On Becoming a Humanist Celebrant

A few months ago, I was approved as a Humanist Celebrant through The Humanist Society.  This allows me to legally marry people in most states. I can perform a quick ceremony, sign the marriage certificate, file it with the County Clerk and boom!  You’re married!  Certainly the ability to officiate at weddings is important.  As a Humanist Celebrant, I can offer ceremonies that do not include bible readings, references to god anointing the union, or other religious or spiritual references.

As more people step away from the church, the need for secular ceremonies increases.  While civil services are available, humanist celebrant led wedding ceremonies can allow people to have any type of wedding, from intimate to large, at almost any venue.  These ceremonies can be very meaningful. Since the format is not predetermined, the couple, working with the celebrant, can design a ceremony that expresses their personalities and relationship.

However, it was not weddings that drew me to want to be a celebrant.  Celebrants can offer all kinds of ceremonies celebrating and honoring important milestones.  These ceremonies mark stages of life and are important to the creation and cohesion of community.

I was raised Roman Catholic.  Catholics know their ceremonies – baptism, first communion, confirmation, weddings, funerals.  These ceremonies serve multiple purposes.  Of course, they help bond the person to the church.  But more importantly they establish the person as a member of a community.  Baptism welcomes a person into the church and establishes their links to the community.  Godparents are chosen and bound to the child, charged with guiding the child through life.  Communion and confirmation further bring the child into the church.  Boys wear their first suits.  Girls dress like little brides, wedding themselves to the church.  Should these children grow to get married, they are further pulled into the fold with a ceremony that informs them of their role in building a family that should be devoted to the church.  Finally, the funeral confirms the faith in the church beliefs and provides a common ritual that provides comfort to the bereaved through its very repetition.

As Humanists, we lose much of this.  We lack the socially recognized stepping stones to adulthood and the defined methods through which we pull people together, affirming our place in the community.  Yet people need community and a sense of belonging.  As a Celebrant, we help create that inclusion through ceremony.

My first official ceremony was a baby naming.  I took my clues from Catholic rituals.  However, instead of asking the godparents to guard the child’s eternal soul and keep them safe from the devil, I asked the community to guide the child through life, to help make their passage smooth, to look out for them and protect them, to cherish them.  And they agreed.  So by the time I announced the name, we as a community had come together to support the child and their parents.  We all shared in the joy of their coming into this world.

Subsequently I have officiated a wedding.  I will also be performing a naming ceremony for a transgender woman.  She has requested the ceremony to mark what she sees as the end of her physical transformation.  I am excited for the opportunity to share this important milestone with her and to help her further establish her identity within her community.

As people, we need to find ways to mark passages in life and to join together to rejoice in good times and provide support in bad times.  In the modern atheist and humanist communities, those with more emphasis on social justice and community, there is a greater sense of the need to pull together.

In my interview with The Humanist Society, I was asked why I want to be a Humanist Celebrant.  We discussed my goal to help build community and, as a member of the LGBTQQIA community, to hope to offer services that better incorporate the needs of this community.  But my ultimate decision to proceed was brought about through a friend’s painful experience.

Last year, a good friend’s son passed away.  He was 16.  He was an artist and writer, a talented and warm-hearted person with much to give to the world.  His death was unexpected and traumatic.  His mother held a memorial event for him at her home.  She specifically requested that people honor their atheism by not bringing religious items.  She wanted the event to be as comfortable as possible for her and her 9-year-old son.  She held the memorial to provide space for her son’s friends to discuss their grief, to bring the community together and to help them understand they would heal together.

Unfortunately, there was an adult from her son’s school who chose to make the event about her perceived religious persecution.  She sent a large floral cross to the house on the day of the memorial. She wanted to talk about god needing another angel and how Xavier’s death was part of god’s plan.  She was aggressive about the floral arrangement having been placed in the garage.  She felt her needs as a Christian were more important than the rights or the needs of the family.  What was meant to be an event about healing and community turned into an antagonistic, unduly painful event.  A woman who had just lost her child was being punished for her atheism at his funeral.  Her other son was told he was going to hell.

So why did I become a humanist celebrant?  Because sometimes it helps to have someone to speak for you and to have someone to intervene and guide people in times of great stress, whether joyful or painful.  Even when people do not respect atheism, they often do respect people they see as being authorities.  A celebrant can act as a barrier for the grief-stricken, guiding a memorial in the way those closest to the deceased sees fit.  As a celebrant, I can help the family, whether born or chosen, by creating a safer, supportive environment.

I recently performed a funeral.  I worked with the deceased and his wife prior to his death to design a service that represented his life, acknowledged her loss and allowed her to find comfort among her friends, family and community.    Together we navigated two families, his Mormon and her Catholic.  We celebrated his life and said goodbye without god or woo or professing that we will all meet again.  Instead we shared memories and celebrated the time we had together.  Throughout, we confirmed that we, as a community, are strong and will continue on.

I became a Humanist Celebrant to bring people together, to create community, to provide support for secular people and to help them celebrate their great life milestones.

I can be reached at dshrout@myastound.net.