Small Business Lessons: Be Ceremonial embraces tech to guide people through grief, loss and more

For our Small Business issue, we asked 14 B.C. businesses how they're surviving in this economy. Here's one of them

Be Ceremonial is a North Vancouver-based online platform for building rituals around transitionary life events such as pregnancies, miscarriages, crises and funerals.

Megan Sheldon became an end-of-life doula and celebrant around 10 years ago, when she and her husband were going through a period of profound grief and loss. “We had recurrent miscarriages, we lost his father to ALS, we had family members that were going through big health crises and friends losing parents and children,” she lists. “Nobody knew what to say, what to do.”

Without anything to guide her through this difficult time, she felt isolated in her “invisible grief.” So she leaned into her background as a cultural mythologist (a subject she specialized in at the University of Edinburgh) and started creating ceremonies first for herself, and then for others.

“One of the most popular ones is somebody taking a rock or a piece of paper and writing, on one side, an emotion that they’re sitting with and then thinking about another emotion they’re holding that feels kind of opposite,” says Sheldon. The “ritual” works like a guided meditation to come to terms with disparate emotions that we might be holding at the same time.

Fast-forward to COVID, when events started getting cancelled and there was a demand for new ways of connecting with others. “People started reaching out from all over the world. They couldn’t be with their loved ones when they died or they were grieving and they couldn’t make it back for a ceremony,” Sheldon recalls. “So together with my colleague, Christina Andreola of [Vancouver-based] New Narrative Events, we (as far as we know) did the very first Zoom celebrations of life and memorials in North America.”

In the second week of COVID, Sheldon’s software engineer husband, Johan Hoglund, lost his job. He’s an advocate for slow tech (“kind of like slow food and slow fashion,” she says), so the pair started talking about how technology could be used to enhance connections and relationships in moments of grief and loss.

Sheldon hesitated. Normally she would sit with people for hours, guiding them through some extreme emotions. But then she thought about how technology is undeniably permeating our lives: “They’re already using AI to write obituaries and eulogies,” she points out. So, in March 2020, Sheldon and Hoglund launched Be Ceremonial.

The app and platform together have 32 pre-existing ceremonies (like themes) for people to apply to transitionary moments in life (think “fertility and birth” or “health and wellness”). There are 300 rituals within these ceremonies, although Be Ceremonial also helps users draw from nature to create their own ceremonies and rituals for big moments like weddings, loss, terminal diagnoses, anniversaries, organ transplants and more. “It’s looking at ritual as a mental health tool,” Sheldon explains.

Be Ceremonial’s membership model offers access to the pre-existing ceremonies plus an online community called the Be Ceremonial Village for $12/month (or $72/year). Sheldon hosts workshops and courses in this community and creates different opportunities for people to connect with each other. “In 2021, I had about 500 students come through my Becoming Ceremonial course,” she says.

In June of this year, Sheldon worked with Lululemon to create a hybrid tribute ceremony to bring the apparel company’s global community together. “They had a senior executive die and there’s a lot of emotions being held around that death,” says Sheldon. The tribute spanned two days, exploring themes like grief and legacy as well as self-care and community care.

Now Sheldon is glad she found ways to “humanize” technology and implement it into her business. It allowed her to expand her client base beyond North Vancouver and Canada to about 4,000 global users as of July: “We’ve been able to host retreats, have conferences, people can hire us for additional services through the app if they want… It’s been a big focus for us to look at how we can diversify.”

To other small businesses, Sheldon recommends thinking outside the box. “Sometimes it’s painful and challenging to let go of a part of your business that you’ve grown, but it’s about noticing where you are now and where you want to go. And if things are kind of holding you back, how can you—with ritual and intention—let go of that so that you’re lighter moving forward?