Rights of passage: Celebrants create new traditions for life transitions

Friends and neighbors strolled up a candle-lit pathway to help Rebecca Harris, Michael Lee and their sons Julian, 10, and Matthew, 4, celebrate twin milestones: the move into their new home on Grove Street, and the birth of daughter, Jacqueline, 3 months.

When the well wishers had gathered on the front lawn under a mid-November evening sky, Mary Dougal, a certified civil celebrant, kicked off the festivities with a brief story of how Harris had spotted the house and known that it was meant for her family.

Dougal followed the story with a relevant poem, then guided the crowd’s attention to the distinctive Irish door knocker left by the house’s previous owners.

“Some of you may recognize the design. It was first made 400 years ago in the village of Claddagh in Galway,” she explained. “The Claddagh design is symbolic of love, the heart; loyalty, the crown; and friendship, the hands.”

Then, as Dougal read a traditional Irish blessing, Harris, Lee, and their guests each lifted the knocker, let it drop gently onto the door, and entered the home for a potluck dinner, socializing and toasts.

With music and children playing, the women gathered upstairs for a ceremony to welcome and celebrate baby Jacqueline.

Each woman introduced herself by saying her name, along with the name of her mother, grandmothers and a special child or children in her life.

Harris then told the story of how Jacqueline Frances Lee’s name was chosen to honor a relative on each side of the family. Dougal said a few more words to formally name Jacqueline, then the circle of women shared wit and wisdom about motherhood.

Finally, they gathered around a bowl, where each lit one of the tea light candles floating in a large bowl of water to strengthen the bond between Harris and Jacqueline. Dougal concluded with a blessing, and the women made their way back to the crowd downstairs.

As Harris held a beaming Jacqueline and chatted with guests, she explained how the celebration had come to be.

“I had no idea what a celebrant was,” she said. When a friend told her about Dougal, Harris thought the concept was interesting, and discussed it with her husband. He wasn’t interested at first.

“Then I started thinking, ‘I want to do this,’” Harris said. “We’re not religious. We acknowledge things spiritual, but I think the major downside of not going to church is not having these rites of passage and ceremonies. I think they’re really important for children.”

“This is nice,” her husband, Lee, said, smiling over the gathering. “It was a good thing to do.”


Under the banner of Dougal’s company, Milestone Ceremonies, she officiates at and designs ceremonies honoring weddings, vow renewals, engagements, same-gender ceremonies, funerals, life tributes, new dwellings, life changes, baby welcoming, birthdays, retirements, divorces, graduations, survivor tributes and special achievements. For Harris and Lee’s two-tier celebration, she spent about 15 hours consulting with the couple, and writing her remarks. “Rebecca chose the readings,” she said. “Every ceremony is personalized and reflects the client.”

This individualized approach is at the heart of the Celebrant philosophy.

“A person comes to us for a ceremony, we talk with them and learn what their background is, what they would like to include as symbols and rituals,” said Charlotte Eulette, national director of Celebrants USA Foundation and Institute, which has its national headquarters at 93 Valley Road.

To prepare a ceremony, the civil celebrant first meets with the people involved to discuss their vision and goals. Family and friends are often consulted to include their words and participation in the ceremony. The celebrant writes an event script, which goes back and forth until it receives final approval. The ceremony is then rehearsed to ensure that everything goes smoothly.

Their services are especially attractive to same-gender couples and those of different cultures, races and backgrounds.

“I went to a wedding rehearsal last night,” Eulette said. “The bride is Caribbean; most of her family speaks Spanish. The groom is Bosnian, so they’re speaking Serbian. His parents flew in, and when they asked about including some of their traditions in the ceremony, I told them, ‘Sure, we can do anything.’

“Sometimes people cry when they realize the door is open for them to do whatever they want.”


Celebrancy started in Australia in 1973, at a time when only Lutheran and Catholic churches were authorized to perform weddings. Australian Attorney General Lionel Murphy wanted to bring dignity and personal choices to wedding ceremonies, so he changed the law to authorize the appointment of civil celebrants to perform individualized ceremonies approved by the couples, and incorporating their wishes.

