Where the rest of the world sees misery, Charlotte Eulette sees opportunity.
Divorce? Layoffs? Cancer diagnosis? All in her domain.
Eulette is at the forefront of a growing movement of "celebrants"
who preside not only at the usual weddings and baby namings, but who
also mark experiences not typically commemorated: suicides,
stillbirths, homelessness. In each case, celebrants acknowledge pain
and grief while urging survivors on to new beginnings.
"Every milestone needs to be honored, even if it's
an uncomfortable milestone," says Eulette, of Montclair. "People in our
culture tend to be mute about the devastating moments, but those are
often the most transforming ones. Not everything in life is a Hallmark
Celebrants' ceremonies are a blend of rites and symbols borrowed
from established religions, though the end result is non-sectarian.
Skeptics might dismiss the whole thing as New Age hoo-ha, but endorsers
say the rituals frankly acknowledge the underside of life, even though
they often sound a lot like the average wedding, complete with scripted
vows, responsive readings and familiar refrains.
Consider the downsizing ceremony for Christoff Grieder, an Essex
County music therapist laid off months earlier from St. Barnabas
Medical Center when the Livingston hospital closed part of its
"Do you feel like a person who has recovered from a crisis?" Eulette asks.
"I do," says Grieder, surrounded by his wife and kids, his former boss, past colleagues and friends.
"Do you honor the sense of loss and gain in the process of recovery?"
"Do you accept this experience and want to remember it and learn from it as a conscious part of your life?"
As the ceremony ends, Eulette says: "I now declare you a person
possessing strength, wisdom and resilience in the time of crisis."
Such ceremonies were unheard-of in the United States until 2001,
when Eulette imported the idea from Australia, where celebrants have
been handling funerals and weddings for 30 years. Back then, Eulette
was recently divorced and out of work as an advertising executive. When
a well-traveled, philanthropic friend proposed this new line of work
and agreed to sponsor a celebrant foundation, Eulette was game, though
unsure the concept would catch on.
Then the World Trade Center collapsed, and the phones at Celebrant
USA started ringing. Eulette organized "hope ceremonies" for families
whose loved ones were missing, and funerals once they were found.
Typical to quirky
For $600 per event, Eulette and other celebrants handle a range of
ceremonies, from the predictable (weddings and same-sex unions,
funerals, adoptions) to the indisputably quirky: housewarming and
house-leaving services, pet memorials and safe-haven rituals for
homeless or battered women. They organize end-of-life tributes for
terminally ill people, in which friends and families pay homage to the
dying person, and the person, in turn, pays homage to them.
Today, there are about 100 celebrants across the country, nearly all
of them women. All are graduates of Eulette's non-profit Celebrant USA
Institute, which for $1,500 offers an eight-month course in comparative
religion, ritual symbolism, philosophy and psychology, traipsing from
Carl Jung to Margaret Mead, from hints on interviewing clients to tips
on writing individualized ceremonies. In the New Jersey area alone,
Eulette said, her graduates performed nearly 1,000 ceremonies in the
last year. Another 65 celebrants are expected to graduate in June, some
of them leaving behind jobs as social workers, teachers, actors and
Cynthia Reed of Clifton enrolled in the school shortly after it
opened in 2001, having spent 12 years as a trial attorney and tiring of
the argumentative nature of the job.
"I'd spend my whole day fighting about a piece of paper, whether it
should be disclosed in discovery or if we should have a motion about
it," says Reed, now director of academics for the Celebrants Institute.
"It wasn't the way I wanted to spend my life. Being a celebrant uses
some of the same skills -- like storytelling, counseling and
interviewing -- but in a positive way. People have a thirst for ritual,
and we provide them a way to do that."
Celebrants say many of their clients want divorce ceremonies in
which family, friends and, sometimes, the ex are invited to bring gifts
and help a divorcee move on. Celebrants counsel clients to stay away
from the negative: no burning old marriage licenses, no throwing darts
at old wedding photos. And if clients can't get past the intense anger,
celebrants urge them to postpone the ceremony till they're ready to
talk about disappointment, grief and new beginnings.
A ritual to move on
Sometimes, the ritual comes years after the divorce, as was the case
in Princeton last year, in a ceremony timed to coincide with the final
alimony check a 64-year-old man had to pay.
Sometimes the timing is more psychological, as was the case for
JoAnn Lane, who had been divorced more than a decade earlier but had
never really gotten over it.
In the courtyard of a Mexican restaurant, the celebrant gathers the
attendants to Lane's divorce ceremony and begins, "We have come here
today. ..." He continues, "We are here not to abandon the past, but to
The ceremony that follows uses a Zen Buddhist bell ritual, poetry,
meditation and something akin to Jewish prayer shawls. The celebrant
says, "Will you accept joy into your life?"
"I accept joy into my life," Lane says.
"Will you accept independence into your life?"
"I accept independence into my life."
Then Lane formally thanks the people who helped her through her
transition, including her ex. As she utters his name, she begins to
cry. She accepts a tissue from the celebrant and sniffles.
As the ceremony wraps up, Lane's tears dry and her smile returns.
The celebrant turns to the guests and says, "I present to you JoAnn Lane, a single, strong and independent woman."
Lane bows and joins in their applause.
* * *
Celebrants preside at a wide range of ceremonies, from typical rites
of passage to unusual commemorations. Here are a few examples:
miscarriages and stillbirths
housewarming and house-leaving
end-of-life tributes for terminally ill patients