A Courageous Life: a funeral celebrant’s thoughts

How often do we use the word ‘courage’ to denote someone who acts bravely in the face of adversity? It’s certainly how most people understand the word and its tone of battle-like determination. Yet, when I reflect on what it means to live a courageous life, it is based on the original meaning. Courage comes from the Latin, Cor, meaning ‘from the heart’.


A courageous life is one whereby you tell your heart story without a flutter of doubt about your north star. It is a life based on inner values and the ability to speak your truth. The languages of trust, listening within, intuition and authenticity are ones few people would associate with courage, and yet, they are essential companions walking ‘hand and heart’ with the life of those who listen to their inner drummer.

 

 

The treadmill of life, which we are all hoisted onto at birth and ripped off at our expiration date – no matter how great and glorious the world has decided we are – has most people just trying to get by. At times, it feels like we have to run just to keep up, or else we’ll fall off. If you ended up being born into Western society, you’ll have been enculturated with beliefs about your worth stemmed firmly in external validation (it begins at birth with our measurements and weight!; and continues with grades, certificates and awards, for example), and status symbols of car, career, house, wealth, and so on. A Yang-based cultural soup encourages egocentricity. Now, it’s not that we shouldn’t aim or reach for such things if they’re meaningful to us. The question, however, must be asked: Does this desire mean something to me or am I trying to prove something to someone else? Parents, siblings, peers, friends, and so on? Honest reflection isn’t encouraged by those around us because, if it were and we were true to ourselves, we’d probably all make radically different choices. However, to our great detriment, almost everyone lives their life based on what other people will think.

 

 

If we truly made decisions based on what felt right to us, and on what made our heart move through this world with joy – and therefore lived our days without fear of censure, or the desperate need of applause – how might our life look? Would it even be recognisable? What if, we were simply true to our inner calling?

 

My work as a Heart-led Funeral Celebrant is based on listening intently to the stories I hear of other people’s lives, and then it is up to me to craft meaningful ceremonies and create stories from the snippets of information I’ve gleaned. Being immersed in a family’s grief has a profound impact on me. Deeply empathic, it’s as if I draw their pain right into my heart. The one thing that always stands out for me, though, is the simple truth: we can’t take ANYTHING with us when we’re booted off the treadmill. Except love. Read that again, if you need to. Love. Where does love emerge from? The heart.

A humanist, of course, doesn’t believe that love continues after death. I do, though.

 

 

So, if we really understood that everything is temporary, and that all the stress, madness, ambition, control and power are, frankly, pointless, would we live differently? How about greed, consumption, jealousy? Who are we without our titles, roles, and material possessions?

 

I met a gorgeous young lady recently, aged about 16, who was not only a truly lovely person, but she had a wonderful singing voice too. Afterwards, in conversation I said to Seanna about how blessed she was to have such a gift. I confessed that I mourned the lack of any such gift or talent. She replied “You do. You’re really good at reading people.” Her words stopped me in my tracks. She was right. I’d never really considered it before as a ‘gift’, only as a given. With radar-like vision, I see people because I look beyond the labels, badges, jobs, empires, wealth and all the other human-made plasters. I look into their heart, and perhaps even deeper than that.

 

 

Who are you?

How would you identify yourself if all these externals were taken away from you? I ask these questions not to be morbid or cruel or condescending, or even disrespectful of your life path and choices, but to encourage a deeper awareness of what creates a courageous life.

Who will miss you when you’re gone?

 

Why will they miss you?

 

It certainly won’t be because of your fancy clothes, expensive car or eye-watering mortgage, boob job or bikini wax. I doubt it’ll be because of your job title or manicured lawn or your business logo.

 

A life invested in mindful awareness of the sacred all around, and the offering of compassion, kindness and love, is one that not only contributes to our well-being, but it also leaves the world a better place.

 

Legacy isn’t about our constructions and empires and pursuits, it’s the feeling we leave in others when we’re gone. And this can only come from the heart.

Bespoke or bespoke? Celebrant or Registrar?

 

With the rise of celebrant-led wedding ceremonies in England, and registrars now offering ‘bespoke’ ceremonies, it’s important for couples to understand the difference between when a celebrant creates a bespoke ceremony and when a registrar offers a bespoke ceremony. Let me say at the outset, they are nothing alike, though you may think for the £850 or so that a registrar may charge you’ll be getting something special.

 

 

Penelope and Freddie’s Askham Hall Wedding Ceremony. Photography by Hannah Hall.

 

 

As a celebrant, I spend an average of 20 hours per wedding couple. This includes getting to know them (face to face or by Skype, depending on if they’re in the country or not), truly understanding their beliefs about life and love and marriage, learning their love story as well as their hopes and dreams for married life, writing their ceremony script, meeting them at the venue before the wedding day, the day of the ceremony, spending hours rehearsing their ceremony so that it flows freely and is ‘off the page’ during the officiating, and travel time. The 20 to 30 minute ceremony I officiate on the day, rests on the foundation of a lot of unseen work.

 

Fiona and Paul’s Dutch-themed wedding ceremony at the beautiful Askham Hall, near Penrith, Cumbria.

 

Bespoke, to me, means that not only do I get to know the couple and build a meaningful relationship with them, but I write a script that is just for them. I am hugely invested in their wedding day, and this shows by the amount of time I spend per couple. In my work, the heart of their ceremony features their love story. Any rituals created are meaningful to them and their beliefs; they’re not simply space fillers or ‘off the shelf’. And just as importantly, I match my energy to theirs.

 

The gorgeous moment when the bride walks down the aisle.

