Part 4: Rites of Passage

Part 4: Rites of Passage

Treasury of Celebrations:

Intro/Cover Page | Gifts | Jan-Apr | May-Aug | Sep-Dec | Advent | Christmas | Rites of Passage | Appendix

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Rites of Passage

Rites of passage are rituals or celebrations that mark the passage of a person through the life cycle, from one stage to another, from one role or social position to another. In the pre-modern world, these rites served at least four functions:

  1. Safe passage

    Rites of passage integrated biological reality (birth, reproduction, and death) with cultural and religious experience. Passages are anxiety-producing life crises. The rites not only "gave permission for" - or legitimated - the anxiety, but they allayed it by giving meaning to the experience. They made the "passage" from one life stage to another safe and clear.

  2. Moments of learning

    Although some rites of passage occurred at great moments of anxiety (life crisis), all provided an atmosphere in which learning could take place. By calling attention to the particular life change, rites of passage may have increased anxiety, but did so in a context where important learning occurred that assisted in the transition. For example, acknowledging the reality of death in a funeral or memorial service may increase anxieties already being experienced. But that ritual acknowledgment may also aid in accepting life without the one who has died.

  3. Connection to community

    Rites of passage celebrated the connecting of individuals to a community. The physiological fact is that one is born and dies alone, unique and separate. But each one is also a member of a community, a group that has particular values and understandings of life. Rites of passage connected the individual experience to the understandings of the group in such a way as to give meaning to that experience. While Christian rites of infant baptism, christening, and dedication are performed for different reasons, they have in common that they celebrate linking the individual to a group.

  4. Transformation experiences

    Not only did rites help to facilitate passage from one stage to another, but the rites actually shaped and manipulated biological imperatives as well. The message from ancient societies is that women and men are not simply born, nor do they merely procreate and die; what they are is in part what they are "made" through rites of passage. In some societies, girls "became" women when they went through puberty rites, whether or not they had begun to menstruate; and adolescent boys "became" men when they went on the hunt or were circumcised whether or not they had gone through puberty. As Mircea Eliade has put it, one may become what one performs. Rites of passage were transformation experiences.

The place of rites in modern society

Some anthropologists have expressed doubt that rites of passage can have much meaning in a society so complex, so secular, and so fragmented. Gail Sheehy's best-seller, Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life called attention to the reality of life passages for adults and to the various cultural and psychological problems that result from them. She does not, however, consider the importance of "rites" to these junctures in life.

Few, however, doubt the need for such rites or the cost of not having them. In a society which so prizes individuality over community, many find it necessary to adjust to life's transitions alone. Increasingly, our lives are entrusted into the hands of experts and anonymous agencies or individuals who care for only a small part of our human needs. We are born, for the most part, in hospitals, and we usually die there. For many, the most profound events of their lives have become merely secular affairs left uncelebrated. Beyond the traditional passages, there are in this society numerous forms of crisis and transition: menopause, surgery, "empty nests," graduation, career change, divorce, retirement, leaving the family home for a retirement home, etc. Traumatic, exciting and anxiety-provoking, these passages regularly go unobserved. As early as 1897, in his classic study on suicide, Emil Durkheim wrote that one of the consequences of the lack of social connection and unacknowledged existence in modern society was suicide. Others have since pointed to the relationship between mental illness and going through passages alone and uncelebrated.

Our consumer culture has also had its impact on the observance of rites of passage, especially by making them occasions for greater consumption. Under pressure to do "what society expects," some people spend beyond their means and end up resenting the occasion itself. Moreover, when the focus of the celebration is on consumption, the critical functions of safe passage, learning, connecting to community, and transformation become distorted or obscured altogether.

The absence of "community," in a traditional sense, makes observing the rites of passage in families, immediate communities, and religious communities all the more important. If you don't have suitable rites for the passages in your life, create them! But don't stop there. Resist the pressures of the consumer society and observe the rites in ways that enable you to recover the renewing and maturing power they are intended to have by focusing on the following:

- Reprinted from To Celebrate: Reshaping Holidays and Rites of Passage

Creating our own rituals

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, much of Western society has shunned rituals. Many people believed that rituals, perhaps, were magic or superstitious nonsense, and that we could certainly live without them if we used logic, science, and common sense. But throwing so many of our rituals away has left us naked. Although some of life is logical, much of life is not. Even when we are young we come to understand that life is full of mystery. Without rituals and ceremonies within our communities and families, we feel adrift and cannot understand why.

One example of society's loss can be seen in how we have disengaged ourselves from the rituals surrounding death, dying, and grieving. Having given many of the meaningful rituals that humans need to hospitals and funerals homes, we find ourselves unable to adjust, or bewildered by feelings of denial. We suffer as a society.

As our millennium draws to a close, the hunger for meaningful ritual and spiritual practice only becomes more acute. The flood of recent books, articles, and essays in cyberspace attest to that.

There are rituals for menopause, retirement, puberty, mid-life, grieving, and so on. Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and many other books, is one who helped till the soil for the rich harvest of searching currently underway. Autumn Gospel: Women in the Second Half of Life, by Kathleen Fischer, The Magic of Ritual by Tom F. Driver, and Lights of Passage: Rituals and Rites of Passage by Kathleen Wall and Gary Ferguson are just three of the books that can help us understand the need for, and creation of, rituals today.

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From earliest times, birth has been regarded not only as a rite of passage for the baby, but for the parents and community as well. While modern science can explain in clinical detail the reproduction process, mystery and wonder still surround every pregnancy and birth. In ancient societies, this life transition required many different rites: taboos that related to pregnancy and birth; rites to ward off evil spirits and for protection; rites to make delivery easy and safe; rites to secure good fortune for the child; rites to admit the child to society; and rites to re-admit the parents back into society in their changed state.

In today's world, many of the functions of the old rites have been dropped altogether or are performed by doctors and other health care professionals. The contribution of modern medical science and technology to the biology of the reproductive process has been incalculable.

It is lamentable, however, that our modern world has not been as successful in replacing those ancient rites relating to cultural traditions - those traditions which assured parents and children of acceptance and support by the larger community. The functions of those early rites are now provided by friends, parents, classes, and books. One birth rite that continues is the baby shower. A shower is more than an occasion to provide physical necessities for the new baby. It can be a time when friends gather around the parents-to-be in a ritual circle of support for the coming event, wonderful yet shrouded in mystery and uncertainty.

