There’s an expression: fail to prepare, prepare to fail. In celebrant life, I call it pre-empting and prevention.
There are so many things that can go wrong, fail, flip, catch us out, and so on. A skilled and successful celebrant ensures that they don’t happen on her (their) watch.
Here are just a few examples:
Arrive on time and in plenty of time
A successful celebrant builds ‘extra time’ into their practice. For example, if I have a 1pm ceremony at Carlisle Crematorium, I leave home at 11.50am. That allows 40 minutes for the drive, and another half an hour in case there are holdups (road works, accidents, flat tyre, flooded roads and detours, etc.). Yes, it does mean that 99% of the time I’m at the crematorium half an hour before I need to be. What that gives me is spaciousness. I would rather this than arrive five minutes before and not have time for the loo or to get out front and meet the FD and mourners when they arrive.
For wedding ceremonies, I’m there at least an hour before (and even longer, the further away it is from home). This hour to 1.5 hours allows me time to:
- Do a sound check
- Set up the ceremonial space
- Check in with my bride/groom
- Speak to the photographer about what rituals to look out for and give them permission to move around freely. I’m not a registrar.
- Liaise with the wedding planner
- Go to the loo!
- Greet guests
- Energetically embed myself into the ceremonial space.
When visiting clients, I arrive at their door on time (even if it means waiting in the car in the cold for fifteen minutes because I arrived in plenty of time). Respect their time and space.
Right time, right ceremony, right place
I ALWAYS include a cover page when sending my scripts to clients. This A4 page has the following information:
- Who is the ceremony for?
- What time is it?
- What day is it?
- What date is it?
- Where is it?
This is in large text. If there’s a mistake, my client will pick it up. (Sometimes FDs or their assistants can send through wrong information: name spelling, times, dates, venues, and so on.)
I remember a celebrant we trained, years back, going to shadow another celebrant (not someone we’d trained). As she arrived at the venue, the other (experienced) celebrant looked at her, and then his watch, and said “Shit babe, I’m at the wrong place!” and raced out of there to get to the venue he should have been at.
Even if you work out of five different crematoria like I do, this will not happen IF you’ve checked and doubled checked your information: When, where, for whom and what time? I use a paper diary and a paper calendar. When writing down my ceremonies, I also include which venue/which FD/name of client.
ALWAYS send the script
We might create, write and officiate the ceremony, but the client has every right to see the script. In 28 years of celebrancy, there have only been two times where I’ve not shared the script. In both of those cases, they were couples I knew and who put 100% trust in me. Even in those cases, I double checked facts.
When working with people, we are (in almost all cases) coming in as a stranger (even with wedding couples) and it is so important to get every detail right. Sending the script for approval is your best celebrant insurance. Don’t believe me? Ask those celebrants who’ve been taken to court by unhappy clients. Totally avoidable if you send a script. If they don’t like the script, start again. If you’ve made mistakes, own it, fix them. Resend the script as draft two, draft three, and however many drafts it takes until the client says “Perfect!”
Where are you in the script?
A little while back, I saw a video clip on Instagram of a celebrant trainer (!) saying that halfway through the funeral ceremony they were officiating, they realised the pages in their folder were in the wrong order. I did a double take. How was that even possible?
1. Number your pages. Do this as an automatic part of your script writing.
2. When you print out your document, insert it into your folder.
3. Then, go through and check you’ve put them in the right order. Count them out loud. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and so on.
4. Then when you rehearse your script ten to twenty times, using the folder that you’ll officiate with, you’ll have even more opportunities to prevent the above scenario.
Always double check your music orders with Wesley and Obitus. Even though they sent an email with confirmation, go back into your account and double check things there. When at the crem, check the system again. As soon as humans are involved in anything, mistakes can happen. As working celebrants, our job is to pick these up and sort them before the ceremony.
All your celebrant tools
Compile a to-do list. Unless I’ve got a simple ceremony which requires nothing but me and my script and presentation scripts, and water, I write a to-do list. I carefully go through my script marking out and writing down each thing I need to bring. An example might be:
Crushed velvet cloths
Rosemary for ring blessing
Four candle holders
Quaich & ceremonial drink
Presentation copy of script
Water to drink/glass
Toothpaste/brush & gum/mints
(there might be other things, too, like spare pair of stockings/shoes)
I cross out each one when I know it’s packed and ready to go in the car. I always double check google maps for road/travel conditions and timing.
When leaving a venue, I go through my list again before packing things into the car.
