By Barry Klassel
Ceremonies are organized celebrations. They are parties with a purpose. Humanists are right to question traditions that may come from religious custom because we have a legitimate fear of enforced conformity. But it would be a mistake to unthinkingly refuse to look for the possible benefits of events that bring people together and strengthen community. There are no ceremonies required if one wishes to be considered a “good” humanist. And there are no set of formulas for humanist ceremonies, the features of which can always be adapted to serve individual needs. Each of us can choose to partake in those ceremonies that we decide enhance our lives.
It must be noted that ceremonies can be thought of as having rational ends. They promote self-reflection and so can bring clarity to our thinking. They give us insights into our own and others’ lives. They allow us to see our role in the history of humankind. They show us how our life-cycles fit into the wider cycles of nature.
Ceremonies are also times we get together with those who mean the most to us, to share our joys and sorrows. They can celebrate our individuality while, at the same time, remind us of our common values and reinforce our connections. The best ceremonies help us through life’s difficult transitions.
I have performed baby welcoming ceremonies, weddings, civil unions and funerals. All have had beautiful, moving moments filled with music, poetry and love. I’ve welcomed a baby by having guests individually pledge their support to the child and his parents and then receive a gift of wildflower seeds they could plant as an expression of hope for the future. Most weddings or unions I perform center on the unique love story of the couple, including poetry they’ve written or selected. Funerals are special in that they are times to look back to see the complete arc of someone’s life, its triumphs and disappointments. Often they involve playing the deceased’s favorite music, displaying objects of significance.
At my own father’s funeral last June, as an example, my family set up a photo of my dad in army uniform and, next to that, we placed a baseball cap he wore during the last months of his life because he felt cold much of the time. We did this to represent two elements of his life that had had great influence on who he was – the years he had spent as a soldier overseas in World War II and that he had been a life-long Yankees fan who had seen Ruth and Gehrig play. He was 94 when he died. At the end of the ceremony, we played a clip from a movie. It was of Gene Kelly singing and dancing, despite the weather, to the song “Singing in the Rain” from the movie of that name. My father had always wanted to be Gene Kelly. When the clip ended, I realized that the song title was a good metaphor for the funeral. We were singing the story of my father’s life as a tribute to what he meant to each of us while feeling drops of sadness at his loss. The ceremony helped us remember, understand him more completely and comfort each other so we could move on.