Like all other passages in the consumer society, births present opportunities for excessive consumption. Baby industry promoters play on pride, insecurity, and ignorance to convince parents and their friends that the new baby must have a whole host of superfluous products. An ad for designer diaper covers maintains, "It's never too early for your child to learn the importance of class." Providing necessities for the new baby - clothes, blankets, diapers, etc. - is an important part of getting ready. There are also other ways to help prepare for this important passage. Consider giving more personal gifts of time and skill, such as painting the nursery, preparing some meals, or caring for other children in the family around the time of the birth. Gifts of books on baby care are common, especially if this is a first child. Equally appropriate is a book such as Parenting for Peace and Justice by Jim and Kathy McGinnis. If the family is adequately supplied and cared for, gifts made in the name of the family to projects which help less fortunate children are particularly appropriate.

Welcoming rites

Christening, dedication, and infant baptism are rites that celebrate the connecting of the child to a religious community. As these rites call attention to the responsibilities of the parents and the members of the community for the spiritual nurture of the child, they also recognize the new status of the parents in the community. In some families, baptism anniversaries are observed just like birthdays. Except in subsequent birthday celebrations, there are no generally-used rites to celebrate the entrance of the child into a family; however, you may want to create a rite to use with immediate family and close friends when mother and baby come home from the hospital.

It is unfortunate that the practice of naming godparents for a new baby is now largely symbolic. Traditionally, godparents not only had responsibility for the child in the event of the death of the parents, but they also had special responsibilities for the child's spiritual nurture. It was their responsibility to guide their godchild in the ways of faith by teaching the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, and the Apostles' Creed. In this time when grandparents may be far away, the traditional godparent role could provide active support and nurture to parents and children alike.

A naming ceremony is another way to welcome a new child into the community. Among the Cree people in northern Ontario, the baby is named at a gathering of family and friends. The baby is then passed around the circle. Each one offers a blessing, a wish, or a hope for the baby.

Roots for a new arrival

When my first grandson was born seven years ago, I gave considerable thought to what might be an appropriate gift for him. His other grandparents had generously supplied everything imaginable that would be needed for his care and entertainment. I found it rather frustrating that whatever I mentioned as a possible gift for him was something he already had.

What I came up with was something I did not have to shop for, except in the recesses of my memory and in a journal I had kept for many years. My gift took the form of a letter to our little Noah to be read to him at some suitable time in his growing-up years. This was the life story of certain family members with whom he would find his own identity.

In a radio interview, Alex Haley, author of Roots, made the following poetic statement. "Grandparents sprinkle stardust in the lives of their grandchildren." My "stardust" letter included our family's welcome to Noah, something of what we felt as he came into the world. There was some informal genealogical information, but quite a few special stories of his own father (our son Daniel), covering Danny's birth, position in the family, and early experiences related to such things as nature, prayer, family, and school.

Then came information about my husband and myself, our childhood and youth, experiences in school and church, and influences that led us into our life's work. Much of this section showed definite interest and involvement with moral or religious matters which were part of the formation of our faith.

The response to this letter was more than I had dreamed possible in terms of communication with my son, his wife, and her family. Danny said there were things in the letter which he had never known. His wife now had a better understanding of who we were and from where we came; her grandmother, with whom she shared Noah's letter, told me that it was one of the most beautiful things she had ever read. Yet this was not a pietistic, sentimental presentation. It was simply something I wanted to share with my grandson about some of the people in his life, and some of those who lived before us.

- Mary Lou McCrary, Atlanta, Georgia

Handmade muslin gifts for new baby

When my grandmother had her children, there was no such thing as a baby shower. The word of an impending birth spread naturally to family members and a few close friends. Aunts, sisters, cousins, nieces, grandmothers, and close friends each made one article - such as a baby quilt or small gown - as a gift from their own families. The gifts were not wrapped and they were not given to the expectant mother. They were given to the grandmother-to-be who took them with her when she went to help prepare for birth.

Since the mother-to-be received the gifts in private, there was no embarrassment for the giver who was unable to make a beautiful or expensive gift. My grandmother received some beautiful little muslin gowns with delicate embroidery, cleverly designed with many tucks and with long hems to be let out as the baby grew. She also was given quilts and knit sweaters, bonnets and booties.

- Sheryl Craig, Warrensburg, Missouri

The gift of natural childbirth

A time to be born. An exciting and busy time. A time when the forces of men and women unite to welcome a new life and celebrate the process of creation.

But wait. Why are we all closed out? Why are some professionals so anxious to make the process conform to time? Why has the woman often been removed from her body and sent away to dream? Is she not to greet her child? Is she not to feel the last movements within her body as the life of her child begins? Is birth too horrible for a mother who has already been with her child for months to see?

When our second child was expected, David and I decided medical professionals had not helped us enjoy our first baby's birth, and in all likelihood their attitudes were still professional, not personal. We didn't want a pep squad, but a few whoops and cheers for our team was not a lot to ask. Our doctors looked down their stethoscopes at us and refused to become involved beyond answering our questions and conducting regular check-ups. They regarded our plans for unmedicated, unassisted labor as faddish and frivolous. They never encouraged or informed us in an open and caring way. They were happy, busy people with a modus operandi - and we were already taking up more time than the one-charge, set-fee plan permitted.

What were we to do?

Pregnancy is like going over the falls. You can't turn around half way down and look for a better route. You can only reach out and grab on to the limbs. Fortunately, we found a support group already formed for prospective parents who wanted information and encouragement. We were not looking for answers so much as options. We wanted to be informed enough to recognize when we needed help and confident enough not to panic if I got hiccups during delivery.

So we began our preparation.

We began by getting to know our unborn child. We noted her turbulent days and what caused them. She was a person, not just a fetus. We enjoyed watching her grow, slowly shifting my center of gravity. She was gently touched and rubbed throughout the days and embraced, often upside down, by her sister. She moved, silently seeking us through her womb. She knew we were waiting to meet her. (Now, I miss that union without care for baths or feedings, that blind building going on inside me.)

Each day near the end brought the thought that "surely this is the day." And at that moment when Anna was ready, she began to enter our world. I told David we were into countdown and, in his own way, he prepared. He choked on his coffee and threw up several times. That is his way.

Stomach empty, he was ready to work. And work we did. To ensure our baby's health, we had decided to have her at a hospital, but we asked that we be left alone - alone to use the breathing and mutual support techniques we had learned in our childbirth education classes.

Like making a fine quilt, we had stitched each piece and, if it were possible, we wanted to finish up together without the ever-ready, speedy technology. We wanted to greet our child as she entered the world, with a smile on our faces, as you would greet a guest.

As David and I worked through each contraction, we talked for the last time of our constant, heartfelt hopes for a sister for Kirsten. We admired each other in our fears. We shared intimately. Neither of us expected birthing to be funny, exciting, sexual, or euphoric, but it was.

Then the hard work came. The self-doubt and anger crept in. The urge to run away - but how? Then, suddenly, we were alone, isolated from the bustle of the delivery room. My recollection is one of a slow motion, low-light film, like the shallow-breathed suspense of blind man's bluff just before being touched. Then the push.

