Zena Lythgo is in demand as both a Geelong funeral and marriage celebrant. Zena’s warm nature and highly personalised approach lead to the delivery of many unforgettable ceremonies full of love and meaning.
Based in Geelong, Zena looks after our Geelong funerals and south-west of Melbourne funerals.
How could we not love her when she describes herself like this: “I drink cups of tea as big as my head, like to hula hoop, listen to podcasts & go on road trips in my campervan, Nel.”
We are incredibly proud to include Zena in our list of partner celebrants, knowing that she will take beautiful care of our Tomorrow clients. But possibly the greatest compliment for our business is this quote from her interview: “I have.. written into my own funeral plan that Tomorrow are to handle my celebration of life because I know that it will be easy and cathartic for my family to work alongside them.”
Enjoy Zena’s insights about her work, the funeral industry and the idea of death itself.
(And head here if you are looking for a good location for a Geelong memorial.)
Zena, tell us about your work as a funeral celebrant and how you got here?
My work as a funeral celebrant is simultaneously the most uplifting and heartbreaking space to be with people. Every funeral teaches me so much and gives me an appreciation for both life and death.
It is incredibly enriching, and rewarding work, and I genuinely love doing it.
My first two initiations into the funeral space were when I was 19 and I had to take the lead organising my Grandma’s funeral as my family were overseas. I spoke at her funeral, and although I faltered a little, like so many people do in these pressured moments, I found something within that helped me to keep going.
When I was 25 my Nan passed away and I wasn’t sure I would be able to attend the funeral. The circumstances were heightened, and my nerves were shot. I did make it there and I spoke on behalf of the grandchildren. By this time I was a marriage celebrant and once again I was shown that, even though I am the type of person who cries very easily in everyday life (like really easily,) no matter the circumstances and the pressures, we all have the ability to hold ourselves together in those hardest and most emotional moments.
And that is what I have been doing at funerals ever since; sharing my knowledge and skills whilst being moved by every person’s lived experience, learning from their perspectives and sitting in the love, loss and emotion alongside their loved ones.
What is it like doing this kind of work?
Oh gosh, it has been rich and varied. I’ve been so fortunate to meet wonderful people from across Australia & support families from all walks of life to celebrate the big moments; both weddings and funerals. And the locations have been truly, truly epic.
I love hearing all the stories along the way and sharing them back to the person, or peoples, community to create a big share moment of celebration. Every instance whether a marriage or a funeral is always filled with lessons, laughter and love; all the big, filling, energising stuff!
Mostly, it doesn’t feel like work but just feel like connecting with people & sharing.
What’s the most incredible memorial that you have ever been a part of?
To be honest they all hit you in the heart, as every person is obviously, a unique individual that teaches you a few lessons as you learn about their life.
Two stand outs of late, were a man who was terminally ill & planned out every detail of his funeral. He spent weeks, if not months, listening to funeral music as he looked out the window choosing the right pieces. He pushed his partner to speak, cos only she could truly share the fullness of his life’s experiences. He designed an order of service that shared an image of him sitting in his dinner suit (the one he was buried in) projected on to a starry backdrop, reflecting his personal views that he was probably out there somewhere. He chose for us to do the burial first, so the sad part was out of the way, before we laughed and share stories with a lighter air throughout the afternoon. He gave us clear instructions that ‘we have to go hard on the food; I don’t want everyone walking away thinking I am a miserable bastard’.
Recently, a little girl of 6 years old died. She was born with a genetic condition, and she had spent most her of her life in and out of hospital. Heart breaking right, the room was filled with heavy energy; the loss of someone so young hard to bear. But oh my gosh did we laugh! This little girl was a firecracker. An old soul, who was whip smart, with a dry sense of humour. She loved making people laugh, knew she was sick but never let it hold her back, she just wanted to be a part of everything & was always adorned in the most amazing colourful sparkly clothes.
Her parents showed videos of her dancing (maybe grinding a little bit too much for a 6 year old) and her having a tantrum as she refused to have a picture with her brother; everyone loved seeing the visuals. We shared stories of her telling the doctor her Mum had haemorrhoids, and the way when a nurse asked you “ What do you think about kindergarten?” she told her to “Shove it up your arse.”
Everyone was gifted a lily bulb to plant in the garden so that when it bloomed each spring they would think of her and be reminded of the life cycle. We all danced to Katy Perry’s Roar as she left and we watched her little brother release two homing pigeons that then flew themselves home, in her honour before she was driven away.
A room that started so fully of heaviness transformed into a space of joy, laughter & love for her. It was incredible to be a part of & made us all feel more alive through her example.
Funerals are in most instances an enlivening space. They are hard in many ways. They can be heart-breaking and they are often incredibly sad. But they also remind us of to appreciate every day. It is a privilege to be in these moments with families. I am always so appreciative for the lessons.
What’s the most important thing in planning a funeral for someone you love?
That it reflects them and is filled with touches that represent their personality.
