TranscriptTyler: Hello listeners and welcome to the Funeral Celebrant podcast. I'm your host Tyler Fraser and today I have the distinct honor of welcoming Andrea Schenck to the show. Welcome Andrea.
Andrea: Thank you for having me.
Tyler: ...and so you're a funeral celebrant in Pasadena California, is that right?
Andrea: That's correct, I'm based here in Pasadena but I do serve families all throughout Los Angeles and Orange County.
Tyler: On the show we like to interview the celebrant and learn a little bit about your services that you provide families and so maybe we can just start with you telling us a little bit about yourself and your services.
Andrea: Sure, like you said I'm based here in Pasadena and I do serve Southern California and I've been doing this since 2009. Basically when it comes to funeral services, I meet with the families prior to any funeral service or memorial service. I have to say that's probably the most important time, the family meeting, because that's when we get to sit down, they share so many details. If they're willing and open they share many details and I get to really learn about their loved one because I don't know, you know personally know the person I'm doing the service for. I only meet their family after the fact, so it's at this time.
Because my services are really about being truly personal. I don't use a set script, I come in with a blank pad and we start from scratch and kind of build the service together, and I mean it's amazing. I also like to really... because I have to gain their trust really fast, because I am asking a lot of questions and they need to open up so I try to create a really warm and safe environment so they do feel safe talking to me and we go from there. I mean a family meeting can be an hour or I've had family meetings that went over three hours because we had maybe five family members and they just shared and shared and shared.
So after I do the family meeting I'll go home and I research about the person or about their background, I write and I design a eulogy that definitely is personalized. But I also want to reflect, I always want to reflect their personal beliefs but also what the family wants because sometimes they want to include some things that are very important to them and so basically trying to respect everybody. I also incorporate music if it's appropriate. Poetry, scriptures, I'm not clergy but that does not mean I can't read Psalms and scriptures if that's what the family wants. And then finally once we get to the day of the service I officiate. And I always encourage family participation, I mean some families are very shy and don't want to talk and I do not mind being the voice but I love if they want to be part of it. And as long as I make it, because there's no right or wrong way to do this, so if they want to talk and if I make it comfortable enough it's, even the shyest person sometimes will get up because they're really moved to share about their, if it's their mom or grandmother or father whoever and it's just an amazing experience. Then I always give a printed copy of the service and all the music that was put together for the family so they can they can have an actual written story of that service because the day does go fast and it can be kind of bad and full of tears and so sometimes people later will actually read what was written and what was said that day because the day went by so fast.
My background, so my strengths are really listening and empathy and writing and public speaking. I did go to school for journalism and minored in English. I kind of fell into this work because you know in school they didn't offer any celebrant classes and because I didn't go the route of a clergy which a lot of celebrants do come from, being ministers or some kind of rabbis or some kind of religious background, so I come from more of a secular background. But that doesn't mean I haven't experienced losing loved ones and it's just been an incredible experience. I do, I mean once I run into these families I see how overwhelmed and scared they are because you know planning is hard. Most people don't plan ahead and then when it does happen there there's just too much and they're overwhelmed. So I like to kind of step in and be that point person for them because they're trying to find the insurance papers or the wills or whatever they're doing and some are scared they're not doing the right thing or they're pleasing all the family members and so I can really be that kind of calming force that “it's okay, there's no right or wrong way to do it, whatever makes you comfortable and we will get through this day together”. I found a lot of people come back to me and they've been very grateful that I was able to offer that to them. So it's been an incredible experience and I just I really I mean my whole thing is to tell the true story and truly honor their family so that's that's what I offer as a celebrant.
Tyler: And in Australia, the UK and Canada it seems to be more popular than in the states to have a celebrant officiate the funeral. Would you say that a large amount of the families you serve are not religious?
Andrea: Probably yes and you're right because I mean if you are in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, they understand it more. That's been probably the biggest roadblock here in the state is people don't understand what a celebrant is. And when you've just lost somebody it's a very hard time to try to educate somebody because they just, they don't know. If you have people that are very traditional or at some of my more senior families you know they've only been to a service that a priest led. And so they're like what celebrant? What's that, and why are you a girl? and you know you get a little bit of push-back.
