Penelope Hamilton: Being a Humanist Celebrant Part 1

by HSS Registered Celebrant Penelope Hamilton, originally published in the 2012 Autumn edition of Humanitie magazine.

This year, I’m keeping my diary free from November to March, hoping to finish my book, and I’m excited about it for other reasons too. I love being a wedding celebrant, and I enjoy the last ceremony of the year just as much as I enjoy the first, but I sometimes have to draw on all my reserves of energy and enthusiasm.

When I’m flagging, all I have to do is remind myself that it’s not one wedding in a hundred: it’s this couple’s one special, unique big day. It’s always a relief, though, when the main wedding season ends, and there’s time to have a proper tidying session and refresh my practice.

When I say session I’m thinking of weeks not days. This is because I still can’t get into the habit of spending an hour or two updating everything on a Monday night, although I know I should.

It’s just as well then, that my quiet season coincides with the short winter days, which are especially short here in the far north. And now I’ve turned down paid work, it’s just as well I can afford pleasant procrastinations such as visiting my nearest and dearest in England.

During the cold, dark hours I’ll stay snug inside my link house, sorting my documents files and photos. That’s the plan. Before I say more, I need to explain that I’m not talking about my ceremony folders. I store these online and they’re always up-to-date, in case I have a laptop disaster or get run over by a bus.

It’s one of the wonders of the web that you, or anyone with whom you’ve shared your password, can access your folders from any computer. Now I wish I could apply this discipline to everything else I do!

But one of the disadvantages of modern technology is that you never run out of storage space. Were you picturing me sitting in a chaos of dusty papers? Files heaped on every surface, spilling out of drawers? Shoe boxes full of photos? Invoices and receipts scattered all over the floor?

Well, delete that picture.

My actual working area has a clear desk, and the shelves are tidy, paperwork and accounts in order, printed photos framed and on the wall. It’s my virtual office that’s chaotic.

It’s because I don’t do my housekeeping regularly, however much I mean to. You see, it’s so easy to shut the mess away and forget about it.


All I have to do is close the lid of my laptop, and it’s gone. Twenty years ago if I’d kept this much stuff, it would have taken over the whole house. And the shed. And any extension I built. I’m not the worst, either. Some people could fill an aircraft hangar.

If it weren’t for the search facility on my Mac. I’d spend even longer looking for things than I do now because, as well as keeping everything, I occasionally change my mind about how to label my documents and folders.

After several such changes. I can’t remember which bright idea is the most recent. This means I can’t find the folder I want, and I don’t dare put anything away until I’ve remembered the correct labelling system. That’s why I leave everything on the desktop!

Recently, after I’d spent an hour searching for a document I needed for a meeting, I decided enough was enough. As I drove to the meeting I daydreamed about the reorganisation I would do over the winter.

Without weddings, there are hours and hours in which to review the files and folders, delete obsolete or unwanted documents, and sensibly relabel anything I’m keeping in my inbox. There are about a thousand emails. I’m determined to reduce that number to none, but I’ve got to look at them all first.

Similarly, in iPhoto I’ve got two thousand, six hundred and sixty-six unlabelled wedding and personal photos, none of them in albums. Imagine the satisfaction I will feel when I’ve categorised every document, email and photo by subject and date, and put them into their allotted places.

Surely it won’t take as long as all that, once I’ve made a start!’ And then I’ll have the pleasure of reviewing my ceremony materials. When I first qualified, I gathered together all the training resources and sample scripts, and copied and pasted, mixed and matched, until I’d created ceremony templates I felt comfortable with. Then, with experience, and over time I gained in confidence and relaxed into my personal style.

Celebrants differ in their tastes and preferences. Some are more formal than others, some more hard-line in their humanism, some more strict about what they’ll agree to include in a ceremony.

We speak differently, too, and the phrasing that suits one person’s style makes another falter and stutter. So I’ve changed the wording I was given, and I’ve re- ordered the content of my ceremonies.

I’m glad we’re free to develop our own styles, yet can consult one another for ideas and support. For example, if I were officiating for the first time at a funeral for someone with dementia. I could seek advice and suggestions for readings. Similarly, if a couple wanted to include an unfamiliar symbolic gesture in their wedding, I could ask other celebrants for ideas.

After even meeting with a family or a couple, and after every ceremony I conduct, I find things I want to handle better another time. I mull them over as I’m going home, and sometimes I’m annoyed with myself for what I did or didn’t do or say, however well the ceremony seems to have gone. Usually, I tweak even my favourite pieces, because something that suits one couple, or one occasion, doesn’t feel right for another. I learn from the people I meet, too. I’m asked to make a change, and I prefer the new version to my own. Or I’m introduced to readings and traditional rites I can add to my collection.

Yes you’ve guessed correctly- all the things I’ve mentioned are currently sitting on my desktop. During the wintertime reviewing process – to which I’m looking forward so much – I’ll put them away. I’ll go through this year’s ceremonies, then I’ll alter my guideline scripts, email templates and reading collections, and make sure my documents arc correctly labelled and filed.

Hang on a minute, though. Have I forgotten my book? And then there’s Christmas to consider. I haven’t even started shopping, and there’s a lot to organise besides. It would be more sensible to begin the tidying and reviewing process after Christmas. But what about all the promises I made myself about the things I’d get done over winter? There are six boxes of family papers to read and sort, and a lot of wool to either knit into something or give away.

There’s redecorating to do, books to read, films to catch up on, people to see… Perhaps my documents aren’t in such a dreadful mess, after all. I’ve probably exaggerated, and worried unnecessarily. I haven’t actually lost anything vital, and I haven’t made any serious mistakes. I’ve never failed to turn up at the right time, on the right day.

If my first wedding’s at the beginning of April, surely I can delay the sorting-out till early spring?

Yes, for now I think I’ll just close the lid…


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