Penelope Hamilton: Being a Humanist Celebrant Part 4

This piece first appeared in Humanitie Magazine, in the Autumn 2013 edition.

I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking of myself as a distinct and separate individual rather than being just like everyone else. It’s not even a thought – it’s an assumption – and for the most part an unconscious one.

Recently I was working in my camper van, parked in a scenic spot. Every few moments, a car drew up. Its occupants got out, looked, pointed, took photos, and drove off again. I felt rather superior, as I was there for hours rather than seconds and my sensibility was more highly developed than theirs obviously.

Obvious until I recalled that I’d behaved in exactly the same way in other scenic spots on numerous occasions. There must be thousands upon thousands of photos of every beautiful place, but we all want that special image: the beautiful place as seen by me. Just like the next lot of people climbing out of their car and pointing their lenses at the landscape. Yes, occasionally I have these insights, but most of the time I seem to prefer to live as though I’m exceptional as well as immortal. There’s a kind of logic to it, though: the world is centred on me because that’s how I experience it, first through my senses, then in my brain. And when I die my world dies too.

Musing upon this, as I am now, gives me an immense amount of pleasure. Even the longest human life is short in comparison to that of an oak tree. So, in the context of the several million years in which humankind has been evolving, the length of one life, my life, is hardly worth a mention. Some might find this thought depressing, but I don’t. To the contrary. I’m delighted and amused. More importantly, it makes me feel warm towards everyone, including myself, because we’re similarly self centred and deluded and similarly aware of this.

I hope.

Celebrants often encounter this in their work. Preparing a funeral I hear stories or descriptions that make the deceased sound exceptional naturally, because for the family and friends, this person was special and singular. On many occasions I see the deceased differently, though it would be unkind to say, “I’ve heard that story a few times now” or, “Your father sounds just like the gentleman we buried last week,” so I keep my thoughts to myself.

The other day a bridegroom said to me proudly: “You’ll never have seen a best man like mine before and he was brilliant, wasn’t he?’ It was true that his six-year-old son had done an excellent job, and I said so. But I didn’t add that for me it was the fourth time this year that a bridegroom’s young son had been his father’s best man.

Back in 2010 a particular extract from a children’s book was chosen by about a quarter of my wedding couples, but I haven’t heard it once since then. Of course I never commented even when, late in the year, it appeared as a bridesmaid’s so-called surprise reading. I suppose its temporary popularity came from a famous person’s ceremony choice, or from a film.

This happens with symbolic gestures, too: at a wedding a candle is lit in memory of a loved one, or the family dog does the job of ring-bearer (please, no not again!). It’s unsurprising, considering how quickly, and in what detail, social and other media show us what everyone else is up to and often people are completely unaware of whatever’s influenced their choices.

I tend to collude with the desire that every couple that has their wedding ceremony will be different to all the others. No matter how many conventions they’re following, or whether or not their choices are as original as they think they are. I believe the ceremony should feel unique to them and their family, and I’m confident that it will. For me too each ceremony will feel fresh and special on the day but it’s likely to feel familiar too, and usually, with the passing of time, it’s this that remains, while the details fade. This process is an aspect of the delightful paradox that, although we’re not identical, we’re fundamentally more alike than we usually admit.



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