Celebrating the major transitions in life is as old as humanity: archeologists have found evidence of funeral rites for Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals dating back 60,000 years. It seems that all human cultures have marked key moments in their lives with ceremony and speeches, music and feasting.
Rites of passage are a time for solemn commitments and joyful celebrations. They are also a time for reflection. They are moments when we step back from our daily concerns and look at our lives in a broader context. We explore the beliefs and values that give shape and meaning to our lives.
For many people these values – and their underlying existential beliefs – are religious. But there is nothing intrinsically religious about celebrating rites of passage. Many non-religious people like to celebrate too, but they prefer to do so in secular ceremonies, where they will not find themselves saying things they do not believe.
Types of ceremony
The most common secular ceremonies are weddings, including affirmations, and funerals, including memorials. Humanist baby namings are also popular. In Norway, humanist coming of age ceremonies for teenagers are the most popular secular ceremonies of all.
In addition to the formal ceremonies publicly marking the major rites of passage, there are other occasions where people may be asked to say some meaningful words: an invocation to open a legislative session, or a benediction before a formal meal.
Sometimes families of mixed religious beliefs choose a humanist ceremony because they can all agree on the religiously neutral content with its personalized focus. In addition, the Society for Humanistic Judaism celebrates many of the traditional Jewish holidays, but without reference to God or the supernatural.
There are no special rules or observances that humanists have to follow. Some humanists have no interest in ceremonies and do not want to take part in any rites of passage. If they do hold ceremonies, there are no required words, no special format, or official liturgy. They are always created for the people involved, so each one is unique and personal.
But creating your own ceremony can be difficult. Most of us could use some help writing a ceremony. And while some people may find a friend or relative to conduct the celebration, many people look for outside help from an experienced celebrant.
Humanist groups have developed a variety of resources to help non-religious families create personal, secular ceremonies.
Jane Wynne Willson has written three step-by-step practical guide books for humanist ceremonies: baby namings, weddings, and funerals. Funerals without God is the only one published in the US as well as the UK. New Arrivals: Guide to Nonreligious Naming Ceremonies and Sharing the Future: Guide to Nonreligious Wedding Ceremonies are available from the British Humanist Association, as is Funerals without God: Practical Guide to Nonreligious Funerals.
The celebrant, also known as the officiant, is the person who conducts a ceremony. Sometimes a friend or family member will be a good choice to conduct the ceremony. An excellent alternative is provided in many countries by humanist groups who train and coordinate networks of humanist celebrants. For a reasonable fee, a humanist celebrant will people plan and compose their ceremony and then conduct it on the day.
There are usually no legal restrictions on who can conduct a secular ceremony, with the notable exception of legally-binding weddings. For more information on who can solemnize weddings go to the web page on Secular Wedding Legalities or the page on Secular Wedding Celebrants.
Here are some recommended resources for finding humanist celebrants:
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