Three wise women

IN THIS, THE SEA­SON OF GOOD WILL, WE RE­FLECT ON FAITH, HOPE AND CHAR­ITY, MEET­ING AN IN­SPIR­ING TRIO WHO EM­BODY TH­ESE TIME­LESS VAL­UES

The Simple Things - - WISDOM - Words: LUCY PURDY

“Christ­mas is about com­ing to­gether in the depths of win­ter; it’s a chance to take stock of life’s big mys­ter­ies”

The cel­e­brant

Hu­man­ist Is­abel Russo is a be­liever in the power of hu­man­ism to bring peo­ple to­gether, to in­stil a moral code and to ad­dress life’s big ques­tions “Cer­e­mony and ri­tual are so pow­er­ful. When done with au­then­tic­ity – peo­ple say­ing words that chime with them and that rep­re­sent who they are – they are in­cred­i­bly valu­able. They cre­ate a health­ier so­ci­ety as a re­sult.” Is­abel Russo, head of cer­e­monies at Hu­man­ists UK, be­lieves that ev­ery­body should have ac­cess to rit­u­als that res­onate – that they shouldn’t be the pre­serve of re­li­gion alone. And the vi­sion ap­pears to be catch­ing on in the UK, as for­mal re­li­gious be­lief de­clines.

The British So­cial At­ti­tudes sur­vey found that 52% of re­spon­dents had no re­li­gion in 2017 com­pared with 41% in 2002. But we still want to mark ma­jor events in our lives: birth, death and mar­riage, for ex­am­ple. Hu­man­ism sup­plies all of th­ese in mod­ern Bri­tain, be­lieves Is­abel. But, for the unini­ti­ated, what ex­actly is it? “Hu­man­ism is a life phi­los­o­phy that cham­pi­ons the idea that peo­ple can be good with­out God,” she ex­plains. “It’s the be­lief that we cre­ate mean­ing by valu­ing the things that sus­tain us: things like fam­ily, love, work and cre­ativ­ity. Hu­man­ists be­lieve that it’s our re­spon­si­bil­ity to find mean­ing in th­ese things and to live the best life that we pos­si­bly can, be­cause it’s the only life that we have.”

Drawn to sto­ry­telling, con­nect­ing with peo­ple and com­mu­ni­cat­ing deep emo­tions, Is­abel was an ac­tor for 20 years. In 2009, she started work­ing as a hu­man­ist cel­e­brant too, be­fore tak­ing up her cur­rent role in 2013. “It got to the point when I was much more ex­cited when a funeral di­rec­tor called than when my agent called,” she laughs. Her eyes shine as she de­scribes hu­man­ist cer­e­monies as “re­fresh­ing and joy­ful”. “There’s room for laughter at a funeral, for tears at a wed­ding. They are cre­ative and hon­est, con­tain­ing mo­ments of pro­found res­o­nance and mean­ing.”

Some hu­man­ist cer­e­monies are nearer the tra­di­tional end of the scale, while oth­ers are unique. Is­abel once held a funeral cer­e­mony for a woman who had had a pas­sion for danc­ing. “We de­signed a coun­try dance for all the peo­ple in the cre­ma­to­rium and they dosey-doed out of the build­ing.”

On an­other oc­ca­sion, a cou­ple of cir­cus per­form­ers were mar­ried, swing­ing from the rafters and tak­ing their vows on a trapeze. But, she is keen to em­pha­sise, “we al­ways tie it back to what has heart and mean­ing for the peo­ple in­volved. I love to help peo­ple have re­ally mean­ing­ful cer­e­monies that cre­ate ex­tra­or­di­nary punc­tu­a­tion marks in their lives.” An­other bride was in­cred­i­bly shy. “She wrote her vows but was ter­ri­fied to speak them,” says Is­abel. “She was a mu­si­cian so we came up with the idea that she would sing her vows on the ukulele. That could have been read as flip­pant and friv­o­lous, but be­cause all of the peo­ple in that room knew her and that’s where she was her com­fort­able

self, it was re­ally mov­ing. It was her – it was pure.”

She is cer­tainly not anti-re­li­gious. “If you’re a Chris­tian cou­ple, then of course you get mar­ried, wit­nessed by God, be­cause that speaks to you,” says Is­abel. “But I am very pas­sion­ate about peo­ple hav­ing the cer­e­mony that re­flects who they are and what they be­lieve. I think ev­ery­one should be al­lowed to have equal ac­cess to those things.”

What about Christ­mas? Does she cel­e­brate at this time of year? “There’ve al­ways been pa­gan win­ter fes­ti­vals that were about the re­turn of the light,” she re­minds. “It’s a ri­tual, a fes­tive time, deeply embed­ded in our psy­che. It’s about com­ing to­gether in the depths of win­ter to re-es­tab­lish your con­nec­tion with all that nur­tures and sus­tains you: fam­ily, friends, good food, wine and just cel­e­brat­ing what it is to be hu­man.”

With that in mind, Christ­mas is a bril­liant chance to take stock of life’s big mys­ter­ies, she sug­gests. “It’s so im­por­tant to sit with what can be very dif­fi­cult ques­tions. ‘ What’s the mean­ing of my life? What’s my pur­pose?’ for ex­am­ple. They help us to make the best of the year ahead: the most of our tal­ents, our abil­i­ties and of our ca­pac­ity for liv­ing.” hu­man­ism.org.uk

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