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Humanist celebrant Hannah Hart talks to Workingmums.co.uk about her job.
Hannah Hart has an unusual job. She’s been a humanist celebrant for the last five years and is now combining this with marketing the British Humanist Association part time.
She came to the job through a circuitous route, having been only dimly aware of humanism beforehand. Hannah had been working full time in “a normal job” before she had her first child 12 years ago, doing marketing work for local government and universities. While she was pregnant her husband was offered a post in Maryland in the US and it seemed a good time to try something new. She went back to work part time for four months to pay back her enhanced maternity pay and then the family left for the US.
Her last day of work was 9/11. She had planned to work in the US, but because of 9/11 the paperwork clearance took 11 months rather than six weeks, by which time she was just about to give birth to her son. So instead she did a part-time Open University masters degree in social research methods, thinking her career would go in that direction when she came back to the UK. Her husband's posting had been due to last for three years, but was extended by a year.
When she returned she became a school governor at her daughter’s school and did some freelance writing, including writing funny greetings card captions. When her son started school she decided to train to be a humanist celebrant.
She says living in a different, more religious culture in the US had made her question her own lack of belief. “When we moved back I became more and more interested in thinking about lack of religious belief because of how much of US life was dominated by questions of faith and how oppressive I found that. I started thinking about what not being religious meant to me,” she states.
She joined a local humanist group and learnt about humanist ceremonies. Hannah was drawn to the baby naming ceremonies in particular since she and her husband had not had any such events for their own children. “Naming ceremonies celebrate the importance of trying to parent responsibly and being honest about how hard it can be. They create a sense of community, bringing everyone together and acknowledging the other people who are important in a child’s life,” she says. “I love the idea that children can look back when they are older and find the script for the ceremony that the celebrant has worked with their parents on and see the things that their mum and dad wanted for them, the promises they made to them, all written down. It’s a nice thing to have.”
She applied to be a humanist celebrant and had to be accepted onto the training process following screening. There were three separate training days at weekends over four months. After that she had to prepare a sample script for a ceremony which was marked. Then she had to be observed by another celebrant.
Hannah, who is based in Gloucestershire, does baby naming ceremonies and weddings rather than funerals, mainly because she can plan ahead for these and they are mostly held at weekends which makes it easier to organise around her children. Even so she says the life of a freelance celebrant is as difficult as any freelance job because of its unpredictability. Most weddings tend to happen in the summer and the early part of the year is spent meeting couples and planning for the ceremony. She works with couples to choose the tone and content they want, often trying to inject some humour into the script. “It’s very personal and that’s what makes it so interesting, trying to get them to articulate how they feel. It’s quite a process,” says Hannah. For instance, some women want to be given away at their wedding, others feel that is sexist; some people want a secular version of church vows while others want something more personal.
Humanist weddings are not legally binding which gives people more freedom in what they can do or say, says Hannah, for instance, in where they hold their weddings. Hannah has taken ceremonies in a castle in Wales and a boarding school.
The baby naming ceremonies are also an opportunity for parents to talk about what led them to be parents and their experience of parenting and Hannah says that they tend to be very honest, for instance, a mother might talk about her post-natal depression. “It is very powerful that they are prepared to talk openly about things like that,” she says.
“Being a celebrant requires a great combination of skills, from creativity to performance. It’s endlessly fascinating,” she says, adding that she also has to market her own services. There can be a lot of politics too, with some guests perhaps initially sceptical about the ceremony until they see it in action.
Over the last year she has taken on a freelance contract to market the British Humanist Association. She says this works well as, since she is a celebrant, she is more aware of the marketing challenges. It’s the first time the Association has had a dedicated marketing person and a concerted strategy. “It’s a good balance,” she says.
When the children are older she hopes to be able to take funeral ceremonies. She feels she needs to be able to be more flexible with her time before she can commit to taking funerals and also is not sure that she yet has the emotional dexterity to switch quickly between talking to bereaved families and looking after her own children. She recognises that funerals can be an emotional minefield with family members split and grieving in very different ways. She herself recently lost her father and says that she thinks it is vital for funeral celebrants to have experienced bereavement themselves to be able to understand what their clients are going through. If celebrants get it right, though, it can have a huge impact, she says. “The difference a good funeral can make is amazing,” she says.