One career option that you are unlikely to have been offered, in the short consultation in the library in your third year of secondary school, is that of Independent Family Celebrant. When I tell people this is now my livelihood (or something loosely approximating one), It is often misheard as ‘celibate’, so the most prevalent response is one of slightly awkward, embarrassed shock…In fact, even when people hear it correctly, the response is often very much the same. ‘Are you a priestess? A minister? A witch?’, they will ask. The answer to the first two questions is definitely no. The third throws up a whole new set of questions, but it definitely isn’t obligatory to be a witch to be a successful celebrant. Essentially I celebrate births, partnerships and the lives of the deceased. The question that naturally follows is, ‘How did you get into that?’.
Four years ago, I had the pleasure of introducing two of my dearest friends to each other for the first time. To cut the long tale short, they fell in love. A year later they decided to get married and asked me to do the honours. I said yes without thinking too much about it, then felt a terrific weight of responsibility as I started to wonder what in the name of mother earth that actually meant. So I did what a lot of us do in the face of uncertainty and booked myself onto a course. The course was run by a marvellously twinkly-eyed, sparkly and intelligent woman, in the ephemeral realm of wonder that is Hebden Bridge. In less than a week I had learned how to creatively craft a tailor-made and personal wedding ceremony. One without mention of god, where the focus is on the people involved, and the metaphor and symbolism are to be discovered in whatever holds meaning for those people and their families.
Having absolutely loved the course, I took what I had learned and applied it at my friends’ wedding. Since then I have conducted many weddings, handfastings, renewals of vows, end of life celebrations and baby namings all over the country. Since subsequently taking the course in Funeral Celebrancy, I have found that work in many ways even more rewarding and fascinating.
It is an enormous privilege to be allowed into people’s lives at their most important and pivotal moments – the times when we welcome a child into the world, celebrate the joining of two (or more) lives in love, or pay our respects at life’s endings. My work brings me close to people through the whole of the life cycle – and has enabled me to observe the human condition across all social strata, at some of their most personal, raw and intimate moments.
A name giving or ‘baby-naming’, will often happen once the child is two or three years old. The parents have usually given a great deal of thought to what they want from this. They may well be looking for something that resembles a christening but is not related to Christianity. They want the weight of a religious ceremony but without the institution of the church or the attached dogma. I encourage parents to plant trees as part of the ceremony. and to allow guests to write wishes and promises to tie to the tree. They might be called guide-parents, god-fairies or not-parents instead of godparents, but their selection still fulfils the function of designating role models or guardians, who the parents hope to rely on in their future parenting. The whole community of family and friends are invited to offer their support to the child at a name-giving ceremony.
The majority of my wedding clients will go to a registry office a week or a day before the ceremony (sometimes in their jeans) and sign the legal documents with just a couple of witnesses. They then ask me in to conduct the ceremony they really want, wherever they want, with absolute freedom from religious institutions or the state. I have conducted wedding ceremonies on top of a tree stump in a wooded glade in Plockton in the Scottish Highlands, and in the bottom of the Gentlemen’s Pool (first class) at Victoria Baths. It has taken me from Manchester to Nottingham and Hastings. In the next two years, I have bookings in Greece and Portugal. There is rarely a dull moment. The work offers variety in a way I could only have dreamed of, in my previous fifteen years as an office-bound software project manager.
I encourage my couples to write their own vows and to very carefully consider the promises they decide to make to each other. These days we live three times longer than we did when the institution of marriage was first recognised by the state. A promise which might hold you bound for fifty years is definitely something that requires some serious thought. What suits one couple will not suit the next. Some couples deliver eloquent, poetic odes to their love with no apparent preparation, Others prefer to repeat bullet points after me. I have heard humorous vows, earnest vows, cool vows and funky vows and each has suited them perfectly. When we are allowed to look to ourselves to create our own meanings in life, it is astonishing to discover how intuitive and creative we can be.
As part of the planning process for a wedding ceremony, I take my couples through a questionnaire, in which I ask them to think about what inspires them about each other, how they make each other laugh and what they have learned from each other over time, among other things. Very often my couples say they enjoy this process almost as much as the wedding itself, as it forces them to take time out to examine their relationship. They can look carefully at what works and what doesn’t and decide what they would like to keep, as they enter their new life together.
