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Why did you become a celebrant?

I chose to train as a celebrant after supporting family and friends through end-of-life experiences. Being involved was a huge privilege and I found my life skills - as nurse, educator and mother - enabled me to support people with empathy and care. I’d also missed working closely with people – something I was used to in my many years of work as a disability and mental health nurse. After some time in nursing education and health coordination, becoming a celebrant felt like the right thing to do and is a perfect match for my skill set.


What do you enjoy about it?

I feel privileged to be part of couples and families lives for those special and significant moments – both happy and sad. What I enjoy most in my work, is hearing and sharing those stories in a warm, authentic and often humorous way. Working closely with couples and families in a relational way enables me to create the ceremony that feels right for them.


How long have you been a celebrant for?

I trained with the Celebrant School in Christchurch in 2016 and have been officiating ceremonies since then. Each time I’d pop down from Wellington for a training module, I’d also visit with my elderly Dad, which was a lovely bonus. I met some great people and formed strong friendships with classmates, many of whom have since become treasured celebrant colleagues.


Do you have another job besides being a celebrant?

For me, being a marriage and funeral celebrant in the Wairarapa-Wellington region is my primary job. However, my voluntary role as President for Celebrants Aotearoa –is a major commitment of time and energy; soaking up about 20 hours a week on average. Between being a celebrant and Celebrants Aotearoa President, I squeeze in one day a week as a health-coordinator for the Te Whatu Ora – Wairarapa. This gives me an insight into the fantastic work our health professionals do, and I feel eternally grateful for the health care system we have.


How long have you been in the National Executive team for?

I am now into my fourth year on the National Executive (NE). I started in May 2019, joining an experienced Executive team. I put my hand up as I was inspired by their dedication and commitment. The NE team changed, leaving Lianne Fraser as President and myself as Vice-President. We worked together with a new executive team for two years before Lianne stepped away and I stepped up to become President in July 2022. We now have a fantastic National Executive team and receive wonderful support from Hazel, Megan, Kelly, Lisa and other members of the YVA team. In the past three years, we’ve achieved a lot with refreshed branding as Celebrants Aotearoa, an amazing website, a streamlined VCANZ framework and an amazing array of benefits and resources for members. We have grown our social media profile and professionalism and continue to advocate for our members.


What would be your typical day as President? 

My typical day is President is busy! Emails, emails and more emails!  An enormous number of emails come across my desk to do with business-as-usual questions, ongoing projects, new projects, conference, registry ceremonies processes and I’m in receipt of the very, very occasional complaint. I also try to maintain contact with a number of members from across the country at branch committee level; in particular those three branches that I am NE liaison for: Wellington/Wairarapa, Manawatu and Canterbury.

My main role is to oversee the business of Celebrants Aotearoa at an organizational level. The day-to-day, business-as-usual stuff, is managed by Hazel - our Virtual Business Manager. I’m there to give a steer, provide feedback, and to give the final approval on communications and those decisions made in follow-up to the direction and tasks set at our NE meetings. I write regularly for the Wrap – our fortnightly update and Pānui – our members journal which comes out three times per year. This year, I’m attending a large number of Branch Annual Planning meetings (APM’s), which makes for a lot of travel. The NE meet face-to-face twice a year and hold monthly zoom meetings as well as two ‘all-member’ meetings across each year and others are required. So, that keeps me busy keeping track of all of this and being responsive to emails in the midst of my celebrant work. I’m also responsible for our stakeholder relationships and regularly have conversations with key people at Births Deaths and Marriages (BDM), the Funeral Directors Association of New Zealand (FDANZ) and the owners of both celebrant training providers – the ‘Celebrant Training College’ and ‘The Celebrant School’.


What ceremonies do you perform?

Mostly, I officiate marriages and funerals though I’m always very keen to work with clients to co-create a bespoke ceremony for any of life’s important occasions. For example, anniversaries, renewal of vows, decade birthday celebrations. I’m lucky enough that both my parents reached their 90th birthday and we had fantastic celebrations for both with cake, photo shows, speeches – the works! In the funeral space I work with families to offer funeral and memorial services, interment of ashes, unveilings and living funerals. I’m passionate about taking the time to honour a loved one’s life through gathering together. I see my role as a celebrant as ‘holding the space’; bringing a calm, supportive and guiding presence, doing as much, or as little as is needed. I jokingly say, I am “like gap filler”, although as a celebrant I feel my key task in officiating ceremony is to bring ritual and flow to these deeply meaningful occasions.

As a marriage celebrant I do like having fun, and developing a warm and friendly relationship with my couples is really important to me. As I say, to them “this is one of the most special occasions in your life. I feel it’s important that we get to know each other so that when I speak to you during your marriage ceremony, you feel you know me”. The ceremonies I officiate range from elopements through to small intimate weddings through to larger weddings with 80 – 120 guests. The time frame for being booked to work with a couple varies immensely from three to four months out, to two years out and anything in-between. Deciding to get married with the date only being three months to six months out seems to be more common post-Covid. For larger weddings, being booked anywhere between 6 months to two years is the norm. I love the variety of locations I get to work in; from weddings at home in the garden or lounge, through to local parks or conservation land right through to some of the fantastic wedding venues we have in the Wairarapa with two on my doorstep in Featherston – Tarureka Estate and Rose and Smith at Tauheranikau racecourse.