My body knew what to do! Amazed at my own strength and consumed by my excitement, I finally began to see my passenger's head. Then quickly, easily, her shoulders and body. She looked at once both dark and shiny. Her body was long and slippery. She was warm on my tummy and heavier there than she had been inside.

She was not mad or frantic, but peaceful and alert. David and I cried together. We had worked more closely that day than we had dreamed possible, and we would never forget that intimacy.

I think how easily we could have turned the entire process over to a doctor and waited to get our baby, and I understand why medical professionals have taken charge in so many cases. They have cleaned up the act and anticipated the complications. They have sterilized the process, and they have tried to do it better each time. But they don't make the babies, and they don't raise the children, and they don't recall the snatches of confused consciousness from drugged labors. They don't join you each year to celebrate the birth or to laugh with you at the funny memories. They walk away and forget which day you came in or what sex your child was. They take their fees and do a good job on you. But why give this beautiful part of your life away? Why not share it with those who will still be around to nurture and love that new life?

By involving ourselves, we take on the work and responsibility of giving birth, but we also enjoy a sharing and satisfying period of life that prepares us to face raising our children ourselves. We earn the privilege of joining in a celebration of life. And we learn to appreciate miracles.

- Hank Ingebretsen, Jackson, Mississippi


In order to greet the new arrival, have a shower after the baby is born. Have guests bring an index card with their "recipe" for a happy childhood to give to the mother. Other items might include "recipes" for a happy motherhood/fatherhood with guests sharing their experiences and wisdom on parenting.

- Mary Ann Sloan, Jonesboro, Arkansas


For years I have been conditioned to feel the necessity of sending a gift whenever friends have a baby. I have recently found that there are ways of showing your love and joy without sending a blanket or silver spoon or cup - many of which never get used. I first learned about alternative "baby gift" ideas from Nancy Gilbert, who sends checks to UNICEF or similar organizations which help children. Recently, we have started sharing our "retired" baby clothes with close friends when they have a child. Naturally, this alternative soon runs out. Another idea is to send $10 to the Easter Seal Society, the Cerebral Palsy Association or the local school for retarded children.

Alternate baby shower

One very successful idea was to give an "alternate baby shower," at which the mother-to-be received promises of help, time, meals for her family, a poem, and so on.

- Paul and Marie Crosso, Washington, D.C.

In Sarah's name

On the occasion of the birth of our daughter, our congregation wanted to give us a shower to mark her birth. I agreed on the condition that the guests bring children's or babies' clothing to be given to Church World Services in Sarah's name. Everyone had a great time, and left the party feeling a closer tie with the less fortunate of the world.

- Connie Hansen, Malden, Massachusetts

Channeling gifts

We sent the money given to our new child to support a nonprofit day care center which serves the local community. We notified our friends as to where the money would be going, and asked them to let us know if they preferred another channel for their gift.

- Mrs. Paul Rothfusz, Atlanta, Iowa

Two children

Think about the idea of godparents "adopting" a child overseas on the occasion of their godchild's baptism. There are many organizations that will accept monthly contributions to support a needy child overseas.

- Rev. Susan Thistlethwarte, Durham, North Carolina

Showers: A community affair

Frustrated by the typical ladies-only-sweet-dessert-type showers, our church hosts family-oriented wedding and baby showers. We usually hold these following the Sunday morning worship service when most family members are together. We share a potluck meal and have some songs and games to involve everyone. Helpful hints, words of wisdom, or a favorite Bible verse may be written on an index card and read aloud as part of the shower program, as well as given to the honored couple. We emphasize practical and humorous gifts. For parents-to-be we might include books and magazines about parenting, coupons for babysitting or for a meal to be brought to the home soon after the baby's birth, cloth diapers, and recycled baby clothes.

- Anne Hall Shields, Cooperstown, North Dakota

Homemade frozen dinners make fantastic gifts

I belong to a group that has shared Monday dinners together for more than four years. During that time there have been three births among our members. For each birth our eating group hosted a shower, including the couple's other friends. For our collective gift, each adult member prepares a one-dish meal which is frozen and delivered around the day of the birth. Given the size of our group, this provides the family with dinners for about two weeks.

As a recipient as well as a preparer, I know this is a fantastic gift.

- Kathie Klein, Atlanta, Georgia

Siblings are proud, too

New babies can be announced with homemade cards featuring artwork by older siblings proudly announcing the arrival of their new baby brother or sister.

- Meryl A. Butler, Virginia Beach, Virginia

Tree planting commemorates birth

"It is with (people) as it is with trees - one must grow slowly to last long."

- Henry David Thoreau

This inscription accompanies a small Japanese red maple tribute tree. It was planted in August of 1982 in commemoration of the christening of our son Benjamin Blair, and grows in the Dawe's Arboretum in Newark, Ohio. We wished to emphasize, to our son and our family and friends attending his christening, our connection with Mother Earth and the many blessings and responsibilities which are a part of that connection. This concept of a life token, found among folklores and legends of many countries and cultures, is not new. For instance, it was formerly a Jewish custom to plant a tree at the birth of a child, a cedar for a son and a pine for a daughter. When a couple married, their respective trees were then cut down to make their huppab, or bridal bower.

As loving family and friends encircled Benjamin (and Dr. Pete who helped deliver Benjamin into the world) and his tree, the baptism waters nourished the young sapling.

Water is what God uses to wash and nourish Earth. It is what we use to wash and nourish ourselves. God uses water to cleanse us spiritually and to initiate us as Christians.

In addition to scriptures, selections from an anthology of native American spiritual thought and Thoreau's writings were read.

- Jennifer Kinsley, Baltimore, Ohio

Prayer of blessing

At our church, it is important to welcome new babies into our community and to assure parents of the community's support. A tradition for doing this developed around a symbol reintroduced to this country by the televised rendition of Roots.

On the first Sunday the mother and baby are able to come to service - often on the way home from the hospital - the parents bring the baby to the front of the church as deacons present the collected offering. A minister in our congregation prays a prayer of thanksgiving for the child and the parents. He then lifts the baby high, as if in offering to God, asking God's blessing on the new life and God's guidance for the parents and church community as we accept our shared responsibility for nurturing the child in the faith.

The "Prayer of Blessing by Jim Brooks," as it has come to be called, is an important birth rite, a rite that surrounds the family with our love and support and enables us to share in their joy.