This process of reevaluation and renewal, is perhaps one of the reasons why the ancient tradition of handfasting is now growing in popularity once again. In times past, when a couple were handfasted they would initially remain together for one year and a day. A trial relationship, if you like. If they didn’t get on, they could part after that time with no regrets or recriminations. However, if the relationship was successful, they would stay together but renew their vows on a yearly basis. (Which seems an eminently sensible and cautious approach to a match which could now see a couple remain together until their late 70’s or 80’s, or even longer.) Some people now will choose a handfasting as an alternative to a legal wedding. Others will incorporate the handfasting cord into a ceremony, which also includes the more traditional exchange of rings.
Part of my role involves untangling family and generational discrepancies in religious beliefs. A couple will often tell me that they are not themselves religious, but that their parents would be shocked by a handfasting. A grieving family are more than likely to tell me that their mother was a deeply religious woman but that none of them wish to have a church funeral, or even fleeting mention of an unseen or omnipotent being. Sometimes the issues are cross-cultural and there is a need to bring in the traditions of one culture to blend with the traditions of another. Whilst this is important for a wedding, it is critical for a funeral and often requires exceedingly gentle and diplomatic handling.
Amongst my funeral clients, the most commonly cited reason for choosing an Independent Celebrant rather than a minister or a priest, is that they have experienced a funeral in the past that seemed to have no relation to, or regard for the individual who passed away. A sermon can seem irrelevant if there is little or no detail about who the person was, what they did with their time on earth and who they loved. Humans are complicated and messy creatures. As we begin the process of untangling a life, we find that there are many strands. Harry was not the same person to Lucy, that Bryony felt she knew. Our lives entwine with people in many different ways, from a work relationship to a short-lived love affair, to a life’s lasting commitment.
As a celebrant, it is my job to ensure that everyone who was close to the deceased recognises the person that they knew. When the feedback from everyone is ‘You described X perfectly. Did you know them?’, then I know that I have done a decent job. A good funeral is about holding space for the bereaved, allowing them to express any and all of the emotions they might be feeling, which might include; relief, guilt, anger or frustration, as well as the more ‘acceptable’ emotions of love and loss. Much of this happens in the listening, as I will speak to as many people as possible to get a rounded idea of who the person was. No funeral can instantly mend a mourner’s heart, but a good one will allow the process of healing to begin, in a way that a bad funeral will only hinder.
It is interesting that there has been a distinct rise in green funerals and celebrant-led funerals over recent years. At a time when the environment is under such tremendous threat from all angles, many people now seem to be looking to the woods, forest, mountains and rivers to replace the lofty, dusty churches of our youth. Increasingly it is now the natural world that is asked to bear witness to the most important moments of our lives. We appear to be drawn by the spiritual appeal of shamanic symbolism, animism and our earthy, pagan, season-bound roots.
Most of us are extremely separated from death until the moment someone close to us is lost, but it is vital that we come to terms with death, in order to appreciate life. Some struggle to admit that they are occasionally tormented by a nightmare that lurks just beneath the surface of consciousness – the absolute reality that one day their life as they know it will come to an end. This thought is pushed hard to the back of the mind, too frightening to look at face-on. Thus many of us expend a great deal of effort and energy, avoiding and avoiding one of the only two certainties in life.
To my mind this is a great shame, as the more we can sit close to the idea that our lives are short and precious, the more opportunities we can create to make the most of our alive time, whatever that might mean for each of us. A life is like a flower. It emerges, blossoms and dies and so do we. A flower is not afraid, it unfurls its petals as best it can and lays down its roots in whatever soil it finds that it inhabits. Some will grow tall and live long, others will bloom briefly and quickly pass. So it is with us. We honour those that we have loved, not just by reflecting on the person and the life they lived, but also in accepting their death as a reminder to us all, to hold those we love close to us, and to celebrate life however we can, in all its short and fragile beauty.
In reclaiming our celebrations of life’s milestones from the state, and repossessing their meanings from religious institutions, we are creating a powerful act. We are recognising that there is nothing more important than the human connections we make with each other – the huge impacts and the tiny ways in which we touch each other’s lives and hearts. In dangerous times when the walls of hatred threaten to surround and engulf us, to celebrate love is an act of revolution: Let’s celebrate love.