Orlando Sentinal

Thursday, November 10, 2005  H3 


Celebrant plans secular funerals

    Sharon Smalley-Smith of Orlando is breaking new ground in very traditional territory: the funeral.
    In September, Smalley-Smith underwent training and certification to become a funeral celebrant.  Currently one of only a handful of such celebrants in Florida, she provides a personalized alternative funeral service for families who are not affiliated with a church or who do not want to have a traditional religious service performed by clergy.
    Smalley-Smith, 58, said that her role in organizing and presenting the funeral service is to allow mourners to connect in a personal way with their lost loved one.  That connection is often missing in traditional services, she said.
    "We need to bring relevance back to the funeral so it becomes memorable in a good way.  It's not just something that you're trying to forget," Smalley-Smith said.
    As part of the process, Smalley-Smith meets with friends and family members to compile anecdotes, personal qualities and special remembrances about the deceased.
    She then sets about the task of putting together a personalized service using a home library of resource materials for prose or poetry readings, music and special ceremonies.
    She also organizes the service itself, which may include any number of personal touches decided by family and friends, from lighting candles to setting butterflies free to passing out the decease's favorite recipes as a gift.
    There are so many things that are done now that make it personal, so the family feels like they've done something meaningful," sad Smalley-Smith, who was a certified hypnotherapist for 15 years before moving from Virginia Beach, Va. to Orlando in 1990. "That's what is relevant. That's what is significant, (that feeling of connection)."
    Finally, Smalley-Smith distills her research into a spontaneous, personalized eulogy at the memorial or graveside service.
    "I don't go in with a plan at all. All I want to do is inhale the presence of that person and hopefully exhale that person back into the room," Smalley-Smith said. "I do much better when I'm inspired in spirit. When the passion is there, the inspiration is there, and it comes."
    Leslie Bean, manager and licensed funeral director of Baldwin-Fairchild Funeral Home, Apopka Chapel, said many clients ask for a nonreligious service, but it's a difficult request when clergy is the only option. Smalley-Smith is the first person in the area to fill that niche, she said.
    Bean, who recently attended the first service performed by Smalley-Smith for a Baldwin-Fairchild client, said the time Smalley-Smith spent with the grieving family to learn about the loved one made a difference for the family.
    "She was so caring and compassionate with them. I know that the traditional kind of cookie-cutter service wouldn't have given them the same comfort," Bean said.
    Smalley-Smith became interested in a career as a celebrant in July after reading a newspaper article about the field, which has become popular in Australia and New Zealand.
   In September she earned certification as a celebrant after going through a three-day training course given by The In-Sight Institute, founded by Doug Manning, a grief counselor, author and former minister and funeral director.
    Smalley-Smith said the idea of helping people achieve healing and closure through the funeral service inspired a career change.
    "I love speaking, I love making a difference, I love doing something that matters. When I saw (the article), I said, "This makes an impact; this is what I need to do," Smalley-Smith said.
    She said she is not only filling the general need for a personalized service, but a specific need for those who are not affiliated with a church or religious institution. She said that she, like many baby boomers of her generation, falls into the category of "spiritual" rather than "religious."
    "We don't feel we have to go through a minister or a priest in order to talk to God," she said.


Sharon Smalley-Smith, a trained and certified funeral celebrant in Orlando puts together a personalized funeral using a home library of resources for for prose or poetry readings, music and special ceremonies. "I don't go in with a plan at all," she said.

    She added that she provides an alternative avenue for individuals in segments of society who may feel ostracized from the church, such as gays and lesbians.
     Smalley-Smith said she deplored the idea of funerals until her sister was killed in a car crash 24 years ago at age 29. It was at that point she realized the necessity of the ritual.
     "I had to see the skid marks. I had to see her shoe in the car. I had to see her in the casket ... because it simply didn't compute any other way. It's the only way to have closure," she said.
"We act out what we cannot say in words, which is why we have rituals."
     Smalley-Smith said that acknowledging grief means no personal judgment or agenda on her part and no sugarcoating or glossing over the death.   
    "If you walk into a home to get a feel for the person who has passed away, you can't walk in with a full bucket. The families already have a full bucket of emotions," said Smalley-Smith. "They don't need the platitudes, cliches or the sympathy. They need someone to hear them."
    Smalley-Smith offers offering her services to funeral homes. She is also educating community groups about the traditionally heavy subject with a light, humorous talk. "Where's the Fun in Funeral?"