Market Place

e-mail print

Sunday, April 16, 2006

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 card."

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 psychiatric unit.

"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?"

"I do."

"Do you accept this experience and want to remember it and learn from it as a conscious part of your life?"

"I do."

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 geologists.

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 reclaim it."

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:

  • weddings

  • same-sex unions

  • funerals

  • baby namings

  • miscarriages and stillbirths

  • housewarming and house-leaving

  • pet memorials

  • end-of-life tributes for terminally ill patients

  • 6917332

    e-mail print

    Home & Family
    On Stage
    Recreation & Events
    Style & Shopping
    The Big List
    TV & Radio
    Visual Arts
    Book Reviews
    The Record Book Club
    The PC Guy
    Movie Reviews
    Spotlight on Movies
    In Concert
    Spotlight on Music
    Dance/Performing Arts
    Hike of the Week
    Day Trips
    Spotlight on Art