“Death was like taxes – you didn’t discuss it.”
In this exclusive interview, ‘The Godfather of Celebrancy’ Dally Messenger shares the triumphs and struggles of bringing celebrancy into the mainstream, and reforming the way we think about death, love and rituals.
The International College of Professional Celebrants has published an exclusive and fascinating interview with the pioneer of civil celebrancy, Dally Messenger III.
In their podcast, Celebrant Training Podcast, available on Apple and Google, you can listen to Dally Messenger discuss the history, evolution and future of celebrancy with celebrant Stuart Morris.
Who is Dally Messenger?
Most celebrants are familiar with Dally Messenger’s trailblazing efforts in bringing civil celebrancy into modern society. In the 1960s, he was the first person ever to apply to become a Civil Marriage Celebrant. And in the 1970s, he was one of a group of marriage-reformers who helped persuade the reforming Attorney-General, Lionel Murphy, to introduce civil marriage celebrants in Australia. In the 1990s, Dally Messenger was active in spreading the civil celebrancy movement to New Zealand, the UK and later to the US. Since then, civil celebrancy has become a part of everyday life for those at home and away, offering an alternative to a church or registrar service for marriages, funerals and everything in between.
“People didn’t want a one-size-fits-all”
In his interview, Dally paints a vivid picture of life before celebrancy when “Everyone was buried and there was no such thing as a Secular Funeral.” In the 1970s, Dally was asked to perform a civil ceremony for a non-religious young couple wanting to marry outside of the church. Back then, this was almost unheard of, but Dally recognised a growing need for this type of ceremony.
“People didn’t want one-size-fits-all” he said, “they wanted their own music and readings.”
After performing his first civil marriage ceremony, an unfortunate turn of events meant that the bride passed away a short time later. Dally was asked by her widower to perform the funeral, the first non-secular funeral of its kind. Dally took inspiration from the Desiderata and used words he had put into the wedding to form a eulogy. He also spoke about her values, favourite quotes and personal beliefs to paint a holistic picture of her. However, as groundbreaking as this ceremony was, Dally was condemned for doing his first secular funeral.The marriage celebrants were intimidated, but Dally was in full demand for this type of service.
From there, the interest in these sorts of civil ceremonies grew. But they were not without their controversies, especially when it came to the roles of celebrants and the associated rules of the profession.
“People don’t live in isolation: People live as part of history.”
Passionate about giving everyone an equal chance to celebrate love and commemorate loss in a non-sectarian way, Dally goes on to discuss the changes we’ve seen within societies across the globe. He says that since the 1970s, there has been an enormous shift towards agnostic and atheist beliefs, and so societies have to adapt to meet the needs and wants of these groups, rather than non religious people having to tolerate ceremonies that don’t truly align with their values. But the matter needn’t be that black and white. It needn’t be as simple as ‘religious ceremonies’ and ‘secular ceremonies’. It is, after all, natural to want to blend elements of religious ceremonies (such as a prayer) with civil ceremonies, because in reality, families and groups coming together for a funeral will have a mix of beliefs and customs. But this in itself has been a polarising issue within celebrancy, which Dally has witnessed first hand.
“There was a huge controversy if civil celebrants should be allowed to say religious words,” he said “but people don’t live in isolation. We should acknowledge the history that people have lied through.”
“Religion will decline and the leap of faith will be in celebrancy.”
If history teaches us anything about celebrancy, it is that the profession will be in more demand in the coming years due to a steadily decreasing interest in religious ceremonies. For this reason, providing a professional service is crucial. Both Dally and Stuart like to call civil celebrants Professional Celebrants, and advocate for robust celebrancy training and accreditation to ensure that, going forward, everybody has access to the highest quality service.
They both also speak of the need for celebrants to be paid a proper wage. Dally said “The future of the celebrancy in the UK depends on the quality of the ceremony; and being paid properly will lead to quality ceremonies being written and delivered.” And he reminds us that “poor pay is not an incentive to write a superb ceremony.”
Dally has not only pioneered the way for celebrants in the UK, but continues to lead by example. Still performing ceremonies at the age of 84, he charges $1500-$2000 per ceremony. And, rightly so, people are more than happy to pay this fee.
If you’d like to listen to the whole interview with Dally Messenger, visit the Celebrant Training Podcast available on Apple and Google.