So yes, more and more people that are finding me are finding me you know because they're doing some research and they have either fallen away from their church, or they just don't go regularly, or they want to focus more on a personalized service. I mean there's nothing wrong with a religious service and if that's what a family wants I would never discourage that because you know the bottom line is we're in this industry to you know help the family and make them comfortable. But yeah most of my, well, I feel like 50 percent, it is interesting I've been getting more and more, because I've actually just done a handful of Jewish services which I thought was interesting. I'm not Jewish, I mean I grew up Presbyterian but I'm not religious. It's interesting that they, I've actually done it in conjunction say with a rabbi, they did their religious part and then I did the personalized part. But yeah, more and more people that are searching me out, it's because they have either fallen away from a church or they just don't want that focus.
Tyler: In some of the locations in Pasadena, where are some of the places that you hold these ceremonies in the Southern California area?
Andrea: Well it's interesting, the majority of my services probably come to Forest Lawn. It's one of the larger funeral homes out here in Southern California, they have about six locations and I am actually on, they have a list a roster of celebrants and they actually do promote the whole celebrant, the idea of a celebrant which is lovely because if they sell it to their family then the family is convinced and then it's easier to work with the family. So I do a lot with Forest Lawn but I've also recently been connected to very progressive Jewish cemetery in Culver City. I also do it at people's homes, I've done a lot in people's homes. Restaurants, I've done just recently, two different women had lost their husbands and they had such a gigantic group of friends and co-workers and colleagues and all these people that we did it in a Mexican restaurant and I've done a couple of those. It just, I mean it's there seems to be less and less rules on the right way or wrong way to you know, memorialize your loved one and I'll go where the family wants me to be, and I've done it out, we did an outdoor one actually on the Arroyo Seco. And it was beautiful, I mean we're out underneath the trees and you know what I mean, so there's no right or wrong place to do this and I basically travel wherever the family needs me to be.
Tyler: Have you found that this work being a funeral celebrant and serving families during their time of loss rewarding for you?
Andrea: Yeah, it was hard at first. So I started back in 2009 and I did, I took on a lot of their grief and I felt, I found it was wearing me down but I've been able to process it better now and it's amazing. I mean I've never done it, I've had a lot of jobs and I have never had a job that's more rewarding. I mean yes it's sad and you know and it's that unfortunate reality that death is going to be part of it but oh my goodness I mean the families I have met, the stories are amazing. I happen to love history and you know, when I get it be introduced to these people that have lived you know, for nine plus decades and what they've seen and how the world has changed since from the time they were born to the time they passed. This is, I really, it actually feels like a calling to me. You know I mean it's just, now I have to do it, I love it.
Tyler: I also love history and also was thinking about doing a podcast on the history of funeral services. You mentioned that you enjoy hearing about the stories, can you share a story with the listeners about a particular ceremony that was touching?
Andrea: Sure, this past December I had the honor to do a celebration of life for an amazing woman, Ruby. She was so beautiful and fascinating and she had been a daughter, a sister and mother, grandmother and great-grandmother and she was born in 1923. And she had such a tough upbringing, I mean she was, she didn't just live through the Great Depression, she experienced it firsthand. I mean they had no money, her mother was very sick when she was a little girl, her mother actually had tuberculosis and back then the city or the county took you away, they quarantined you and she was put in a sanatorium for eight years. And so Ruby, as this little girl had no mom and her dad was not interested in taking care of her so she was bounced around from foster home to foster home until her maternal grandparents were willing to take her in so she didn't have to live in foster care. So she was in Missouri until her mother was let out of the sanatorium eight years later and they were reunited but it was never easy I mean they were so poor, they lived on public assistance and Ruby was pretty much just ignored, I mean she never felt pretty and it was just so rough but life went on she grew up.
