With a career spanning a little over 18 years, Lillian Lyon from Lyon Heart is one of our most experienced celebrants. Not only does she expertly conduct weddings and funerals, she also teaches people how to celebrant too! She believes in celebrating all humans, from all walks of life.
If you’ve met Lillian in person you know that she exudes a certain type of confident energy that comes from years of experience.
I recently asked Lill a bunch of questions so we can learn more about how to be an amazing celebrant just like her, and you’ll also be gifted with some great laugh-out-loud moments too.
Why did you choose to study and become a celebrant?
I went to my niece’s wedding and the celebrant was ‘businesslike’ in her delivery and she also got the names wrong. I whispered to my sisters-in-law a throwaway comment “Even I could do a better job than her!” They emphasised, “YES LILL YOU HAVE TO DO THIS! You’d be great at it”. I was like “um just kidding”. But I was bloody curious because this celebrant was ‘the best’ and I thought, no way. In those days we were still on dial-up, so I flicked through the Yellow Pages book and looked up courses. There was really only one course I could see so I did that one.
Can you remember the moment you became a celebrant?
My first booking was for a friend’s daughter. I was pumped to go, then they broke up a few days before the wedding. People had come from all over the world because he was a rugby player and even did interviews about his upcoming wedding, so the pressure was on. I thought “Shit, is this even a thing?” Anyway, another couple who were my friends had booked me before I was even registered, so that ended up being my next wedding. There was this guy who sold PA systems and he loaned me a PA system to trial. There were 180 guests in a park. Before the ceremony, I did the sound check which was perfect and ready to go. My first word into the microphone ‘Welcome.’ was silent. PA wasn’t working! So, I had to project my voice like a banshee. Most guests knew me, so they were empathetic. I was desperate for photos of my first wedding, and the couple were happy to send them. I wore a suit because I was told celebrants should wear suits, but I chucked a nice soft red blouse underneath but didn’t realised it was pretty short which exposed my belly button in every shot. To this day, whenever I bump into the couple and their 3 now big kids, they ask me “how my belly button’s going?”.
Did you juggle another job at the time, what was it? How did you do it?
When I first started, I was working in our professional photographic studios in Alexandria. We were flat out with all three studios constantly busy. We also had some big overseas clients and I used to book all services like locations, models, catering, insurances etc. so it was a stressful job and there was no internet at the time. As soon as I became a celebrant, word got out and I got bookings straight away. I came to a crossroads where I just couldn’t do it all so I made the big leap. We hired a studio manager so I could become a full-time celebrant. Pretty much 3-6 months into from becoming registered as a celebrant, I went full time.
How have wedding trends changed over the years?
God where do I start! The most obvious was back then all the photos for celebrants marketing themselves were so beige and boring – waist up, 3/4 angle, smile elegantly. There was always a blurry filter on the physical camera lens to smooth out wrinkles haha. When I asked my husband to take some photos for me, they were all in-situ eg. me in action at weddings. I was horrified and I picked a fight with him saying I won’t get any work because people will think I’m not serious about being a celebrant. Our digital department also did an awful website for me. Retouching was hopeless back then, so I looked like a plastic person with ridiculously flawless skin and gleaming white teeth! Anyway, established celebrants had all the fodder they needed, and I really copped a lot of criticism with my non-portrait advertisements (the days of printed media) with me laughing and interacting with couples, shame on me!
I remember how ceremonies were so stiff and serious. I started to introduce laughter and more organic material which again got the tongues wagging!
Have you noticed patterns in the wedding industry?
Patterns. When someone does something new, everyone does it. Like mason jars and burlap, thank God those things are gone! Whenever I see or hear about new trends, I just wait for them to go away.
How has celebrancy changed?
Celebrants used to wait for years before getting registered. I know celebrants who waited for 10 years! In 2004-2005 when I first started, there was an increase in celebrants and a lot were making good careers out of it, some with 250 ceremonies per year which they didn’t have to try hard to get. My record is 8 in one day! The ceremonies weren’t great, but the work was there, and I remember charging $350 per wedding back then. Most celebrants literally copied straight from Dally R. Messenger’s book “Ceremonies & Celebrations” now celebrants are super creative. It’s extremely competitive now and celebrants are really having to fight for their work. Nowadays there are also a lot of celebrants who do this as a part-time gig and don’t think twice about passing on a wedding to someone else if they have something in their personal life come up. That’s not everyone of course, but I’ve noticed it happens a lot. When I first started, and for at least 10 years on, you’d never hear of anyone passing on a wedding because most celebrants used to be either retired grannies doing the occasional wedding or full-time celebrants, so it was their only source of income. Not to mention the enormous vicious backlash from competition.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned so far?
