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The death care profession is more than just dealing with dead bodies, and we want to educate you about all the different career options you have in death care.

Presenting the latest instalment of our ongoing series, Careers in Death Care; A Day in the Life, where we chat with professionals within the end-of-life and death care sphere to provide first hand experience and insight on working in this field.

For our latest instalment, we caught up with Dina Stander to talk about what she really does as a Funeral Celebrant. Funeral Celebrants officiate memorial services, living funerals and celebrations of life. They may assist in the planning of a memorial service and typically conduct non-religious services.

Dina Stander is a certified Life-Cycle Celebrant and coach, an end-of-life navigator and poet. She is also a Universal Life Church minister and an end-of-life doula, serving individuals and families throughout New England, and beyond. Dina has worked in elder care, as a hospice volunteer and a non-denominational hospital chaplain in a major regional trauma center. Dina also owns and operates Last Dance Shrouds™, who offer beautiful hand-made burial shrouds.


More from our Series, Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life

Careers in Death Care – Your Career Options  ♦ Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life of a DEATH DOULA  ♦  Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life of a FUNERAL DIRECTOR  ♦ Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life of an EMBALMER


Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life of a FUNERAL CELEBRANT

Tell us about yourself and what brought you to become a Funeral Celebrant?

I am a poet, Celebrant, and end-of-life navigator. In college I studied mediation and conflict resolution, but before that I was ordained as a Universal Life Church minister, and that is really where the journey begins. I was a wedding officiant for many years, but eventually transitioned into a funeral celebrant. As it turned out, the person I celebrated my ordination with over a pot of tea many years ago became the first person I served as a Funeral Celebrant. Her death 28 years after my ordination saw me across this threshold before I truly understood that I was walking into death work.

 Back then when I talked about my work, people reflexively took two steps back from my death cooties, as if they regretted their curiosity.  

I trained and practiced as a Funeral Celebrant in the years before the term ‘death positive’ gained social traction. Back then when I talked about my work, people reflexively took two steps back from my death cooties, as if they regretted their curiosity. Nowadays death has become a trending topic and folks lean in to learn more. I am encouraged by this growing general awareness and recognition of the work of Funeral Celebrants. Here in North America, the consistent effort of hundreds of ceremonialists, as well as the Celebrant Foundation & Institute, Insight, and other training organizations has borne fruit.


What inspired you to become a Funeral Celebrant?

In the days preparing for the first funeral service I officiated, it became obvious to me that crafting end of life ceremonies with families and communities would become an important part of my work because I felt like my specific skill set was genuinely useful. I had 48 hours from the time I learned my dear friend had died to the moment I stepped up to the podium in a thousand-seat sanctuary that was three quarters full with mourners. In those 48 hours, I engaged in a self designed crash course in how to plan, convene, gracefully emcee, and close a funeral service – I totally winged it.

As I traveled to the funeral, I asked a lot of strangers about what they liked and didn’t like at funerals they had attended. I sat at my friend’s kitchen table hoping to hear in the death-hush of her empty house why she chose me and what she needed me to say. I had a chance encounter with a nun who held space for my not knowing how, and sheltered me while I perched to rest a little while. When I left her I found a crow feather on the roof of my car.

The whole experience pulled a new kind of care and intention from my heart and a compelling curiosity about how to craft end of life services with the right fit for the people gathered. On my way home from the funeral, I decided that I wanted to learn more about funeral rituals and, especially, to grow and develop alongside peers and colleagues.

I was moved by the immediate and intimate nature of connection and relationship with people in mourning. Working in a precise and concentrated time frame in somewhat extreme emotional circumstances engaged all of my intelligence, not just the practical and intellectual aspects. After researching my options, I chose to study to be a Funeral Celebrant.

What is the biggest misconception about Funeral Celebrants?

Here is one that comes to mind: Funeral Celebrants cannot work in places of formal worship. This is not true. Sometimes a family’s regular clergy person is not available for their service, or the family does not belong to a congregation but would like to have their loved one’s service in a religious setting with the help of a skilled officiant. As a Celebrant it is my responsibility to those I serve to never give the impression that I am directly representing a denomination or congregation. However, it is often possible to arrange for the use of a religious sanctuary if a family requests it.

Run us through a typical day as a Funeral Celebrant.

No two funerals are really alike. Sometimes you are presiding at a traditional service with a congregation of hundreds in pews; another day convening a story circle with a small group around a fire in the woods; and another day facilitating a community memorial service for a skilled nursing facility, or presiding over a living wake at someone’s home. There’s never a dull moment.

Since this is not a 9 to 5 kind of gig, it may be more relevant to run you through a typical client cycle rather than my daily Funeral Celebrant’s to do list. Keep in mind that this all may be happening within 48 hours, but sometimes I may have a few weeks or even months to plan.

