mark's mom died at 80 and his dad at 87. My parents, both 90, are still alive, so longevity is in our genes. But we can't help noticing how people our age (and younger) seem to be dropping like flies. And so, we're starting to think about the kind of memorial service we want to request at the time of our demise.

       Recently I mentioned this to my sister-in-law who responded: "I won't care what my memorial service will be like. I'll be dead."

       I guess a lot of people feel that way, but whenever I attend a funeral I can't help thinking about the parts I do and don't like and how I want it to be different when I die. Maybe it's because I'm a life-cycle celebrant, and meaningful rituals and ceremony are important to me. 

       Most of the church funerals I attend are pretty similar. The minister will read verses from the Bible to remind us that our loved one has been taken into heaven to live with Jesus. Hymns are sung, prayers are said, and often Communion is shared. The service seems to be more about the Christian faith than it is about the person whose life we want to celebrate. Sometimes the minister's address will include stories from his or her own experiences with death rather than stories about our departed friend. Then there is (usually) a time set aside for family and friends to share memories of the deceased. Sometimes this is the only personal part of the service and it may be long or short depending on how talkative the participants are.

       The services I have attended at funeral homes are similar to a church service although usually shorter. In both cases the life and personality of the departed is usually honored more at the reception than during the ceremony. Photographs and treasured mementos are often displayed for mourners to look at while they sip coffee and nibble on cookies.

       Sometimes people request that there not be any calling hours or funeral after they die. I believe this request robs their loved ones of the closure that a ceremony provides. However, if the ceremony doesn't focus on the life of their loved one, it may not provide sufficient closure anyway. I remember attending the funeral of a neighbor who died at the age of 42, leaving two young boys behind. One of the boys spoke briefly during the service, but most of it had absolutely nothing to do with my friend. When the pallbearers carried her coffin out of the church I felt like screaming: "NO! Wait! You haven't honored her life yet. It can't be over!"

       I think that nearly everyone has different beliefs about death and what happens after we die. That's why using the same words for every funeral doesn't feel right to me. A memorial service or celebration of life should reflect the personality and beliefs of the person being honored. This can be done if the celebrant takes the time to talk to the family, learn about the interests and beliefs of the deceased, and weave them into a story to share at the ceremony. Rituals can include candles to symbolize the person's spirit, mementos shared by loved ones during the ceremony, or in the Native American tradition, breaking a cup to symbolize the release of the person's spirit. These are just a few examples of different ways to honor a loved one, but the possibilities are endless once we start thinking outside the box. 

       I am still considering ideas for my own service, such as music and poetry that reflects my beliefs about life - the one I'm experiencing now, and the one that lies ahead. I understand why a lot of people just want to focus on the here and now, and not concern themselves with what will happen when they're gone. But I do believe you'll do your loved ones a favor by leaving them some ideas for a ceremony that will help them feel that your life was honored when it's time to say farewell. 

Emily VanLaeys is a certified life-cycle celebrant in Oneonta, New York. She provides end-of-life ceremonies throughout New York State.       

Friday, January 23, 2015

Tea, Cake, and Death Chat with Emily VanLaeys, Celebrant


       "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes," goes the famous quote by Benjamin Franklin. I would add that death and taxes are two of the things that unite us all, except that some people don't pay their fair share of taxes, and some deaths are a lot easier than others.

       Facing death is something that every single person on earth has to do at one time or another, so you might say death helps to build bridges of oneness. In spite of the fact that we all face death, many avoid the topic at all costs. We avoid the words "death" and "died" by saying that someone has "passed" when they leave their earthly body. 

      If you've been to a cemetery burial recently you will have noticed the green covering over the open grave that's intended to shield families from the reality of the hole in the ground where their loved one's body will be laid. 

       Other ways that we avoid the reality of death include the embalmer's attempt to make a corpse appear to be alive, and the medical profession's attempts to keep patients alive long past their due dates.

       Because of the overwhelming reluctance of people to discuss death, in spite of the fact that we have to plan for its inevitability, life-cycle celebrants around the world have begun to host Death Cafés. A Death Café is a place where people gather to drink tea, eat cake, and talk about death. You can learn more about them at:

       I have yet to attend a Death Café, but the other night I participated in a teleconference where celebrants in widespread locations pretended to attend a Death Café together. Our leader, Charlotte Eulette, director of the Celebrant Foundation & Institute, asked us to imagine passing a "talking baseball" (instead of the traditional talking stick) as we took turns answering questions about death. This method worked well for a teleconference, but usually the facilitator of a Death Café does not present specific questions or topics. If you attend a Death Café participants will probably share whatever their thoughts and feelings may be. 

       I haven't decided whether or not I want to host a Death Café in Oneonta. It seems like a good idea, but one that will require a lot of planning and preparation. A Death Café might be a good way to promote a feeling of oneness among people in a community. And death is a topic of particular interest to life-cycle celebrants because we do create and perform personalized and meaningful celebrations of life in addition to the weddings and baby namings we are usually known for. 

       I believe that most people have unique beliefs and experiences about death and dying. This is why it's important that we have the opportunity to express our thoughts and feelings on the subject. And when it comes time to memorialize the life of a departed loved one, we should be able to do it with a ceremony that truly reflects who that person was and how they would wish to be remembered. Having a celebrant-led memorial service or celebration of life can be the best way to do this. To learn more see: Celebrant Memorials or

Emily VanLaeys is a certified life-cycle celebrant in Oneonta, New York. She provides end-of-life ceremonies throughout New York State.