Rituals for Children
The adoption or birth of a child is an occasion for great joy and a cause for celebration. In my community ministry, I encountered many parents who wanted to ritually welcome the child into their family but were not members of a religious community with established baptism rites, wanted to celebrate the inter-faith nature of their family or favored a secular ritual.
Independent ceremonies enable parents to publicly acknowledge the great gift of their child without pledging the child's life to a particular denomination. Some parents like the social aspect of the ritual in which the child is presented to their family and friends and their status as new parents is affirmed. Family and friends have an opportunity to pledge their support and dedication to the well-being of the child, physically, psychologically and spiritually.
Whatever the reason, a child dedication ceremony is a lovely way to bring families and friends together to celebrate the gift of a child. As there are no legal ramifications for such a ceremony, anyone may officiate a ritual to welcome a child. Hiring a professional certainly makes constructing the ritual easier and lends a degree of solemnity to the joyful occasion.
Planning the Ceremony
I recommend giving some thought to the following questions as you and your officiant plan the most appropriate and meaningful ceremony for your family.
1. What is the message of the family to the larger community? This is an opportunity to publicly declare your beliefs and values as a family.
2. Whom do you want to include or exclude, and why?
3. What do you want to include or exclude, and why? There are many elements we can discuss including readings, pledges, gift giving, music, ritual traditions, etc.
4. What are the significant roles people will play? What ways will you devise for representing those roles?
5. Where will the ceremony be held? Ceremonies can be held in a house of worship, family home, or public space such as a beach, park or hotel.
6. What is the climax of the ceremony? (In a wedding this would be the exchange of vows and kiss) Will there be a final dramatic moment when spontaneous applause, hugging and kissing begins?
My appreciation to Dr. Anne Klaeysen, Leader of the New York Ethical Culture Society, for providing most of these questions for our consideration.
Types of Ceremonies
Baby Namings and Child Dedications are very similar and can be held for a child of any age. In this context, the child is not being dedicated to God or a particular religious faith, but rather the adult community dedicates themselves to the welfare of the child. The climax of the ceremony is generally either the naming portion or when important family members, friends, community members, etc. pledge their support for the child's physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual growth.
Children are a blessing and a gift whatever the manner in which they become part of our family. Adoption celebrations can be very similar to Baby Namings and Child Dedications, but not necessarily. The age of the child has a great deal of impact on the content of the ceremony.
Step-parenting is an important responsibility and comes with a host of challenges and opportunities. You may choose to celebrate the blending of your families with a ceremonial element in the context of a wedding or hold a separate ritual specifically for the children. Creating a separate ritual enables the focus to be on the needs of the children and avoids the hustle and bustle associated with typical wedding turmoil. Symbolic gift exchanges and pledges on the part of the adults to the children are often included in the ceremony.
Baptism is not synonymous with Baby Namings or Child Dedications. I refer to baptism as the specifically Christian ritual act, with the use of water, by which a person is admitted to membership of the Church.
Rituals for Grief
The death of a loved one is a time of great stress regardless of the deceased's spiritual and religious beliefs. These occasions become more so when the grieving family does not have a religious community prepared to embrace them in their grief and lead the commemorative service.
Friends and family wish to gather to remember their loved one but may be limited to what the funeral home has to offer or left to figure something out on their own. The former can result in a service that falls short of honoring the uniqueness of the individual and the latter can become an added burden on an already grieving family. An experienced trained minister or particularly caring secular officiant can help structure a service for your unique needs, as well as provide the temporary pastoral care that may be needed dependent upon the situation.
I highly recommend Sarah York's book, Remembering Well: Rituals for Celebrating Life and Mourning Death. Perhaps the best advice she provides is reminding us we need not be rushed into a meaningless ritual, but can choose the time and place most appropriate for our needs and more importantly, that these rituals are for the benefit of the living rather than the dead.
Planning the Ceremony
Officiants should speak at length with several family members, in person if at all possible, to plan a memorial service. They may not use all of the information, but these conversations allow the officiant to get to know the deceased and determine the family's immediate pastoral needs. This is also an opportunity for family members to express themselves in a safe environment without fear of judgment. There are many misconceptions about grief in our society and many well-meaning friends may offer platitudes that hurt and offend rather than help the bereaved. A qualified officiant should prepare the family for such occasions and assure them of the legitimacy of their own particular grief.
I recommend giving some thought to the following questions as you and your officiant plan the most appropriate memorial.
1. What made the deceased a unique person? What were his or her values and how can we honor them in our own lives?
2. Would it be appropriate to invite anyone who wishes to do so to come forward to speak or should specific people offer prepared eulogies?
3. What readings and music should be included, if any?
4. Where will the ceremony be held? Funeral home, graveside, private home, public property
5. What are the beliefs and values of both the deceased and the bereaved? Will a variety of religious traditions and beliefs about death need to be respected?
Types of Ceremonies
Several of these terms are synonymous but with different connotations. A Funeral is essentially a memorial service but is generally considered to be more formal and usually takes place in a house of worship or at a funeral home. Funerals are expected to occur fairly shortly after the death and occur with the deceased's remains present.
A Memorial Service can be held virtually anywhere and at any time and need not have the deceased's remains present. I have presided at Memorial Services from three days to ten years after a death. I recommend taking one's time in planning a Memorial Service and not feeling rushed by social expectations.
Celebration of Life
A Celebration of Life is simply a Memorial Service with a different name. I like the terminology, but I have found some people feel it avoids the primary task of addressing grief. The title can be important to the people charged with planning the ceremony and their wishes should be respected.
An Interment can be part of a Funeral or Memorial Service, or it can be a ceremony in its own right. Like Memorial Services, Interments are not necessarily held immediately following a death. I officiated the Interment of a woman's ashes marking the one year anniversary of her death. Interments can be graveside in a cemetery or memorial garden or they can be in someone's backyard or even a public place. Knowledge of state and local ordinances is imperative in these instances.
Private Grief Ritual
Sometimes a public or communal ritual is deemed unwelcome or unnecessary and the bereaved prefers to ritualize the loss in a more intimate or even strictly private setting. Miscarriage is a deeply painful, but socially ignored loss in which ritual can be extremely important to the healing process. Sometimes the bereaved prefer a private grief ritual because the social pressure of a communal ritual is more than they can handle until more time has passed. Clergy need not be present at such an occasion, but can provide valuable assistance in helping create the ritual.