FAIRLAWN, Ohio — Kevin O'Brien stood in front of a room of family members and friends of Leland S. Gaug this summer at the Billow Funeral Home and told the life story of the World War II and Korean War veteran.
While O'Brien had never met the 87-year-old Fairlawn, Ohio, man, he knew him in many ways.
O'Brien, 53, of North Canton, Ohio, is a life celebrant and as such he officiated at Gaug's funeral, held on a summer morning in early August.
"Lee was not a man who lived his life in shades of gray," O'Brien said during a 30-minute eulogy.
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"Things were either black and white, right or wrong, and his constant advice to his family, his lifelong friends, his co-workers or his Kiwanis brothers was, 'Just do what you gotta do,' " O'Brien said.
O'Brien is part of a growing trend at funerals across the country: celebrants, whose aim is to make funerals more personal and meaningful while officiating the services.
Gaug was a pilot who trained others in the Navy during World War II then joined the Marine Corps and served as a pilot flying F7F Tigercats in Korea during that war. He retired from the Marines as a major with 22 years of service.
He worked for Goodyear Racing Division for a quarter century.
In his eulogy, O'Brien said Gaug had a theme to his life: "Work hard and do the best you can do."
Before he became a celebrant, O'Brien, with a master's degree in pastoral counseling, worked as a chaplain at a hospital and served as an interfaith campus minister at Stark State College.
He heard about life celebrants a few years ago, and as a man who had written a journal for 30 years, became certified in the practice with two national organizations, the In-Sight Institute and the Celebrant Foundation and Institute.
This year, O'Brien has officiated nearly 30 funerals.
With the Gaug family, he sat down for nearly two hours, listening to stories about Gaug and asking questions about his life. He then went home and began to write the eulogy.
O'Brien e-mailed a draft to Gaug's daughter, Pam Emerson. They exchanged more e-mails until the family approved the planned funeral service.
Emerson, of Akron, Ohio, said that when her father died the family met with officials at the Billow Funeral Home.
"It was kind of a panic situation," she said. "We didn't have a priest or a pastor."
Billow officials suggested they use O'Brien, and "he expressed what we wanted to say," Emerson said.
O'Brien has done a few services for Billow.
"Kevin is able to focus in on one or two significant events, or significant relationships ... that tell the story of this person and the fabric they are made from," Billow said.
He said that at meetings of a group of nine funeral home officials from across the country, called the Funeral Directors Symposium, it was discovered that celebrants are being used nationwide.
"Kevin is like answering a prayer," he said, in helping families that are not affiliated with a church and who do not want a religious funeral service.
Charlotte Eulette is the international director of the New Jersey-based Celebrant Foundation and Institute, which trains celebrants. She said there are eight life-cycle celebrants trained through her group in Ohio, including O'Brien.
Her organization offers seven-month online courses for $2,400 and trains people to conduct a wide variety of ceremonies.
"We create ceremonies with and for people to honor their life passages, the 'womb-to-tomb' events in their life, in a way that is authentic, and it is all about them," Eulette said.
After Sept. 11, 2001, she said, "people in America wanted something personal, and death became something to be embraced."
People who go through training at her organization conduct funerals, weddings and ceremonies to mark the birth of a child, purchase of a home or even finalization of a divorce, she said.
Eulette said the funeral celebrant artfully weaves the history of a person's life. She said she believes a great society is not a great society until it truly honors and respects the dead.
Glenda Stansbury, vice president and dean of Oklahoma-based In-Sight Institute, where O'Brien also trained, said the celebrant movement is occurring because more people are not aligned with a church and have no family minister, and also because the baby-boomer generation is now in charge of more funerals.
"Baby boomers want things to be unique and personalized to them," she said.
Stansbury's group has trained 1,650 celebrants. In-Sight offers three-day courses over weekends for funeral celebrants for $700.
"The funeral is the first step in a healthy grieving journey," she said.