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Weddings, Funerals, Rituals, Ceremony: Life Sacraments, Sacred Moments

Monday, July 02nd, 2018

This weekend, I had the privilege of helping out another Marriage Celebrant at a wedding.

Helping out others is part of how I attempt to pay it forward, and it’s also part of my commitment to acts of service: these concepts might be best covered in a completely separate blog post, because in this one, I am going to share a bit about being a celebrant.

If there are any questions that this post doesn’t answer, or if you are curious about any of the topics I post about – please, post the question below!

I think humans are creatures of ritual, and by creating specific rites and celebrating through ceremony, or alternatively, expressing our grief through ritual, we are answering some of our deepest needs, both personally and culturally. Even in a largely secular community, we still have rituals around New Year’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas, and things like Grand Final / Melbourne Cup (Australians), or Thanksgiving (Americans). There are doubtless many more, depending upon where you are in the world, so many, in fact, that I couldn’t possibly name them all.

If you want to take a side trip down the marvelous rabbit hole that is the internet – check out this link:

I am both a Funeral Celebrant and a Marriage Celebrant – I have also done naming days, commitment ceremonies, engagement ceremonies, handfastings, and even house blessings!

I have been a Marriage Celebrant since 2009. In hindsight, I think a conversation with my mother some nine years earlier had been percolating as an inspiration; she had talked about becoming a  Marriage Celebrant, seeing it as an act of service to her community, but also seeing it as a privilege to offer to people who could not get married in a church. She died from cancer some nine months after our conversation, but the idea remained.

I am a Marriage Celebrant – I made the decision not to register as a Pagan Celebrant because I actually think that it’s a bit of a contradiction as to why I personally became a Marriage Celebrant. I was motivated to offer tailored services to individual people for all kinds of ritual / rites / sacred moments. I don’t feel like ‘Pagan’ really addresses the specifics of practice, I see it more as an umbrella term – rather like Christian or Monotheist is an umbrella term, and the specifics of practice and devotion have to be drilled down to from there.

I don’t feel that I would be as efficient as a Wiccan HP in a specifically Wiccan tradition, for example – nor could not do a Heathen wedding justice in the same way that their Blot leader / facilitator would. By being a Marriage Celebrant who is publicly pagan, I feel that I can offer pagan elements that aren’t necessarily tradition specific should people desire them – and I am happy to work with the religious leader of their group or tradition, even performing the ceremony in question in collaboration.

I actually get asked a lot why I am a Marriage Celebrant as opposed to being registered as a Religious (Pagan) Celebrant. On the various official forms, it mostly states religious or civil rights. No specifics about which religion. Politically, I feel quite strongly about the absolute importance of the separation of church and state: so being a Marriage Celebrant is part of my political commitment to that separation for me personally. I would like to say this is by no means any criticism to those for whom being recognized as a religious celebrant is important, nor is it a criticism for those for whom being married by a religious celebrant is important – this is simply *my* view, and what has informed my decisions in this journey.

In Australia, to become a Marriage Celebrant, in order to legally perform marriages, one has to go through an accredited training course and then apply via the Government to be granted a license. As a registered Marriage Celebrant in Australia, you are regarded as a Governmental representative, given that you are officiating over a ceremony that has significant legal ramifications. This responsibility is not something to be taken lightly. As a Marriage Celebrant, there is a legal and moral obligation to ensure that the marriage is a legal union under Australian law, and that it is registered appropriately.

For more information: click HERE to go to the Australian Government Attorney-General’s information about becoming a Marriage Celebrant.

Ironically, as a funeral celebrant, it is not mandatory to have any formal qualifications. I have been to some awful funerals, where the celebrant obviously had no grasp on the personality of the Beloved Dead, and in some cases, didn’t just mispronounce names, which is forgivable, but actually got names and relationships wrong entirely (sometimes too, you are only as good as the information that family members provide – this has been embarrassingly the case in one funeral I did!). I have also seen marriage celebrants make unfortunate errors, and I myself am guilty of the same. Suffice to say – wear an outfit prior to a service, and maybe take some photos to ensure that items aren’t see-though, or too revealing (hem, hem, blush).

It is an extraordinary role to play – in either capacity.