- Rachel G. Gill, Stone Mountain, Georgia

Baptism day stoles

Each member of our family has a homemade baptismal stole with the person's name, a baptism symbol, and whatever else has special meaning for that person embroidered or appliquéd on white material. On the anniversary of each baptism day, the celebrant chooses a special food for dinner. Then we all put on our stoles, light the baptism candle and have a prayer of thanksgiving. We remember the symbols of baptism on our stoles and talk about what baptism means.

Our oldest child will soon make her first communion so a Eucharist symbol will be added to her stole at that time. We have also made and given baptism stoles to our godchildren.

- Rodger and Mary Beth Routh, Ankeny, Iowa

Prayers for Sarah

Sarah, our first daughter, had been showered with gifts since the day we announced her coming! We wanted her baptism celebration to involve prayerful presence (not presents!). The invitations invited family and friends to write a short prayer for Sarah and bring it as a gift for the occasion. We asked that prayer be the only gift to celebrate this holy time in her life. We provided the prayer sheet, simple paper decorated with her name and the date of her baptism. It was marvelous when we realized that most people did exactly that - there were no gifts other than the gift of prayer. We prayed the prayer-gifts during the ceremony. We celebrate the day of Sarah's baptism each year by sharing dinner with her godparents and the priest who baptized her, and by reading a short selection of those prayers.

- Nancy Parker Clancy, Troy, Michigan

Naming ceremony celebration

Within a few minutes after our daughter's birth in an alternative birth center, we shared in a celebration for her birth with two close friends. Using the service we had prepared earlier, we gave thanks, sang, spoke her name out loud for the first time, and prayed. We four "worship professionals" (all United Methodist ministers) were teary-eyed and could barely sing because of the deep emotions this service called forth.

Prayer of Thanksgiving:

Sing to our God, all the Earth,

Break forth and sing for joy.

Sing praises to God with the harp,

and with voices full of joyous melody.

With trumpets and the sound of the horn,

Sing out to God.


Thank you God for the gift of birth,

For love made flesh to refresh the Earth.

For life and strength and length of days,

We give you thanks and praise.

Prayer of Thanksgiving:

Let the sea roar in all its fullness,

the whole world and all its inhabitants.

Let the floods clap their hands,

and the mountains sing for joy

Before God and the nations. (Psalm 98)

Repeat Antiphon

Hymn: "Now Thank We All Our God"


O God, like a mother who comforts her children, you strengthen us in our solitude, sustain and provide for us. We come before you with gratitude for the gift of this child, for the joy which you have brought into this family, and the grace with which you surround them and all of us. As a father cares for his children, so continually look upon us with compassion and goodness. Pour out your spirit. Enable your servants to abound in love and establish our homes in holiness. Amen.


A name has power. It distinguishes us from another, yet it connects us with our Christian roots and our family heritage. "Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine. When you pass through deep waters I will be with you, your troubles will not overwhelm you. Fear not, I am with you. I have called you by name." (Taken from Isaiah 43)

Giving of the Name


Loving God, sustain this child with your strong and gentle care. May the life of (child's name) be one of happiness, goodness and wisdom.

Grant that (child's name) may seek after peace and justice, compassion and joy, for all of creation. Amen.

- Anne Broyles & Larry Peacock, Norwalk, California

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Adoption Day

Our special time

Our family (father, mother, two daughters, and one son) loves celebrating birthdays. For our children, whose birthdays are all in the first 20 days of December, this causes a lot of rushing around with other seasonal activities.

The fact that our oldest daughter and our son are adopted gave us a perfect reason to create a celebration that has become special to us. For years now, we have observed a day in March or April, a less hectic time of year, as our family's Adoption Day. This lets us all celebrate an occasion that we appreciate and talk about freely in our family.

Actual arrival for our adopted children was in March, so it is appropriate to observe our day then. All of us are involved in planning and preparing for the occasion, which we celebrate in a variety of ways: having a romp in the park and eating at a fancy restaurant; picnicking at a state park, visiting a new town, and going to a movie.

Whatever our plans or activities, we always spend time talking about each child's "special story" - what the children looked like, where we first saw them, what we did the first day, etc. As the children get older the stories are repeated over and over and we add details of the "first mother" as they are appropriate and as the children are ready to hear them. Sometimes we laugh so much over past incidents that we can hardly continue. It's a very happy time for our family.

- Larry Miller, Macon, Mississippi

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Also see: Green Birthdays

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Observing birthdays, especially for children, is a relatively new phenomenon. The practice of marking an individual's exact date of birth came into existence only with the reckoning of time by a fixed calendar. Even then, birthday observances were usually reserved only for gods, kings, and nobles. Some societies did not note the day of birth at all, fearing that such knowledge in the hands of evil spirits was dangerous.

Others were careful to mark the hour of birth as well as the day, especially those societies where astrology and horoscopes were thought to reveal special influences on the infant because of the particular planetary configuration at the hour of birth.

Birthdays celebrate entry and continuing place in the family: a time to recall the birth and significant events of an individual's life, and a way to highlight the honored one's uniqueness.

While each birthday may be considered a rite of passage, some are clearly more universally important than others. For many years, the first significant life transition happened at the age of six when a child left home to go to school for the first time. Today, with the preponderance of working mothers and the increase of preschool care and kindergarten, this is less true. At age 13, Jewish children are ushered into adulthood with a formal celebration of Bar/Bat Mitzvah. At age 16, children in most places are considered old enough to become licensed drivers - a first step into adult responsibilities for many. At 18, young women and men become eligible to vote and young men may register for the armed forces. Throughout adulthood, the decade birthdays (30, 40, 50) are important passages for many people. The 65th birthday - the standard retirement age - is another of the more universal passages in this culture. While all of these are usually happily-celebrated occasions, they may also be anxiety-producing passages. These life transitions need to be celebrated with a focus on whatever makes them special, including new responsibilities to be undertaken.

- Reprinted from To Celebrate: Reshaping Holidays & Rites of Passage

Seventh was best

Our family prefers outings for birthday celebrations. Some were memorable occasions, but the very best birthday party we ever had was in honor of our daughter's seventh birthday. I gave her the choice of an outing with one or two of her friends, or a backyard barbecue with anyone she liked. She chose the barbecue and invited her family, a few friends her own age, several neighbors including adults, and at least two infants. In addition, she asked if she could invite the young man who taught her swimming class at the local pool.

I felt sure she would be disappointed, but that charming young man accepted her invitation, appeared at the party, ate a hamburger, and gave her his second-best lifeguard whistle as an absolutely memorable gift for a seven-year-old.

We made hand-cranked ice cream and had bowls of soap suds for blowing bubbles. There were no games. The children ate and ran about and watched the stars come out. Everyone enjoyed it.

- Carolyn K Willett, Larchmont, New York

Forty more years

The 40th birthday party for a friend of mine was depressing. His pride was his physical strength, and he thought of this birthday as a milestone to physical deterioration. He cried, his wife was miserable, and a pall settled over all of us.

