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“The man tells his stories so many times that he becomes his stories. They live on after him. And in that way he becomes immortal.” – Big Fish

Over this past weekend I watched the movie Big Fish. While I won’t say anything that might be a spoiler if you haven’t seen it, I will say that the story telling and this quote struck a chord with me. I believe that story telling is an essential tool for wholehearted living!

As it turns out, I have been a storyteller for a long time. As a young adult, I was drawn to jobs that offered me a chance to be an informal educator—and in the case of Conner Prairie Museum, a storyteller. This museum provides visitors with a “living history” experience. That meant I wore a long 1830’s style dress, cooked over a fire, and learned to spin wool using a walking wheel. Most of all, I enacted the lives of several female characters representing Hoosiers.

I learned a lot about the power of story during my Conner Prairie years. I learned how people feel connected to one another and our lived history through stories. I learned that stories have the potential to offer the listener new insights about themselves. And, I learned that we are all connected by stories past and present.

Little did I know that this museum experience would be part of my work today; what I do as a certified funeral celebrant is catch and tell the stories that represent a life. In the days leading up to the funeral service I meet with family and friends to collect memories about the person who has died. We meet in coffee shops, around dining room tables, in living rooms, even on conference calls… and families introduce me to their loved one. They tell stories. Before I can learn about how someone lived, I learn about how they died.

Some stories are heartbreaking… the story of a father’s last days. Stories of alcoholism or drug abuse or a struggle with disease. I learn from cousins, siblings, parents and friends. I hear stories of last moments and difficult weeks in the hospital or sudden, unexpected deaths. Sometimes I am as moved to tears as the storyteller.

Then, with a few questions I start to learn more about the way someone lived. The things they loved to do, how they helped those around them, what was most important to them, what they did for work… even what their favorite foods were. I take notes. I listen. I wait as the stories themselves unfold. Teasing out those stories, the family and I begin to put together what will become their highly personalized celebration of life service. Together we set about creating a last goodbye.

Family members choose details such as readings, music, video tributes, candle lightings, poetry, personal belongings, art and lots of other ways to be creatively involved and present to this very special goodbye. Together we look for ways to make this celebration of life very, very personal. That might look like all of us wearing the individual’s favorite color or writing and placing personal notes inside the casket or decorating the casket or including a military honor guard. Together we can use elements of ceremony to make meaning and acknowledge both a death and the wonder of a life.

The storytelling becomes essential to understanding who the person was and how that individual affected and enhanced the lives of those around him or her. And in lifting up these very personal stories, wrapping them with ceremony and giving them to one another, the stories become the immortal part of each person who has died. The stories help families claim and live into the legacy of their loved one’s life. The stories are both a hello and a goodbye and lead us all into the light of a day without that person’s presence… .and with that person’s presence in a new way.