As a Marriage Celebrant, you share more of the journey. In Australia, a Notice of Intention to Marry has to be completed at least one month prior to the wedding date, and the paperwork must be lodged within fourteen days of the ceremony itself. Many couples will book a Marriage Celebrant twelve months in advance to ensure they get the celebrant they want. In comparison to funerals, it is a long association. Generally, a Marriage Celebrant will meet with the prospective marriage partners at least once prior to the wedding, if not twice – depending upon rehearsal requirements. Largely, communication tends to be via phone and email.

Generally, my process is to speak fairly extensively with the person who first makes contact. The primary questions of course concern dates, times, venues, marriage party numbers, guest numbers, style of service, and some basic history as to how the couple met, and their backgrounds. I then send my information/introduction pack – which includes things to consider, and an order of service outline and a few variations on ceremonies, which I generally tailor after the initial discussion. For example, the package to a multiple parties’ commitment ceremony would be very different to a standard marriage ceremony – in Australia, marriage is defined as the union of two people, exclusively entered into willingly with the intention that it is for life. It was only in 2017 that same sex marriage even became legal. That particular milestone was a huge excitement for me personally, as the inability to legally marry same sex couples has always been something I felt very strongly about.

I generally encourage couples to have a private component to a public ceremony – reminding them that in the process of a life together, as a couple, there is a public face, of varying degrees of intimacy, with colleagues, family and friends, and then always, there is that private element to their relationship – and that is, in part, recognized in the mandatory phrasing of the celebrant – where it is stated that this union is to the exclusion of all others.

An example of this is a candle ceremony that one couple decided upon. We had the individual candles, which the marriage partners used their individual candles to light the union or relationship candle. These candles were then intended for display in a central area in the home. I encouraged them to write or scratch into the candles messages or words or symbols that were meaningful to them, and to keep that aspect secret, and cover them with ribbons. In this way, there is the private core of the relationship, preserved even in a very public ritual and acknowledgement of the relationship. To me, this is the core of a successful, long term relationship. The candle ritual captures the essence of my view – in a relationship, there are three entities – the two individuals, and the relationship itself – and the understanding that there are elements of that relationship that are exclusive and private, even in public, or amongst one’s inner circle of friends and family. In these days of public disclosure of relationships via media, to the point of exploitation or commodification even, I think the acknowledgement of the private aspect of a relationship, within a public forum, is an important sub-ritual, should the bride and groom choose to explore that.

The rituals one can incorporate are myriad – a simple search online reveals a mind-boggling array. At wedding prior to the legalization of same sex marriage, the groom had done some research on Wikipedia regarding marriage history – the history of same sex marriage raised some eyebrows in the guests, which I personally found very gratifying! I would like to think that perhaps it challenged people to think a little differently about ritual and accepted conventions. At the same wedding, the marriage partners also requested that I perform an acknowledgement of the traditional custodians of the land; that was a very rewarding request that I was delighted to meet. I have heard of one celebrant who was requested to officiate at a nudist beach for a couple who were sky clad aficionados – I was told this particular celebrant obliged, but stipulated no photography. I have a sneaking suspicion that the script may well have been judiciously positioned.

If you, dear reader, have any stories you would like to share about services that have really stuck in your mind, please feel free to share in the comments below!

A wedding is a marvelous ritual – there are a few faces that lighten the heart to witness – the face of a new parent looking at their child for the first time, and the face of the groom when their marriage partner appears. I will never tire of the mixture of wonder, love and joy witnessed on these occasions. It restores faith in humanity, love, and hope – and that is an experience that is pretty special, even as an observer.

At the other end of the spectrum – from beginnings to endings – funerals are an incredible honour to officiate at. Again, as with weddings, you get an intimate snapshot of the family dynamics, but in the case of a funeral, you also get a synopsis of a person’s life, their loves, their passions and their triumphs. I genuinely believe that a funeral should be a celebration of a life well lived – and my opinion has been validated by the quiet but loving grandfather whose coffin descended to the rousing notes of his favourite traditional German drinking song, to name but one ceremony that has stuck in my mind. There are, of course, the tragedies, the pain, the grief and the loss – the children of the Beloved Dead, in some cases the parents of the Beloved Dead. A parent does not expect to bury a child, and some of the most heart-rendering noises I have ever heard from a human have issued from a parent as the coffin of their child descends. It is a noise that once heard, you will never forget. It reminds you to treasure what you have, and to celebrate mindfully every day, to cultivate an attitude of gratitude, because truly, this current moment is all that we have.

