Is ceremony dying?

Charles 17 Comments

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

This seems a strange question just after economically-challenged Britain has hosted the Olympics, a no-expenses-spared ceremonial games that unites nations in celebration of sporting prowess.

But as the cult of individuality nibbles away at established social conventions, more and more people seem to be caring less for ceremony on a more intimate level. It didn’t seem particularly surprising when a woman of my acquaintance announced on facebook she’d just had a quickie marriage in a register office, adding friends would be invited to a bash some months after the honeymoon. I’ve also attended a memorial drinks party several weeks after a no-frills committal to which only family were invited to the crematorium. As we tucked into canapes, the only significance of the occasion was that we all knew the reason for being there, and our conversation reflected this fact.

Even those who opt for ceremony can sometimes offer reasons other than a deep emotional or spiritual need to mark a profound rite of passage. Some admit to getting little satisfaction out of the ceremony itself, saying it’s just the bourgeois thing to do—and a means to the end of gathering people together for that social jolly afterwards.

It goes without saying there are many ceremony options available, though more for marriages than funerals. If a register office is deemed too sterile to get married in and you don’t want a church ceremony, you can choose any number of venues from a beach on a paradise buy cialis online melbourne island to an aristocratic stately pile. If a crematorium is deemed too soulless for your funeral plans, the alternatives are more limited.

Some non-religious folk opt for a church funeral followed by a brief committal at the crematorium, seeing this as the best way to do justice to the dead through words and music before the final farewell. However, while some liberal churches allow risqué eulogies and secular music, traditional churches remind us we’re in a house of God. When in Rome…

Some again opt for graveside ceremonies in woodland cemeteries, seeing this as solving the time problem of the crematorium, but with natural surroundings which might appeal more than incense-scented churches, with their icons making visible religious purpose.

Meanwhile, others are opting to get the cremation over with swiftly so they can plan a ceremony with the ashes rather than the body. This can, of course, be anything from the aforesaid memorial party, with urn of cremains in attendance, to something more ritualistic such as the scattering of ashes in a favoured, natural beauty spot.

Time and money are important considerations in life, and both can be found more readily with pre-planning. But there’s more to meaningful ceremony than advance scheduling and financial planning. Whether it’s a hit-the-spot celebration-of-life speech or a requiem mass, providers must provide, and receivers must be open to their cathartic potential. It’s a two-way process. Or is apathy as relevant a consumer choice as any other?


  1. Charles

    Well, this argument rather assumes that ‘quickie’ marriages in register offices and ‘no frills’ committals don’t carry much emotional weight. Both descriptive words here seem rather derogatory, which is a shame, because people often have good reasons for wanting a simple approach to their important life events. Having been involved in both for a number of years, I’d say people are then very often surprised by the profound emotions which are invoked during even very simple ceremonies. Sometimes it is not at all what they are expecting.

  2. Charles

    Absolutely agree with you, Sweetpea, there’s nowt the matter with simplicity. The Quakers have been doing no-frills for centuries – slowies, what’s more – and their ceremonies are nothing if not profound.

    What gets my attention here is: “receivers must be open to their cathartic potential.” If by that Richard is saying that participants in a ceremony need to be aware of the point of a ceremony, then I think he makes a good case. I’ve a feeling that years of perfunctory work by disengaged religious ministers and other crem cowboys may have atrophied many people’s understanding of the purpose of a funeral.

    The secular celebrancy movement is opening people’s minds to the potential and possibilities of a good funeral in wonderful and life-changing ways. I’m sure that all who have practised will agree with you about the amazing power of simple.

    1. Charles

      Well, Charles, even when people are pretty closed to the cathartic potential, it can still catch them unawares, so all is not lost, even when people seem unwilling to embrace the emotional and spiritual value of what is about to happen.

      I once married a man who insisted on walking to the front of the marriage room carrying the plastic bag in which all his legal paperwork lurked, as if he were attending a meeting with the bank manager. He stated that he and his very long term partner were marrying for legal and financial reasons, and we were going to re-register their grown up children afterwards to acknowledge their change of status – all very business like. He insisted on the very briefest of words to contract the marriage, while his adult children stood at witnesses. Perhaps I have a face and voice which naturally reduces people to tears, I don’t know, but this was exactly what happened. To all of them – and I was glad for his wife, because she more openly admitted the true nature of what she was feeling before we commenced – she wanted something connected to their love for each other, not just a legal transaction.

  3. Charles

    Totally agree that simplicity can be very beautiful and moving. It surely all depends on what ceremony means to each of us. For some it is trumpets and horses, for others it is quiet contemplation.

    This morning I went with a lovely man to cremate his mum. There was no formal ‘ceremony’ and only us. But he was in charge of pressing the button to wheel the coffin through the ‘curtains’, and it was very lovely because it was right for him.

    And on the point of ceremony spaces, in my experience it’s a NIGHTMARE to find somewhere personal to get married (legally) because you have to find a space with a licence. Am I right about that? Whereas a funeral could be held absolutely anywhere at all, as long as the person owning the property is happy. People just don’t know about this, which is why we need to spread information far and wide about what is possible.

    1. Charles

      Yes, Poppy, Charles is correct about the statutory requirements of a civil marriage, where a registrar will be very careful about allowing anything which may compromise the legality of the proceedings. To take the positive angle on this, you really want someone who will follow the law closely so that you don’t end up with any legal problems later on – irregularities aren’t a happy problem to be left with. But a civil marriage does limit your personal expression, including choice of venue, time of day, spiritual or religious aspects etc, because the law is specific in its requirements. (Allowances of course are made in special circumstances, perhaps where someone is near the point of death and wishes to marry, where time is of the essence and venue is just where the marriage can be made possible.)

