In February of this year I watched the telecast of the Victorian bushfire memorial service, a unique piece of improvised public ritual that was very much of its time.
Twenty years ago, perhaps even ten, a service of this kind would have been held in an Anglican cathedral and presided over by an archbishop. In this case, the venue was a tennis centre, the Rod Laver Arena. It took traditional ceremonial elements – flowers, music, bells, candles, rhetoric – but deployed them in ways that were wholly secular. In an acknowledgement of multiculturalism, there were no presiding clergy. Instead, senior representatives of the major faiths were seated at the front of the audience, below the podium and on the same level as the rest of the mourners. The master of ceremonies, Ian Henderson – a newsreader who could be expected to bring a certain gravitas to the role – was a figure from popular culture, albeit one drawn from a state-sanctioned institution, the ABC.
I could not remember another time when a newsreader had been elevated above bishops at an important state memorial service, yet no one in the media remarked on it. This, I believe, is a direct outcome of the fact that for over three decades Australians have been attending weddings and funerals performed by civil celebrants. If any one factor has prepared us for an easy acceptance of secular ritual, both public and private, it is Lionel Murphy’s reform of the marriage culture.
One of the great secular humanists of Australian politics and attorney-general in the turbulent Whitlam governments of 1972–75, Murphy’s most enduring legacy is the Family Law Act of 1974, which introduced a dignified no-fault divorce. It was also Murphy’s concern that a form of civil marriage be made available that would offer an alternative to the dryly bureaucratic procedure of the registry office, one that would enable citizens to create their own meaningful rituals.
The doyen of civil celebrants in Australia today is Dally Messenger. Now 71 and based in Melbourne, Messenger was personally appointed by Murphy, whom he describes as a “visionary”. I asked Messenger if the idea was Murphy’s own and he told me the story of its origin. In the early 1970s Murphy was asked to act as a witness at a friend’s wedding in the Sydney Registry Office. In those days the bridal couples were lined up to wait their turn on a wooden bench until summoned in fours like cattle herded into a saleyard. After a few words intoned by a poker-faced official they were shown the door and the next couples shuffled into place. “It was as if,” Messenger said, “society was humiliating you for failing to toe the Church line.” To some this might have the ring of overstatement, but not for me. I remember the era well: the shabby aura that was attached to civil marriages, the often sneering tone in which a registry-office ceremony was spoken of. It was not a proper marriage.
So appalled was Murphy at the indignity of this ceremony that he resolved to do something about it. In the 1961 Marriage Act, introduced into legislation by Garfield Barwick, there was an existing provision that authorised the attorney-general to appoint marriage celebrants. In Section 39 Murphy saw an opportunity to create a civil ceremony that would bypass what he described as the degrading environment of state registry offices. In 1973 he floated the proposal with his advisors but they were dubious; it would bring the wrath of the Church down on an already controversial government and it was an aggravation they could do without. With characteristic resolve Murphy spurned this timidity. One evening, alone in his office, he typed a letter of appointment of the first civil marriage celebrant, Queensland schoolteacher Lois D’Arcy. He addressed the envelope himself and walked out into the dark to post it. The next morning, he informed his staff.
The alacrity with which this new institution was taken up by Australians of all classes, and in all regions and subcultures, is testimony to how accurately Murphy read the public mood. Twenty years ago, 60% of marriages in Australia were performed by clergy. Today, the number of marriages performed by civil celebrants stands at 64%, and is continually rising. The Murphy marriage has become the mainstream.
When Murphy set up the Association of Civil Marriage Celebrants of Australia (ACMCA) he made Dally Messenger its secretary and official spokesperson. Messenger claims that, contrary to expectations, not all clergy were opposed to the move. “Some were fed up,” he says, “with having to marry couples who they knew had no religious convictions and the hypocrisy of the situation bothered them.” Inevitably, secular marriage led to secular funerals, although the first appointees were divided on the issue. Not every marriage celebrant wanted to conduct funerals. When acrimony arose, Messenger went to Murphy and asked for his view on celebrant funerals. Murphy gave them his emphatic endorsement.