 

A registrar doesn’t write a bespoke ceremony for the couple. End of. They use a templated script which was written by a colleague in the office (someone who won’t even meet the couple), and although it allows for the addition of a handfasting, possibly a quaich or sand-blending ceremony (even though registrars aren’t given professional training about handfastings or other rituals), the ritual scripts are templates. The couple must provide their own cord, cup or sand. To be clear, a registrar is not a specialist in rituals.

 

The bride’s Scottish grandmother offered her silver quaich (Scottish loving cup) for their ceremony at Askham Hall. Photo: Veronika Robinson

 

With a government ‘bespoke’ template, the couple may write their own vows, and choose readings and music. However, these MUST be approved by the registrar (how bespoke is that?) and must not contain any religious or spiritual elements. Interesting, really, that a handfasting would even be allowed (ditto humanists offering it) given that it has ancient pagan roots and is deeply spiritual. Inconsistencies abound.

 

Today is the one-year anniversary of when I officiated Rene and Chantal’s ceremony in Outback Australia.

 

 

As an independent celebrant, bespoke to me means the ceremony I create is unique to the couple. If one of them is Catholic and the other Jewish, or maybe one is Pagan and one is atheist, then the ceremony will reflect their beliefs (not mine or that of a government employee). When two people come together, as one, their ceremony needs to accurately reflect this.

 

Rene and Chantal’s handfasting. Photo by Ben Broady.

 

A celebrant-led bespoke ceremony is not restricted by government guidelines. A registrar’s ‘bespoke’ ceremony is simply another template with space to pop in some vows written by the couple. There’s no crafting, beauty, care or true personalisation allowed. And there most certainly isn’t recognition or reflection that each human being has beliefs that are unique to them.

 

Michael and Victoria’s bohemian wedding

 

To be 100% clear, the registrar taking your ‘bespoke’ ceremony will not have written you a unique script. The words they say aren’t even ones they’ve written themselves. They are, essentially, ‘rent a gob’, to put it crudely. When a skilled celebrant crafts a script, it is done with awareness of pace, pitch and pause; not to mention beauty, flair and creativity. Their script will also accurately reflect their natural vocabulary and the words will flow easily.

 

Loz and Kate

My lovely couple, Loz and Katie, tied the knot by a waterfall in rural Yorkshire.

 

The registrar will not have spent hours and hours getting to know you. And they certainly won’t be available to wait around if there’s a delay to your ceremony start e.g. rain or bride held up or some other reason why things haven’t gone to plan. As a matter of course, I don’t book more than one wedding per day. My couples know, with complete certainty, that if there’s any hiccup that might cause a delay, that I am theirs for the day. A registrar, in most cases, has another ceremony to go to and won’t wait for long.

The use of the word ‘bespoke’ by the registration service is, at best, misleading, and at worst, demeaning. It shows a complete misunderstanding of what bespoke means, and short changes a couple of what could be a truly personalised ceremony.

 

Mike and Sara

Michael and Sara live in Australia. They chose Cumbria for their wedding ceremony. Such a special day!

Celebrant Education Day in Cumbria

You are warmly invited to a celebrant education day for celebrants in the north of England and Southern Scotland.

 

 

 

Regardless of where we are in our celebrant career, ongoing development is essential for best practice. This education day, led by Veronika Robinson (President of the Association of Independent Celebrants), is suitable for celebrants at all levels and stages of their working life, including those just beginning. This day is based on practical and interactive workshops.

When: Sunday, 13th October, 2019

Time: 9.30 for a 10am start. Finishes at 5pm

Where: Wreay Village Hall, Chapel Hill, Wreay, CA4 0RG

(easy access from junction 42 of the M6 a few miles south of Carlisle, Cumbria)

(Free on-site parking and disabled access). Local accommodation, if required, is Premier Inn at junction 42 or the village campsite or local Air BnBs.

Fee: The education day fee is £20. This includes all the workshops, morning/afternoon tea, (hot/cold drinks all day) and a hot lunch. *The fee is non-refundable unless the event is cancelled by the organiser.

 

Space is available on a first-come first-served basis. To book your place, please email for a booking form veronikarobinson (at) hotmail (dot) com

 

 

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The Bookends of Marriage

 

All marriages end. Whether by death, divorce or old-fashioned neglect, the rose-hued dreams we had for Happily Ever After become eroded in the passage of time. To love is to risk. Who here hasn’t gambled on love? And if we knew that someday it all would end, would we have taken even a single step in the direction of our dreams?

 

We’re just walking through life, minding our own business (although, increasingly, people are actively searching for love online), when slap bang onto our path walks someone who turns our head. Kapow! Gotcha! Whatever direction it was we thought we were walking in, suddenly changes. Our worlds collide, and in time we’re setting up home or having babies or travelling the world together. One thing’s for sure: when ‘the one’ comes along, most of us will tilt our world sideways to ensure longevity. Compromise after compromise after compromise. Afterall, why wouldn’t we want that wonderful feeling of love to last forever? (well, whatever ‘forever’ actually means in mortal terms)

 

The wedding industry is huge. As a wedding celebrant, my focus is purely on the ceremony and what I can bring to help a couple set the scene for their vows, promises and pledges. I bring my whole heart to this role, and in that wholeheartedness my deepest wish is that their intentions come to fruition.

 

 

But what of those at the other end of marriage? Where is the ‘industry’ (apart from greedy lawyers and divorce courts) or support systems to cushion those who find themselves walking out the other end of marriage – alone – their dreams crushed into the dust? Where are all the well wishers then? Why isn’t there a support team to help you move along with the next chapter/s of your life? Because it’s not pretty, that’s why!

