For quite some time now I’ve really wanted to catch up with Lane Cove local and now marriage celebrant Stephen Miller. In 2016 he and his wife tragically lost their 21-year-old son, Elliott, to a rare cancer. We finally got together last week for a coffee and a chat about his difficult two-year journey.
So Stephen I understand you are now a qualified marriage celebrant?
Yes that’s right, my registration came through last month and I’m super excited to finally be able to marry people for real now! I’ve done several mock weddings, which were all identical to the real thing including 22 guests, wedding clothes and flowers, but just not ‘legal’ marriages.
Sounds like Married at First Sight. Why would someone get married but not for real?
Ha ha, I suppose it was a bit like MAFS where, as you know, the couples don’t really get married. Unlike other versions of the show around the world, including Denmark where it originated, the couples in Australia cannot actually be married due to legal restrictions. So they meet as strangers on the day and just take part in a non-binding commitment ceremony. Celebrants cannot proceed with a marriage if either person is deemed to be under duress or doesn’t want to go through with it. Not actually knowing the person would certainly be reasonable cause for concern. Anyway, paperwork has to be lodged with the celebrant one-month prior.
No, my ‘pretend’ weddings – which were also professionally filmed by the way – were part of the very extensive training required of celebrants these days. The amount of work needed to pass my Cert IV qualification was rigorous beyond belief and took months to complete. I’m very pleased to say though, I passed with distinction and then moved on to apply for registration from the Attorney General’s Department. That then took over two days to complete and required proving beyond doubt that I’m a fit and proper person and have a competent knowledge of the law and the marriage ceremony.
So what made you become a celebrant?
Good question. It was my daughter Alice’s idea actually. For forty years I’ve worked as a successful award-winning graphic designer and photographer but after my 60th birthday last year I decided the time was right for a new challenge. As I discussed this with her she immediately said, “Dad you ought to become a marriage celebrant, you’d be so good at that”. Slightly suspicious that this might just be a devious ploy to save the cost of a celebrant at her own wedding, I looked into what was involved. She was right as always– it certainly is a fantastic fit!
Also, and I think this is what you are alluding to, after we lost our beautiful 21-year-old son in 2016 to a rare cancer, my whole perspective on life changed dramatically. It was such a devastatingly cruel and wicked blow. From diagnosis to death was less than five months. Elliott was such a healthy and wonderful boy. He was powering along at Sydney University at the time – that is to say getting average marks in his Arts Degree but getting rave reviews for his comedic acting talent for SUDS (Sydney University Drama Society). That’s why he went to Sydney really and literally overnight he became immersed in a ridiculous amount of productions. He liked nothing more than encouraging and developing talent in others. This, in turn, led him to directing and while an undeniably great improvisational actor with impeccable comic timing, I think directing is where he would be plying his trade today. Elliott was that special kind of person who was perfectly satisfied simply knowing he had got the absolute best out of the production’s actors and then quietly and contentedly, bask in their reflected glory from stage right.
What has been the hardest part of this experience?
Everything! There is nothing worse than losing a child – of any age. But I suppose one aspect that has been particularly hard for me is being denied seeing Elliott’s enormous potential unfold. Everyone who knew him would tell you the boy had an amazing life ahead. He was like this energetic, talented bud about to explode into a flower of wonder and greatness. To lose his future at such a pivotal time has really made the heartbreak so much worse. But I think the thing that probably upsets me the most, is that I will never see him become the amazing father that I know he would have been. I like to think I’ve done pretty good job of parenting three incredible children, but seeing Elliott do an even better job than I, would have made me so very proud.
I know Elliott had a lot of friends how did they cope with his passing?
Yes, it was enormously hard for everyone not just us. Over a 1000 people attended his funeral, which was held at his old school St Aloysius’ College. A couple of days after his death, over 500 twenty-year-olds sat in silence on the Coogee headland from 4.00am (the time he died) for a dawn wake. It was a wonderfully moving experience and something I will never forget. Sydney University have since renamed a performance studio on campus the ‘Elliott Miller Studio’ and his school has set up a bursary and renamed the major drama prize (which he won himself in 2012) after him. So these and other equally wonderful tributes means his legacy very much lives on. Elliott didn’t have an enemy in the world and would always want to help anyone. Even if you weren’t on his ‘A list’ if you needed him, he’d quite simply be there for you. I try to live my life much more like that these days. He, of course, learned so much from me – like how to use a spoon for example – but this is a wonderful thing that he taught me.
But before I paint a too rosy picture of him, I should also say he was at times that typically annoying young person, hell-bent wherever possible on annoying the bejesus out of his father. Grazing and denting the car, minor speeding and parking infringements, borrowing things as props for plays and returning them in pieces or often not at all. His room was a smelly horizontal wardrobe and he’d always go out and leave the sink full of dirty pans with heaters, fans and lights left on. As frustrating as all this was at the time, I’d have it all back in a heartbeat if it meant he was back too. If anyone has a child driving them nuts like this, please, just ignore it and simply embrace the fact you have them.
So tell me more about being a celebrant
In some ways, this career change has been the cathartic kick I needed and really very healing. Weddings are such joyous, happy occasions and to be part of that on a regular basis is something I really look forward to. I think about Elliott every day of course but as hard as it seems sometimes, we all have to move on. When I’m working on wedding stuff I’m really happy and as a celebrant that is important. Sure, you need to be knowledgeable, charismatic and capable but you also have to engage emotionally with your couples joy. Their wedding day is a really fun thing for them and I need to be able to inject enthusiasm, happiness and where appropriate, humour. I love public speaking (when I know what I’m talking about), am meticulously organised and enjoy writing people’s stories. Personalising the ceremony will definitely be the best bit for me, followed closely by actually presenting it. I’m aiming to be more progressive and certainly much more fun than a lot of other celebrants. My sex is also hugely underrepresented, yet strangely often requested. Easy Weddings statistics identify that while less than a 20% of the celebrants listed with them are male, nearly 50% of all celebrant inquiries begin using the search criteria ‘male’.
Wow! Thank you. I assume you are looking to also preside over weddings outside of the Lane Cove area?
Oh yes of course. I’m registered to marry couples anywhere in Australia and certainly happy to travel as required.
Well it’s been really fascinating catching up with you again and so nice to see you so happy and invigorated.
Oh thank you Jacky. I always have time for a chat with you. I couldn’t imagine living in Lane Cove and not having ITC on Facebook. I love it! It’s the lifeblood of the community and long may it continue.