Discipline and Diligence
If you’re ever asked to fill in for another celebrant at short notice, you hope when you say ‘yes’ that they’ve been competent and completed all their work. One of the worst situations I encountered was asking for the script from the Funeral Director and it being another twelve hours before I received anything. (I was asked to fill in with fewer than two days before the funeral). When it finally came through it was nothing more than a paragraph of poorly written info. No ceremony in sight! I returned to the FD and asked “Is this it? Is this his ceremony?”
“FFS!” (my response)
I contacted the chief mourner and asked if she’d read the script and was she happy with it. “Yes, I’ve read it, and I’m so upset. He’s made so many mistakes.”
Celebrant note: amazing how many mistakes one celebrant can make in one lousy paragraph.
“Look,” I said, offering comfort. “Let’s just start again. I’ll write a new script from scratch. I don’t have time to come and visit you but if you’ve got time now I can learn all about your loved one. I’ll then send it through for your approval.”
That experience has made me wary about ever filling in for anyone again. And in this case, I’d made the mistake of saying I’d do the ceremony for half price (because I assumed there’d be a full working script ready). On a brighter note, I left that ceremony with a huge bouquet and bottle of wine and a beautiful card expressing their gratitude. That client knew what ‘ceremony’ she would have ended up with and what she, thankfully, received.
My own celebrant practice is this: Work ahead of schedule rather than behind.
As a funeral celebrant, I have, on average, 7 to 10 days between receiving the booking and officiating. My first job: contact the chief mourner and arrange a meeting as soon as possible.
On the day of the visit, I come home and write up my notes and write the first draft.
I sleep on it overnight, and with fresh eyes come back to it to see if it needs work.
Later that day, I email the script through. This gives them a bit of time to sit with it and let me know if they’d like any changes. I ask them to check:
- Have I got everything factually correct?
- Have I captured the essence of their loved one?
- Do they have any additions?
At this point, I’ve already uploaded music choices to Wesley and Obitus. I’ve sent through an OOS to the Funeral Director. In many ways, my job is done until the day before the ceremony when I start rehearsing the script (I go through it about twenty times so that it fits like a second skin). If anything were to happen to me during that lead in time to the ceremony, I can hand on heart say that any celebrant or FD who had to fill in for me would have a perfect script ready to go. Every single part of that script is clear. There’s no mistaking what needs to be said and what is choreography. My writing style is such that feeling and intonation is evident.
My wedding scripts are completed no later than a month before the ceremony. Throughout the duration of my relationship journey with the couple, I’ve been taking notes, researching, getting to know them, writing parts of the ceremony.
Organisation is an essential part of my practice.
I’ve officiated in every type of weather. This is the reality of life as a working celebrant.
Blistering heat (sunlight scorching my feet)
And rarely: gorgeous, perfect, still, pleasantly sunny weather.
I remember one time doing an eco-burial at Penrith Cemetery. Torrential rain. Gale-force winds. You couldn’t hear yourself think. Staying dry was never going to happen. The FD arrived cursing and freaking out (not the type of FD I like to work with, by the way. I prefer to mate up with fellow swans). “This is a f***** nightmare!” he said more than once.
Er, no, it’s a storm.
As celebrants (and FDs!) the FD’s attitude is NOT the energy we bring to a ceremonial space. If you can’t work under pressure and in difficult conditions, then this isn’t the job for you.
After that burial, we were heading to another venue for the memorial. I knew I’d be drenched by the time we’d finished the service, so I brought a hairdyer and extra clothes and make up to freshen up before the next part of the day. Always think things through. Be one step ahead of the game.
Whatever the weather, be prepared. Do whatever it takes: warm winter coat, wellies, warm socks, raincoat, don’t even bother with an umbrella! I have a poncho which means I can be hands free.
If I know it’s going to rain, I place my script into the ceremonial folder upside down so the raindrops don’t drip into the plastic insert. They have no choice but to run off.
As a celebrant, we often work in many different environments. Some of those will be familiar to us because we work there regularly. It’s important to know the ins and outs of the venue, not just for health and safety, but for our own peace of mind. These venues, our ceremonial spaces, are our ‘offices’. You couldn’t work effectively in an office if you didn’t know where all the tools of the trade were or how the phone system/fax/photocopier/laptop and so on worked.
As a ceremonialist, our tools might involve:
Where is the sunlight going to be shining?
Am I using a remote or buttons on the lectern at this crem?
How long do the curtains take to go around or in front of the coffin?