By this time, Murphy had personally appointed more than 90 celebrants and, in doing so, had made some radical moves. In an era when women clergy were unheard of, the majority of Murphy’s appointments were women. In Messenger’s view, Murphy’s initiative is an unacknowledged factor in diminishing resistance over time to the idea of women clergy. Many of Murphy’s appointments were also young, some in their mid-twenties, and two were Indigenous. The majority came from backgrounds of community service, including local government, and both sides of politics were represented. Messenger, who is writing a history of civil celebrancy in Australia, ‘We Lead The World’, says he interviewed Murphy on the subject before his death and, on the interview tape, Murphy uses the word ‘dignity’ 26 times. “That’s what it was all about for him. People should be able to have a dignified marriage ceremony. He wanted to turn the Church ceremony on its head so that the client defines the ritual from the bottom up rather than the Church imposing a one-size-fits-all from the top down.”
In the 1970s I watched a documentary made by Film Australia on the Soviet Union. An image that has stayed with me since is that of a married couple driving to a newly built dam in order to throw the bridal bouquet over the waters of the spillway. This, I thought, was secular religion: an important rite of passage marked by a ritual offering to the state at one of its modernist temples, a symbol of Science and Progress. The question of whether Murphy’s new institution might morph into a secular priesthood was fraught from the outset. Occasionally couples asked for a biblical citation to be included in their ceremony, most commonly a verse from Corinthians on love, but within the celebrants association there were strong divisions on whether to maintain a wholesale secularity and, to begin with, no religious references were permitted. This is not surprising given that many of Murphy’s first wave of appointments were active members of the Rationalist Society and the Humanist Society.
In researching this article I spoke to six civil celebrants and all were insistent that they were not practising a form of civil religion; they are event managers invested with a specific and narrowly defined legal power, in the same way as justices of the peace. It’s their role to facilitate an occasion and to stage-manage the details – to advise and not prescribe. “The entire ceremony should come from the couple,” said one celebrant. “My role is to try and ensure there are no surprises on the day and to otherwise be as invisible as possible.” But few couples are equipped to write an entire ceremony from scratch and the celebrant can exert a strong influence on the content. It’s not surprising that, as a former Catholic priest, Dally Messenger should have a feel for ritual and his book Ceremonies and Celebrations – something of a celebrant’s bible – offers a number of options, including several sets of vows. Experienced celebrants collect a repertoire of readings and poems from which couples can select, anything from Thomas Aquinas to Mark Twain, Victor Hugo to Michael Leunig. One celebrant of 15 years’ experience remarked to me on changing fashions in preferred texts, fashions that offer an intriguing insight into changes in sensibility. “For about three years everyone wanted a piece out of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Then, suddenly, no one wanted it.” When Messenger began as a celebrant in the 1970s, the average age of the bride was 21; now it’s around 29. “These couples,” he says, “have been leading independent lives before marriage and they want the words of the ceremony to reflect that. Hence, Khalil Gibran is a big favourite, especially the quote about the oak and the cypress standing side by side but not in each other’s shadow.”
A church offers a sacred space, sanctified by tradition and with its own atmosphere and mystique. But where do you hold a civil wedding? It’s estimated that around half of all civil marriages are held out in the open, with a preference for parks, gardens and beaches, which might lead the observer to conclude that nature has replaced the Church as sacred ground. Such a view is consonant with developments in ecological consciousness and it’s now common to plant a tree as part of the marriage ceremony. The Australian love of the water also exerts its influence, with a fondness for ceremonies on boats. The celebrant’s greatest nightmare, however, is likely to be the beach wedding. The wind is blowing in off the water; she has to lug her PA system across the sand so that 200 guests can hear her over the breaking waves; the bridal party is barefoot, but the women guests sink into the loose sand in their high heels. After the vows, the bridal couple sprinkle flower petals over the water and invite the guests to do likewise, just as a rogue wave sweeps up the beach and wets everyone’s feet. Parks can also present problems, especially in regard to potentially unmanageable accoutrements, such as the cage of doves or box of butterflies to be released after the vows. “The butterflies especially make me nervous,” said one celebrant. “Sometimes they have to be coached out of the box and on one occasion we opened it and they were all dead. The bride burst into tears.”