 

When someone is widowed, sure, there’s the funeral, but what of the support for the person who is now living without the daily companionship of their beloved? The bottom line is that there is no one to fill that void. The loss of that vitality and life force that their loved one brought into their lives is akin to an earthquake. The landscape is forever changed. There are support groups for widows and widowers, but it seems to me that, as a culture, we simply don’t have the cushioning needed for this bookend.

And then there are people like myself who, for whatever reason, come to the end of what may well have been a long and happy marriage, and then find themselves separating. Not only does a marital separation of the couple ‘least likely to split’ terrify your friends and have them running in the opposite direction in case it somehow illuminates the fault lines in their own marriage, it also leads to people assuming the one who did the leaving is ‘ok’. The one who is ‘left behind’ is to be pitied and rallied around. It’s not surprising, really, given the litigious culture we live in. We’re virtually raised on the blame game from the get go.

I can hand on heart say, from my own experience, that grieving for a person who is still alive is even more painful that grieving for someone who is dead.

 

 

As a woman, wife, mother and celebrant, I have done enormous soul searching over the past 20 or so months since that first moment I became aware of the inner turmoil looming within me. It’s torn my heart in half over and over. If my husband had been a bad person, or had done something wrong, maybe this path I’ve walked might have been easier. I don’t know. All I know is that I’d irrevocably changed following my dearest friend’s suicide on Christmas Day 2016.

To those who ‘gossip’ that I’m okay and looking good, here’s the truth: I’m not! I just have an ability to know what my needs are and how to tend to my wounds in silence. Solitude is my healer. It always has been.

 

As a celebrant, I’ve offered divorce ceremonies right from the outset. People used to laugh and think I did it for ‘repeat’ business. That one day my wedding clients would come to me to be undone. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I am a hopeless romantic (the unpublished romance novels on my laptop are proof enough of that), and do still dream of happily ever after, if not for me, then for every other person walking this earth with that longing. I’m also realistic and know that humans are deeply complex. My own evolution is also teaching me constantly, and as a result my work has to evolve alongside my personal life. In the past, I’ve always felt strongly that a divorce ceremony should involve both parties. I now see that a Parting of the Ways ritual shouldn’t be denied to someone because their ex-spouse isn’t willing to take part or has blanked them.

 

Forgiveness doesn’t require the other person’s permission. To forgive is to free ourselves.

I am so grateful for the 23 years of stability, kindness, love, laughter and care (and the awesome daughters we raised together) that I enjoyed in my relationship. At no level of my being do I see our parting as a failure, though that doesn’t stop the pain of separation. Honouring the change of nature in our relationship is something, that to my mind, doesn’t require a piece of paper from the government.

Into the depths of the woods I shall enter, and true to my nature as a solitary practitioner of healing, I will allow the wisdom and wonder of Mother Nature to be the altar upon which I heal this bone-deep loss. I trust in her to allow my ‘ceremony for one’ to bring both of us a soothing balm that will echo through time and space and love. And maybe, just maybe, my intentions for peace, love, harmony and forgiveness will heal others, too.

“When words are inadequate, have a ritual.”

 

What is a death café?

 

The words death and café conjure such different images, don’t they? The idea of placing them alongside each other evokes confusion or curiosity, but rarely is the response neutral.

 

Grief, pain, torment, shock, loss, heartbreak, endings, finality.

Cappuccino, cake, tea, scones, taste sensation, pleasure, companionship, joviality.

 

How on earth do you link them together? And perhaps, more importantly, WHY would you put them as companions in written or spoken word?

 

When I tell people I facilitate a Death Café, the response is invariably one of horror or of intrigue. Generally, those who find it distasteful don’t want to engage in any further discussion. Those of a curious nature learn a heck of a lot in a short space of time.

There are approximately 8, 472 Death Cafés around the world in 65 countries. Some are offered regularly, and others occasionally. What they all have in common is a desire to raise awareness and help remove taboos around death and dying through friendly discussion. There is no set agenda.

My passion for setting up a monthly Death Café in Penrith was initially prompted because I wanted to bring choice and change to my local community. Few people consider death until it slaps them in the face (and if you’ve experienced grief, you know full well that ‘slap’ is an understatement). When suddenly faced with having to arrange a funeral, the chief mourner has anywhere between 80 and 300 decisions to make. That’s a hell of a lot of computing for the neo-cortex to deal with at a time when the body needs to be expressing raw grief.

 

Having seen behind the scenes of the funeral industry, as a funeral celebrant, I wanted people to start having conversations about death. In short, I was determined to disrupt the cultural script (in my neck of the woods, anyway) that death is a dirty word.

 

January 11th 2017 is a date that will stay in my mind for many reasons. Once I had decided to set up a Death Café, I chose my first date: January 11th. I would host meetings on the second Wednesday of each month for as long as there was interest. As per usual in my life, the Universe likes to amplify things a bit. I had no idea in the world (how could I have?), that on Christmas Day just previous, my best friend of eighteen years would hang herself. My whole being turned inside out as I grappled with the trauma and shock. As Fate would have it, her funeral date was January 11th just an hour or so after my first Death Café. I was to be the celebrant. Needless to say I was staring death in the face without any full-force protection that day!

 

Through conversations around cake and coffee, tea and scones, and amidst the gorgeous setting of Greenwheat Florist and Fika, a beautiful café and flower shop on Brunswick Road, Penrith (and thanks to the kindness and generosity of owners Laura and Lee for creating space for us there) we have started writing a new story. It’s one of choice, change, consciousness, creativity and care. Some of our guests have been there since that first session back in January 2017. Their thoughts on death, dying and indeed, living, have had quite a metamorphosis in that time.

