When Patrick Burns, who was raised Catholic in New Jersey, and his fiancée Roya, a Jewish woman born in Iran, were planning their wedding, they knew they wanted a special kind of ceremony, one that would incorporate both their traditions. So they turned to a new kind of service-a personalized wedding ceremony created for them by a professional celebrant.

"The beliefs of the celebrant don't matter, it's the beliefs of the couple that are primary," says Charlotte Eulette, executive director of Celebrants USA Foundation, based in Montclair, New Jersey. "The couple choose the words, the music, the style, and the venue. Their values and ideals are expressed in the ceremony." The celebrant acts as resource, advisor, and facilitator, orchestrating the ceremony but keeping the focus on the bride and groom. Celebrants are particularly well-suited to couples who are unaffiliated with a house of worship, who may be interfaith or secular, but still want a meaningful service that reflects their values.

"We interview the couple and give them a questionnaire to fill out, asking such things as what are you bringing to this partnership, what brings you joy, what does it mean for you to have your friends and family here today-then we write their story," says Eulette. "When we reflect this back during the ceremony, there isn't a dry eye in the house." Couples are not used to so much freedom, she observes. "So many times people ask, Can we do this? We say you can do whatever you want-but we give them a framework."

"If we had gone to a judge, rabbi, or a priest, I don't think they would have gotten as involved as Remy, our celebrant, and Charlotte in putting the whole the whole script together," says Patrick Burns.

Celebrants USA, which opened in 2001, is a chapter of the International Federation of Celebrants founded in Australia more than 20 years ago. Celebrants are trained to officiate at all life-cycle ceremonies, including funerals, naming ceremonies, and coming of age rituals.

Cindy Reed, a former lawyer turned celebrant ("I am so thankful everyday that I've found my mission," she notes), recalls one of the more memorable weddings performed by the U.S. group. "It was between a Muslim and a Catholic, who were both African American," she says. During the processional, one little boy carried a copy of the Qur'an while another held a family Bible. There was a broomstick symbolizing the custom of "jumping the broom." The celebrant poured out libations, an African tradition to give thanks to the earth, and the hands of the bride and groom were tied with special cloth in a handfasting ritual. "They incorporated so many different symbols in a 30-minute ceremony," says Reed. "It was truly about who they were as a couple and a family."

Unlike at conventional services, a celebrant-led service has the couple facing the guests, while the celebrant stands off to the side. There is often audience participation, as people come up to share their thoughts and feelings about the couple. Sometimes spectators make a vow to support the couple in their new status in the community. Typically children and stepchildren are included in the service, lighting a candle of unity symbolizing the new family. And celebrants perform ceremonies of union for same-gender couples.

"A lot of the couples who come to us are introspective and adventurous," says Charlotte Eulette. "It's for people who want the opportunity to express themselves to each other, to their families and to their community on one of the most important days of their lives."

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