No matter how big a shock the death is, or heartbreaking the circumstances are, the sum of your loved one is not defined by the way they die. They were many things and they shared a lot of love, fun and laughter with you. There has to be space for those moments of light reprieve amidst mourning.
Share a list of grandma’s funny traits, tell the guests about the time your child told the nurses you have haemorrhoids, laugh at the way your baby always kicked with annoyance when you played spotlight with the belly, let there be joy too.
Life & death are not black and white, both are made up every shade of grey in between and a funeral should reflect all aspects of the person; that’s how you make it feel like a real & true depiction of your loved one.
What do you think about the Tomorrow Funerals model?
I love the uncomplicated & modern way Tomorrow are approaching death & celebrations of life.
One of the most common things you hear from families, after death, is how overwhelming & complicated funeral planning feels when you are grieving. As a result, a lot of people create a funeral that doesn’t fully represent their loved one’s life; it just feels like the path laid out for you & the way things are done.
Tomorrow Funerals offers people the chance to stop, wait & contemplate. Their services are simple & can be performed easily in any location, which enables you to create a celebration that looks and feels like your loved one who is gone. Choosing a location that reflects your person goes a long way to creating a warm, loving and special celebration of their life. It is a big part of making it feel personal and meaningful.
Probably the most important thing I want to note is their price. Tomorrow is not trying to be a budget service – they haven’t chosen their suppliers for their affordability; they have chosen them based on their high quality & their integrity, but simply by being transparent & removing unnecessary upselling the service they offer is actually more affordable than most cremation and memorial packages on the market.
So, they offer families more flexibility & transparency at a highly accessible price point that is simple, modern & personalised.
I am so here for that, in fact I have it written into my own funeral plan that Tomorrow to handle my celebration of life because I know that it will be easy and cathartic for my family to work alongside them.
What are your thoughts on the funeral industry?
I have found every person I work alongside in the death space to be incredibly passionate about the work they do however, most are disappointed by the wider industry, the big companies that control most of the market, and how that plays out for families.
There are so many simple things that the public don’t tend to know about after death care, body care & burial or cremation options. And it is hard to do that research or learn that information in those early stages of grief. Sadly, I think lack of awareness leads a lot of families to make choices that aren’t necessarily 100% right for them. And the funeral industry as a whole isn’t necessarily trying to create that visibility, they just push you down the existing path.
The ways I think the industry needs to change, so it better reflects individuality, & feels less cookie cutter; are the ways that Tomorrow is already starting to challenge the status quo; price transparency, less upselling, more freedom of choice & location so it reflects people lives is the way of the future.
I think that as a community we don’t like confronting death very much, so we don’t talk about death until someone dies. Then shock & grief make decision making harder.
It is amazing businesses like Tomorrow, Rites of Passage, Natural Grace and The Last Hurrah who are leading the way for families and are slowly changing the way we all experience death and celebrate life.
What’s one thing you wish every family planning a funeral knew?
There is no rush, a very wise elder in the Australian death space, Zenith Virago describes this so beautifully; don’t grab the phone, grab a cuppa. Sit with the person, take in what has happened, talk to them, say goodbye, or just be in their presence. If you are in a hospital setting the staff will naturally guide you around this. But if you are at home, you naturally feel the need to call in what has happened. Once that call is made the system starts and a series of processes follow one after the other. It becomes procedural. Call family members first so they have time to come and be there too. There is no rush. Sit with your person for as long as you need to. It is immeasurably beneficial in one’s acceptance of the death that has occurred and the grief that will come later.
Zena, have you thought about your own funeral?
Sure have, I have a document on my laptop that has some quite specific instructions about providers (Tomorrow is in there), organ donation, body disposal. (I have said go with whatever is most environmentally sound at the time) & celebration of life venue ideas (each with sentimental meaning & connections). It also has some reflections from me to be read.
I have a few songs chosen, one with instructions that everyone must stand up and they can try not to dance (but it’s quite joy filled so good luck to them) I figure I can get away with being a bit annoying posthumously, right?!
And I want my friend, Sean Whelan who is a poet to be commissioned to write a piece – one final act to support the arts. (Can you DJ too @seanmwhelan!?)
And the clearest instruction at this time, is that it must be on a Thursday so that those that have a propensity to kick on, can attend the bar I used to work at to see drag shows & enjoy the environment that I loved so dearly! Over time the after party may fall off but it still feels very right for this time in my life.
I don’t have a formal will, but my partner and I have talked about my wishes around this as well.
I really value having these conversations. And think we should try to normalise them more. It is genuinely a great dinner party topic.
When my Grandma passed, I was the one who attended the hospital, the nurse asked me if I would like to take her wedding ring. I didn’t know – they told me most people do.
She had come from an aged care facility attached to the hospital, so shortly after it was found in her notes that she wanted to be buried with her wedding ring. I am so glad those procedures were in place; I would have hated to remove that ring on her.
Preparation is valuable. The only certainty in life is that we will die. It is kind of funny the way we try to ignore that simple truth.
. . .