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    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    feel increasingly outdated.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 (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
    ‘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.

    Published on Jul 1, 2004


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