Today, over 75 percent of all weddings in Australia are performed by celebrants. Some 4,000 celebrants worldwide have officiated at more than a million weddings since the 1970s. To comply with state laws governing who may officiate at marriages, wedding celebrants must also become ordained nondenominational ministers.

In 2001, Eulette joined forces with philanthropist Gail Sarma, to establish the national headquarters of the non-profit Celebrant USA Foundation and Institute on Valley Road.

That fall, six students were enrolled in the nine-month course to become celebrants. One of the students was Cynthia Reed, a former attorney with the U.S. Justice Department who now serves as the foundation’s director of academic studies.

To date, they have certified about 100 celebrants around the United States, with several in the Montclair and northern New Jersey area. Local students attend classes at the Montclair headquarters, while others study online. The number of graduates has grown from seven in 2001, mostly from New Jersey, to 50 in 2005 from 14 states and Canada.

Members of the 2005 graduating class ranged in age from 26 to 85, coming from such varied backgrounds as teaching and social work to marketing, advertising and the military. “We’re looking for highly motivated students who have an interest in ceremony and ritual, public speaking experience, excellent writing abilities, organizational skills, and a love of the arts and working with people,” Reed stated. “Above all, they must be committed to creating personalized ceremonies for people of all beliefs and value systems.”


Rosilyn Wilder is
a newly minted civil celebrant who views her latest vocation as a natural outgrowth of her acclaimed teaching and performing careers. After 25 years of teaching at New York University, and recently winning the prestigious Gertrude Schattner Award for her distinguished career from the National Association of Drama Therapy, the octogenarian looks forward to creating and performing ceremonies that focus on women and the choice to choose or not choose motherhood.

“I want to encourage women, whether or not they have children, who are exercising their choices and not just doing what’s expected,” she said.

While becoming a celebrant, Wilder performed a December 2004 dedication of a public art sculpture at Valley Road and Summit Ave. that was created by her late husband, artist Ben Lieberman. “I felt it was very healing,” she said.

Wilder has also performed a healing ceremony for an Italian immigrant family whose son turned down a full college scholarship to become a drummer.

“It really is a service organization where we’re serving for positive things in a time when people need vision and affirmation so much,” she said.


Gerald Fierst, described by ABC News as “a master storyteller,” blends that profession with being a civil celebrant. After helping to found and run the very popular Whole Theater Company on Bloomfield Avenue (where the Halloween store is now) for 19 years, he became a celebrant in 2003.

He calls the more than 50 weddings he’s performed, from Seattle to New York City and Florida, “extraordinary experiences. Most people sit through the ceremonies wondering when the party is going to start,” he said. “You don’t want the party to be the symbol of what the marriage is. You want the words, the promises, the acknowledgement of each other to be at the heart of the wedding.”

Each ceremony, he said, “is a statement of the life passage that people are going through. For the celebrant, it becomes an extraordinary experience where you’re really invested with the intimacy of these peoples’ lives. It’s quite fulfilling.”


When Tony Anastasopoulos, a junior at Montclair High School, was killed saving a classmate from an oncoming train in August 2002, his parents, Francine and Petros Anastasopoulos, commissioned Montclair artist Elizabeth Jacobs to create a memorial. Jacobs fashioned Tony’s Bench at the corner of Chestnut and Park Streets near Montclair High School, and asked her friend, celebrant Bonnie Cushing, to create a ceremony to present the bench to the community.

As part of the ceremony to honor Tony, guests wrote wishes on slips of paper, which were then sealed inside the bench in his memory.

“We always hear, ‘I’ve never been to a ceremony like this. You really listened to us and you told our story.’” Reed said. “No two celebrant ceremonies are alike.”

Celebrants are trained to improvise new kinds of events based on the needs of their clients. The course curriculum has grown to help students specialize in ceremonies that reflect today’s society, including those for downsizing, retirement, infertility, coming-of-age, divorce, home welcomings and blessings, and ceremonies to celebrate the terminally ill.

“These areas reflect the kinds of life events so many of us face in our daily lives,” Eulette said. “Regardless of whether these milestones are viewed positively or negatively in one’s life, there is a clear indication that people want ceremony to mark them.”

To learn more about the Celebrant USA Foundation and Institute, call (973) 746-1792, or visit www.celebrantusa.org.

Contact TaRessa Stovall at stovall@montclairtimes.com.