The desire for meaningful ritual leads to many requests for the unorthodox. There is the underwater wedding, the nudist ceremony, the hot-air-balloon nuptial, the entirely black Gothic affair, the wedding on top of a mountain at dawn to symbolise a new beginning. Then there are the really special requests: the couple with a love of trains who were married in the National Railway Museum; or the Collingwood supporters who were given permission to be married in the goal square, at half time, in the final game held at Victoria Park, with 20,000 spectators looking on. I’m told that in Sydney there is a specialist Elvis celebrant for those who can’t afford to travel to Graceland or Vegas.
Theme weddings remain the exception, however, and most civil weddings retain elements of the Church wedding, itself derived from pagan ceremonies. The walk down the ‘aisle’ (even if the wedding is in a paddock), the giving away of the bride, the attendants, the signing of the register: all of these date from pre-Christian marriage rituals. The civil model has also encouraged active participation in other ways, such that the children from previous unions may be asked to formally consent to the marriage or the assembled guests may be asked to pass the rings around as a form of silent blessing. Even the family dog can be included in the ceremony, with the rings attached by ribbon to his collar. Of course, there is no inherent reason why much of this couldn’t be incorporated into Church weddings, and some churches have attempted to keep up with the times by allowing for the inclusion of non-traditional elements (dogs excepted). Too late: the genie is out of the bottle.
Over time, say the experienced celebrants, they have been asked to do fewer and fewer ‘weird’ weddings. The delight of DIY novelty seems to have worn off and there is a consensus that the traditional format works better. It’s also the case that people have learned how to behave. One experienced celebrant remarked that in her early weddings she had to deal with barracking from the crowd, bridesmaids winking at their friends, onlookers heckling the groom. People said and did things they wouldn’t do in church; unaccustomed to secular ritual, it was as if the participants were conflating the ceremony with the reception. But that’s changed and the groomsmen have stopped pretending they’ve lost the rings. “I tell them, keep the jokes for the reception. If you are a good celebrant this clowning around doesn’t happen. Australians like to make a joke of everything. You have to put a lid on it.”
The celebrants I spoke to were clear on why Church weddings were in decline. To begin with, there are the mixed marriages. One celebrant told me of marrying a bishop’s son to a Buddhist. There were Buddhist elements in the ceremony, no gongs or prayer flags, but a Buddhist blessing and some chanting. The bishop came in his cassock as an observer. Secondly, there’s the fact that many young people have never been inside a church and don’t feel comfortable in one; they feel that religious ritual is not appropriate to the way they live their lives. They fear they may have to listen to a clergyman proselytise and they want the ceremony to be about them. Indeed, one of the most requested introductions begins: “Every wedding ceremony at which a celebrant like myself officiates is of a marriage that already exists. This ceremony gives social recognition to a union which is already taking place in the hearts of the couple present. It is Bill and Mary’s wish at this time to declare their marriage partnership to the world.” As with Quakers, this is a strong statement that there is no need for priests, that a union is consecrated in action and not by any form of officialdom. Such a statement is interesting not least because it makes the couple the subject, rather than the object, of the ceremony. They are not the object of God’s gaze or blessing.
The fact that Australians have taken to civil marriage in greater numbers than in the US or UK suggests that this country does indeed have a secular heart. Perhaps the trend reflects the long-held belief that we Australians are inherently sceptical of authority – that element of the national myth that arose out of the convict strain and was reinforced by CEW Bean’s creation of the legendary Anzac. Whatever else it is, a civil marriage is a firmly humanist ritual – in the eyes of some, too much so. To quote from Mary Roddy, a Sydney-based justice of the peace who also conducts funerals:
The trends in civil marriage ceremonies clearly reflect the notion of the ‘atomic individual’ now prevalent in modern democratic societies. This notion thrives on the idea that the individual is like an atom, with no necessary innate connection to a community or society beyond themselves – where each individual is autonomous and has the right to do whatever she or he wants without necessarily having any concomitant responsibility to the society in which s/he lives.
Roddy drew my attention to a piece in The Sunday Telegraph in which three celebrants remarked on a recent tendency for couples to alter their vows to eliminate the commitment for life. Some couples were even agreeing to review their marriage after five years, as if it were an experiment, something they might learn from, before moving on.
