Funeral Celebrant Rikki Farrar: Philadelphia's Answer to Remembering Life with "Good Grief Celebrations"
by Pam Vetter
November 20, 2008
When you visit Funeral Celebrant Rikki Farrar's website, you see passion written all over it. The passion for her mother's story, the passion for helping people, and especially the passion for saying goodbye in a personal way.
As the owner and CEO of Good Grief Celebrations (GGC) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Rikki Farrar was inspired to create a memorial tribute company by events close to home.
"My mother died of cancer last year and asked me to plan her funeral. A few weeks after her death, I was laid off from my employer. Between my severance package and the money my mother left, I decided to open an event planning company. As I researched, I noticed there were thousands of event planning companies. Everyone worked on birthdays, weddings, baby showers and other celebratory events. I noticed that there were several companies that offered some funeral products or services but there wasn't a one-stop shop. With that in mind I decided the funeral industry could use a breath of fresh air and I wanted to be that breath," Farrar explained. "It feels good to finally be in a recession proof industry that truly helps people when they need someone the most."
In organizing her mother's funeral, Farrar took a hands-on approach.
"My mother's funeral service was different in the fact that it was truly personalized and followed her every wish down to the last detail. I received compliments on all the details that made it so personalized. As people walked in the party they were greeted by a giant Christmas tree, poster size portrait of my mom, and an open bar. The bar only served her favorite liquor Absolut Vodka and Coors Light Beer," Farrar noted. "Once you rounded the corner you were greeted by a huge hall decorated in Steelers colors. She was an Anita Baker, Luther Vandross, and anything else from the late 60's and 70's fan. The DJ played only songs that she would like. Portraits of her graced every table along with various sized poinsettias and scented candles. Walk over to the buffet and it was filled with only her favorite foods such as chicken, turkey, potato salad, greens, and rice, to name a few. We played a slide show movie of her life, a friend sang a song, relatives read poems and we danced. She wanted everyone to dance at her funeral. I know that she was there with me that night and that she was very proud. I respected her every wish."
For Farrar, Good Grief Celebrations has two meanings as she helps grieving families after loss.
"The first is assisting with the celebration of grief in a good way. We understand how devastating the loss of a loved one can be. We believe that there is a place for tears, because death is sad. However, let us also focus on the wonderful feelings and memories that person created for us. Let us celebrate all their accomplishments and significant milestones. Helping people remember the good times while respecting their right to grieve is an amazing feeling," Farrar explained. "The second meaning includes freedom and economic independence. The death care industry offers a relatively recession proof market. People die naturally and unnaturally all the time. To some people it sounds morbid, but if you are honest with yourself then you know that one day you will die. From the moment we take our first breath the clock starts to tick. Some are allowed more time than others, but that time is not infinite. I would like to grow GGC into a business that will be passed down from generation to generation, creating freedom and economic independence for my family. I cannot believe that I am doing something that I love and getting paid for it!"
Farrar offers families a "Celebration of Life Party," which includes several personal elements that help remember a loved one.
"Some people call it an Irish Wake, others call it a family gathering, re-pass, or home going celebration, we call it a 'Celebration of Life Party.' If you think about it, funerals and weddings are also family reunions. People who hire wedding or event planners may consider using our company to handle the 'Celebration of Life Party' details. Enjoy your friends and family while allowing us to do the rest. The party usually last about three hours and takes place after the funeral. Some of those services include set up, organizing entertainment, venue selection, catering, clean up, thank you notes and more. We can do as little or as much as the family would like."
In Farrar's experience, every service is memorable, but a few stand out for what happened as a result of personal farewells.
"One of the most memorable things I have done was reunite a family. There was a guy who lived openly gay in Philadelphia, however, his family in the Midwest did not know. Someone threatened to out him to his family and he decided to kill himself. When the family found out about his death, they also found out about everything else and they were horrified. They took his body back to the Midwest and quietly buried him. His life partner never had the chance to say goodbye. Last month, his college held a memorial service for all of their deceased graduates and the family decided to attend. That same weekend his life partner asked me to host a 'Celebration of Life Party' at the salon where they both worked. I was able to coordinate with the family and get them to agree to attend. They learned so much about their son and had the chance to meet his life partner. The salon was tuned into a lounge and all of his friends were there. His family enjoyed themselves and said that they wished they would have done something similar for the actual funeral. They also said that they felt more open-minded," Farrar said. "Another memorable event was for a little girl who was killed in a car crash. She loved the movie 'Finding Nemo.' There were going to be lots of children at her life celebration and we wanted to do something special. We used a Nemo theme, played the movie and gave each child a fish to take home. The fish bowls were engraved with the funeral date and her picture as a watermark. The kids loved it and the parents cried. It was so special."
Farrar leaves the final decisions to the family members, but the choice of involvement belongs to them.
"It really depends on the family. I have had some people give me total control. They were so relieved to have someone take over because they did not want to bother with the details. I have also worked with families who have planned everything and just need someone to coordinate and place a few finishing touches. I welcome all types of families and personalities. No two days are ever the same. No two funerals are exactly alike. I had one family member who wanted to read a poem and be the mistress of ceremony, but she completely froze when she saw all of the people. I smoothly took over and no one was any wiser."
As her business continues to grow and she meets more families, Farrar wants consumers to know their rights to be heard in the planning of a farewell.
"Families need to know that they have total control of the funeral process and everything it entails. You have the right to ask questions, make changes and have things your way. We work for you. I think people in the death care industry often forget that we work for the people. We need to make them feel special and do whatever we can to a accommodate them. I actually dealt with a family who decided to move their loved one to a different funeral home because of the poor service. Good for them!" Farrar reinforced. "It is my hope that first and foremost everyone will obtain life insurance. It breaks my heart to see families fighting over burial funds, and who should pay for what. I want to bridge the gap between uninsured people, life insurance companies and funeral homes. I want people to know that they have choices and what some of those choices are. Once people are more informed the prospect of the funeral becomes less scary. I also want to join the trend in encouraging people to change the name of Funeral to 'Life Celebration.' Many funeral homes are now listing their services as Life Celebrations, however many are still unfamiliar with Celebrants. I want to change that. I want to make sure that every funeral home in Philadelphia knows that another option is available. That there are people who are certified experts in the art and science of personalized funerals."
Farrar believes the Celebrant movement is long overdue in the United States.
"The USA has been evolving for years and the funeral industry is just now catching on. The lack of a commitment to traditional religion has been on the rise for years. Ask the average bereaved person what options were presented to them for their non-religious loved one by the funeral home, many will answer 'they offered me the house minister.' I wish that I had known about Celebrants when my mother died. She was a Jehovah Witness and I just assumed she would want someone from the Hall. The service lasted for 45 minutes and was a church service. People were twisting in their chairs and getting restless. I wish I had known. I would have hired a Celebrant and it would have been much more meaningful, while still respecting her religion. I want to make sure that other families in need know that the option exists. Whatever they choose I want everyone to have a choice. As a Celebrant I offer families the choice to celebrate their loved one in a personalized way. I offer families the opportunity to laugh, cry and remember the wonderful legacy their loved one left behind."
Without a doubt, Farrar says that Good Grief Celebrations is her mother's legacy.
"There would be no GGC without Charlotte Farrar," Farrar reminded. "If she was still alive I am sure I would have went on to find another job. I would not have had the courage to try such a venture. She always called me her success story, but I never knew that it would be this way. It is bittersweet because I would give it all up just to have my mom back again."