 

No subject around death or dying is taboo. We’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve explored, we’ve asked questions, we’ve shared books. Opinions are sometimes diametrically opposed, and that’s okay too. After all, it is a discussion group. We’ve covered topics ranging from eco-burials, ashes into jewellery, life after death, the ethics of the funeral-director industry, coffins and shrouds, cultural death practices around the world, pet deaths, grief, mourning, caring for a body at home, the politics of death, burial v. cremation, how to choose a funeral director, what makes a meaningful life.

 

Who comes to a Death Café? Anyone at all. We’ve had mourners, celebrants and a funeral director, hospice care workers, those who are simply curious, and friends who’ve been dragged along and rather enjoyed it. I can’t speak for other Death Cafés around the world, but I know that I look forward to our friendly little group in Penrith. Sometimes it’s been incredibly busy, with sixteen or so people gathered in a little café, and other times it’s just two or three of us. For my part, I’m there regardless ready and willing to have a conversation about death, dying, love, living, and more. Most importantly, to show others that death is not a dirty word.

 

About Me:

Hello, my name is Veronika Robinson, an independent funeral celebrant in rural Cumbria.

Determining the nature and feel of a ceremony isn’t as simple as: religious or not religious. Most people have their own hybrid philosophy of life, death, love and living, and as your celebrant I seamlessly weave your beliefs into a ceremony that is enriching, healing and affirming of the relationship you shared with your beloved. I am able to do this because I listen clearly and carefully. At all times, my job is to craft a ceremony which belongs to you.

I’ve been an independent celebrant since 1995, and have officiated all manner of ceremonies internationally. My intention is to create, write and officiate deeply meaningful, personalised and beautiful ceremonies for every person I am honoured to serve.

Being a funeral celebrant, for me, is a vocation which is founded upon high-level care, compassion, empathy, responsibility and awareness.

Ceremonies, when crafted with skill and love, have the ability to be deeply healing.

Just You and I: the magical intimacy of eloping

Is ‘running off in secret’ something couples do to avoid dealing with complicated relations, permission, expensive commercialised wedding days and high-level stress or is the shrouding of the event in secrecy a form of magical intimacy? Culturally we’ve been somewhat conditioned to believe it’s rather anti-social behaviour, and often done in haste, but I would suggest reframing elopement. Perhaps honouring the delicious esoteric nature of lovers’ promises is a healthier way of viewing this less-traditional crossing the threshold?

 

Geoff, the handsome groom

 

When my dear friend Tanya confided that she and her beloved, Geoff, were eloping, I did a happy dance. YES! Actually, I was ecstatically happy! I’ve known Tanya a long time, and had the honour of officiating her son’s naming ceremony in Australia 20 years ago.

Carefully chosen items for the wedding altar

 

 

Why was I so delighted? You’d possibly think, as a wedding celebrant (and, obviously, as a friend), that I’d want to see the gathering of guests and all that a wedding ceremony traditionally entails. Without her giving me any explanation as to their decision, I fully understood why they were taking this path.

 

 

There are many reasons for choosing to elope, and while it’s more common for people entering their second or later marriage, even first timers can enjoy the intimacy which comes from ‘just the two of us’.

Tanya on the verandah of the beachside cottage they stayed in for their elopement

The benefits of eloping:

 

  1. The focus is entirely on yourselves. No expensive venue. No exorbitantly priced disco lights. No wedding invitations. No caterers. No £500 wedding shoes. No having to mediate between parents and in-laws’ ideas about what you should do or have.
  2. No extortionate wedding expenses. If you fancy going away, you can spend money on travel instead and have an amazing adventure.
  3. There’s no worry about who to place at what table for the reception, or the hell of divorced parents having to meet up.
  4. You don’t have to be concerned about who to invite.
  5. You don’t have to worry about stage fright and nerves.
  6. It is incredibly intimate and ever so romantic, and the whole day is about you (not anyone or anything else).

Traditionally a wedding is done before friends and family as witnesses, and the sharing of your joy is what helps to make it such a special occasion. In this day and age where weddings have become so commercialised, often costing couples anywhere between £10 000 and £50 000 (in Cumbria, at a registered venue), imagine what a couple could do with that money? Apart from a lovely destination elopement or honeymoon, it could provide a solid basis for creating a home. Or it could feed a few orphans. Or rescue animals. At the heart of any wonderful wedding is the ceremony. No amount of money in the world will make it extra special. The secret ingredient of a beautiful wedding ceremony is the undiluted love the couple share with each other. It’s not dependent on anything but looking into each other’s eyes as they declare their commitment.

 

They said I DO!

 

Elopement might just become the new norm as more couples recognise how many benefits there are to saying “I do” without an audience.

 

Your wedding day sets the tone ~ a template, if you like ~ for your married life. Whatever choices you make, it’s important that they feel right to you and aren’t based on keeping everyone else happy.

 

Tanya and Geoff on their wedding day. They eloped to Tasmania.

 

Thank you for sharing your beautiful photos with the world, Tanya and Geoff. Wishing you all the best for an amazing life together. You deserve it!

 

About Me:

Veronika Robinson is a wedding celebrant who has been officiating wedding ceremonies since 1995. She loves the intimacy that comes with ‘just the couple’.