My 40th birthday came soon afterward, and I was determined to celebrate in a positive way, forestalling any thoughts or feelings I might otherwise develop about my declining physical prowess. The theme I came up with was "40 More Years," and I used the occasion to assure both my friends and myself that I planned to be vigorously involved in the things I loved for many years to come. This celebration brought optimism about my place in the world and the feeling that I can accomplish some things that are very important to me during the rest of my lifetime.

- Brian Sherman, Decatur, Georgia

Picture-perfect birthday

My brother and I no longer live close enough to spend birthdays together. I wanted to let him know I was thinking of him, so for his birthday I sorted through family photographs and had copies made of some of my favorite ones with my brother in them. I put together a scrapbook of his growing-up years and added favorite quotes. It is something he will always cherish, and I relived some wonderful memories creating it.

- Patti Wilson Marcum, Oxford, Mississippi

A triple celebration

The invitation read, "Can you join the Olsens and Santos on Sunday afternoon, August 17 from 3-7 p.m. at Mark Keirs Kids 'N Stuff Nursery School? We're honoring two birthdays: Granddaughter Cristina's 13th, Elmer's 80th, and Kate's and Elmer's 50th anniversary as partners and pals. No presents, please, except the pleasure of your presence. Bring a dish for a potluck meal (A-I: dessert, J-Q: casserole, R-Z: salad) and folding chairs, beach blankets, balls, games, photo albums, and slides. It will be a do-it-yourself fun afternoon, an instant celebration."

The nursery school, with its fenced, tree-filled yard, was a wonderful place for our intergenerational affair. Two local folk singers led a singalong after the meal, aided by song booklets illustrated by Cristina and her eight-year-old brother. We used banners with a "Good Luck" message on which guests pinned colored slips of paper with messages for each honoree.

- Kate Olsen, Martinez, California

New twist on family trivia

Each year, my family tries to think up something creative and fun for our birthday celebrations. For my aunt Catherine's surprise party, to which non-family members were invited, we decided to make our own trivia game. A friend and I agreed to do the necessary research. This included going to the library to read microfiche newspaper articles on the date of my aunt's birth and for each decade birthday. We also looked up references to "Catherine" in encyclopedias, history books, and maps.

We devised questions relating to important events on her birthdays. We also had questions on "Catherines" in history and geography. Cards with one question on each were given to the guests. Then they took turns asking the questions on their cards. The participants would try to guess the answers. If no one else knew the answer, my aunt was allowed to guess. It was great fun! Everyone learned something they didn't know about the life and times of my aunt. For Catherine, the effort that went into preparing the game was an affirmation of her importance to us.

- Ondina Gonzalez, Decatur, Georgia

At 75, she's the talk of the post office!

For my mother's 75th birthday, my sister and I gave her a card shower. We felt that "things" were unnecessary and cumbersome at that point in her life, but renewing old associations and friendships would be truly joyful for her.

With this in mind, I heisted her address book (a tricky deal!) and copied down every single name and address. Since she has a penchant for saving addresses, we had a wealth of information. We printed a letter bringing friends up-to-date on her activities and asked them to share in the celebration of her birthday by sending a card to arrive on her special day.

At a family birthday dinner a few days before her birthday, we announced the surprise by reading the letter that had gone out. Then the mail began to arrive - 170 birthday cards from all over the country and from people she had not seen in years! Her postman said she was the talk of the post office.

This gift gave her hours of fond remembrance and it was satisfying for my sister and me, as well, for I don't think anything else could have given her as much pleasure and happiness.

- Ronice E. Branding, Florissant, Missouri

Birthday parties

The birthday party is one of the best training grounds for conditioning children to expect to receive presents. It should be a time for a child to develop a deep appreciation for life and people, to celebrate another year of growing.

The best way to break this pattern is to establish a family tradition of birthday parties without presents. (At some time prior to the party, the family may wish to give its gift to the person being honored, preferably gifts handmade or "circulated.") Let the party be a time for celebrating the joy of being a child, not a time for counting the loot.

Encourage your friends to do the same. If your child is invited to a party where you know presents will be brought, discuss with your child the giving of a check to some charity which helps children. Let your child write a personal note explaining that this is a family tradition.

Or invite the birthday child on a camping trip to experience the beauty of nature, discuss the need to preserve wilderness areas from developers, and to nurture relationships outside the nuclear family. Such an experience can also build peer relationships and teach children how to be cooperative rather than competitive, and foster team spirit rather than individualism. As an alternative to camping, invite the child to a concert, a baseball game, or the circus.

If you decide to send a gift, consider several packages of seeds, a terrarium, or a green plant. Growing plants teaches children an appreciation for life. The Third Day plant shop in Washington, D.C., has a special corner for children to buy plants at children's prices. Wouldn't it be great if every plant shop had the same? Consider a good book which says something about life, cooperation, and the gifts of different cultures. If you are close friends with the other family, you may want to "circulate" a toy or book which is still in good condition.

An alternative birthday party

So how do you plan an alternative birthday party? Suggestions include asking guests not to bring gifts, and taking children on an outing such as a camping trip, museum, circus, or ball game. Try handmade gifts, or "recirculated" toys, books, and sports equipment in good condition. Starting with these alternatives at an early age is easier than a transition after peer pressure has made the celebrant rigid.

Ask party guests to bring one of their own toys or books, gift-wrapped, then have a draw where everyone gets one gift. Have the birthday child plan and make favors and decorations for his or her own party.

Take a beady-eyed look at birthday party food. If your meals don't normally run to hot dogs and chocolate icing, why cave in because it is a birthday? Cakes can be made with honey and whole wheat pastry flour. Whipped cream can substitute for icing. Ice cream is available made with honey only. Hot dogs can be found without additives. Or natural peanut butter can be substituted. Raisins, peanuts, and popcorn can take the place of candy, and unsweetened fruit juice in place of soda.

Children are direct and will ask you why you don't have "regular" food. Tell them you used to have "regular" food until you discovered this "new" food makes everyone stronger, slimmer, and more beautiful. Don't say "healthy" and "good-for-you"!

Celebrating with creations

For our daughter's fifth birthday, we struggled with the traditional party to which kids bring presents for a girl who already has enough. So we sent a note to the families asking that they not buy a gift, but that the children create something on their own as a gift of themselves to Tracy. The response was great. All the children made "creations" - painted rocks, pictures, artificial flowers out of pipe-cleaners potted together in an English Leather bottle cap, etc. And our daughter greatly appreciated and enjoyed receiving "a part of her friends" instead of a commercial gift. The parents liked it too! We have taken the idea a step further this Christmas and have suggested to our family relations that we use our talents and create rather than buy something for each other.

