Standing in front of audiences has been part of Angie Schulz’s life since childhood. A gifted soprano, she has sung for thousands over nearly 40 years of performing. But after decades of singing in musical theatre and for countless ceremonies and special occasions, the Moorhead woman has found an unexpected niche that few lay people ever explore.
She celebrates loved ones’ lives at their funerals.
Angie, a lifelong Moorhead resident, has found her passion as a celebrant – an individual who helps families create truly unique funeral services for the parent, grandparent, child or friend who has passed away. As a member of the team at Wright Funeral Home and Cremation Service, she provides an alternative for families who – for whatever reason – are seeking highly individualized ceremonies to honor, mourn and celebrate the one who has died.
“I love working with families and listening to their stories,” the gracious, outgoing mother of three adult children confides. “This crept up on me slowly. Now, for me, it is a calling.”
It began, she says, with her love of funerals. “Of course they are sad. They are a family’s tragedy,” she explains. “But they’re a time when you truly learn about people’s lives. One layer has been stripped away, and people reveal who they really are.”
Angie had performed as a soloist at dozens, perhaps hundreds, of funerals. As her interest grew in serving people at this sensitive and vulnerable moment, she began thinking of a switch from the musical career she’d dreamed of to something more closely engaged with the times of their lives – perhaps as a pastor or funeral director.
“But I had three girls whom my husband and I would be putting through college, and going back to school wasn’t practical for me,” she points out.
Yet her sense of a calling continued. Eight years ago, after singing at a service, she talked with funeral director Steve Wright about getting a taste of his profession by helping around the funeral home in whatever manner they might need. “The next day, he called me and asked, ‘Can you come in tomorrow?”
And she did … “whatever needed doing,” Angie recalls, from hauling gear and placing floral displays to helping with lunch and talking with families. “That’s the part I really loved,” she adds, “the people part.”
So when Wright brought up a new opportunity four years ago, she jumped at the chance. The National Association of Funeral Directors was offering a class in becoming a celebrant, a role that’s still relatively new in the United States. Angie didn’t hesitate. “I felt very much called,” she says. After an intense educational session in Salt Lake City, she came back with a new appreciation of the tradition, ritual and importance of funeral ceremonies and insight into end-of-life issues.
Soon she conducted her first service. Funerals conducted by a celebrant, Angie explains, are usually rather different from the more familiar services conducted by ministers in churches. Most take place in the funeral home itself before audiences topping out at 100 to 125 mourners. While most celebrants are not ordained ministers, the ceremony can incorporate religious messages to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the desires of the family, their values and those of the deceased. Interest in these personalized ceremonies is growing; she says the number of her engagements has increased at least 30% in each of the past four years.
Each of the four or so ceremonies Angie conducts each month is completely personalized for the family and the individual – their beliefs, values and desires. “We do our best to honor their loved ones,” she explains. She listens closely as the survivors talk about the one who is gone and what was most meaningful about their life. While much of those stories is steeped in loss, she says a perhaps surprising amount (to those who haven’t been there) is humorous. “As long as we’re honoring that person,” she points out, “it’s all good. The best funerals, I think, have as much laughter as crying.”
Angie knows some of those whose funerals she creates firsthand. A lifelong resident, she graduated from Moorhead High School in 1990 after spending her teens in every MHS musical, Trollwood summer plays, Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre productions and performances of the F-M Civic Opera Company, where she debuted at 13 in “Martha.”
She intended to spend her first year of college at Concordia and then move on. Instead, she “really loved my voice teacher, Lucy Thrasher,” she remembers. “S I figured, ‘If I make the choir in my sophomore year, I’ll stay.’” She did, and graduated with a degree in vocal music performance in 1994. She also earned a bachelor of science in education at Minnesota State University Moorhead.
Angie met her husband Brian when both were singing in the chorus of the opera “Desert Song.” That led to a fork in the road. Would she go on to become a professional singer, as she’d dreamed, or would they have children and remain here, where he had a good job with Great Plains Software, now Microsoft? “I had always thought those two would be mutually exclusive – kids or being a singer.
“I’ve come to understand it doesn’t matter where you are making your art – just that you are making it,” she adds. “And I can’t imagine not having our family.”
The couple has three grown daughters. The youngest, Sophie, 18, has begun studying journalism after graduating from MHS last year; after interning at WDAY TV last summer, she is attending college in New York City and serving as one of 10 student representatives with the National Association of Professional Journalists.
Sarah, 23, is also moving to New York, where she has been hired as director of details for the Teddy Roosevelt Presidential Library. The CEO of the developing Medora, North Dakota, facility is based there and was looking for staff with ties to the area. Sarah graduated from Oklahoma City University with a focus, like her mother’s, on professional singing.
The eldest, Amie Woodley, 25, is in management with the Target Corporation and lives with her husband in Champlin, Minnesota.
Angie continues to sing for special occasions. She and friends Craig Ellingson, Cathryn Hanson and Daniel Damico were developing a performing group called Wheelhouse Theatricals in 2019, producing their first production of “Danny Girl” at Theatre B. Then came the pandemic. The future is unclear now, she says: “Producing shows is a lot-lot-lot of work, and costs a lot of money, and we all lead busy lives.” She and Ellingson performed together at the TAK Venue on Valentine’s Day and already plan to do it again in 2023.
Her deepest passion, though, is the very special service she offers families as a funeral celebrant. “There’s not one service I’ve done without feeling I learned something special,” she confides. “I don’t call them ‘sermons.’ They’re story-telling.
“This is absolutely a special part of my life. I get to celebrate the deceased person’s humanity and the love of their family. What job could possibly be better than that?”