By Russell Brown for Canvas magazine

Hilary Ord does not count her funerals.

People are not numbers, she says. Even the office of Births, Deaths and Marriages can't say how many services she has conducted in nearly 20 years as an independent celebrant.

But today she learned new things. She's less than an hour back from conducting the funeral of a young woman - in the relatively unconventional setting of a West Auckland vineyard - and the experience is still with her.

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"It was an absolute fitting tribute to the person who had passed away," she says. "And very different to what I have done before, in the way we rolled it out. Which is what people are doing more and more now. They're thinking more about what that person would have wanted.

"There was music and singing and laughing and eating and drinking beforehand. It was really honest, authentic and generous in what the family was offering everyone who'd attended. They were absolutely open to everyone there."

Ord, 53, is best known to her city as the co-founder of Karangahape Rd's iconic Verona Cafe, and to the hospitality trade since as a calm, competent operator.

It was during her 12 years running Verona that she began a new part of her life and became a wedding and funeral celebrant.

Ord was unusually, almost uniquely, young for a celebrant at the time, but she filled an important role for her peer group - the maturing generation of kids who'd grown up on punk rock.

Some had lost friends in their 20s and endured alienating religious funerals at which they were barely acknowledged. Others were getting to grips with getting married. In that first year, 1999, she conducted a wedding for one group of friends - and a funeral for another.

"I was scared," she recalls. "Was I able and experienced enough to lead such a significant moment in a family's life?

"I think I called upon my whole life history to deal with that in a professional way - which is to maintain an emotional distance at that point in a service when I'm looking out at a congregation and all the people I love are in terrible states of grief. And I still find it hard - even in a room full of people I don't know, it can be incredibly overwhelming and you do have to summon every fibre of your personal being."

The matches have continued, hundreds of them, sometimes in unusual settings. Every year, she marries people at Auckland's Splore Festival. She even married Chris Warner and Rachel McKenna on Shortland Street. But it's the dispatches that represent a deeper element in her life.

Ord, the funeral outsider two decades ago, has become a symbol of the changing face of celebrancy.

"She's very, very good," says Deb Cairns, co-owner of funeral directors State of Grace. "We tend to prioritise Hilary if we have a difficult funeral - a young death or a suicide. She speaks in a way that people can hear it without being too pained by it. A lot of people don't talk about suicide, but she will.

"She's good at holding the space, she's good at communicating with people from all walks of life.

"She can read a crowd well - her hospitality background, I think, has been quite useful. I think she's used to working under pressure and dealing with the unexpected and having to work in crisis mode. I think a lot of hospitality work is like that - you don't know who you're going to get in your restaurant and what they're going to say and you really don't know that at a funeral either."

State of Grace "bent our own rules" to take on Ord, says Cairns, even though she hadn't formally trained as a celebrant.

But early on, Ord did something most celebrants don't: worked part time for a year as a funeral director's assistant.

"I'd never seen a naked dead person before, and I'm about to wash them, anoint them," Ord recalls. "I didn't know what to prepare for and yet I felt this incredible attachment to the role. I was doing what women since time immemorial have done for their loved ones.
"Men taking over this role has only been a recent tradition. I think women coming back to the role is really on the move.

"I chose to do it because I wanted to see what happens post-mortem. I wanted to have that experience so that when I talk to a family about what is happening to that body, I know exactly what is happening to that body, over days. I wasn't repelled by it, I found it a very tender and gentle exercise. I felt really comfortable."

Since then, she has guided the services for babies, suicides, a murder victim, along with those who have lived long and fruitful lives.

She writes each service individually, in a process that begins with meeting the family, finding out what they need and taking "copious notes" about the deceased.

"If I find someone that's got a passion for clay pigeon shooting, that's fascinating - I will go find out about clay pigeon shooting. Even if it doesn't appear in the service, it gives me a greater understanding of that person. I get a lot of pleasure from that - it deepens the relationship with the deceased, who I really think about a lot, for that three or four day where they are constantly a presence in my life. I think about them all the time. Sometimes I like to think they talk to me. It's really important that people hear that. I'm the spokesperson for the family and I'm also the spokesperson for the person who's passed away. I join that service together and give it a significant beginning, a middle and an end. And I need to know who I'm talking about. That is absolutely critical."

Ord has always been a secular celebrant, but readily acknowledges a spiritual element to the role.