- Jan and Ed Spence, Aztec, New Mexico

Birthright (rite)

My siblings and I, and now our children, have what we consider our "birthright" (rite) - our favorite menu and being released from our daily chores for that one very special day. When my sisters and brother and I were growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, my parents would never have dreamed of indulging us in an orgy of parties and presents. Even if they could have afforded it, they would have felt it wasn't good for us. But our special menu for the day was really special. Whatever we wanted (within reason, of course) we could order for breakfast, lunch, and supper.

Being released from chores made us feel like a king or queen. With my own children, we've continued this custom and they love it. Another thing I've done with my children is to buy each one a nice book on their birthday, and over the years they've accumulated a pretty good library.

- Mrs. Charles Jackson, Madison, New Jersey

From me to you

Our daughter will take a gift to present to her class (something everyone can use and enjoy) in honor of her birthday rather than bring in a candy treat. If everyone did this individually, or the class got together and decided on something they could get for their room or the school, they could contribute something plus cut out the sweets.

- Jeann Schaller, Midland, Michigan

Twelve birthdays each year

Our house is a commune, a collective, an extended family of 12 folks. As you would expect, one of the main sources of celebration is each person's birthday. The birthday celebrations take various forms, some very much planned, some not, but all having the same creative caring as well as casual informality. They usually focus on particular aspects or interests of the person.

When a drama instructor recently had her birthday, we put on a scene from one of her favorite plays. The scene was exaggerated, and hilarious adaptations alluding to special events in her life were added. When a pancake and strawberry fanatic had his birthday, you know what we had for dinner. When the founder of our house had his birthday, we covered the dining table with a roll of shelving paper and each person drew a representation (symbolic or otherwise) of some special event that took place between them.

- Reprinted from The Alternate Celebrations Catalogue, 1982


Some of our favorite birthday gifts include a concert for Dad's birthday (I arranged a song so that each of the children could play an instrument, then we practiced it and performed it for my husband for his birthday) and a promise to the children for lessons in riding, gymnastics, etc. My brother-in-law, my husband and myself "share" a birthday card. It's about five years old now, and we are able to send it back and forth because our birthdays alternate.

- Frances M. Hraster, Wheaton, Maryland

Mysterious celebration

We hold a "mystery night" for each other or for other couples on birthdays. They are asked to reserve a particular evening on or around their birthday, with only a suggestion of how to dress for the evening. We make plans to do something unusual - always a surprise!

- Paul and Linda Hartman, Mesa, California

Birthday honor

We recently celebrated my father's 80th birthday and invited many of his friends. One of the guests played the piano, and all sang songs, most of which were 70 or 80 years old. The older people there were encouraged to tell tales of their lives as we all sat in a big circle. Our 11-year-old daughter gave a gift to her grandfather by learning to play Happy Birthday on her flute and then playing it at the party. Our eight-year-old made his grandfather a crown and a birthday flag. I wrote my father a poem which covered events in his life and the feelings that I have for him.

- Katie Barker, Lake Oswego, Oregon

On-going birthday wrap

To eliminate wrapping paper and create a personalized gift wrapper, use large scraps of cloth cut into the proper shape, or sew smaller pieces together. Make these gift cloths for each member of the family and use them over and over again. Some of the history of the person could be recorded on the cloth by embroidering birthday and holiday events such as "First Bicycle," etc.

Reprinted from The Alternate Celebrations Catalogue, 1982

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Early Passages

Tooth rites

When a child loses the first tooth, the event is usually noted with a ritual visit from the tooth fairy. This stage of development is symbolic of leaving babyhood behind. Planting a tree or bush with the child to symbolize new life and growth and giving the child new privileges and responsibilities are ways that this time might be made more meaningful.

Starting school

Entering the first grade at the age of six is no longer the universal passage it once was in this society. Now many parents place their children in day care as early as their first year and many children attend preschool and kindergarten. Whenever a child first leaves home, it is an important passage. It may be a time of joy for the new level of maturity reached by the child, but it also may be a time of great anxiety for the parents and the child. The child experiences anxiety at being left alone for significant periods without the family support system, and the parents worry about whether or not the child will make the passage successfully and about the quality of care the child will receive. For the parents, there is also great concern about the values and ideals to which the child will be exposed outside the home. This is such an important life passage that it ought to be observed in the family, both for the sake of the child and the parents.

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This period of rapid growth marks the end of childhood and the beginning of physical and sexual maturity. The bodies of boys and girls change noticeably, as do many of their feelings. While in pre-modern societies puberty was often marked by elaborate celebration, there are no commonly-used rites for this passage in our culture. With many parents reluctant to discuss - let alone celebrate! - this development, boys and girls often make this passage with only advice from peers and information gained from television and sex education classes at school.

Naming what we do

Many parents take their children and their friends camping; many help their children host pajama parties or dinners. At puberty, these events can be turned into rites of passage by including other significant adults, by discussion, and by focusing on symbols of the childhood being left, and the new stage of life being entered. Whether serious and/or humorous, if this event is named as a rite of passage and some thought is given by the parent as to what they would have liked for themselves, the evening can be one to be cherished for years to come.

Not a curse, but a blessing!

One of my fondest memories of time spent with a warm, creative family occurred several years ago. Their eldest daughter had experienced her first menstrual period, and her mother and I were particularly concerned that this be greeted with a positive attitude. For us, as well as for many generations of women who preceded us, menstruation was regarded as a curse - certainly not a blessing. We wanted to help this young woman avoid that experience and also set a pattern for her two younger sisters.

Like women's rites held so sacred in earlier times, all the females gathered: her mother, myself, another unofficial "aunt" and the two younger sisters. We presented the "initiate" with a bouquet of rosebuds with which we wished to express budding womanhood. At a special dinner that evening, her father made a short speech acknowledging this new stage of development, a life passage, of which many more would follow.

The same ritual has been observed for each of the sisters and all have spoken warmly of the importance of that occasion in their lives.

- Kathleen Timberlake, Ann Arbor, Michigan

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In the Faith Community

Bar mitzvah ("son of the commandment") is a special confirmation ceremony for Jewish boys; for Jewish girls it is bat mitzvah ("daughter of the commandment"). Conducted in the synagogue, usually around age 13, the celebration signals the young person's assumption of adult religious duties.

Confirmation is a rite observed in many Christian traditions that also signifies a spiritual coming-of-age. Usually for teenagers who were baptized as infants, the rite celebrates the assumption of adult responsibilities in the Christian community. In some traditions this may also mean taking an additional name, a name of a favored saint with whom the child chooses to identify.

Bar/bat mitzvah in kibbutz

A creative joint bar/bat Mitzvah took place in an Israeli kibbutz.