She was so funny because she had written, her family discovered once she had passed she had written a history about her life, a very raw and honest and funny and sad and amazing and her children didn't know what she had experienced. I should actually back up because before the kids were born she did end up having three incredibly horrible husbands but out of those unions she did, she was left with four wonderful children and that was something she never regretted. Although she was forced to give up her second son up for adoption, you know it wasn't her choice but it was at the time and this is what they made her do. But what was so lovely, so she persevered she got rid of the horrible husbands and life got better and better as she got older and the one thing that really stood out with her story was if you do get to live 9+ decades, you get a do-over or two and you get another chance and so instead of her like really focusing on all the negatives because she's been through hell and back, she just went forward and she actually was able to reunite with her son that she had given up when he was a baby. He was in now 50 years old and she was able to meet him and they looked alike and they shared so many of the same traits. And it was so fortunate because five years later he had passed away from cancer so she had the opportunity to meet him and kind of fill in that part of her life. Because money started get better as life went on she was introduced to art and architecture and she was incredible quilter and she was just, I was so moved by this, I felt for the little girl you know that felt unloved but she persevered and she used what she had and got through the bad marriages and went on to live an incredible life and live until she was 90-some years old.
So I just, I'm so touched. I'm so honored that the family shared all this with me, actually gave me the written history which is like it's written like a movie or an incredible novel but it's all true and just amazing. So I have tons of stories like that but that's what what keeps me interested because you know you can't make this stuff up and the families are so incredible and when they open up and share these things I mean I just I want to know more and more and then I in turn start doing some research about the 1920s and 30s and the music of the time and what was going on in history and relate it back and yeah it's amazing and it's been a gift that these families have you know, introduced me to their loved one.
Tyler: It seems like such a fulfilling service that you offer and something that really brings value to the families and also imparts a lot of wisdom.
Andrea: Thank you and that's what we try to and that's been the big thing to try to get people because there's different rates you know, if you hire clergy sometimes it's a lower rate than hiring the celebrant and some people don't see the value and like you said until you can truly explain to them the value. But when you're trying to sell your services under, its you know if you just lost somebody you don't want to sit there and try to sell them on something, you just want to make them comfortable. But I appreciate you saying that because I think I do bring a lot to the service and I get incredible feedback after the fact. I mean people from the family meeting, because it's the meeting itself can be so cathartic because when do people actually sit down and truly just no phones, no computers, you know and just sit with each other and just share. Like I said some of these meetings go on for 3 plus hours and they allow me into their world and I you know it's just it's amazing, so as long as we can get the word out that a celebrant service can be really special. I've had incredible people and they come back. I've actually made friends you know with some of the families and they come back and they you know they feel a real connection.
Tyler: I just saw on Facebook posted by a funeral director a funny cartoon that said somebody's always willing to do it for cheaper and it was a tattoo artist that was supposed to be drawing a really complicated unicorn but was doing more of a child's drawing on the back of on the back of someone. And I think that that's such an important topic or at least it is an important topic in funeral services. A recent podcast we did was on overcharging families at funeral homes, and you know I think it can always be done for cheaper but and and looking at your prices it's $450 for the celebrant funeral service and I think to have a professional a trained professional officiate mom's funeral you know is an important and valuable service.
Andrea: I agree, but and it is interesting but I've had some it's interesting, I've been assigned to the... people that search me out and find my website those have been some the most incredible because they really want this service, you know what I mean they've done the background, they've done the research.
But sometimes when I'm assigned to a family through a funeral home and a family doesn't truly get, they don't have a minister so they're like fine, fine, celebrant that's fine. But it's interesting because they don't truly get what the process is and there some are just so sad and they just want it over with and they don't really want a service and in that case maybe they shouldn't go with, you know what I mean? It's not that I don't want to sell my services but I want it to make sense and to fit you know and I don't want to overcharge anybody in that kind of stuff. But I found, because I had one man and he had lost his son and that's the some of the more tragic, when it's a child they lost or it's a horrific accident. I've found some of those services they don't want to go so much into a celebration, you know they aren't celebrating. They're so distraught and so you have to handle it a little differently and sometimes a spiritual service is actually more fitting at those times, they may only find comfort in scriptures and Psalms you know what I mean?