First Contact

The phone rings at home and I can tell immediately by the way someone asks for me that their person has died. I retreat to my office and close the door. We may talk for a few minutes or for over an hour, it depends. If we talk for a long time I might light a candle. There follows a series of telephone conversations, zoom calls, and in-person conversations with the deceased person’s significant others in order to create a ceremony that reflects their loved one, family members, friends, and community.

During this time I am learning about the person who died and also researching rituals specific to their family’s cultural preferences, curating readings, collaborating with family/partners/friends, and encouraging their participation. Sometimes part of the workday entails going for a drive and ‘talking’ with the deceased. I begin taking notes for the service during my first contact, listening to the story of life and death they relate, looking for phrases or exploits that capture the essence of their person, ideas for music, suggestions for speakers, and a sense of who in their family may be able to pull together and run a slide show, or create an online guestbook.

I am also listening for how the family is doing, getting a sense of who may need special support, and any other resources I can help them access.

Preparing and Coordinating

Depending on how much the family is able to accomplish on their own or with other help, I may be researching venues, coordinating with a choir director, double checking with the funeral home about when the body should arrive, and arranging to have earth and shovels available for burial. Sometimes I am calling small town cemeteries to see who can open a grave, or securing permission to spread cremated remains.

For a more family centered hands-on funeral, I may be coordinating a coffin decoration event. Sometimes I go with a family to a funeral home for a viewing, or to support dressing or shrouding their loved one for burial. I may negotiate for the deceased to be carried through their garden one last time on the way to the crematory or cemetery, in order to ‘inform the bees’.

All the while I am coordinating with everyone involved to ensure that the ceremony proceeds smoothly. Are the presenters ready with their speeches? Has the family chosen the music to be played? Have we accounted for moments of silence, and the blessing of enough in the schedule?



If there is a larger public gathering, we might plan an earlier moment with just the surviving spouse or a few close folks for a more intimate ritual, such as a libation offered for the spirit’s journey with a naming of ancestors. With a ‘living funeral’ there is another intricate dance of collaboration, pulling together the threads of a cohesive and satisfying event (that is not too exhausting for honoree and caretakers) even amidst anticipated sorrow and anguish.

The Day Of

 I think the most typical thing in any day of Funeral Celebrant work is consistent ceremonial intention. 

The day of a funeral service, I rise in the morning with a keen sense that this is a different kind of day. I am focused on the work, the family, and the person we are honoring. I dress, print my pages, pack ceremonial items I may be bringing. I download any music I am responsible for. I bring tissues, and bug spray if we are going to be outdoors. Here in the covidiverse, if we will be a small group meeting in person, I bring extra masks and hand sanitizer too.

I may help the family set up an altar or whatever sort of photo display or other important objects they have brought along. If there is a burial, I coordinate with funeral home staff to do everything we can to ease the mourners suffering. If there is a military honor guard I coordinate with them as well.

If we are meeting on Zoom, I prepare my work space and make sure the invites are clear, the link is working, the slideshow syncs, and breakout rooms are set up if we are using them. If I am gathering with a group in a local event hall, park, a church or a pub, I arrive early so that I have time to thank the bones of the place, the roof trees, and the windows that let in light. I think the most typical thing in any day of Funeral Celebrant work is consistent ceremonial intention.

 As the service proceeds and flows, it is my job to be grounded and mindful that we are walking with death, and to offer encouragement so that we are able to rise again to meet the day. 

Following a sound check, I may be welcoming people as they arrive. Making sure musicians and speakers have their cues. Making sure family in the front row feel seen (or not seen, depending on their need). All the time I am watching the space and feeling the energy come together. I wiggle my toes in my shoes and step up to address everyone with first words. As the service proceeds and flows, it is my job to be grounded and mindful that we are walking with death, and to offer encouragement so that we are able to rise again to meet the day.

And then I offer last words. There may be a request to join for a reception, or facilitate some more story telling. Before I leave I take a moment again to thank the bones of the place, and as I turn for home I thank the dead person for sharing their life and people with me, and I release them from my care. I arrive home and someone lets the dog out so we can meet before I reach the door.

What was one of the hardest days you encountered as a Funeral Celebrant?

The graveside service and burial of a stillborn child, with only her parents and grandmother attending, on the most raw January day you could imagine. Something about the cold drizzle, the frozen earth, and the sharp sorrow robbed me of my composure and I wept.

What was one of the most memorable days you’ve had as a Funeral Celebrant?

When I asked myself this question so many images came rushing into my mind’s eye. I have had the honor of working in some memorable historical sanctuaries, the Judson Memorial Church in New York City, the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston and the elegantly acoustic MIT Chapel. And I have stood in small circles in the woods–sacred spaces–releasing ashes to be taken by the elements.