      Because of the limitations of expression at a civil marriage, people are now choosing to have a simple legal ceremony at a venue which is recognised for the purpose, and having a non-statutory ‘renewal of vows’ ceremony shortly afterwards, where they can choose the venue, have it outdoors if they wish, include prayers, hymns and religious readings – just like a civil funeral.

  4. Charles

    You’re right, Poppy, a marriage venue has to have a licence and the ceremony has to be conducted according to the law. You can’t personalise the ceremony much, either. You can’t have a venue with any religious imagery lurking in the plasterwork — they’ll even stop you having candles which look religious — or they did 10 yrs ago. Sweetpea’ll have a view on this.

    But a funeral has no legal status whatever so you can do anything you like so long as you don’t 1) endanger public health or 2) outrage public decency by exposing the corpse 3) break any other laws around public order, etc

  5. Charles

    Thank you for this conversation. I love it!

    Richard’s thought “there’s more to meaningful ceremony than advance scheduling and financial planning” leads us to a root cause of apathy. Meaningful ceremony takes work. It demands creativity, resourcefulness and time. Finding meaning outside of a faith-based organization may be challenging for people. I see people wandering without a ‘map’ — trying to reach, yet not finding, meaningful ceremony experience. If wanderers don’t connect with someone to guide them into creating and enacting a custom ceremony of any scale (e.g. trained Celebrants), they may likely choose nothing at all.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you Poppy: often people don’t know their alternatives. We may find great depth in total simplicity of basic ritual like pushing a button; or in a three-day family-led home vigil. What a range! As a Life-Cycle Celebrant in the states, I believe holding ceremonies to mark our rites of passage expands our collective human experience. With continual work to increase awareness, PLUS help anyone wandering without a map find their way into relevant ceremony, I don’t think ceremony is dying at all.

    1. Charles

      Hi Kristine, very nice to see you here! Thanks for dropping in. Thank you, too, for freshening things up a little and enriching the debate.. It’s always good to have a new voice in the conversation.

      I suppose most people associate ceremony with religion, patriotism, pomp and circumstance. Almost everyone’s experience of worship is that it is a ceremonial act so, when they move away from faith, they leave ceremony behind, too. Many will feel alienated from all that stuff, regarding faith and ceremonial as integral to each other. Disenchantment with one means disenchantment with both. In the UK it is arguable (and I do argue it) that there is also disenchantment with funerals per se, so badly have they been done for so long. They are seen as nothing more than an invidious social ordeal. The minimalist option can look very attractive.

      I think you’re absolutely right about mapless mourners. The absence of a familiar script, which is what most ceremony is (‘This is what we always do when…’) does present a huge challenge. I think you’re absolutely right, too, about the guiding role of the celebrant.

      Thanks to the (let’s be understated) amazing work of Sweetpea and her ilk in the UK, and people like you in the States, eyes are being opened to the possibilities offered by a bespoke ceremony. It’s probably not an overstatement to say that the funeral is being reinvented and reborn. I really like your line about expanding our collective human experience. It’s a concept people grasp intuitively when they are present at a good ceremony. It is a social/cultural necessity that we mark life events and rites of passage with this very much in mind, even in these highly individualistic times.

  6. Charles

    Claire and I are performing a naming ceremony for a friends baby boy this weekend, as well as installing ‘odd parents’ as they are known in our family. Between us all, we tweaked the idea of a Christian anointing, blended it with the mark that goes on a Hindu’s forehead called a Tilak to come up with a newish ritual. For Hindu’s, the mark is made from ash and clay from the Ganges and Turmeric. For Christians, a mark which echoes this is made from burnt palm leaves. We have got clay from Dartmoor, and powdered Torbay sandstone, the town where young Billy’s parents come from. The ash will come from a ritual fire we will burn tonight, with the four odd parents bringing a log each. The ceremony will be performed tomorrow on a sun drenched cliff top at East Prawle. Simple, honest and heartfelt.

    1. Charles

      Love it Ru! I do the occasional naming ceremony for family and friends and always struggle with what to call the not-godparents. And the anointing idea is wonderful. Will give my next ceremony a make-over!

  7. Charles

    Thank you for the warm welcome, Charles. I often desire to be working in the UK rather than the US. If I may occasionally join your conversations from the Sonoran desert here in Arizona, how lucky am I?!

    And cheers to the reinvention of funerals as you say; to steering away from the tired and rote!

  8. Charles

    Blundering in a bit late here – just to say thanks for a really valuable post and comments. I think it’s often true that people have tended to leave ceremony behind when they left an organised church, just as they left behind – to their loss, perhaps – the idea of a spiritual path. I find it can be helpful to say something, hopefully not too ponderous, about the function of the funeral somewhere near the start, and to relate it to the gathering/congregation. Also – this may sound flippant, but I think it’s not – to use the word “ceremony” two or three times. We have to work hard, don’t we, to help people feel the power of a simple ceremonial act – they maybe think ceremony has to be done with the massed bands of the Grenadier Guards, or a couple of dozen monks. This is a ceremony you’re doing here, good people, a very important one, and it’s yours. Now, let’s go!

  9. Charles

    Sweetpea, my reference to quick and simple rites of passage was not intended to be derogatory.

    Ru, I like the odd father term!

    Kristine, good to read your comments and, GM, good to see you again! Yes, if there’s apathy, the way to combat it is work, mainly of the brain variety.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>