 

If you’d love to have an obligation-free chat about eloping in Cumbria or are planning a destination wedding here with guests, contact her: www.veronikarobinson.com/celebrant

 

The Final Curtain

Is the closing of curtains a vital ritual in the cremation service or an out-of-date tradition? A fundamental aspect of being a funeral celebrant is the ability to listen the needs and wishes of the chief mourner. One of the questions that we must ask, for those planning a cremation service, is “Do you want the curtains closed or left open?”

Increasingly, mourners are asking for the curtains to remain open. The thought of them closing is simply ‘too much’. It is an understandable fear, and regardless of the Chief Mourner’s decision, I respect the choice they make.

 

From the perspective of being specialist in ritual and ceremony, I’d like to share a few reasons why the drawing of curtains shouldn’t be so quickly dismissed.

 

Although our currency of communication is based on words and language, there are times when these are inadequate to reach into the core of where we need deepest healing. On such occasions, we call upon ritual to inform our ways.

 

The drawing of curtains on our beloved’s earthly life is enacted with immense reverence. It isn’t just a gimmick or one more bit of funereal theatre. It has a profound purpose, and isn’t done to make grief even more unbearable. This symbolic act of closure may offer us healing. It allows us to be mindful, and to recognise that the bond we’ve had in physical life is now over. Our loved one, in the form we knew them, has gone. Our love, however, shall remain.

 

As a child, I was raised on 700 acres in rural Australia where my siblings and I were surrounded by dozens of horses, cats and an assortment of wildlife. One of the things that always struck me deeply was how when a horse or cat died, other horses/cats would come up and smell the body. They’d walk around it, touch it, and make the connection that nothing was happening in that body anymore.

 

I had no way of truly appreciating the value of this until my father was killed in a car accident a little over seven years ago. I hadn’t seen him for about thirteen years, and I’m grateful for the opportunity that I had to view him in an open casket. Doing so allowed me to do what came so instinctively to the animals I had watched as a child. I was able to hold his hands and give thanks for all the work he’d done during his life to provide my siblings and I with a lovely childhood.

 

My hands then touched his cheeks. I smiled as I ran my fingers in and over the chicken-pox scars in his cheeks. As meaningful as his funeral ceremony was (apart from the useless celebrant getting his name wrong throughout), in many ways I gained far more from being able to body-and-mind register that he was dead. My ability to grieve was augmented in a healthy way. Not everyone has the option or chooses to see their loved one in death. Perhaps other sit with them during the dying process, and have no desire to see them again in that state afterwards. There is no right or wrong in how we walk ourselves through this part of grief, and from my perspective, certainly no judgement.

 

However, from a ceremony perspective, I have often found that a burial (particularly the woodland burials I officiate), can bring more closure to mourners because they are directly connected to the elements: they’re standing on the earth.

 

They feel the sunshine on their skin (or in the case of the vast majority of burials I do, the rain, sleet, hail or snow, or howling winds). There is birdsong in the air. Perhaps bluebells dance at our feet. Maybe the scent of the woodland floor rises up to meet us in welcoming reverence. And then…and then we witness the shrouded body or coffin going down, down, down into the embrace of mother earth. We are connected to the act of saying goodbye. Yes, it bloody well hurts. It’s meant to! We are severing a physical tie with someone who lives in our heart. This is raw grief. This is what it means to let someone go.

 

 

In a crematorium, we are (by nature of the process) disconnected to the element to which we are committing the body. Yes, we talk about the primordial nature of fire. But here’s the crucial thing: at the time of committing the body, we don’t see, smell or hear the fire.

 

The heat of those flames isn’t there to remind us of the transformation taking place. Smoke doesn’t permeate the landscape around us. We’re not piling logs onto the fire as a ceremonial rite. Whether we like it or not, we are disconnected from the commitment process of how we offer the body.

 

 

The tradition of cremating a body in a pyre connects mourners to the transformative nature of the ritual. Sitting in a crematorium does not.

So the ritualistic nature of closing the curtains in a cremation service is one of the only ways in which we truly have of informing our psyche that the physical life is over, and gone from our view. It is a simple act, yet deeply powerful. So powerful, in fact, that many mourners are shying away from including it in the ceremony. There are many layers of our being involved in recognising the passing of a loved one, and some of those layers need physical acts, like rituals, to enable the full flow of grieving.

 

Leaving your loved one’s body on the catafalque and walking away from them may prove to be a lot harder than having them ‘vanish’ behind the curtain.

 

There is no right or wrong decision to be made. It is, as always, the choice of the Chief Mourner.

 

About Me:

Bidding a loved one farewell is a rite of passage that only happens once, so it has to be right.

 

Hello, my name is Veronika Robinson. It would be my honour to be graced with supporting you during your time of grief. The ceremony I create for you is based on your beliefs (and/or those of your loved one). This means I am not constrained by any belief system or motivated by my own.

 

I’ve officiated all manner of ceremonies, and am as comfortable leading mourners in The Lord’s Prayer as I am with a pagan ritual, angel blessing, or any other expression of deeply held beliefs. Whether you’re looking for a traditional service or something wildly unique, or anywhere in between, I have the skills and experience to meet your wishes.

 

Determining the nature and feel of a ceremony isn’t as simple as: religious or not religious. Most people have their own hybrid philosophy of life, death, love and living, and as your celebrant I seamlessly weave your beliefs into a ceremony that is enriching, healing and affirming of the relationship you shared with your beloved. I am able to do this because I listen clearly and carefully. At all times, my job is to craft a ceremony which belongs to you.