What noises, smells, and other externals will impact this ceremonial space? Have I ever mentioned about wasps? The air black with midges? (trust me, as a celebrant where your mouth is open a lot it’s NOT fun) Flooded waterfalls? Ice? Window cleaners squeaking their thingie during a memorial service?
This familiarity is OUR responsibility.
As a wedding celebrant, ‘rehearsal day’ is as much about sussing out the venue as it is about being with my couple and going through choreography.
I need to know:
The ground/floor I’m standing on.
How much space is there around me?
Are there extraneous noises (there’s a whole other blog in that!)?
What is the lighting like?
How far is it from the car park to the ceremonial site? How many trips will it take to cart my supplies? Can I do this in torrential rain?
The list goes on.
I’ve been caught out by lighting a few times so have become so conscious of checking it out before the day. Two examples:
A venue that’s a permanent marquee. It’s lovely inside. Full of twinkly little lights. I’d done the venue visit in daylight. The day of ceremony, just after the end of daylight saving, we were due to start after dark. Suddenly those fairy lights were a pain in my a***. I couldn’t see a thing. I spoke to a staff member and they brought me a lamp! Great. Problem solved. Not quite. The height of the lamp meant that I had to slightly crouch to catch the light, and the heat from the lamp was a killer! There’s a bit of footage on vimeo www.veronikarobinson.com/celebrant/weddings/ of me officiating Brian and Mary’s ceremony. Here are some screenshots:
Another popular local venue, which I really love, has a poorly lit ceremonial space. The first time I officiated there I thought I’d end up with a migraine. All sorts of shadows were cast across my ceremonial script making it hard to read. Thankfully I rehearse many, many times but even so it’s not easy to see the page. I’m mentally prepared for this each time I officiate there.
Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse
If you find rehearsing your script is boring, then it means your script isn’t good enough. Every time you rehearse, it should be like exploring a land that is both familiar and new. Familiar because you’re getting used to it, and new because you find other ways to express and feel your way through the landscape. You can’t rehearse too many times. In fact, despite what you might think, you’ll come to the ceremony fresh, confident, capable AND authentic.
Voice & Presentation
We don’t fully appreciate our voice until…we wake up and it’s not there or is tight and croaky.
Here are some tips:
Exercise for health
Stretching so your body is flexible and voice has a decent foundation to be built upon
All self-care applies to the voice
Wellbeing and strength are essential to voice quality
Use your voice with care. Don’t mistreat it by shouting, yelling, singing out of your range. Use an amplifier so you can speak with an intimate tone.
The voice is precious for anybody especially a celebrant.
Get to know your voice. Most people don’t think about their voice. It’s just something that happens to come out of their mouth when talking. It’s good to know what your voice can do and what it can’t do.
If you’re using your voice a lot, learn to rest it too.
Your voice, just like any other active part of the body, uses muscles. These need to be exercised and nourished.
Regular and nourishing sleep (create good sleep hygiene: no digital technology in the bedroom)
Include raw fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts in your diet
Drink plenty of water
Cultivate time for pleasure
Laugh a lot
One of the best things which comes from experience, is knowing what works and doesn’t work in celebrant life. And an essential part of that is being prepared and having an omniscient view of our role and of our ceremonial spaces.
Veronika Robinson and Paul Robinson are a husband and wife team whose boutique celebrant training Heart-led Celebrants attracts people from around the world. Heart-led Celebrants has earned a reputation for excellence in celebrant training, and those who are certified exemplify the highest standards in the industry.
Veronika has been officiating beautiful, bespoke ceremonies since 1995. She is a certified Infant Loss Professional; founder of Penrith’s first Death Café; is a celebrant for the charity Gift of a Wedding; and mentors celebrants around the world.
Veronika is the author of many books including the popular Celebrant Collection: Write That Eulogy; The Successful Celebrant; Funeral Celebrant Ceremony Planner; Wedding Celebrant Ceremony Planner; The Blessingway. Three more titles will be added in January 2024: The Gentle Celebrant’s Guide: Funerals For Children; The Discrimination-free Celebrant; The Celebrant’s Guide to the Five Elements.
Award-winning voice artist, Paul Robinson, has had a whole career centred around his voice and other people’s. He’s highly experienced as a celebrant, trained actor, drama coach, voice-over artist, singer, broadcaster, compère, and ventriloquist. Paul is an excellent communicator and teacher, and has a sixth sense about how to relate to individuals, groups and audiences.