During their 13th year, the boys and girls engage in 13 creative projects (field trips, directing a play, writing poems). The year-long process of creativity instead of a crash event symbolizes the rite of passage into responsible adulthood.

- Art Waskow, Washington, D.C.

Belated bar/bat Mitzvah

I believe that bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies for 13-year-olds are premature and would be far more meaningful at an older age. A senior at Brandeis University had his bar mitzvah as a part of the Sabbath morning havurah. Thirty friends joined in the singing, davening and Torah reading, and the young man's derasha (preaching) on the covenant highlighted the event. The Kiddush was catered by his friends.

Other alternative ways of celebrating bar/bat mitzvah include designing and making invitations at home; serving homemade food or sharing the task of food preparation with the congregation; having joint services with other families to share expenses and joy; creating decorations at home; and using puzzles, games, and rented movies for entertainment.

A growing number of rabbis are setting spending limits on weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs for the sake of simplicity and religious integrity. An alternative is to give money to worthy causes in honor of these observances and celebrants.

- Rabbi Albert Axelrad, Boston, Massachusetts

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From kindergarten to graduate school, graduations are important passages that recognize the graduate's growth and accomplishment and acknowledge the role others played in making the graduate's educational experience possible. For the graduate, this is a time to accept responsibility for making a positive contribution to society. Although graduation ceremonies bring joy at achievement and accomplishment, they may also bring anxiety about the future: Can I get a job? Can I get into graduate school? Am I ready to assume responsibility for my life?

It is not enough to leave these important passages to commencement rituals nor to treat them as new occasions for needless consumption. Observances at home, with friends and in one's religious community can give these passages the attention they merit and aid the graduate to move on to life's next stage.

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Also see Wedding Alternatives

In every known society, marriage is the culturally-prescribed way of expressing adult love and establishing a family. Marriage gives both permanence and responsibility to the relationship, as well as responsibilities for the children of this relationship.

More than the socialization of reproduction, marriage is a relationship that offers the possibility of respect between equals, deep experiences of fidelity, trust in another person, self-acceptance, growth in intimacy and nurturing new life. It is belief in a relationship with these profound ideals which moves two single people to join in a covenant of marriage.

Marriage as an institution into which two people enter voluntarily as equals - both in the sight of law and the faith they hold - is relatively new in western civilization. As in most other civilizations, marriage in Western tradition has historically been an institution which rationalizes and enforces the subordination of women through its religious and legal systems. Neither the emphasis of the Hebrew scriptures on justice in human relationships, nor the New Testament emphasis on mutual love for both husband and wife was sufficient to transcend the culture's prevailing belief that women should be subordinate to men.

Marriage was considered a sacrament in the medieval period, but negative views of women and sexuality made celibate life in a religious order morally superior to marriage. The Protestant Reformation brought about basic changes in the church's way of viewing women and marriage. When Martin Luther, an ex-monk, forsook his vows of celibacy and married Katy, a former nun, he made a dramatic statement about the sanctity of marriage. He accepted marriage as the normal life intended by God and rejected the notion that it was not morally inferior to celibacy. He saw women and sex as fundamentally good, a radical change from the tradition that viewed women and sex as evil. Despite religion's attitudinal change, tradition and vested political and economic interests continued to treat women as less than equals in marriage. A strong current of public opinion that the wife's place is in the home as the primary care provider, and the husband's place - with less parental responsibility - is outside the home as primary bread-winner, continues to pressure couples to fit into these traditional roles. Unfortunately, in this society, when two people determine to enter a covenant of marriage based on respect for each other as equals, it is still a counter-cultural commitment.

While the issue of equality is an old one, there are new realities that affect marriage. Many assume that social conditions now exist for a new intimacy between women and men. Freeing sex from procreation made it possible for people to value the erotic life for its own sake; the shrinking family size made it possible for women and men to respond more easily to each other's needs; and the loss of the binding character of the marriage contract makes it possible to ground sexual relations in something more than legal compulsion. The "new intimacy" may be an illusion, and the eagerness for it may be the symptom of a serious sickness in our culture.

In his classic work, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations, Christopher Lasch argued that one of the key characteristics of the narcissistic culture is the inability "to take an interest in anything after one's own death." The need for close personal encounters in the present, the avoidance of self-investment in a life-long covenant, and the demand for instant gratification have undermined genuine intimacy between men and women and also between parents and children. In this culture, women and men who enter a covenant of marriage based on a life commitment, the equality of both partners, self-giving and sacrifice, are taking a truly radical stance. Our culture pays lip service to the institution of marriage, but prevailing cultural values with stress on the primacy of self-gratification, novelty, and excitement work to undermine it.

Legitimate anxieties which accompany such an important life passage are exacerbated by consumer society's definition of the value of the wedding and related rites by the quantity of consumption. Wedding costs can be astronomical. "It's an ego-building thing," said a consultant who plans weddings from New York to Texas. "If we are going to spend $150,000 on baby sister's wedding, we do it to build egos and to show that we have good taste. And secretly, I think they love to have people discuss how much they spent on it."

Marketing people in the industry speak of "bride-generated" purchases. To understand what this means, you need only pick up a copy of one of the bridal magazines to find page after page of ads for china, crystal, and silver - to say nothing of vacuum cleaners, luggage, electric cookware, photographers, tuxedos, and bridal gowns. The travel industry is also there with "Days You'll Always Remember." While brides-to-be represent only three percent of the population, they account for a disproportionate share of household purchases in many categories: sterling silver flatware, crystal, small kitchen appliances, etc. A promotions director for Modern Bride magazine explained, "They don't want to wait any more to get things. In effect, these new brides have become upscale."

It is sad that such expenditures bring little happiness on the wedding day or after, nor do they offer any assurance for the success of the marriage. Sadder yet is the fact that the consumptive aspects of the celebration often overshadow the religious and personal significance of the rite itself. The good news is that some can and do reject this tradition and create alternatives that better express their values, ideals, and commitments.


How do you plan an alternative wedding? There are no formulas, because there is no one "right" way to do it. A good way to begin your planning is to talk about the kind of lifestyle you expect to lead, your mutual goals, and your priorities. Think about how your engagement and wedding ceremony can reflect these values. Talk with friends, clergy or other advisors. Be sensitive to the wishes of your parents or relatives, but don't let them decide for you. And if you are serious about being equal partners in marriage, don't assume that it is the bride's prerogative to decide what kind of wedding it will be, or that her family will pay for it.