 

I’ve been an independent celebrant since 1995, and have officiated all manner of ceremonies internationally. My intention is to create, write and officiate deeply meaningful, personalised and beautiful ceremonies for every person I am honoured to serve.

 

Being a funeral celebrant, for me, is a vocation which is founded upon high-level care, compassion, empathy, responsibility and awareness.

 

Ceremonies, when crafted with skill and love, have the ability to be deeply healing.

“Thank you for everything you have done for us over the last few weeks. Your warmth and sensitivity made an awful situation just about bearable. I do hope we get to meet up again under better circumstances. You managed to write a beautiful eulogy that I will keep for my children.” Becky (Chief Mourner)

 

Sacred Cords: the ancient ritual of joining hands

 

Some of the oldest rituals transcend time because, when words can no longer express our deepest needs, we turn to the art of storytelling by imagery. This allows deeply significant symbolism to embed into our psyche. It’s akin to dropping an archetypal-rich anchor deep into an artesian basin to draw up ancestral wisdom and bring it to the light of consciousness.

 

Loz and Katie’s Handfasting Ceremony by the waterfall

 

 

The consecrated cord features as a beautiful, time-old ritual in many of the wedding ceremonies I’m blessed to officiate. It is known as a handfasting, and is a respected Pagan custom.

 

It doesn’t matter how many times I partake in offering this ritual, I am in awe of its sacredness. Each and every time I wrap those cords, mindfully, and with love, around a couple’s wrists, it is like the first time.

Marion and Dave’s wedding altar in a wildflower meadow

 

The ancient Celts bound hands together not as a wedding ritual, but to mark the start of an engagement. This union was for ‘a year and a day’. In many ways, it was a trial marriage to see if they could endure their connection (and hopefully thrive!). Upon straddling this dedicated stretch of days and nights, they could either decide to part ways or commit to a long-term relationship.

 

As an independent celebrant, I offer handfastings to either augment the ritual of giving rings or as a stand-alone commitment for as long as love shall last.

Officiating Tom and Andri’s Handfasting at Shap Wells

 

On a practical level, there are as many variations of how to make and tie a handfasting cord as there are couples. Traditionally, though, it is based on three cords: one symbolises the Universe (God/Goddess/All That Is), another symbolises the groom, and the other the bride. Or, as the case may be, one of the grooms or one of the brides. It is not gender specific, but based on each person in the couple.

My preference is to tie the cord around the couple’s wrists, and then ask them to make their vows. In my practice as a Heart-led Celebrant, I offer the Four Sacred Vows for them to enter into as part of their declaration of loving commitment.

In silence, I tie the cord in a figure of eight to symbolise eternity.
It can, however, be tied in a circle.

 

Mike and Petra’s handfasting ceremony at a stone circle in Yorkshire

 

As with so many aspects of ritual creation and ceremonial rites of passage, the symbolism of what we use and how we do it, is always taken into account. Therefore, the colour, type of cord, the length, and even how many individual cords are used, will come down to what is meaningful to the couple. For example, when I’m making the cord, I do it based on the original meaning of three cords.

One of my lovely couples employed seven cords in their handfasting ritual: one cord for each of the seven families who were attending. They were chosen by each family with love and care.

Another couple, farmers, chose old-fashioned baling twine for their cord.

One of my grooms had a naval background, so he chose a mariner’s knot. Regardless of what is used, it always needs to be meaningful to the couple. It is, after all, their love story.

Which hand or wrist is used is also something to be considered. Unless the couple has expressed a desire for something else, I traditionally use left wrist to left wrist, as the ancients believed the vein of love (Vena Amoris) ran from the ring finger to the heart.
No matter what colour, number of cords, beliefs of the couple, or way the knot is tied, the wrapping of hands together is a declaration of their oneness.

In its simplest form, a handfasting is a rather magical handshake. The knotting is beautiful, and its imagery is a feast for the eyes and a balm for the soul. It simply says: We are two coming together as one.

As a celebrant, setting the intention before any ceremony is a vital part of my work. The creating of a cord for a couple, as well as the ritual itself, is a mindful act of care and reverence for the couple’s love.

The cords I weave are made on the basis of a measurement of three, considered to be magical in this ancient ritual. It is crafted from natural materials, and the colours are usually based on what is meaningful to my couple or their wedding colours. If they haven’t specified a preference, I may suggest colours based on their symbolism.

 

Wendy and Ken’s Handfasting Ceremony was in their Lake District home.

 

The energetic intention behind the wrapping of a sacred cord is to bring protection, and is a co-creative ritual between the couple and myself. They are there as participants in a magical and metaphysical ritual of manifesting their desired union.
Oftentimes when I’m weaving the cord, I’ll sing or hum and invoke a Higher Energy to infuse an intention of love and joy between the couple. It is a form of blessing. A consecration.

It was an honour to officiate Katie and Ryan’s Handfasting Ceremony at the beautiful Askham Hall. Photography credit: Mike Capstick www.edenvalleyphotography.co.uk

 

 

 

I hold the deepest respect for this ancient ritual, and perform it with all the reverence it deserves. For me, it is not a time for making a joke or approaching it as some sort of parlour game. Silence during the wrapping is also paramount. These are sacred cords, based on an ancient tradition, and I respect and admire their place in modern ceremonies.

Mike and Sara’s Handfasting Ceremony at New Dungeon Ghyll

 

About me:

Hi, I’m Veronika Robinson, an independent celebrant (not a humanist, though I’m happy to do a humanist service) and celebrant trainer in rural Cumbria. The ceremony I create for you is based on your beliefs. This means I am not constrained by any belief system or motivated by my own.