"And it's at odds with my pragmatism and my rationality and my humanistic philosophy. But, definitely. There is something overwhelming about the human spirit at that time. The human spirit is incredible. You can't measure it by science, but it exists and that's probably what I believe in more than anything. How people endure, how they transform themselves and rise up at times of incredible grief.

"I've seen children speak at their parent's funeral, parents speak of their children. I'm constantly blown away by that. The human spirit, the dignity I see come through time after time."

I've seen Ord conduct a service once, four years ago, as the calm, steady presence in the room at the shattering funeral of 26-year-old Daisy Ram, the daughter of a mutual friend and the vibrant centre of her own circle of friends.

What she did then was a long way from the forbidding funerals of yore. It was, says Cairns, emblematic of her style.

"She got all those young people round to her house for sushi and just talked to them all and said what do you want to say and how are we going to do it, and let them run with it."

"She just guided them," agrees Daisy's mother, Katherine Frame. "She put on some food and they all had that time to talk about Daisy. She took that time to learn more about Daisy."

With Ord's encouragement, Daisy's friends decorated the hall for a service that was "so amazing and respectful of Daisy and reflected who we are too," says Frame. "She came with us to the crematorium afterwards, just a small group of us, and she broke down at that point. She allowed herself to break down and cried with us. I think that was important too."

As she always does, Ord talked that day about the nature of grief. It was something she had to directly confront herself the following year, when her beloved father died suddenly and unexpectedly, surrounded by his family. Days later, she was his celebrant.
"It might have been a year after my father died that someone said to me, 'oh you look so young!' and I realised my veil of grief had lifted. I didn't realise I'd worn that veil, and it was heavy. It's a heavy load, grief.

"While we can talk about mental illness and depression, we still bury grief somewhere as something we can't discuss, something we must get over. After the funeral, the grief isn't gone. It can take months, years or a lifetime - the grief just becomes incorporated into your life.

"It's not a mental illness: it's a state of mind, the price you pay for love.

"And we struggle with people who grieve for much longer than we think is appropriate. They're not hurrying up and getting on with their lives. I wish there were many more discussions about grief in New Zealand. We don't know what to say, we don't know what the right words are, we avoid people who are grieving - because we feel awkward and uncomfortable."

And those words are?

"'How are you today?', because today is going to be different from tomorrow. That person's grief has to be acknowledged. 'I'm sorry for your loss' just doesn't cut it." We also, she believes, need to talk more when we're alive about what we want when we die.

"Ask your mum what songs, hymns, prayers she wants, what sort of sandwiches and tea she likes. The list of people to invite. I really impress this on people: while we're all living, write what you want. Store it on your computer in a file that says 'funeral'. I've told everyone what songs I want. I want lots of music."

Ord says that while families are becoming more creative in what happens after a funeral service, and where, the service still usually takes place at a dedicated facility - and that Auckland is blessed with those. "And those chapels do really well. I think Waikumete is a beautiful chapel. All Saints at Purewa as well - it's secular, the team is fabulous. Manukau Gardens - they're all council-owned, they do a great job."

Ord is one of 2000 independent celebrants in New Zealand, of a total of about 12,000 (most are attached to Births, Deaths and Marriages), who work for a standard fee of $450.

"Over the last 10 years the diversity of celebrants has increased," she says, "and I really want to credit the Department of Internal Affairs for broadening that reach and actually creating opportunities for people of different faiths and sexualities. And you all don't have to be a pillar of your community - you just have to be part of that community. Them acknowledging the diversity of our communities - in faith, language, culture - has really changed the face of celebrancy. More people I know are becoming celebrants, and where I felt I worked in isolation a lot of the time, I'm really looking forward to spending more time with other people who are doing the same thing and connecting with them and sharing ideas and information."

It's not a living - last night she was busy catering the wrap party for a video production - but not only for financial reasons. She performed three funerals in a week once "and it was too much, especially with the amount of work that I put into it. That was way too much for me emotionally."

She turns again to today's service, marvels at how special and good it was, then cracks just a little. "It's been tough today. I'm going to cry again. I don't often get that, but I've done lots of young people recently. How do you make that okay?"

She has plans for the evening. She'll go out - with her grown-up kids - and soak up the restorative powers of a crowded dance floor.

In the longer run, Ord thinks she's due for one of the courses available to professionals suffering "grief overload". It's not your average job.

"No, not when you find yourself crying in the night for someone you've never met, just feeling absolutely grief-stricken for her and her family. Maybe that's why I'm good at my job - I care."