There are two ways of looking at this. You can view it as a decline in standards, or as an injection of realism that acknowledges high divorce rates. The Howard government did its best to resist Murphy’s law, but community expectation ran ahead of it, and not just in regard to heterosexual couples. The latest Galaxy poll finds that a majority of Australians support gay marriage, but the best that gay couples can hope for is a commitment ceremony. In 2004, as attorney-general in the Howard government, Philip Ruddock introduced changes to the Marriage Act to specify that marriage “means the union of a man and woman”. The Act goes further to declare that “certain unions are not marriages”. Apropos heterosexual couples, the phrase that marriage is “voluntarily entered into with the desire, the hope and the firm intention that it will be for life” was replaced with the more categorical “voluntarily entered into for life”. Ruddock’s changes have been widely interpreted as a response to pressure from the Christian lobby, especially its anti-gay-marriage wing, but if The Sunday Telegraph report is accurate then Ruddock was wasting his time, at least in regard to heterosexuals. Whatever celebrants are obliged to say on the day, couples will insert their own caveats.
In the mid ’90s I attended the funeral of a friend, who – with no history of depression and without warning – had taken his own life. It was a civil funeral, held in a garden, and there was a large crowd. Several people spoke eloquently about the dead man; of how accomplished he was; how kind and considerate to friends; and how much they loved him. And this was no mere funereal courtesy; I knew him well enough to know it was all true. Why, then, did he kill himself? There was beauty in both the setting and the service, but many of the mourners left the wake with a sense of something unresolved. We felt that, at some point in the service, we ought to have acknowledged that this man took his own life, but who could – or would – speak the unspeakable? Certainly not a minister of religion, given the Church’s teachings on suicide. Nor could the family be expected to speak of it publicly in the rawness of their grief. What we needed was a neutral person, skilled in the conduct of mourning rituals, to find the words (with the permission of the family) to reflect on the unbearable mystery that defined this death. We needed words that cautioned us all to think of friendship in a new way, to think of what it might demand of us in the future. What we needed was a civil funeral celebrant.
Since that time, many others have come to the same conclusion and civil funerals are rapidly becoming the norm. Some practitioners believe that a good celebrant is more crucial to a funeral than a wedding. A wedding is a joyful occasion that can survive a bumbling celebrant, but mistakes at a funeral can have dire emotional consequences. Too many funerals leave the participants feeling hollow; the awfulness of the funeral parlour is captured in Alan Bennett’s memoir of his aunt’s death (Untold Stories, 2005):
The building will be long and low, put up in the sixties, probably, when death begins to go secular … it looks like the reception area of a tasteful factory or the departure lounge of a small provincial airport … Unsolemn, hygienic and somehow retail, the service is so scant as to be scarcely a ceremony at all, and is not so much simple as inadequate. These clipboard send-offs have no swell to them, no tide, there is no launching for the soul, flung like Excalibur over the dark waters.
Not only is the deceased dead but so is the ceremony and, to quote David Oldfield, a US expert on civil ritual: “a dead ceremony is worse than no ceremony at all”.
Where the funeral parlour resembles Bennett’s archetype, and many do, the celebrant must play a compensatory role. I spoke with a specialist funeral celebrant, formerly an Anglican, who said, “People often get angry about Church funerals. They might say to me, ‘We had Dad’s funeral in church and it wasn’t about Dad at all, it was about the Church.’ They want something better for Mum but they aren’t sure what ‘better’ means. They look to me to fill the gap.”
This ‘gap’ is at the heart of the demand for civil funerals. It’s the gap where accepted notions of sacred used to be. For war veterans, it is sometimes filled by Anzac ritual. There is the recitation of the ‘Ode of Remembrance’ (“Lest we forget”), the playing of the ‘Last Post’ and the red paper poppies, available to the mourners for placement on the coffin. I’ve been to several funerals that were so ritual-poor that, had these elements been removed, there would have been almost nothing left. Anzac has filled a vacuum in our secular society; where a sense of the sacred is diminished, patriotism takes its place (as it did, on a somewhat strident note, in the Victorian bushfire memorial service). “The cult of Anzac warrants the name of civil religion,” writes the historian Ken Inglis, “something to believe in, apart from your footy team.” If the deceased is not a veteran, then very often the footy team does play a major role. Coffins are draped with guernseys or scarfs in team colours and ashes are scattered on football grounds. The memorabilia that decorates civil funerals would make for an interesting study, one that would repeatedly return to sport: a soccer ball, a hole-in-one trophy, a pennant – tribal symbols all.
