Do-It-Yourself Rituals

Who needs old traditions when you can make up new ones?

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If, as former poet laureate Robert Pinsky says, 'a people is its memory, its ancestral treasures,' then I'm a 10th birthday, a confirmation, a couple of graduations, and an underwhelming first kiss. Other memories weave through my mind, of course, but the landmarks of my youth were all recognized in some larger, ritualistic way -- through ceremonies and parties and innumerable telephone consultations with other 13-year-old girls.

Ritual celebrations knit us into history, and even into prehistory, connecting humans to each other over geography and time. The weird mortarboards and ornate diplomas that seem both mysterious and goofy to the contemporary eye connect us to erstwhile scholars. The teenager's hoopla over first love is a celebration of her newly discovered ability to tap into ancestral mating knowledge: 'I like you in that way.'

Many still find connection in the rites and ceremonies passed down to them from the lives and faiths of their parents and grandparents. For others, contemporary life has grown so secular, colored by irony, or just plain different that the old ways of marking major transitions no longer resonate. As more people enter nontraditional romantic partnerships, choose not to have children, and change jobs or genders or continents, the rituals of the past feel increasingly outdated. The need for ritual is so deep, though, that people have begun creating their own.

'I believe we're aching to find new ways to make meaning in our lives,' New York-based life transition coach Deborah Roth says on her Web site, Spiritedliving.com. 'It is . . . a privilege for me to be able to participate in the creation of these moments with my clients, my co-conspirators in the art of ritual-crafting.' Facilitating ceremonies that celebrate everything from coming of age to the arrival of menopause, Roth works with clients to imbue their special occasions with 'a sense of the sacred,' she says.

The 'sacred,' however, is not a prerequisite for do-it-yourself rituals. The unspiritual, atheistic, and ironic alike can consult LifeRites (Liferites.org), a British organization dedicated to 'serving the needs of those individuals who hold no formal religious beliefs and who seek to affirm their life and death in a personal and individual manner.' LifeRites will help you plan every variety of passage from baby-naming to eldership (menopause) to nature-based woodland burials. The Altoona, Pennsylvania-based Secular Celebrant Services (SCS) targets atheists in particular as they seek to 'mark life's passages, completely free of religion!' A funeral without 'preying clergy,' for example, or a legally recognized (or not) marriage sans heavenly blessings. High on freedom from tradition, SCS proclaims on its Web site (atheiststation.org): 'Organized religion no longer has a monopoly on these services in Central Pennsylvania!'

In wealthy urban enclaves around the country, some non-Jewish families are even arranging 'faux mitzvahs' -- secular celebrations for their teenagers that parallel traditional bar and bat mitzvah celebrations. Typically, these ceremonies mark the passage from childhood to adulthood and recognize the young adult's deepening relationship with his or her Jewish faith. Often hugely expensive, faux mitzvahs include all the trappings of traditional mitzvahs without the spiritual dimension and the preparatory months of intense religious study. Some observers doubt the wisdom of appropriating the fun without the substance, but others see it as the result of an open society where traditions are seen, enjoyed, and borrowed from.

DIY rituals can be arranged to honor life transitions of all shapes and sizes, from traditional childbirth and marriage celebrations to divorce ceremonies. Gary Turner, a United Methodist, styled a liturgy for a divorce worship service (www.divorceinfo.com/garyturnerservice.htm) that is built around 'recognition and resurrection.' It is designed to remember the marriage and mourn its end. Using the traditional Methodist call-and-response liturgy, Turner in-vokes Old Testament fire, New Testament forgiveness, and an adapted communion service.

If you don't want to worry about divorce (or how to celebrate it), opt for a DIY marriage that is guaranteed to last: Marry yourself. In 1999, at age 37, Remi Rubel did just that. As she told the San Francisco-based magazine To-Do List, she chose a public ceremony. 'Weddings are public for a reason,' she said. 'Partners change when they make a public and lifetime commitment to each other, so I thought it must be the same with self-matrimony. A year later, when Rubel married her husband, she did not divorce herself. 'This is a marriage for a lifetime, no matter who else gets involved.'

There's no question that DIY rituals are contributing to and creating new cultural and personal histories. But, as rituals since the dawn of time have done, they are also bringing people together across social divisions, ages, genders, and ethnicities, and promoting solidarity -- even when that solidarity is created with wedding vows between one person and herself.

Laine Bergeson is editorial assistant at Utne.