 

I’ve officiated all manner of ceremonies, and am as comfortable leading your guests with a religious prayer, as I am with a pagan ritual, angel blessing, or any other expression of deeply held beliefs. Whether you’re looking for a traditional ceremony or something wildly unique, or anywhere in between, I have the skills and experience to meet your wishes.

Determining the nature and feel of a ceremony isn’t as simple as: religious or not religious. Most people have their own hybrid philosophy of life, death, love and living, and as your celebrant I seamlessly weave your beliefs into a ceremony that is enriching, healing and affirming. I am able to do this because I listen clearly and carefully. At all times, my job is to craft a ceremony which belongs to you.

I’ve been an independent celebrant since 1995, and have officiated all manner of ceremonies internationally. My intention is to create, write and officiate deeply meaningful, personalised and beautiful ceremonies for every person I am honoured to serve. I officiate weddings, handfastings, vow renewals, funerals, memorials, naming ceremonies (babies, children, adults who’ve changed their name by deed poll, or transgender), blessingways, parting of the ways (divorce healing), new home/business blessing, fertility invocation, and sagesse ceremonies.

Being a Heart-led celebrant, for me, is a vocation which is founded upon high-level care, compassion, empathy, responsibility and awareness. I am passionate about bringing mindful and holistic celebrancy to the mainstream, and do so through my business Heart-led Ceremonies Celebrant Training where I offer private training to students. www.veronikarobinson.com/celebrant-training

It is my honour to be the current president of the Association of Independent Celebrants. www.independentcelebrants.co.uk

Ceremonies, when crafted with skill and love, have the ability to be deeply healing. www.veronikarobinson.com/celebrant
Please feel free to contact me for an obligation-free chat to see if I’m the right celebrant for your desired ceremony. I work throughout Cumbria, Lancashire, Yorkshire, and Scottish Borders, and overseas. (* Ceremonies more than 30 miles from Carlisle are subject to a mileage fee of 45p a mile after the first 30 miles.)  www.veronikarobinson.com

The Hypocrisy of Humanists performing Handfastings

As a specialist in handfasting ceremonies, I find it hypocritical (at best) and moneymaking (at worst) for humanist celebrants to officiate wedding ceremonies which include the ritual of handfasting.

Why? Firstly, humanists denounce a belief in anything connected to deities. They are, in short, self-identified atheists or agnostics.

A handfasting is a beautiful and ancient sacred tradition whereby the Priestess would preside over the couple’s vows. At this time, the couple would enter into the four sacred vows on their elemental quest.

Their consecrated union was sanctified by the deities who were invoked at this time by the celebrant (Priestess). A handfasting ritual is traditionally conducted in a circle (to represent the eternal), and is rich in symbolism, such as the use of the figure eight during “tying the knot” to symbolise Infinity (since when do humanists believe in life after death?).

The circle of the handfasting rite is based on universal energies (humanists don’t believe in anything outside of the rational, scientific mind), and the magic circle in which it is performed is designated as a ‘Between the Worlds’ space to represent this world and that of the Gods and spirits.

The circle is essentially the ‘Centre of the Universe’ for the purpose of the ceremony, and is the storytelling of the cosmic theme of the love between the Goddess and God: their eternal romance renewed in human lovers. First and foremost, the three cords were made from natural materials and used in the binding of hands to represent (cord one) God/Goddess, (cord two) the bride and (cord three) the groom.

The use of knots and cords is the domain of the world of witches who use them in spellbinding and magic. This is a spiritual belief system rich in symbolism drawn from a deep and profound connection to worlds outside of this one. In Scotland, humanist celebrants can offer handfastings and jumping the broom rituals (another tradition with spiritual origins) in their legal ceremonies. This makes a mockery both of what humanism allegedly stands for, and more importantly: that a sacred tradition is treated as nothing more than some sort of parlour game.

JUMPING THE BROOM

The broom is a symbol of fertility. The handle, made from male wood, is a phallic symbol, while the brush is female. It is used to sweep the ceremonial circle. This is clearly an act of ritualistic purification.

Traditionally, women would ride these brooms around the fields leaping as high as they could! Clearly, the higher they could leap, the higher their crops would grow. The broom was made from different types of wood to do things such as expelling evil spirits (do humanists believe in evil spirits?), and to honour the Moon Goddess (again, where does this fit with humanism?).

At every level of these two rituals do we find an abundance of symbolism that is so far removed from humanism, that it can only beg the question: why are these allowed in Humanist Wedding Ceremonies? I’ve worked in this industry long enough to know that the average person on the street doesn’t know the difference between a humanist celebrant and an independent celebrant any more than the average wedding planner or funeral director has any idea. There is a WORLD of difference.

An independent celebrant caters to her clients’ beliefs whether they are religious, spiritual, agnostic, atheist, or other. A humanist celebrant is someone who doesn’t believe in anything outside of this life. They are NOT, by their own admission, celebrants who conduct ceremonies with religion or spirituality. It seems to me that their desire to make money is interfering with their supposed core values. This is evident in the number of humanist celebrants across the UK who are not only conducting weddings (legal or otherwise) with spiritual rituals, readings and songs, but it’s prevalent in the funeral industry too. I simply can’t understand how a humanist celebrant can agree to conduct a funeral which features the Lord’s Prayer or How Great Thou Art. Or am I missing something?

