HAVING empathy for the bereaved is the most important quality for a funeral and memorial service celebrant, says Sandra Graham.
The Cork woman has completed a course for civil celebrants and has also learned about conducting spiritual ceremonies.
It’s the fulfilment of a lifetime ambition for this mother of one, who lost her second child to a rare disease when he was just 19 months. The tragedy has, in ways, defined Sandra. It gives her a sensitivity towards other people with similar experiences.
She is also acutely aware of the need for people who have lost loved ones to Covid to mark these deaths through a ceremony that could be held in a garden, a marquee or a hotel.
Sandra lost her son, Billy, to a rare condition known as Menkes Syndrome. It is passed through women and is a deficiency in copper and zinc. Children with the disease have a life expectancy of four years.
“Billy was fine up until he was six months. Then, he started to regress. It was a very traumatic time. He died in 1982. It had a very bad affect on our marriage (which broke up.)”
The couple’s older child, Pamela, was found to be clear of the syndrome.
Sandra says she is normally a happy-go-lucky person who gets on with life.
“But I think what happened left something with me. You carry it.”
Because she was left to bring up Pamela on her own, Sandra had to choose jobs that suited her daughter’s school hours.
“I went from being a chef to working in a garden centre, When I was forty, I decided it was time for me to get my own act together. I trained to be a pharmacy technician, something I always wanted to do. I’m working four days a week in the South Infirmary Pharmacy which I love. You need empathy for others in that job because you’re dealing a lot of the time with sick people.”
In pursuing civil funeral ceremonies, Sandra is kind of planning for retirement.
“I’m 64. I always wanted to do funeral and memorial ceremonies. I could do them part-time.”
She had to put her plans on hold when she looked after her widowed mother.
“For the final four years of my mum’s life, I left my own home in Cobh and moved in with her in Blackrock, caring for her and working at the same time. I’m glad I did it.”
She began researching courses, but the one she wanted to do, run by the Irish Institute of Funerals Association, involved travelling to Dublin, but she couldn’t because of her mother.
“Again, I put it on hold. Subsequently, my mother passed away a year and a half ago. So I started getting my life back.”
Because of Covid, Sandra was able to do the Dublin course online, allowing her to become a civil celebrant with the option of giving spiritual ceremonies.
“Down the line, I can see myself becoming more involved with church ceremonies.
“In Dublin, civil ceremonies are happening more than here. My plan, going forward, is to organise memorial services for people bereaved through Covid. They weren’t able to have the funerals they’d have wanted but they still need closure and would like to celebrate their loved ones’ lives.
“I’d like to work with them on personalised services.”
She has been in touch with some venues around Cork, including hotels, which have been very positive about the idea.
“I’ll be doing morning ceremonies with maybe a light lunch to give family the time to meet people .”
A person’s ashes won’t necessarily be present at the ceremony.
“There could be a few hymns, songs and prayers. The service would be personalised.”
Sandra went to the Island Crematorium in Ringaskiddy to discuss the possibility of being a celebrant there.
“I was told that the funeral directors from funeral homes usually look after things. I’m in the process of trying to work with funeral directors. I’d like to get my foot in the door.”
Having researched funeral celebrants working in Australia, the U.S and the UK, Sandra says there’s a trend for planting a tree or a shrub in a garden, in memory of the deceased person.
“In some places, you’re allowed to put down the ashes with the tree that’s being planted. I’m looking into seeing if you can do that in Ireland.”
Sandra says there is definitely a market in this country for what she is planning.
“I’d be delighted if someone came on board with me with a couple of bob! I have great ideas. People have different beliefs.
“I would be very spiritual. I’m not going to church every day but, like a lot of people, I have my own ways.
“Doing the course has really helped me.”
The funeral business here is a “quite a closed shop,” she said, adding: “I think women need to push themselves harder in this area.”
While most civil celebrants do weddings as well as funerals, Sandra says she has no interest in conducting wedding ceremonies and will be focusing on funerals and memorials only.
You can contact Sandra on firstname.lastname@example.org
I went from being a chef to working in a garden centre. When I was forty I decided it was time for me to get my own act together. I trained to be a pharmacy technician.