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Rite On!

Before she died of cancer, Diane Meily told her family what she wanted at her funeral. She requested that a video message that she had recorded be played as well as her favorite song, "You Raise Me Up" by Josh Groban.

But the church she belonged to in Pennsylvania had strict rules about what could and could not occur during a funeral service. No video and no song. Meily's family discovered that they could not carry out her wishes.

But Pam Vetter was determined to honor her sister. In the middle of her eulogy she began to sing the words to the song Meily had requested: “You raise me up to be more than I can be.” Everyone was moved, even the pastor.

Afterward Vetter started volunteering to write eulogies for people she knew. She wanted to ensure that funeral services truly reflected the person who passed away. Vetter had a talent and a passion for it--and last year she entered a growing field when she became a certified celebrant.

Celebrants create and perform services for funerals, weddings and numerous other rites of passage. Each service is personalized.

“If people want to get married on the top of the Brooklyn Bridge or on the beach or in a chapel, we’ll do it,” said Charlotte Eulette, director of the Celebrants USA Foundation and Institute in Montclair, N.J. “It’s how they want it to be that is important.”

The institute was founded in 2001 by Gail Sarma, a philanthropist who had heard about the celebrancy movement in Australia, where 75 percent of people are married by a celebrant. Sarma wanted to bring celebrants to the United States so she dispatched Eulette to Australia to investigate and, in Eulette's words, "make sure it wasn’t just a bunch of crazy people.”

The foundation's seven-month training program (participants study at the New Jersey campus or online) emphasizes learning rituals from many traditions, including christenings and Bar Mitzvahs. Participants also study symbols. For example, red thread symbolizes the connection of people who are destined to meet in ancient Chinese mythology, and after this year’s graduation students will exit beneath a canopy made of red thread. Six years ago the school, the only of its kind in the United States, had a graduating class of seven. This year there will be 100 graduates.

Celebrants aim to personalize the ceremonies. A wedding celebrant will spend hours getting to know the couple, learning how they met and why they chose to be together. Then the celebrant drafts a service and sends it to the couple to review.

Kim Gamble, a celebrant in Marin County, Calif., says it takes at least two drafts to get it right. “If there is anything that makes them uncomfortable or embarrassed, I tell them to take it out,” Gamble said. “It has to be for them.”

One time Gamble created a wedding for a couple that wanted to sing. The bride recorded a song for the groom that played while he walked down the aisle; he sang as she walked down the aisle. After the ceremony the newlyweds sang together on their way out.

One couple in New York City met at work, so they had a PowerPoint presentation as a part of their wedding. It included a “merger evaluation” and a timeline of major events in the relationship, like the “consolidation of headquarters.”

Celebrants have also created ceremonies for moving, divorces and losing a job.

“Ceremonies are ways to take sometimes powerful and dangerous emotions and put them in a container,” said Adam Phillips, a celebrant in New York City. A lot of life-altering events, Phillips said, might call for a ritual or ceremony: the death of a pet, moving to a new house, adopting a baby, ending therapy, the kids moving out--even losing your virginity.

“It’s a little far out for some people,” Phillips said. “They’re not used to thinking this way. People aren’t used to divorce ceremonies.”

Eulette, who had a divorce ceremony herself, said, “Sometimes [people] ask, 'Do you throw darts at people’s heads?' But it’s not like that. It’s like the phoenix rising from the ashes.”

There are some skeptics. Eulette says she has had people approach her and say things like ‘Who do you think you are that you can marry my kid?’ but overall she says the response has been positive. Sometimes priests come to her to arrange services they cannot perform, like interfaith marriages or same sex weddings.

Recently Vetter created a funeral service for a woman who always made chocolate chip cookies for the kids in her neighborhood. After the funeral, family and friends gave out cookies baked with her special recipe.

“There was a minister on his way into the funeral home,” Vetter said. “He said, ‘I have never seen such a happy group of people leaving a funeral before in my life. What did you do?’”

E-mail: mrk2105@columbia.edu