Tyler: So you were trained at the Insight Institute. Can you talk a little bit about that training?
Andrea: Sure it's amazing, I mean so when I, because I never even heard of a celebrant and I had helped with my father-in-law's service in 2009 and I had shared the experience with this woman and she goes “well, you should be a celebrant” and I'm like “I don't know what a celebrant is” and so of course I got on Google and figured it out and did a little research and the Insight Institute is a publisher and a training organizations for celebrants, and they're amazing and they happen, so when I look into that about a month later they were holding a training up in Richmond in Canada. So I was like “cool I get to go up to Canada and do this four-day training” and it was an amazing experience because I've taken class you know obviously I went to college and I've taken all types classes and I've done adult learning and you know I've done you know I'm constantly searching trying to figure out what I'm supposed to be when I grow up and their training is amazing. And you never know, you know you find something on their internet you're like “Is this a real deal?”. So amazing, I mean it's family-run and they just, they give you so much, they give you all the tools, they give you all the training, they give you exactly what you need and what you might be up against. How to bring in the stories and the music and how to work with the families and we could get a lot of role-playing and they have you, you know do some mock services and they're honest and you got tons of feedback. It was just an amazing experience and I have to give them so much credit because they are constantly reaching out to different funeral homes all over the country and educating the funeral homes on this process. They could train millions of people like myself to be a celebrant but if the funeral homes are not selling this or you know supporting this movement it's an uphill battle you know I mean through my own website I get a lot of the people that want to do it at home or at a restaurant but through a funeral, a national funeral home, if the funeral home is behind this this this the celebrant movement it really helps. So I give them, that's why I actually think I got a call from the very progressive Jewish memorial home because they had two of their employees had gone through the insight training so it's just been great and it's a wonderful you know and I can always go back to them with questions and you know if I'm having problems and it's just a really nice support system because as a celebrant you are an independent contractor and so much in your life “I have nobody on my side” and so it's nice to have kind of like a network that you can fall back on.
Tyler: Andrea, if one of our listeners just lost dad and they wanted to hire you, what would be the first step? What's the process?
Andrea: Okay, well the easiest way to find me is go to the website which is http://www.lafuneralcelebrant.com/ and all my contact stuff is there and just call or just email and just start the conversation and if we kind of have a good connection and if they feel comfortable we set up a family meeting. Most of time I travel to them, sometimes we meet at the funeral home if they happen to be there picking out flowers and doing you know the paperwork, but I will travel wherever they need me to be and we start the process. I have a kind of questionnaire I go through you know to kind of get the story of their loved one but we also talk about the music and what kind of scriptures or what kind of poetry or how they wanted to be. Some families are very involved, some want to you know they want to have a full-blown production. I have done, about a year ago I guess, a big service out in San Bernardino at a theater, and it was 300 guests and it was fully produced and we had a sound guy and it was amazing. You know but everybody in the family, there was 11 children in the family and they all were in the entertainment industry so that's what they wanted. So family meeting is where we start, we sit down and we hang out all the details and I put, then I go away and do my thing. Now some families want to see exactly everything I've written and we do that. Others are like “Take care of it we'll see you the day of the service” so it depends, every situation is different but you know I'm there to help and add some structure because the problem with people are, it's a hard time for them you know they're not thinking straight and I just I can bring a little structure and a little calmness and just kind of get them from A to B. And I always try to talk, like I always go back to it but there's no right or wrong way to do this and I'm there with them so they don't have to feel alone and and we really do get through the day together.
Tyler: Andrea I can't thank you enough for telling your story and and giving some more context to what a funeral celebrant is and the growing need for them in the States.
Andrea: You know this is a wonderful opportunity and I love talking with you.
Tyler: Thanks so much Andrea.
Andrea: Thanks Tyler.
Tyler: Listeners thanks so much for listening to Funeral Celebrant Podcast. There's a lot of different places for information about losing a loved one including your local funeral service provider and funeral home. Until next time.