I was Celebrant to myself when I passed my father’s ashes to the sea. I once stood my ground while a grieving elderly mother leaned into my body to hold herself up at the grave of her child and I will never forget the weight of her sorrow. Nor will I forget the time I watched a grandfather teach the young ones in his family how to shovel earth onto a grave. Or singing a solo of ‘God Bless the Child’ acapella (as requested) at a burial attended by only a daughter and her cousin because there was no one else.

The best story may be the time a husband hired a concert pianist and 42 professional opera singers, including five soloists, to sing at his wife’s memorial service and it all ran smoothly, as if we had rehearsed. But honestly, the most memorable moments are the small intimacies after a service is over. The truths people in the room come over and entrust to me, quietly so no one else can hear, like the grandchild who whispered into my ear as we were saying goodbye, “my pronouns are they/them.”

How can someone interested in becoming a Funeral Celebrant start the process?

 I recommend having realistic financial expectations of the profession, because working enough funerals to make a living  is an emotionally demanding undertaking (pun intended). 

Here is my Funeral Celebrant listicle:

  1. Talk to people in your area doing the work and give some thought to who you hope your clients will be. I recommend having realistic financial expectations of the profession, because working enough funerals to make a living  is an emotionally demanding undertaking (pun intended).
  2. Start going to funerals, even if you are crashing and sitting in the back row. They are all different and you will learn. Watch ‘Harold and Maude’ and other movies with death rituals, because this is what your clients have been watching all their lives too so it will provide useful shared reference points. Don’t assume the on-screen cultural portrayals are accurate though!
  3. Take a course with folks whose values resonate with yours. There are a number of reputable programs available at a variety of price points. To address the nagging question of whether you’re getting your money’s worth, I value potential for simpatico colleagues and substantive content over a swift program, because credentialing is mythical. But since it takes a long time to get return on your investment, choose for cost as well. I would talk to at least one graduate of any program you are considering to hear pros and cons before making a commitment.
  4. Read a lot of poetry, and listen to storytellers to hear the ways they make their listeners part of the story. Don’t limit yourself to death topics, since so much of a Funeral Celebrant’s work is celebrating life! Poetry and storytelling have given me invaluable information about which questions are important to ask the people I collaborate with.

What type of education or training do you need to become a Funeral Celebrant?

Here in the U.S., training programs tout certification but there is no formal credentialing at this time for Funeral Celebrants. The profession is, however, gaining significant recognition in the funeral industry and making inroads into the offerings of funeral homes. I recommend finding the training program that is right for you with substantive learning experiences that foster competency.

 Seek out any learning opportunity that helps you develop skills to creatively honor life, respect death, and offer the people you’ve gathered the mercy of solace. Consider the idea that you may never be done learning how to do this work well. 

Once you are through your training and begin working with families, you will start to see how much you don’t yet know. Each family I work with, every death and ceremony, is a chance for my training to continue. For me, the Celebrant certificate was a starting point because as soon as I started working, I realized I needed to know a lot more about how people died. The most obvious next step was to become a Hospice volunteer.

Then, because I felt like I still had more to learn about the ways people die, I applied to a non-denominational hospital chaplain internship. While this is well beyond the training necessary to be a competent Funeral Celebrant, these experiences inform my work. Seek out any learning opportunity that helps you develop skills to creatively honor life, respect death, and offer the people you’ve gathered the mercy of solace. Consider the idea that you may never be done learning how to do this work well.

What advice would you give to someone starting out as a Funeral Celebrant, or interested in becoming a Funeral Celebrant?

Keep your day job. Talk to people who do the work. Find like-minded peers to share experiences and resources with. Educate yourself to recognize cultural appropriation and then make better choices. One size does not fit all, be prepared to refer folks to colleagues who offer services that best meet their cultural needs and cultivate connection with Celebrants who work with different communities than you do.

Especially if you plan to do high end ‘concierge’ work, please commit to making your services visible and accessible to low income clients and give them champagne service – through this action the world is mended.

Respect the stories your people tell you, honor their confidences. Be generous with your ideas. Develop healthy work/life boundaries and nourish them. Death is hungry work, nurturing your body with food, rest, and recovery time is important. And read even more poetry, because gaining aptitude for living with grieving (and modeling that as a Funeral Celebrant) is a lifelong project. Also, it is ok to cry.


More from our Series, Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life

Careers in Death Care – Your Career Options  ♦ Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life of a DEATH DOULA  ♦  Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life of a FUNERAL DIRECTOR  ♦ Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life of an EMBALMER


Do you currently work in the end-of-life industry? Would you like to be featured in a future Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life article? Please contact us with your job title and tell us about your experience in the industry!


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