Newswise — When comedian Richard Pryor died Dec. 10, 2005, after a 19-year battle with multiple sclerosis, Jennifer Pryor knew she wanted a service that would celebrate her husband's life, his contributions and even his flaws.
Describing her husband and herself as spiritual but not religious, Pryor also knew she did not want a funeral led by a minister, "to bow down to something we didn't believe in."
As she worked with Forest Lawn Memorial Parks and Mortuaries in Hollywood Hills, Calif., officials told her about a growing trend, certified funeral celebrants. These are trained laypeople who work with families, especially those who have no relationship with a clergyperson, to plan a personalized service that celebrates the life of their loved one. A Forest Lawn funeral counselor put Pryor in touch with Pam Vetter, a certified celebrant and former radio news anchor and reporter.
Together, Pryor and Vetter planned a private service for friends and family held Dec. 17 at the Church of the Hills, a Forest Lawn chapel.
"I wanted people to know about Richard's struggle in finding his own voice as a comedian," Pryor said of the man she called her "soul-mate."
"I wanted people to know the things he loved such as fishing. I wanted people to know of his goodness and also his flaws. He turned pain into comedy. He was loving and generous. He communicated who he was as a human being with no hypocrisy."
Pryor also believed Richard's use of profanity as a comedic tool to reach people and make them laugh had to be part of the service if it was to honestly communicate her husband's identity.
Vetter and Pryor met for two hours. "Pam explained the service would have all of the formality of a traditional service without the ideology or theology," Pryor recalled.
As Pryor talked about her husband, Vetter learned about Richard Pryor's love for animals and his foundation, Pryor's Planet, for animal rescue. She suggested that participants in the service wear purple ribbons to symbolize Richard Pryor's fight for animal rights, a suggestion Jennifer Pryor readily accepted.
Vetter listened as Pryor told stories about her husband. Together, they listened to music he loved and Pryor selected a song to be played at the service. They talked about the value of involving everyone in lighting candles in Richard's memory. Pryor also identified friends to be asked to speak.
Vetter helped Pryor focus her husband's life message: "Be authentic. Never be afraid. Never let others tell you how to live your life."
Then Vetter went to work outlining the service. As Pryor reflected on their meeting, she said she realized her healing had begun as she had talked with Vetter about her husband.
Vetter's tribute incorporated Richard Pryor's life message and many of the stories Jennifer Pryor had shared. "There was a lot of chuckling at the stories," Pryor recalled. "They got to know Richard better."
Vetter also included Richard Pryor's trademark use of the word, "m"¦..f"¦"¦" in his comedy performances, a tribute Jennifer Pryor valued. "You could tell she (Vetter) didn't say it often, but she was communicating who Richard was."
The song, "'S Wonderful," as recorded by Ella Fitzgerald was played.
"He always sang it to me," Jennifer Pryor said. For the service, "I wanted a woman singing it to a man."
Entertainers George Lopez and Monique gave tributes to Richard Pryor, along with his long-time friend and record producer, David Banks. A video montage of his life was shown. A spontaneous moment occurred when Diana Ross stood and sang "Amazing Grace."
Everyone lit candles for Richard Pryor, a ceremony Jennifer Pryor described as representing "an acknowledgment of crossing over" and enabled everyone attending the service to be involved in saying farewell.
Pryor commended Vetter for "viewing her role, not as a job, but as something she was happy to be doing."
Pryor feels her goal of celebrating her husband's life was exceeded. "I hope he (Richard) enjoyed it," she said.
"I would recommend the concept," Pryor added. "You get to shape your own service. Celebrant is a great name for this."
Vetter believes she has found her life mission in being a celebrant, a discovery that came through personal tragedy, the death of her sister, Diane Meily, of cancer at age 49.
As her sister's death approached, Vetter traveled to Pennsylvania to be with her in her last days and then to help with the service her sister had planned. A roadblock developed when the minister didn't want the service to include a recording of the Josh Groban song, "You Raise Me Up," which Diane had selected to be played or the video message she had recorded for her own funeral. Ultimately, Vetter sang the song in the middle of her eulogy and the minister agreed to inclusion of the video.
Her sister's last words on the video became the inspiration for what Vetter now believes to be her calling. Meily said: "Each and every one of you have a limited amount of time on this Earth. You each have a job to do. Find out what your mission is and get it done."
When she returned to California, Vetter began "volunteering to speak at funerals of friends and neighbors if they didn't belong to a church." Then she learned about celebrants through online research and flew to a training session in Pittsburgh.
At the training Vetter learned the use of celebrants began in Australia and New Zealand. When families had no minister, they often opted for cremation, no service, and, therefore, no celebration of the life of the deceased. Doug Manning, a former Baptist minister and president of the Celebrant Institute of Oklahoma City, has introduced the celebrant concept, training and certification in the U.S. and Canada.
"They (Manning and Glenda Stansbury, also of the Celebrant Institute) tell you everything about how to personalize a service," Vetter said.
Personalization may include the person's favorite music, objects that symbolize the person's passions and symbolic ceremonies such as lighting candles or releasing balloons. Even the place for the service may be unique to the life being celebrated—a house of worship, the person's home, a golf course, a lake or park. Food may be served or small gifts given to symbolize the deceased. Most important, stories should be told.
Vetter believes a personalized service should include "laughter, crying and hugging. I think people should be able to have a personal sendoff."
Vetter believes the use of celebrants—there are now about 700 in the United States—will continue to grow. At the end of services she conducts, Vetter not only receives compliments for her words in that service but questions about the celebrant movement.
"There will soon be a celebrant available in every city in the United States. I welcome each one of them. Why? One more story at a funeral is one more family that will start healing," Vetter wrote in an issue of her newsletter.
Thanks to her sister, Vetter said, "My mission is now clear: Be the best celebrant I can be, one family at a time." Information about Vetter's work as a celebrant is available at http://www.celebrantpam.com; general information, including locating trained and certified celebrants is available at http://www.insightbooks.com. More information about the life of Richard Pryor may be found at http://www.richardpryor.com while information about his animal rescue foundation is located at http://www.pryorsplanet.com.