Guardians of the Threshold

In ancient times, a ceremony was such a significant expression of a rite of passage ~ a life-changing initiation into a new way of life ~ that oftentimes they lasted for days. Such ceremonies were acknowledged by the whole community, and all daily busyness ceased so everyone could witness and participate in the ceremonial rites. At these moments, the mundane matters of daily life no longer mattered. We knew. We simply knew that it was time for our consciousness to be attuned and fully aligned to the story we saw before us. For one person’s story was every person’s story.

These days, the average ceremony (in this culture) can last anywhere from five minutes to about 45 minutes. Generally, they last for twenty minutes or under. There is no timeline for rituals of the heart, but one of the things I’ve learned as a Heart-led Celebrant is that we live in a culture where many people find it hard to let go of daily life and to be fully present at a ceremony. Perhaps they’ve only witnessed church-based or registrar cookie-cutter services and therefore they go into them expecting to be bored (if they’re not invested in religion) or that they’ll hear the same scripts as at previous services. More often than not, wedding guests endure the ceremony so they can get to the bar. Ditto many naming ceremonies. Mourners just want the funeral ‘over with’ not understanding the difference that a beautiful, personalised ceremony can make: it is designed to be deeply healing and affirmative, and not something to be endured.

Where is our ability to simple ‘be’?

As a culture, we have lost touch with how to engage our primordial need for wholeheartedly entering into sacred space and honour rites of passage. We move so quickly, filling our diaries with appointments, and our spare time with TV or social media. Modern life distracts us from our essential self. Our bodies and brains are numbed through dead foods and sugar-laden beverages. Many people are just trying to get through an existence devoid of meaning. How often do people stay in jobs they don’t like in order to keep a mortgage paid up, even though each day they die a little more from spiritual hunger? The same can be said for relationships and other situations. We stay, knowing that a life of compromise is certain death of self.

Attention spans are now notoriously short, so gathering into the stillness for twenty minutes to respectfully honour and celebrate a life, the union of two lovers, or welcoming a child into community is something that we’re not equipped for. We lack the sacred learnings of our people simply because our times have not taught us to embrace what we instinctively feel in our cells: ceremony is a place of storytelling, singing or chanting, healing, transition, and respect for those in the centre of the story. We can sense it at our core ~ that need for something deeper, profound, life changing, but we’re uncomfortable entering into the spirit of it because our culture keeps us distracted from the essential work of navigating our inner terrain. How can we feast on spiritual sustenance when our world keeps us believing famine is our lot? Where is the nourishment to be found when we don’t have space to feed our essential selves?

Heart-led Celebrants are bringing back the essence of what ceremony is about. In my training of Heart-led Celebrants, we look at what ceremony means, not only for the people involved, but also for the celebrant. We understand how important our ongoing commitment to personal growth and protected learning time is because “who we are” is infused into every aspect of our lives, including the writing and officiating of ceremonies.

The journey of healing is something we use to illuminate a person’s way. As Heart-led Celebrants, we are there as Guardians of the Threshold while our ‘client’ makes their way from the old, familiar way of life to their new one, whether it’s a transition they’re undergoing willingly or not.

We are Keepers of the Circle and Holders of the Space with our Word Medicine and consciously choreographed rituals.

Rituals embed messages of wisdom, archetypes and ancient storytelling deep into the human psyche. A ritual isn’t something we use to ‘fill in space’ and stretch out the timing of a ceremony, but is a consciously chosen ‘picture’ in the story we’re giving, and sheds light on the journey our client is undertaking.

I have often seen these checkpoints for what it takes to become a celebrant:

. a computer, printer and access to the Internet
. a phone line
. pen and paper
. car
. Sat Nav
. Accountant (because you’ll be self employed)
. You need to be able to write a ceremony
. You can stand up and deliver said script to audience

While the common requirements to become a celebrant include a checklist which looks like you’re applying for an administrative job (and those skills are necessary), the essentials for becoming a Heart-led Celebrant include:

♥ Deep-level empathy
♥ Thoughtfulness
♥ Intuition
♥ Kindness
♥ Friendliness
♥ Imagination
♥ Creativity
♥ Calmness
♥ Ability to remain composed no matter what’s going on around you
♥ A good storyteller
♥ Serenity
♥ Soothing energy
♥ Unflappable nature (in your work life, at least!)
♥ Ability to relax clients and allow them to feel they’re in safe, confident and competent hands
♥ Groundedness
♥ Excellent listening skills
♥ Rich with ideas
♥ Excellent standard of client service
♥ A mediator
♥ Awareness of self and others
♥ Have experienced grief (if not of a person, at least of some sort of major loss in life)
♥ Can perform rituals meaningfully and with reverence
♥ Courageousness
♥ Confidence
♥ Respects ritual
♥ Ability to stand in silence
♥ Reliable
♥ Energetic
♥ Strong sense of duty
♥ Being willing to serve
♥ Well-articulated voice

♥ And probably the most important of all: they leave ego behind, because although they are Holding the Space, they know that they are not the centre of attention and that the ceremony isn’t about them. They are the spine of the ceremony, not the body.

In her practice, s/he becomes:
♥ A weaver of words
♥ Specialist in ritual
♥ Gatekeeper of silence
♥ Energy Curious and Aware
♥ A chameleon: she matches her energy to her clients
♥ Explorer and pioneer of inner terrain: always seeking new horizons and landscapes

A Heart-led Celebrant lives a life of ceremony infused with daily rituals and awareness of stillness, reverence and commitment to engaging with soul nourishment. It would be impossible to be the Guardian of the Threshold for others if we weren’t able to do it for ourselves.

© Veronika Sophia Robinson
Founder and facilitator, Heart-led Ceremonies Celebrant Training
www.veronikarobinson.com/celebrant-training