Local celebrants offer ritual, not religion, to mark milestones
December 30, 2012 12:00 am • Patty Machelor Arizona Daily Star
Michael Eng's mother was in her last days and the family needed support - the kind that might come from a priest or a rabbi.
Amy and Alexis Ogdie wanted to honor more than one tradition at their baby's naming ceremony, and were excited to discover a celebrant to fill that need.
And screenwriter Ginia Desmond wasn't looking for a ceremony at all, but was surprised to find it comforting after her divorce.
Each illustrates a trend in which people mark milestones with a celebrant who is not religiously affiliated.
Charlotte Eulette, executive director of the New Jersey-based Celebrant Foundation, said the practice started in Australia 50 years ago and now includes celebrants worldwide providing interfaith, secular and all-inclusive ceremonies.
In Southern Arizona, there are at least three life celebrants offering services for just about everything, from animal memorials to gay unions to divorces.
"Sometimes if people aren't religious or don't go to church, they'll decide to forgo one of these important life rituals," said local celebrant Carolyn Niethammer. "So it's my job to help them realize they can have a full, meaningful ritual that has no religious elements, if that's what they choose, but is about family bonds and the importance of deep friendships."
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Ruth Hunter Eng was in her 90s, in declining health and had been diagnosed with early Alzheimer's disease when her son and his wife returned to Tucson from California to help her two years ago.
Eng had been raised Catholic but years ago had become "very eclectic" in her beliefs, son Michael Eng said, and enjoyed studying other religions and spiritual practices.
As the end of her life approached, she wished to acknowledge the deaths of three of her children, her husband and her parents in a way that coincided with her spiritual outlook.
Help came from a woman named Kristine Bentz.
Bentz, a licensed celebrant with Sweetgrass Ceremonies, began to visit Ruth Eng weekly to pray, meditate and sing. And to listen.
"Kristine encouraged her to write letters to people she wanted to say something to," said Michael Eng, 60.
The Day of the Dead was approaching, and Bentz suggested having their own celebration at home. At a little outdoor table, Michael Eng said, they set up photos of family members who had died. They lighted candles and burned incense.
With Bentz's guidance, Eng's mother took the photographs in hand and talked to each family member. She told her parents, her children and her husband how much she loved them.
"Kristine had a way of putting us all at ease. She was just a godsend to us," said Michael Eng. "It's not for everyone, but for us, it made her passing so meaningful and appropriate."
The night after the service, his mother was very tired, he said, and couldn't get comfortable. He helped her outside and they looked at the stars.
She told him she was ready. The next night, she died in her sleep.
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Local celebrants say they were drawn to the field by a desire to bring tradition and ceremony to all kinds of people and events.
Bentz offers services for many life events but focuses on end-of-life ceremonies. And she loves what she does.
"Everything that's unnecessary gets stripped away. There's just this kind of authenticity, this truth, this essence of who we are that's there at the end of life," said Bentz, 41.
Families and individuals who have lost a loved one - a person or an animal - can help Bentz prepare a ceremony that intimately fits their family. Bentz calls the ceremonies "maps" that provide new traditions for people who are nonreligious, have left their religion or want to start their own traditions.
Another local celebrant, Susan Tomlinson, started Dancing Through Life Ceremonies after being married by a celebrant in Hawaii.
"I thought: 'I could do this. I would really like to do this,' " she said.
Tomlinson, 64, offers ceremonies for many life events, but focuses on weddings and gay unions as well as croning, a rite of passage for women.
The demand is steady sometimes, with weddings a common request, and slow other times, the celebrants say. But the trend appears to be growing.
Recent studies by the Pew Research Center show a growing number of people no longer associate themselves with a particular religion but still consider themselves spiritual.
The nonprofit Celebrant Foundation & Institute started in Montclair, N.J., in 2001 and includes about 700 celebrants in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Europe. Its members field about 10,000 ceremony requests per year.
Locally, rates generally begin at $300 to $350 and range upward, depending on the service. Bentz's fees start at $50 for animal companions and range up to $225 for more extensive rituals or end-of-life ceremonies.
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Amy Ogdie, 35, knew she wanted to welcome her son, Liam, with a ceremony at the San Pedro Chapel. She used to run by the chapel with her father when she was a child and loves its beauty.
When she couldn't find a Catholic priest to perform a baptism there, Amy and her husband, Alexis Ogdie, 33, changed their approach and hired a licensed celebrant, Niethammer with Ceremonies of Distinction. The baby-naming ceremony was a great fit, Amy Ogdie said, encompassing both her background and her husband's family history, which includes both Islam and Christianity.
Niethammer, 68, said she gets "deep soul pleasure" in helping people celebrate such milestones.
A couple of months later, Niethammer offered two house blessings for Amanda Place, who was leaving memories of lively dinner parties and visits from her grandson at one home to join her daughter and family at a new home they chose together across town.
"In the new house, there's a little boy there and I get to watch him grow up," Place said, smiling broadly.
With close friends joining in, Place followed Niethammer through the rooms and fondly remembered her days there. Her friends shared memories of talking politics in the kitchen and watching the Olympics together.
They then shared one last ceremonial meal of nuts, and Place gave her friends gifts from her house. Then, together, they moved on to bless the new home.
Weeks later, Niethammer helped with another big transition.
Screenwriter Ginia Desmond, 70, was initially taken aback when Niethammer suggested a "moving on" ceremony last spring, after Desmond's divorce.
It seemed odd, Desmond said, but she reluctantly agreed, remembering how much she enjoyed the rituals she witnessed on a film project in Bali, India.
"The Balinese have rituals for virtually every part of their lives," she said. "Until then, I didn't truly appreciate what ritual and tradition does to a community."
Whatever skepticism Desmond had lifted when she read Niethammer's ceremony, which was written as a screenplay. Desmond didn't invite many people, only her daughters and close friends. Her loved ones brought gifts: a poem about divorce; a butterfly candle; a uniquely painted wineglass.
During the ceremony, Niethammer tied a cord around Desmond's waist that was attached to a sign that said, "The Past." Desmond cut it away with a big pair of scissors.
"Just as you have the power to edit out negative situations or beliefs that you no longer wish to have as part of your life, you can now include the kinds of positive experiences, people and beliefs that you would like to fill your life with," Niethammer said.
Desmond said the ceremony has helped her shift away from seeing the divorce only as an end.
"This," she said, "is the beginning of Act 3."
"Everything that's unnecessary gets stripped away. There's just this kind of authenticity, this truth, this essence of who we are that's there at the end of life."
licensed celebrant with Sweetgrass Ceremonies
Contact reporter Patty Machelor at 806-7754 or firstname.lastname@example.org