Death by Design
I hope no-one is deterred or incensed by the title of the article but all will become clear as you read on. I received an email requesting my services as a celebrant for an event, and asking me if I could arrange a meeting at my earliest convenience, to discuss the arrangements.
With the appointment being on the French Riviera, I made the assumption I was meeting a couple who were planning a wedding or perhaps wishing to celebrate an anniversary with a vow renewal ceremony. The tone of the email was neutral and details were not forthcoming and I did not pursue them beforehand. This is something I am quite used to owing to a number of couples I meet who offer no prior information and then request I sign a non disclosures agreement before the discussion begins.
I arrived at the specific location as arranged and was greeted by the housekeeper who led me into a most elegant room. Within minutes I was sat opposite a couple who opened the conversation by saying that I had come highly recommended... "Positive start" I thought...
The gentleman began by asking me a few questions about my role as a celebrant and the online magazine I run: The Riviera Woman. I certainly had the impression I was being carefully scrutinised for something quite eventful...
"My wife and I would like you to lead a ceremony for us." he commenced. "I want to have a celebration attended by all my friends and family, it will be a large affair, and it is to celebrate my life." he added.
I listened attentively and hoped that my facial expressions were appropriate. He came across as someone very composed and someone who had given this a great deal of thought.
"I have always been in charge, always lead from the front. I have a successful global enterprise and I have enjoyed life with my friends and family to the fullest." he continued. "And now I want to take control of my ultimate destiny in my own way. Can you handle this? I wouldn't have called you if I thought you couldn't." he didn't wait for me to respond either way...
This was an opportunity I was not going to refuse. I had the feeling that refusing was not an option anyway. I immediately knew this was going to shape how I felt as a human being and in my capacity as celebrant. It was an honour to have been selected to perform such an unexpected ceremony for someone who for whatever reason had decided to take this journey. I needed to ask a specific question and with very little time to gather my thoughts, I went ahead and asked.
"You are planning to celebrate your life with your friends and family, and why have you chosen now to arrange this?"
He told me that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and very 'soon' he would be leaving for a clinic situated in Switzerland, where the treatment, owing to the aggressiveness of it, would be life changing and he wanted people to remember him as the person who lived... I had the feeling that the clinic was to be his final place but I was not going to make anymore assumptions.
And so the planning began... I recommended that the ceremony itself should last in the region of 35 to 40 minutes, to which this was agreed. The venue was arranged and this guest of honour had selected those he wanted to attend as his guests. We discussed various ideas to which he embraced them all; readings, poems and music. He had actually already chosen a selection of pieces he would like and who he would like to read them. Music would be performed by musicians and he had commissioned a classical pianist (who would make use of the grand piano at the villa) and arranged for a 4 piece jazz band to entertain. I mentioned the possibility of using candles in some way and both he and his wife agreed that a candle ceremony would be 'most fitting', saying: "love is eternal as long as we keep the flame alight". His life story would feature images and film with a live voice-over orchestrated by me. And he had prepared his own 'committal' which he would deliver himself.
He had arranged a photographer that would be on site and to have a family portrait taken on this day with other photos from the ceremony, all to be included into a memory book he was having produced.
I was given a brief tour of where the ceremony would take place and then guided to a wine cellar stacked high with quite an impressive collection. "We will have my favourite wine to drink..." I was shown a magnum of St Emilion Château Cheval Blanc, 2010. One glass of this and we will all be in fine spirits, two and we will be rejoicing, n'est pas!" he smiled...
Every detail of this day had been so meticulously considered, and he resembled an author writing the final chapter of his autobiography, excited at the prospect of presenting it to all who know him. This really is a true celebration of life!
It would be easy to think that this is a form of egoism but on the contrary, in my case, all I can say is that you had to be there to realise that this was one of the most selfless things I had ever witnessed. In his own speech, the emphasis is on the importance of 'living'. He wishes to share his love with those he loves. He wishes to see smiles and not frowns. He knows he we will no longer be able to be in control from where he is going and wants to leave behind his wealth of knowledge and show his gratitude to those who have shared in his life.
We are not all fortunate to be in a position to be able to make such arrangements as these, and for so many reasons, but it opens up the debate of why we can't have the discussion with those we love about 'that time' in life which none of us can ever escape from. It is a fact of life that we die... and if we are able to organise our final chapter well in advance, it will be one more box on the to-do list ticked, leaving us to enjoy our life with those around us, in the knowing that in some small way we have helped our loved ones when the unavoidable time comes.
To quote my Mr. X who said to me: "I want to R.I.P...." ...Rejoice in Person!
This article has been fully vetted and approved by those who gave me this wonderful opportunity to celebrate a very special life!
My mission is to create a unique ceremony especially for you.
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Anna Fill - Celebrant and Event Coordinator