Why Ceremony Matters

Creating ceremonies is what I do, and every once in a while it’s good to stop and remember why. To my way of thinking, there are three really big transitions in life: birth, death and marriage. Every culture and religion, all around the world, has different ways to honor these milestones. Momentous occasions are honored and celebrated in diverse ways, almost always involve ceremony; rites of passage. 

Elizabeth Gilbert wrote: ‘Ceremony is essential to humans: It’s a circle that we draw around important events to separate the momentous from the ordinary. And ritual is a sort of magical safety harness that guides us from one stage of our lives into the next, making sure we don’t stumble or lose ourselves along the way.’

The ‘Land Diving’ Ceremony of Pentecost Island, Vanuatu.

That really nails it. I probably don’t have to even say anymore. But naturally I will!

Besides those three big ones, other life changing transitions include coming of age, sexual identity, any major disruption in relationships, especially divorce. All are deserving of recognition, in small or big ways. We also have ceremonies for graduation or receiving awards and even retirement.

Each tradition has its own way to express the meaning, with specific rituals, readings or actions. And let’s remember that cultures and traditions evolve, changing with the times, or struggling to do so.

Perhaps you have heard of one of the most unusual coming-of-age ceremonies. It takes place in a remote island in the South Pacific, where boys risk their lives jumping head-first from a 90 foot tall wooden tower with nothing but vines wrapped around their ankles. Yes, ceremony can take many forms.

While I specialize in honoring weddings, what I think of as the number three spot in the all-important life changes challenge, I also officiate funerals, baby welcomings and occasionally other types of events. I recently performed a lovely renewal of vows, and I have also created interesting anniversary celebrations, blessing of animals, and community events. I even create secular confirmation programs and ceremonies.

A Bar or Bat Mitzvah is a classic example of a coming of age ceremony.

A funeral or memorial service is another important milestone. Sometimes people choose to do something a few weeks or more after the person has died. It can be somewhat more uplifting, and also allows people time to make plans to travel. These are often called a ‘celebration of life,’ rather than a funeral. But some traditions do not allow for this. Devout Jews and Muslims are required to bury almost immediately after the death. However, this still wouldn’t preclude a celebration of the person at a later date, after the burial.

I know there are times when families skip a formal ceremony for the dead. The reasons for this are varied. Sometimes it is a discomfort with religion, especially if the deceased had given up on her or his faith, or the family has a mixture of beliefs and they are unsure how to handle that. 

There could be costs that make it prohibitive or seem wasteful to the survivors. 

There might be family disfunction and no one wants to come together, especially if it feels like you are honoring someone who was not a good person. We know how people always say nice things about the dead, even if they don’t deserve it. These are tricky issues, but if you loved the person who has died, even without a formal ceremony, it is worthwhile to take some special time to honor that loss. As we often hear (and rightly so) – a funeral is for the living.

Weddings are entirely different. Even elopements deserve to be properly honored. A wedding is a joyful time and the ceremony is meant to move everyone through this transition. The wedding ceremony honors the partner’s separate lives, their past, and the journey that led them to one another, then marks the moment of commitment, and takes them into their future as they walk down the aisle, beginning a new path, side by side.

Even for couples who have been together for years, it is still important. Getting married is meaningful at any time or stage in one’s life. There are so many good reasons to marry, including legal rights and science has shown that a healthy marriage promotes better and longer lives. And let’s remember if the couple getting married has children, it is also an important moment for them.

Big changes have always deserved recognition, and I believe they always will. I hope everyone realizes the importance of taking the time to do just that, in whatever way works for you. And of course, I’m happy to help if you need me.

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