A good civil ceremony makes us feel that we are participants, rather than powerless observers; by being involved, we experience a truer, more meaningful sense of congregation. But the greater the mourner participation, the lengthier and more intensive the preparation. A participatory civil funeral may involve a long running-sheet of eulogies with, say, 10 grandchildren under the age of 15 each making a short speech. It will almost certainly involve a slide show of the deceased’s life (the number of images can exceed 100), and the preparation of the main eulogy can take hours. The narrative of an entire life must be put together in a satisfying way and the celebrant must mediate among competing and conflicting memories. In a civil ceremony, biography takes the place of a unifying and integrative myth (the Resurrection). The eulogy must be equal to the task, and since there is no set format for a civil service – no traditional prayers or hymns – the celebrant must ease the family through a welter of stressful decisions. Then, during the service, she must act as a psychic net, able to encompass many disparate elements and support the mourners. To quote one funeral specialist: “When everyone goes to water, the celebrant is the keep-going factor.”
Unlike marriage celebrants, funeral celebrants perform no legal function and hence do not have to be accredited or trained. Funeral directors therefore control the market and pay the celebrants. It’s possible to first choose your celebrant and then approach a funeral parlour, but most families go directly to the parlour and use a celebrant that the funeral director recommends. This can make for something of a closed shop and Dally Messenger believes that funeral celebrants are the lowest-paid, most exploited people in the funeral industry. Funeral celebrants cite their preparation time as varying from seven to thirty hours, but funeral directors argue it is they who stage-manage the setting – furniture, flowers, microphone – and that all the celebrant has to do is act as an emcee. In Victoria, funeral directors’ fixed ceiling fees hover at around $440 (in other states this figure is lower), but there are celebrants who will accept as little as $150. Most clergy will do services at parlours for a fee of $180, but Messenger argues that, unlike clergy, celebrants do not have a congregation, do not get paid a stipend or receive a free car and petrol, and are not provided with a house, computer and mobile phone. It’s a fraught area and in August 2007 Messenger was fined $46,000 by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) for an alleged attempt at price-fixing. In essence, the case revolved around a recommendation by Messenger suggesting that celebrants working in parlours raise their fixed fee by $50 and consider setting an hourly rate. In a somewhat baffling decision by the ACCC, the David and Goliath roles were reversed. Messenger’s fine provoked the ire of many observers of the funeral industry, including Moira Rayner, lawyer and former Commissioner for Equal Opportunity in Victoria. Messenger no longer conducts funerals because, he says, he rarely puts in fewer than 30 hours and “they take too much out of me”.
The Canberra poet and civil celebrant Mark O’Connor argues that Australia is largely a “post-Christian society, and for many people the old ceremonies no longer fit”. Perhaps this is why so many new ceremonies have come into being over the past 20 years: infant naming, adolescent and old-age rites of passage, pet funerals, menopause parties, divorce ceremonies, new-home blessings – you name it, you can find a celebrant to officiate. Of these, the infant naming ceremony is the most popular, replacing as it does the traditional christening. Again, there is an emphasis on participation and the ceremony often involves the father lifting the infant above his head while assembled friends and family shout the child’s name. One celebrant told me of a naming ceremony where the mother read out a letter in which she apologised to the baby for her post-natal depression. “It was cathartic,” said the celebrant, “not just for her but the whole family. It felt like a new start.” This celebrant is one of the many who are content with their current role and limited function: “I don’t want to be doing any more than I do now. I’m not any kind of priest, I’m just a privileged witness.”
But let me give the final word to Dally Messenger. Just recently, he told me, he married a young couple in Dandenong who said they wanted two weddings. The first would be in a church “for the oldies” and the second would be a civil ceremony, “a proper wedding with a marriage celebrant for all our friends”. A proper wedding with a marriage celebrant? Lionel Murphy would be proud.
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