A lot of people say that it’s easy for me to just get work because I’ve been in it for so long. That’s not true. It’s not like buying a burger, if you like it you go get another one. You have to keep evolving and reinventing yourself. Don’t try to be anyone else. Do courses to make yourself better at your craft. Don’t get involved in bitching about other celebrants or vendors; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had screenshots of bad comments from wedding groups sent to me. Be graceful and respectful, and really give a damn about your couples. Your couples may not remember the words in your time-consuming-written creation, but they’ll remember how you looked after them and how they felt during the ceremony.
If you knew then what you know now, what is it?
A high-profile celebrant 18 years ago told me that you can’t be a good wedding celebrant and funeral celebrant. She said “Lillian, you can only be one” like she was on fucking Game of Thrones “there can only be one!” Yeah right. I’m successful in both weddings and funerals and I do both roles very well. So, one thing I’ve learned is to diversify, broaden your conversations when speaking with couples and their families, let them know what you do without hard selling yourself. Be involved in local communities which is easy to do on socials. Never underestimate your fellow celebrants, funeral and wedding, because your buddies will pass on work, they’re not available for, and will give couples/families a glowing review about you.
Be a good listener. Don’t tell couples how things should be, listen to what they want and try to make it work their way, first.
There wasn’t a celebrant 18 years ago who didn’t have the slogan ‘Your Day Your Way’ but in truth would end up with ‘Your Day My Way’. Those celebrants soon started to see me as the new kid on the block asking couples what they want and making it work. I still do that, start with a blank piece of paper (or screen) and ask loads of questions.
If someone loves the song ‘1000 years’ show your enthusiasm for it. We see things over and over, but the couples only see their wedding once. If more than once, they can do it better next time around! It’s not about us. I work with a couple of Singaporean planners and everyone wants to walk down the aisle to ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ and I react as though it’s the first time I’ve heard It and how fabulous it is.
Worst thing to happen at a wedding?
One of “my” weddings? Here goes, and this is the first time I’ve ever put it out there. I went for a morning 10k run, giving myself a couple of hours before a shower and getting ready for a wedding at 1pm. I was lying back on the lounge recovering when I got a phone call on my clunky mobile phone, “Where are you?” So texting wasn’t brilliant back then, and I suddenly remembered the bride moving her start time to 11am. When she had called me the previous week and I told her to send me an email because I was driving and couldn’t take notes. She didn’t send an email and I forgot straight away. &*%$#@!!! I screamed to my husband to start the car, I grabbed my wedding clothes, and we literally broke every road rule racing to the outdoor venue which was an hour away. I got changed in the passenger seat, whacked on make up, then traffic jam. I felt like I was going to throw up. Two hours later, I arrived. I grabbed my stuff, and was running to the ceremony area which was in a botanic garden, then I noticed another wedding arriving in that area. My guests had to walk to another ceremony area (which I thought was way prettier anyway) As I was running, the photographer was running towards me and whispered loudly, “Lill you’d better not run because you don’t have a bra on!”. Anyway, I opened with “Thank you for your patience…” then I smashed out the best ceremony, guests looked totally unimpressed, at the signing table the bride said how beautiful the ceremony was. The groom was totally silent. On the way home I drafted a service agreement. Back home, I was desperate for a shower, then I hit the V&T’s big time.
Best thing to happen at a wedding?
There are so many good times it’s hard to choose which are the best. But here’s the one that came to mind first. I was marrying a couple who were in the navy. It was my birthday. They got married on the Starship Sydney on Sydney Harbour. There were also a few couples I’d married in the past, so it was all very exciting. At the end after the signing, the couple had arranged for everyone to sing happy birthday, they brought out the biggest cake, and gave me a present. Then I had to get off the boat. They had arranged for a navy vessel like a pimped-up rubber ducky to pick me up. The drop from deck was around 3m high to the tiny gap I had to jump down to on the vessel. These two hot naval officers said “jump, we’ll catch you” I thought this is the best birthday in my life. I jumped, they smothered me with a rescue hug, and we did a big 360 lap of honour around the ship with everyone cheering. At the Man of War steps, the officers climbed up the big ladder and pulled me up to get me onto the jetty. I went straight to the Opera Bar, grabbed a chardy and thought this is the best job in the world.
What is the one thing that your role as a celebrant has given you that nothing else ever has?
That the diversity of humans is endless, and that if you’re open to it, the spirit of each life will enrich your own. I know that sounds overly deep, but I slept on this question and kept coming back to this. I’ve married people dying in hospital, I’ve done their funerals, I’ve had no shows, family eruptions, couples who have endured the most painful challenges so they can be together. I’ve become a funeral director and that human experience has seeped into how I care for the families and deal with the complexities involved. I’ve made some lifelong friends, both in the industry and through my couples and their families. I’ve travelled extensively and also learnt about different faiths and cultures. I truly believed I contributed to major changes to the culture of celebrancy in this country. And when I run into past couples with their grown-up kids, and they remember even the intricacies of their ceremony and still thank me all those years later, I know I did good.
Thank you Lill for sharing your wise words and insights, I had at least 5 x head nods, 6 x mini-giggles and 8 x LOL’s reading this. Basically, exactly what happens when I see you in person!