Holly Pruett helps her clients create ceremonies to mark life's milestones


For 51-year-old Holly Pruett, her work as a life-cycle celebrant is a calling, a way to help people use ceremonies to experience life's significant events more deeply and meaningfully. In her youth, Pruett says she sadly missed out on opportunities for such ritual, especially those offering solace and bridging difficult times, such as when her father passed without any funeral or memorial and she was simply handed his ashes in a container.

Before she became a certified life-cycle celebrant, Pruett worked for 25 years as a social change advocate and political organizer. But she longed for work that would connect her more directly to people’s lives. Now, Pruett, who lives in Portland's Irvington neighborhood, is frequently called on to perform a variety of ceremonies for sometimes joyful, sometimes solemn occasions.

And, often, she's asked to describe her work. Here she answers those questions:

What is a life-cycle celebrant?

As a life-cycle celebrant I work with individuals, families, and communities to create and officiate unique, personalized commemorations of life’s important milestones. In some ways we’re like secular clergy people, tending to many of the needs that used to be met by religious institutions. What distinguishes life-cycle celebrants is that we create and perform customized ceremonies that reflect the clients’ beliefs, philosophy of life and personalities; not the Celebrant's.

What is involved in becoming certified as a life-cycle celebrant?

“Celebrant“ is a word that anyone can use in either a religious or secular context. There are several training programs out there, some only a day- or weekend-long workshop. The program I enrolled with, the Celebrant Foundation and Institute, is the gold standard of certification. I completed an eight-month course of study covering the theory and function of ceremony and ritual along with specialization in different parts of the life-cycle. We’re required to undergo a professional vocal evaluation and create multiple ceremonies through the course of the certification program.

What ceremonies do you typically perform?

While I have a particular focus on funerals, memorials and celebrations of life, I create and perform ceremonies from cradle to grave, marking everything from new babies, coming of age, weddings, divorce, retirement, milestone birthdays and anniversaries, to the end of life. The selection of locations and elements is as unique as each client: some are intimate with only one witness; others are elaborate with hundreds attending. I typically spend 16-30 hours on a ceremony with a starting fee of $600.

Why are rituals important in life?

Rituals connect us to something larger than ourselves; they are the portals we pass through in our journey through life. They create a pause outside of regular space and time that allows us to focus our intentions. Robert Fulghum wrote, “Rituals are cairns marking the path behind us and ahead of us. Without them we lose our way.” For many, rituals offer an opening to the sacred, a way to connect body, mind and soul.

What types of planning go into the services?

We begin with a free, no-obligation interview. Then, if it’s a good fit, I work with my clients to identify their goals: what needs to be celebrated, mourned, released, honored, remembered? I design a completely customized process that incorporates their values and beliefs, their customs and heritage, to meet their goals. As a celebrant, that process results in a ceremony that I typically officiate. But I’m more than an officiant; I’m a coach who engages my clients in a creative process that helps them meet their goals through ceremony.

What is a transition ceremony?

Transition ceremonies can honor any of the in-between places we find ourselves in life: retirement, divorce, empty nest, downsizing, death of a parent or spouse, serious illness, mid-life or later-life crisis, coming out of solitude into community, moving. From an anthropological perspective, most ceremony in cultures throughout time has marked the achievement of a new status: from single to married, from child to adult. Transition ceremonies can provide support for the journey from one status to another. We’re eager for “closure” in our society; honoring our transitions can focus on opening to the next chapter as much as closing the last one.

Describe your own transition into middle age and what ceremonies you performed to mark the transition. Could you also speak to the transitions into old age?

When I turned 50 I held a “River of Life” ceremony inspired by a John O’ Donohue verse: "I would love to live/ Like a river flows, Carried by the surprise/ Of its own unfolding." I invited women from each decade of life, from my 6-year-old niece to my 75-year old mother, to bring an object that represented the gifts of their particular time in life, which we placed along a beautiful blue cloth. Transitions into old age are often marked by what is lost or taken away. Croning ceremonies, milestone birthday or anniversary celebrations, even holding a “living funeral” to say goodbye on your own terms are all examples of ways to affirm the later years of life.

Do you personally identify with any particular religious tradition?

I consider myself spiritual. I have a meditation practice and spend as much time outdoors as possible.

What is meant by a civil celebrant?

Civil celebrancy was established as a profession by the Australian government in 1973 to create an alternative to the clergy and judiciary to marry people and bury them. In 2001 a group of women in the New York City area, working with Australian mentors, established the U.S.-based Celebrant Foundation and Institute which has since graduated nearly 900 life-cycle celebrants.

Why would people choose a civil celebrant over, for instance, a minister or rabbi?

Some want a secular ceremony. Many consider themselves spiritual but don’t have a current relationship with organized religion; here in the Northwest we live in the least churched part of the country. Other families may be interfaith or multicultural, seeking someone who can help them blend their traditions. Life-cycle celebrants offer a more personalized approach; many people — especially baby boomers — want a ceremony that’s as unique as they are.

Is this a growing trend and, if so, why?

There is a strong interest in rediscovering and reclaiming ways to bring more meaning into our lives, to pause together to pay attention to the moments that matter. Funerals, for example, have become a bad brand — many people, like my father, don’t see the value and would just as soon not have one. The arrival of a new baby is often celebrated through a commercially-oriented baby shower that may do little to honor the parents’ rite of passage. Celebrants can help create new ways to pass through these time-honored portals.

Approximately how many life celebrants are there in Oregon? Nationwide?

There are 24 life-cycle celebrants in Oregon, and nearly 900 graduates of the 13 year-old Celebrant Foundation and Institute working in 35 states and 8 countries including Canada, Mexico, several European countries along with Japan and Vietnam. In 2007, the Celebrant profession was named by CNN and Money Magazine as the No. 3 best job for those over 50 and ready for a change.

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