Beth Stokes joined Celebrant Academy as an instructor this spring. Beth is a Endorsed Humanist Celebrant, Advocate & Educator for End of Life Planning. End of Life Celebrations training begins Mondays, November 2-23, 2020 with our cornerstone 4-week session. Students enrolled in Celebrant Academy can earn an Associate Celebrant Certificate in our End of Life Celebrations Track by enrolling online. Learn more here!
Now, we give you a Q & A with Beth Stokes...
Writing has been a strong element in all my previous roles and jobs, from doing PR for an art gallery to being a “guerilla poet” in large corporations; from technical writing in the financial industry to work as a fiction and memoir editor. And my most obvious role model was my high-school creative writing teacher, who was also a funeral director. His outlook was warmly wry, and he gave us a lot of latitude about what to write, as long as it was written well and was helping you discover your own voice.
Certainly some of the seeds of my role as a celebrant per se were sown during my experiences of institutional misogyny in my Catholic high school. Those experiences led me to embrace life as a “none” and seek roles of ethical leadership for women. More recently I volunteered at a Quaker organization. In that role I created board events focused on community building, governance, anti-racism, and education. As my work came to an end there, I was looking for something that allowed me to expand my role of ethical leadership, and to continue my creative writing and experience design.
Haha, well as an introvert who knows “how to extrovert,” I never thought I would be able to create and guide end of life planning and ceremonies from the comfort of my home. Technology and science have always been interests of mine, so embracing these new work models has been fascinating and creative.
Anything that smells good. I think olfactory experiences touch down in us more acutely than other sensory experiences. They’re also difficult to pull off well as part of a ceremony.
I’ve always been curious about dying and death, and the rituals we perform around them. Industry-wise, the funeral profession has been pretty staid or static for a long time, and I like to do things differently. So the idea of being available for people who want something a little different appeals to me. Logistically, funerals and end of life planning also work for my lifestyle in terms of turnaround time, availability, and local presence.
That they're boring or stodgy. Yes, most end-of-life celebrations are grounded in sadness, but families often want to express their love through creativity and joy about the life led by the deceased. There’s room for creativity on the part of the celebrant, but you need to create a rapport and trust with the family or next of kin to know what to do with that.
As a Humanist celebrant, I'm always looking for places where ethical leadership and communal ritual can be disengaged from religion, or “de-appropriated,” by non religious folks. I also think it's important to create spaces for nurturing non-traditional leaders. The Celebrant Academy, grounded in a Humanist outlook, offers a way to explore and expand my commitment to those actions.
That’s an easy answer for me: sci-fi and speculative fiction! I just finished reading Rosewater, by Tade Thompson, which takes place in Lagos and features an unusual alien presence. In non-fiction, I’m reading The Future of Humanity by Michio Kaku, because I’m researching some ideas for future ceremonies.
Wow, a lot of things stand out. I wish I had known how to learn about the parts of the dying process that aren’t talked about in “polite company.” Eventually, as I learned more and became an advocate for home dying and home funerals, I got trained in how to prepare bodies after death. That was a really safe setting in which to learn about the natural physical changes that death brings, and how to work with them practically.
One other thing I wished I’d known is that it’s ok to be a funeral celebrant even if you haven’t experienced a major death or loss in your own life. Many people take up this work after the death of someone close to them, but it’s not a requirement (wouldn’t that be awful!). I’ve had a couple of losses but they seemed small compared to the stories other professionals arrived with, and I wondered if I would be unable to provide something essential as a result. During my own training, I happened to attend a deeply religious funeral service where the priest got the name of the deceased wrong a few times, and ended the ceremony in a way that the family didn’t know it was over. It was very awkward and confusing for them. Families need someone who sees them for real, who listens through the stories and the photo albums and the missed plans to discern how their loved one changed their world. And then to lead a service warmly, professionally, and confidently.
I’m a (very! amateur!) rock drummer. And during the pandemic I’ve been learning Dutch. My kids are very patient with me.
For me it means being consistently curious and open, whether it’s about someone else’s life experience or about a word I don’t know. Learning an instrument and other languages help you admit you’re a novice. There’s no room for face-saving as you try on new sounds, and you’re invited to sound pretty ridiculous because making mistakes is the only way through.
WELCOME BETH, WE'RE SO GLAD YOU ARE HERE!
Learn more about our End of Life Celebrations 4-course track AND individual coursework coming up Mondays, November 2-23, 2020 @ 7:00-8:30 PM (EST)