What are some of the hardest parts of being a celebrant?

My preference always, is to be working with couples and families, talking with them and writing the ceremony that fits their needs and style, along with whatever else is needed at the time. All celebrants know we can be bit of a one-stop-shop sometimes. The back end of the business - keeping the books and doing the tax return is not the fun part! And I also struggle to keep on top of my social media. I do forget in the moment to take any photos so that is my goal for 2023 – get better at taking photos and to embrace video.


What are some of the most unique ritual or ideas you have had to do a wedding ceremony?

A memorial service I officiated recently, started with the immediate family members walking into a favourite piece of music; placing a long-stemmed rose around the casket prior to the service beginning. Another, concluded with those present coming forward to choose a hand-painted stone as a remembrance token for themselves. Both beautiful ideas that came out of working with the families and their stories.


What was your most memorable ceremony you have performed?

A recent wedding at Old St Paul’s in Thorndon, Wellington stood out. The couple chose fantastic pieces to be played by the organist and the person who spoke the reading delivered it eloquently from the golden eagle lectern. I absolutely love the rich, slightly musty vibe that old churches and chapels have and feel like the rituals performed in them over the years have soaked into the very ‘being’ of the building, imbuing a sense of sacred space into the atmosphere.


What is one poem, reading or song you like to perform at a funeral or wedding ceremony?

I don’t use any one poem, reading or song generally as it’s all tailored to the couple, or families involved. However, I do use John O Donohue’s ’On Passing a Graveyard’ at graveside services.  It’s such a reverent tribute to those who’ve gone before, and the first two lines epitomise that so beautifully:

May perpetual light shine upon
The faces of all those who rest here

Taken from: To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings by John O Donohue (2008. Pg 96).

‘To Bless the Space Between Us’ is a book is a gift of blessings for all occasions including some profound blessings for those who are dying or entering death.  I’m also dipping into Pinky Agnew’s new book ‘This is Farewell: readings and meditations on death and dying’. This edited book of readings has a large number of poems by New Zealand authors which makes it very relevant for celebrants in Aotearoa, to use in their work.  


When did you join CANZ? And what do you appreciate about the association?

I joined Celebrants Aotearoa, the Celebrants Association for New Zealand 2017 as I completed my training. As a nurse, I’ve always belonged to a professional association and so for me it was a ‘no-brainer’ to join and gain all the advantages that membership offers. Top of the list for what I appreciate is the advocacy CANZ provides for members along with access to branch membership, networking, informal peer support, ongoing professional development activities, access to the professional development validation framework (VCANZ) and the indemnity insurance CANZ provides. As a professional body CANZ offers a complaints process and I believe this is essential to professional practice, offering a transparent and robust process to the clients we work with.


What would be your typical day as a celebrant?

My typical day if I have a ceremony on, starts with a walk. On arriving home, I get ready - clothes, hair, make-up – game-on! I then double-check I’ve everything I need to take to the ceremony, having prepared it the night before. I then read the ceremony out loud to myself again, in preparation for delivery. My timer has already been set to get me out the door!  I like to arrive 40+ minutes before the ceremony as I allow plenty of time for contingencies. Wairarapa travel time is very delayed by road works currently (Grrr)! Any spare minutes on arrival are taken up with emails and social media on the phone.  If I’ve time left at home before leaving, I hang out at the computer as there are always emails to answer and work to do in my role as President for Celebrants Aotearoa.

As aside, one ceremony which stands out recently is a memorial service held in a regional park where there was no cell phone reception.  I thought I knew exactly where we were meeting, but I got there so early that I was the only one and I thought I was in the wrong spot. Mild panic! Luckily, some of the family arrived soon after and I was saved from total panic!

What advice do you have for someone new to the industry?

I’m a lifelong learner and am passionate about learning. I completed a Masters of Nursing in 2015 whilst working as a nursing lecturer. When I looked to becoming a celebrant, I undertook the full celebrant specific training across 2016. Why? Because I believe that the celebrant specific training provides the foundational skills necessary to work with clients and perform ceremonies with skill and professionalism. In 2022, I completed a post-graduate certificate in chaplaincy – undertaken as a secular celebrant. I embarked on this course of study as I wanted to enhance my skill set around grief and loss.

My advice for someone new to the industry is to undertake training; become a member of Celebrants Aotearoa; join in on branch activities to gain the most out of your membership; and commit to reflective practice by engaging with the validation (VCANZ) process.


How do you relax after performing a ceremony?

After a weekend wedding ceremony, I will often pick up my husband and go out for a G&T at ‘The Royal Hotel’ in Featherston to make the most of being all dressed up! After funeral or memorial services, I like to reset by taking a walk through the bush just behind my house, which rejuvenates my energy. I also love gardening, which takes me out of my busy head and grounds me through the experience of working with the earth.

 Rachel Clarke outside with her black and white spotted dog, smiling