HUMANIST CEREMONIES

JANE WYNNE WILLSON

Ceremonies have always existed to mark important events in people’s lives, even in quite primitive societies. Birth, puberty, marriage, and death can all be thought of as times of transition and, as such, have long been celebrated as rites of passage within families and communities all over the world.

As one would expect, the form these ceremonies take will naturally reflect the fundamental beliefs of a particular society and culture. In the Western world and beyond, Christianity has played an important role in ceremonial events, and religious procedures have come to dominate rites of passage.

For families who hold no supernatural beliefs, a religious wedding or funeral service is quite inappropriate and can be an uncomfortable and even distressing experience. Those humanists who want to mark an important event with a ceremony, to give the occasion some formality, feel the need for a secular alternative free of religious association. The growth in the popularity of humanist and nonreligious ceremonies in many countries at the present time is proof that there is a deep, though at times latent, need for such provision.

Terms and Definitions

Ceremony

Throughout this essay I have decided to distinguish between the words ceremony and celebration. I use the term ceremony to describe an occasion when family and friends get together to mark an event of importance, such as a birth, marriage, or death, often called rites of passage.

Celebration

In the United States in particular, celebration is often used in the same sense as ceremony, which can be confusing. Celebration originally denoted “observance” or “marking,” as the corresponding verb is used in the sentence, “Do you celebrate Christmas in your family?” But in more general usage, a celebration suggests a joyful occasion for congratulation and recognition or for thanks and appreciation. Celebrations are more in the nature of parties involving friends, colleagues, and family. They could include awards for academic, artistic, or sporting achievements or special awards for bravery.

Certainly there is often a celebratory element in the major rites of passage. Parents usually like to celebrate the arrival of a new baby (or sometimes an older child in the case of adoption) and to welcome him or her into the family. They are proud to celebrate the transition of their son or daughter from childhood to adulthood. Couples who have decided to share their lives want to celebrate the event among their family and friends. Even a funeral ceremony is an opportunity to celebrate a life that has ended. But there are exceptions. Couples who are getting divorced sometimes have a ceremony to mark a new stage in their lives as joint parents rather than partners. This is likely to be a dignified and moving statement of commitment and intent rather than a celebration.

In the widest sense of the word, celebrations can contribute to happiness and well-being in family life and in society so they are of particular importance to secular families. One of the basic ideals of Humanism is to make this life as pleasant as possible for everyone alive now and for generations as yet unborn. After all, it is the only life we expect to experience. In 1876, the great American atheist and orator Robert G. Ingersoll wrote, “Happiness is the only good; the time to be happy is now, and the way to be happy is to make others so.”

Ritual

Ritual is another term that is sometimes, although by no means always, used in a derogatory way. This describes a set framework and familiar series of actions that many people can find reassuring and helpful at moments of emotion or distress. The repetitive nature of church liturgy may have the same effect for religious people, but certainly not for humanists. The big difference in humanist ceremonies is that by their very nature they are personal and individual. The words are not texts from a religious book but are chosen to suit the personalities and circumstances of the people involved.

Humanist Ceremonies

For humanists, the decision to hold a ceremony is a very personal one. There is no obligation one way or the other. If parents want to investigate what is involved and to consider whether or not they would like to arrange one, the best thing to do is to meet up with other families and hear their views and experiences. National humanist, ethical, secular, and atheist organizations will furnish information about their availability in a particular country or state and will explain any legal requirements. If a humanist celebrant is not available locally, family members can usually arrange to organize a ceremony themselves. Alternatively, they can seek the help of a Unitarian or other liberal minister who is willing to conduct a nonreligious ceremony for them.

In a book about secular parenting, the most directly relevant ceremonies are those held to welcome new babies and those that mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. However, wedding ceremonies may be of interest, particularly in cases of remarriage, and funeral ceremonies are likely to occur at some time within families. The role children can play in these is important. So I shall write a brief account of all four rites of passage, stressing that this can only give a flavor of the kind of ceremonies that are already being enjoyed by humanists in many parts of the world. The beauty of our situation is that the way is wide open for any parents to create ceremonies that feel right for them and their children together as a family, if that is their wish. Humanists are not governed by convention or by church authorities.

imageThe beauty of our situation as humanists is that the way is wide open for any parents to create ceremonies that feel right for them and their children together as a family, if that is their wish.image

Naming and Welcoming Ceremonies

Of the main rites of passage, the naming or welcoming ceremony is usually the least formal. Often these are more in the nature of parties for close family and friends, held perhaps in a grandparent’s garden or living room, or in the parents’ own home. It is a happy occasion that celebrates the baby or young child’s arrival in the family, whether by birth or adoption. At the same time, the parents can express their commitment to the child’s well-being and their undertaking to care for him or her through the long years to adulthood, or for as long as is necessary. “Supporting adults,” the equivalent of Christian godparents, are usually there, and they can pledge that they will take a special interest in the child, through good times and bad. Sometimes older siblings are included in the ceremony. The giving of a name to the baby is usually part of the proceedings, even if the ceremony is held when the baby is several weeks or even months old and the name has been registered and in use for a while. There is often some symbolic act such as the lighting of a candle or planting of a tree. Music can be played and poems read.

