Do-It-Yourself Rituals

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feel increasingly outdated.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,
‘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 (,
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
‘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
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

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.

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