So I am a civil celebrant. Well most of the time I’m civil, except when someone cuts me off in traffic, then there’s every possibility they’ll get a one finger salute. This is bad behavior - especially bad if you’re a celebrant as we are expected to toe the line in our sensible, beige court shoes.
For most people when they think celebrant they think of a woman in her late 50s with no-nonsense glasses and an outdated Laura Ashley dress who talks into a microphone in a self-important tone. Well, time to take an explosive device to that stereotype and blow it sky high because that’s so not me.
As a celebrant I conduct all sorts of ceremonies that mark life events ie. the birth of a baby, a wedding or a funeral – and because of this my mother in law calls me the queen of hatches, matches and dispatches.
The main focus of this role is to design, write and officiate ceremonies that reflect the beliefs and values of the couple or family involved. Not only do you have to be a proficient writer and public speaker, when it comes to marriages you must be really thorough because changing someone’s status from single to married has all sorts of legal ramifications.
A nice part of my job is when the babies come along. Nothing gives me more joy than when a couple I’ve married have a new addition. And, more often than not, they’ll ask me to conduct a baby naming ceremony and it’s wonderful to be a part of the next chapter in their relationship. Circle of life and all that jazz.
But it’s a bit of a strange job too this whole celebrant thing as you need such a varied set of skills - luckily I have a diverse CV. I started off in film production and worked behind the scenes organizing film shoots all over NSW. This was a highly stressful job, but it taught me about working under pressure, being flexible and getting things done super-fast. Then I got in touch with my inner-scribe and moved into script writing for television – another tough role that required a completely different set of skills. Here I learnt from others how to construct a story and attempted to write scenes and synopses fast – there was always a deadline looming.
Then, I launched myself into the complete unknown and became a stand up comedian, which taught me something I never imagined it would. Resilience. If a gig went well, I felt that I had communed with the audience in a meaningful way and I would be on a high. But if a gig bombed I had to take it squarely on the chin, and it was a punishing lesson in humility and humiliation. There is nothing worse than standing in front of a crowd of people who are not laughing, and the only noise is the sound of your heart pounding while your punch lines drop to the stage with a thud. But the thing is, you have to keep going, you have to push through, no matter how tough the crowd.
Because of comedy I have the confidence to speak in front of any group, which is particularly helpful when it comes to funerals where people sob uncontrollably.
I’m still not quite sure how I ended up conducting funerals, but the seed was firmly planted at my own brother’s funeral in the year 2000. I was working on a US documentary covering the Sydney Olympics, when, completely out of the blue, my brother Ray passed away. He was 43.
I was upset, but the person I felt for most for was my mum. Children aren’t meant to go before their parents - it was absolutely horrendous. Mum used to wake up every morning thinking that everything was right with the world, then she’d remember that she’d just lost her son. It was a crushing blow and it happened on a daily basis - it almost took her out.
When we had the funeral it did give us some peace – even though it was a bit of a blur. I was so upset I only heard snippets of the ceremony, and in all honesty the minister could have recited the phone book, and I wouldn’t have known. But what I was aware of was how calm and caring this man was. He was a beacon amidst all the chaos and fog of grief - and that went a long way with me.
Looking back I can’t believe just how much of an impact that minister had on me. I have come to understand that it’s not just about the content of the ceremony, it’s about being a calm and reassuring presence for the family, and it’s my deepest hope that I can be a guiding light too.
Still, my mum can’t understand why I conduct funerals for a living - she thinks it’s weird and depressing and that I should go back to tv work.
The other day I met a Swedish man whose wife of 59 years had passed away. Just before I sat down with him to discuss the ceremony he had found a note from her. She had written it in a notebook where he had been jotting down funeral arrangements – and when he turned the page there it was. As he showed me the note, tears formed in his eyes. I asked him to translate. The note said – Dear Oscar*, I love you forever – to the moon and back again, love always. Alice*.
I didn’t know how to respond, so I held out my hand, unsure if he’d take it. He grabbed it with both hands as the tears came in a steady stream. There we sat at his wooden table that he’d crafted himself. Heads down. Silent. 9.20am on a Wednesday morning. One imperfect celebrant who gets terrible road rage, and an elderly Swedish man who loved country music, Harley Davidsons, and, most of all, his wife.
So yeah Mum. I guess this is part of the reason why I don’t work on 'Home and Away' anymore.
May Alice rest in peace.
*names changed for privacy