Coming-of-Age Ceremonies

These are essentially ceremonies to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. It is interesting that in Norway they are by far the most popular ceremonies, whereas in most other countries they do not exist. There was already a well-established religious coming-of-age ceremony for fourteen-year-old children in Norway, preceded by courses run by the established Lutheran Church. The Norwegian Humanist Association campaigned hard to establish an alternative secular ceremony, and this was achieved some years ago. Now, in town halls throughout Norway, many hundreds of humanist “ordinands,” smartly dressed and glowing with pride, take part in a magnificent and popular ceremony each year, having attended a short course in citizenship and ethical matters run by humanist teachers and counselors in the weeks leading up to the occasion.

This solemn but happy ceremony, held at a period in a young person’s life that can often present difficulties, is especially valuable. The ceremony can provide a staging post on the child’s road toward independence. At the same time, it can help the parents adjust to their changing role and the prospect of their child’s eventual departure from the family home.

imageIn town halls throughout Norway, many hundreds of humanist ‘ordinands,’ smartly dressed and glowing with pride, take part in a magnificent and popular ceremony each year, having attended a short course in citizenship and ethical matters run by humanist teachers.image

There is a clear challenge here for humanists in other countries to follow Norway’s lead. Where one or both humanist parents have been brought up in cultures or religious traditions where ceremonies are held at puberty, this would be a natural progression. An example of such a situation might be for those from a Jewish background who would be familiar with the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony. It might be a bit more difficult to introduce a secular coming-of-age ceremony from scratch where there is not already a tradition, but the benefits and beauty of such a rite would make such an effort well worth the undertaking.

Wedding Ceremonies

In most societies throughout history, weddings have taken place before the arrival of children in a family. At least that has been the theory! Nowadays, in Western societies, it is increasingly the case that children are present at, and even take part in, their parents’ wedding ceremony. It is sometimes the arrival of one or more children that gives parents the idea that it might after all be sensible to establish a more stable family background than can usually be provided by two people living together without the security of marriage or an alternative legal framework. Sometimes the wedding may be the result of pressure from the extended family or friends. More often, it is at the remarriage of one or both parents after bereavement or divorce that children are present and can play an important role. This is particularly the case where stepfamilies are involved, and the ceremony itself can go some way toward helping children adapt to new and at times difficult family situations.

In secular families, the form a wedding ceremony takes needs to be in keeping with the couple’s deeply held beliefs. In a humanist ceremony, they can express their feelings for each other and their aspirations for their future together in their own words. They can do this in the presence of their families and friends in a place of their own choosing. The ceremony can reflect their serious commitment and their shared responsibility, particularly where children are involved.

In some countries and states, humanist weddings are now officially recognized and include registration; in others, official registration is separately performed, and the humanist ceremony that follows still has no legal status. However, for the couple involved, it is the humanist wedding ceremony rather than the formal registration of their marriage that is the meaningful and memorable event, marking the start of their shared life together. This applies whether either or both have been married before and whether they are heterosexual or gay.

Funeral Ceremonies

Humanist funeral ceremonies provide an opportunity for families and friends to meet together to celebrate the life of someone they have loved, to say their last farewells, and to help each other by remembering and grieving together. This all applies equally to adults and children.

Children need to be involved when someone close to them dies. The death and the funeral ceremony should be looked on as a family event, like other family events but this time rather a sad one. It is doing them no kindness at all to exclude them from the funeral and the preparations for the ceremony. They need something to occupy themselves during the unreal days leading up to the funeral. Even quite young children can enjoy helping in small practical ways, such as making cakes or biscuits for the wake or party afterward, or picking and arranging flowers.

If a humanist celebrant is to officiate the funeral, he or she will visit the house to meet the family, find out the kind of ceremony they would like, and, most importantly, listen and build up a picture of the deceased. Children can often help choose an appropriate poem or song; they can contribute a touching or amusing anecdote. Sometimes they are keen to write something to be read at the ceremony.

Children in secular families are likely to ask a lot of questions. They will need honest answers, particularly if well-intentioned religious friends have told them, for example, that their grandpa has gone to heaven and they will see him again one day. They will have to be told that they will be saying good-bye at the ceremony, but they will always be able to go on talking about Grandpa and remembering all the good times they had with him. They will need reassurance and comforting like anyone else.

Conclusion

Ceremonies can be seen as an important and enriching feature of life in many families throughout the world. In religious homes, they obviously follow the various religious traditions, but religions do not hold a monopoly of ceremonial practices that have existed since time immemorial. Once they have been disentangled from their religious packaging, ceremonies are as fitting in secular families as elsewhere. Humanist, ethical, and secular organizations can take pride in having gone some way toward restoring ceremonies and celebrations to their rightful place in society as a natural part of family life.

A lifelong agnostic, JANE WYNNE WILLSON became involved in the humanist movement in the United Kingdom when her oldest child met religion head-on at a state primary school. Since then she has been active at local, national, and international levels, serving as president of the London-based International Humanist and Ethical Union and vice president of the British Humanist Association. She is the author of Parenting Without God, New Arrivals, Sharing the Future, and Funerals Without God. A retired special needs teacher with four children and ten grandchildren, Jane has a deep interest in bringing up children happily with a strong basis for morality but no religion.

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