Ceremonies are important for several reasons: they serve as rites of passage; they mark events of transition; they allow us to announce important events to our community; and by sharing them with others, they help us make these moments more memorable.
Ceremonies are how we recognize the most transcendental moments in our lives.
Births, graduations, weddings and funerals – all important moments in life that have been traditionally solemnized with ceremonies. But just because it’s a tradition to have a ceremony around these events doesn’t mean that the ceremony itself can’t change. In some cases, changing the traditional ceremony is highly recommended. For example:
Good funeral tradition: Spreading the ashes of the deceased.
Bad funeral tradition: When the widow throws herself onto the husband's funeral pyre (Indian tradition called Sati – still performed in the XXI century).
Good birth tradition: Naming a baby.
Bad birth tradition: When we cut off the clitoris of a baby girl (tradition practiced in Africa and the Middle East– still performed in the XXI century).
Another bad birth tradition: When the Mohel cuts off a baby boy’s foreskin and sucks the blood with his mouth (Jewish tradition called Metzitzah - still performed in the XXI century in the U.S.A.).
Good wedding tradition: Exchanging of rings by a couple as a symbol of permanent commitment.
Bad wedding tradition: Having the bride vow to “love, honor and OBEY” her husband (Catholic tradition – has mostly evolved into “love, honor and CHERISH”).
So while humanists recognize the importance of maintaining the tradition of a ceremony, we don’t apply the same rigidity to the ceremony itself. By allowing some flexibility into our own ceremonies, we are able to get rid of the bad, improve on the good, and create celebrations that are more personal and much more meaningful to everyone involved. Plus, we believe changing traditions is good because it allows our ceremonies to evolve with the times.
Babies may not have much to say about how we welcome them into this world. Regarding our own funeral, all we can really do is trust that our last wishes will be honored after we’re gone. But there is one ceremony of which we have full control: our wedding. The ceremony that celebrates the love and the union of two people should be a reflection of the needs and wants of those two individuals. That is why many people today recognize that a personalized ceremony is much more significant than the cookie-cutter kind. It is for this reason (and thanks to ceremonial flexibility), that we are able to maintain the tradition (having a wedding) while creating a whole new tradition at the same time (everyone in the wedding party is dressed as a character from “The Wizard of Oz” or “Game of Thrones").
We should not forget that a wedding is more than a union of two people – it is the coming together of two families so you know you can expect many different views and philosophies.
For some couples, it is very important not to offend anyone. For others, it is very important to send a clear message to both their families that proudly states: “This is who we are, and we are proud of who we are. Please respect us and accept us as we are.”
These two conflicting priorities are responsible for shaping the two main types of non-religious weddings today. The “Full Out” and the “Stealth”.
Full Out: The couple is open about their non-belief and the whole wedding party knows it. The couple’s lack of belief is the central part of the ceremony and there is great pride in this fact. We rejoice in the fact that a human union can be celebrated without the aid of the supernatural and for many, a wedding is the perfect time to make this statement.
Stealth: The couple may or may not be open about their non-belief to their family and friends so this is not mentioned during the ceremony. The goal is to have a non-religious ceremony but have no one notice. This is usually done to prevent the discomfort of older relatives – no one wants to start an argument with their uncle or give grandma a heart attack on their wedding day!
The stealth wedding is preferred as a means of maintaining harmony on a day when we celebrate human love and commitment. As a humanist, I believe this is where the true value of the wedding ceremony resides.
It may be tempting, especially for young couples, to have the kind of ceremony that their family expects them to have. That's why today, there are still couples that get married in a church they hardly ever visit; couples that have a religious wedding in order to appease religious relatives; church weddings for couples that disagree with the religious views of the church (e.g. unequal treatment of women; prejudice towards homosexuals; condemnation of pre-marital sex and/or birth control).
As a humanist, I believe that if you no longer agree with the rules dictated by a particular religious institution, you should not celebrate your wedding in a church just to maintain appearances. If you do, you could be setting a bad precedent that may haunt you for the rest of your life. If you can't show courage and conviction on your own wedding day, then when? If there ever was a time to make a bold statement about who you are as a couple, this should be it.