More forgo clergy-led funerals for those by secular ‘celebrants’

August 28, 2009
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image When Kenneth Kistner, 85, died in February, his wife, Carmen, didn’t call any clergy. At the Detroit memorial service for the Marine veteran and retired educator, Kistner’s family read a eulogy ? one that Kistner himself approved years earlier, when it was drafted by a secular “celebrant” near their retirement home in Largo, Fla. A growing number of people want to celebrate a loved one’s life at a funeral or memorial service without clergy ? sometimes even without God. And that’s giving rise to the new specialty of pastoral-style secular celebrants who deliver unique personalized eulogies without the rituals of institutional religion.

Not ‘ushered into another world’

Eldon “Bud” Strawn, 79, who wrote the eulogy for Kistner, is one of four celebrants on call for four Anderson-McQueen Funeral & Cremation Centers in the St. Petersburg, Fla., area.

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“What we’ve found in the past decade is that when you ask people whether they want a minister, people say, ‘Not interested,’ ” says William McQueen, president of his family’s longtime business.

“Today, of all the ceremonies we deal with, I’d say 50% are religious or clergy-led, 20% celebrant-led and 30% are having no ceremony or one led by family,” says McQueen, who becomes president of the Cremation Association of North America at the group’s annual meeting this week in Denver.

Religious funerals were the only available option 25 years ago, “even if nobody showed up,” McQueen says.

John Reed Sr., president of the National Funeral Directors Association, says 50% of Americans today say they don’t belong to a church and don’t see value in a religious funeral. But “they still want ceremony and celebration at the end of life.”

More than one in four U.S. adults (27%) say that when they die, they don’t expect to have a religious service, according to a national survey of 6,000 people. It was part of the 2008 American Religious Identification conducted by researchers at Trinity College’s Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture in Hartford, Conn.

People who check “none” when asked their religion “don’t see the need to be ushered into another world. There’s no ‘personal God’ they expect to meet,” says Ariela Keysar, co-author of the survey.

“It’s revelatory about where current social attitudes are heading.”

Anderson-McQueen Centers and staff reflect the trend. Gone are the “chapel” signs, replaced with Heritage Hall and Remembrance Hall. Mourners can take a quiet break in the “Legacy Caf

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