Author and celebrant Jeltje Gordon-Lennox answers our questions about the need for ceremony and ritual, and how people’s attitudes to some ceremonies, notably funerals and weddings, have changed over time.
Why do we need ritual in our lives?
Human beings are very resilient. As a species we have braved — and so far survived — epidemics, wars, disasters (natural and human-made), violence and personal betrayals. During precarious periods of our history — like this one — our adaptive capacity is put to the test. In the face of uncertainty, ritual practice contributes to our sense of security by beating time to the seasons and our own natural rhythms. Marking life events, both major and minor, in ways that are meaningful to us can help us make sense of our world, enhance our relationships and even calm our nervous systems.
Although the majority of people will pre-plan celebrations like weddings and birthdays, very few people would consider pre-planning a funeral. Why do you think this is?
Good point! Not everyone marries, many of us celebrate birthdays but all of us will die one day. So why do people seem to resist pre-planning a funeral?
Much like the current COVID-19 threat that has thrown the world into overdrive, pre-planning a funeral brings us face-to-face with our own mortality and the fact that our loved ones too are mortal. Wishful thinking makes people believe that pre-planning will hasten the inevitable.
Funerals figure among the most important, and the most distressing, events in Western society. While religious ceremonies are great for people who adhere to the values of that institution, inappropriate ceremonies can be traumatising. A funeral that reflects the life, values and relationships of the deceased are a healthy first step to grieving loss. Many people do not realise that this kind of ceremony requires pre-planning.
Since you have been working as a celebrant, have you noticed any changes in how we approach funerals and death?
Over the last 20 years, the notion of the life-centred funeral, in which the funeral address (if there is one) takes the form of a eulogy (rather than a sermon or talk about the afterlife), has become firmly established and largely replaced religious funerals.
The main struggle for people today is less and less about how to remember the life lived and increasingly about how we confront the harsh realities of death and the resulting separation. These concerns change our expectations regarding the funeral ceremony and other down-to-earth issues too.
Until rather recently, there seemed to be an unwritten agreement between next of kin, the undertaker and the religious leader: the dead would be treated with dignity and the family would not ask about alternatives to the conventional funeral such as a traditional setting, liturgical practices, embalming, the costly coffin, grave plot and headstone. Today, the future dead are more likely to preplan and the bereaved are more apt to ask questions about options that take into account respect for our relationships as well as for the land, the sea and the air.
What was the most surprising or unusual event you have presided over as celebrant?
Each time I preside a ceremony I find myself marvelling at how fitting rituals for a life or a seasonal event can serve as a benchmark or a reference point among a series of lesser points. Feeling the transformational power of ritual move an individual or even an entire assembly from one phase to another, reassures all present that the transition has truly been completed. The way meaningful ritual inaugurates a new reality within which we can evolve together in peace is simply… magical.
Have you seen any trends emerging in how couples are choosing to plan their weddings?
Many couples today say they feel pressured to organise the ‘perfect’ wedding. Weddings have become events that are pricier — and more exclusive — than ever. A recent poll of brides and grooms points to a rising trend towards ‘total personalization’ and the ‘ultimate guest experience’ that tends to favour entertainment over the ceremony, which is often unwittingly reduced to a photo opportunity.
Since few couples share the same religious and cultural traditions, they may well be excused if they eschew the traditional ready-to-celebrate wedding ceremony. It is obviously no guarantee of lasting coupleship, or happy parenthood. Yet a growing number of these future newly-weds see the tailor-made wedding ceremony as the epitome of total personalization and guests find it truly the ultimate experience. Even more than food and entertainment, the public pronouncement of their wedding vows reveals how the couple are drawn and held together by their shared values and goals.
How would you like people to use the books?
These three guides are designed to stimulate the imagination and creativity of (secular but also religious) amateur ritual-makers who need to craft a meaningful ceremony for themselves or for a loved one. Many of the tools presented in the guides, such as the Inventory for Ritual Profile and the Checklists, can be downloaded on the JKP web site. These tools have been forged, tested and tempered with individuals, couples, families and professional celebrants of diverse cultural backgrounds and language groups.
It is my hope that people will use the guides and the tools to make their life events special through rituals that touch them and their entourage. The intensely creative process of ritual-making explores the subtle boundaries of being human in the present, helps us reframe the past and encourages us to formulate our fears and dreams for the future.
Jeltje Gordon-Lennox is the author of Crafting Secular Ritual, Crafting Meaningful Wedding Rituals, Crafting Meaningful Funeral Rituals and Emerging Ritual in Secular Societies.