I think personally that the Western preoccupation with youth and beauty has made illness, disease, deformation and death a taboo. This ignores the human need for ritual, and for time when dealing with these transitions. One is expected to attend a funeral one day and be back at work on Monday – and this simply may not be appropriate for many people. This is part of the reason why, I believe we have so many grief and trauma issues – we do not allow people to mourn, we place the grieving under immense pressure to maintain a stiff upper lip – or we treat them for depression, despite every psychological protocol to the contrary.

Paradoxically, we have the exact opposite conundrum when it comes to the wedding ritual. One of the things I recommend is an engagement period of more than twelve months. My rationale behind this is as follows – a ‘normal wedding’ (if there is such a thing) – takes an awful lot of planning and co-ordination. I have seen, on more than one occasion now, (although thankfully not any of my couples), a marriage ending within two years of the marriage ceremony – because the couple were too caught up in normal life and wedding plans to attend to the identity changes that a marriage signifies. The transition is not honoured, and that takes its toll – with parties that take the name of their partner or had children quickly (or both) suddenly feeling an erosion of identity. Sometimes, one party will subconsciously expect the other to suddenly mirror a parent, because that is what they thought a spouse was, or what happened automatically within a marriage, or the misplaced expectation that marriage will magically erase any relationship issues. Becoming married, going through that Sacred Ritual, changes things, often on levels that we may not ever see coming.

I advise my couples to carefully consider what marriage means to them, what images the terms summons, and to carefully consider what the terms husband /wife / spouse etc. actually mean as well. I ask them to consider what titles they are going to use, what names they are going to use – and why. I ask them to think about the modelling they have observed in their primary family groups and what that means in terms of their ongoing relationship and the transition of that relationship into marriage. I also ask them to consider the further transitions likely – such as the shift in attitude of others in the short term once they are married, and in the long term – the arrival of children. I strongly recommend counselling services – pre-marital counselling, (said recommendation is actually a legislative obligation as an Australian Marriage Celebrant) – and introduce the idea that one doesn’t wait until problems occur to seek guidance.

I have also performed blessings, namings and healings – really, all the activities covered by a traditional Abrahamic minister – particularly when combined with the informal counselling, teaching and workshops I have done, and hope to do more of. I really view celebrancy as a privileged role, one that I am proud to fulfill and consider very rewarding. Equally, it is not for everyone – and not every celebrant is happy to work across both roles – some celebrants will only officiate at weddings and some will only work in the funeral industry. I love the richness that officiating across all services gives me. Working as a Funeral and Marriage Celebrant has certainly provided me with a depth and breadth of experience that carries over into all that I do, as indeed my other experiences – working for emergency services, working in live theatre, counselling, and my Sacred Strand Practice – also feed into my celebrant role and skill set in a manner that I believe makes me a better celebrant.

I have had positive feedback from a number of people – from those that I have married, to those whose Beloved Dead I have celebrated – and the feedback that makes me feel that I have truly done the service to the best of my ability is when they tell me that others have assumed that I know the couple personally, or that I knew the Beloved Dead personally. That is a great honour – and that kind of feedback makes me feel that I have been successful in my ritual role – which, like any other ritual role, involves attempting to contact and manifest the Divine. That, ultimately, is how I view my role – as the ritual leader, who focuses and directs the energy of the group, into the working of magic and into an experience of the Divine both within and without. In the case of a marriage – the ritual is a celebration of the individuals and their relationship, and their commitment and intention, in the case of a naming; it is a ritual of blessing and welcome. Funerals are a celebration of a life and a community, as well as a farewell. These liminal moments define life and cycles, in much the same way that the solstices and equinoxes do, and celebrating them is an acknowledgement of miracles, and an act of magic. Being a celebrant, then, for me, is part of my spiritual practice, and a wonder and a joy every time I have a ceremony. It is an extraordinary role to play, and one I am honoured and delighted to perform.

If you have any stories you want to share about ceremonies or life rituals that you would like to share – feel free to post in the comments below!

And if you want to know more about marriage in Australia:

Births, Deaths and Marriages Victoria

Australian Government Attorney General’s Department: Getting Married

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