Engagement. The engagement period is historically one in which the couple has time to prepare for marriage - getting to know one another and their respective families better. It is an important time to discuss in-depth the shape you expect your lives to take, the priorities each of you have, and the goals you want to work for. Don't let preparation for the wedding ceremony get in the way of preparing for the marriage. Many couples take time to enrol in a marriage preparation course offered through pastoral institutes, religious institutions, or personal awareness groups.

Rings. The custom of giving an engagement ring may have originated at a time when marriages were arranged - as they still are in some cultures - and a groom gave a ring as a down payment on the agreement. Neither the engagement ring nor the wedding ring is a requirement. If rings are important to you, there are alternatives to the traditional diamond. You may wish to exchange family rings or rings found at auctions or antique jewelry stores. You may have a local craftsperson make a ring that is less expensive than a diamond and has special meaning. You may choose to exchange pendants, make an ongoing commitment to a foster child, buy a piece of art, or plant and tend a tree together.

Parties and showers. These social occasions are good opportunities for couples to feel the support of their friends and families. They serve the useful function of helping supply a couple's household needs, but they can also create an unnecessary financial burden for friends and relatives who may feel obligated to give a wedding gift as well. The new couple needs more than things. Consider giving ideas: recipes, information and hints can be cleverly packaged and shared. You might give an I.O.U. for a dinner or some other service you will provide for the couple later.

If the bridal couple hosts a party, they may ask that the gift be advice or help with a potential problem, or the issue of how to live simply. They may ask for a storytelling party in which couples come and tell them stories of living in partnership that are helpful, meaningful, or funny.

Invitations. According to bridal magazines, invitations are key status indicators. Consider making your own invitations or simply use handwritten notes. You might use silk-screening, photographs, or wood cuts. Inviting friends by phone may be the most personal way. For larger numbers of guests, consider inexpensive methods of duplicating such as quick-copy. Whatever way you choose, be sure to give your guests an idea of appropriate gifts and attire. The more information they have, the more comfortable they will be, and the more festive your celebration.

Gifts. It is perfectly all right to suggest the kinds of gifts you would like. Your friends usually want to give something you will find useful or beautiful. If you have enough things and would like donations made to a favorite group, give them the name and address of the organization.

Rehearsal dinner. Consider carefully whether you want - or are able to afford - an expensive dinner at a restaurant. Friends may be delighted to help prepare such a meal as a wedding gift.

The wedding day. Like any other event, a wedding should be carefully planned or it may turn into a catastrophe for everyone concerned. That does not mean you have to hire a wedding consultant. A friend or two are usually available to help with the required organizing. Take the time several weeks - or months! - ahead of the wedding to sit down and talk about the day with the person you choose to help you. Then you'll be able to relax and enjoy the celebration, too.

Place. Wedding ceremonies and receptions can be held just about anywhere - from a great hall to a barnyard - provided arrangements are thought out and made well in advance. The high costs of receptions have more to do with status projection than with the discovery of a place that has special meaning for you, your family and friends. If the church family is the major support community for your marriage, then the wedding should be in the church. Wherever you decide to have the wedding and reception, be sure that your guests know how to get there.

Dress. Some brides wouldn't feel they were married without the traditional bridal dress and veil. If owning a new wedding dress is not important to you, you may want to use your mother's or a friend's dress. Consider buying a dress that can be used on other occasions. You may even want to consider renting a dress. What is true for bridal dresses is also true for attire for grooms and attendants. Men don't have to wear matched tuxedos; in fact, they don't even have to wear suits. Nor do the brides' attendants have to wear matching dresses. Decide what you really want. Dress does make a statement. What kind of statement do you want to make?

Decorations. It is possible to have a wedding without decorations, but just as a lifestyle of responsibility would be drab without celebrations, so celebrations would be drab without decorations. That doesn't mean that "more is better." Simple, carefully thought-out decorations can convey the spirit of the occasion. Mixed flowers from your neighbor's, your grandmother's, or your own garden (or wild flowers from a field) are every bit as beautiful as purchased bouquets. Candles are simple but always elegant.

The ceremony. This is an area that couples seem to think about after they've planned photographers, clothes, and food - yet it is the most important part of the celebration! Your wedding ceremony should say what you want it to say. Work with the person you choose to perform the service. There may be fewer legal requirements than you think. Most denominations have certain requirements for the service, but most clergy will work with you to make the service meaningful for you.

Consider the music most meaningful to you. If it isn't a soloist singing O Promise Me, what is it? Could a family member or friend provide music for you? Would you consider writing a song yourselves? What scripture speaks to your heart? What poetry or prose is your favorite? What is it, exactly, that you want to promise one another?

The reception. This most expensive item in the average wedding cries out for rational thought. How much of your parents' or your own money are you prepared to spend for this occasion? It does not have to be expensive to be fun and for you to receive congratulations and good wishes from friends and family. If you want to keep it simple, light refreshments or a covered-dish dinner will not lessen the joy and fun of the occasion. Music can often be provided by friends who want to make their music a special gift to you.

- Reprinted from To Celebrate: Reshaping Holidays & Rites of Passage

An inclusive wedding shower

My daughter wanted to have a non-sexist wedding celebration. Her efforts to that effect began when a friend suggested a bridal shower. After finessing an invitation for her fiancé, she was asked to provide a list of her friends she would like to invite. On this list she included both male and female names. A couple of her male friends were taken aback when they received a standard shower invitation. A more serious problem was when one of the hostesses panicked on hearing the bride wanted to invite men. "What will they eat?" she worried. "We are only having finger food." As it turned out, the men who came enjoyed the finger food immensely...using their fingers to stuff it into their mouths.

- Sara Lee Schoenmaker, Iowa City, Iowa

Alternative wedding registry

As we thought about the wedding gifts we would receive, we decided to keep the "things" and to give away the money we received to three nonprofit organizations. We knew a number of relatives who hadn't met us would want to give gifts but didn't know our tastes. To help them, we commissioned a set of dishes from our favorite potter. It was like a wedding registry at a store: people ordered place settings or serving dishes, and the potter, not a store, made the profit. Our wedding date is inscribed on the backs of all our dishes - a great memory when cleaning up after supper.

- Kathie Klein, Atlanta, Georgia

It's all in the family

At the home of an older friend, I recently saw a beautiful friendship quilt. When she became engaged, each female relative embroidered one white muslin square with her own name in the middle along with birds, flowers, or any design she chose. An elderly aunt who was blind wrote her name in pencil and her daughter embroidered it for her.

The squares were assembled into a quilt top and quilted by her mother and sisters. It made a beautiful, lasting, practical and inexpensive gift, although it took some effort. Each member of her family had one as it was always their gift to each other.

- Sheryl Craig, Warrensburg, Missouri

A variety of special gifts

Some special monetary gifts for our wedding were made to the Heifer Project (dedicated to alleviating hunger by helping low-income families around the world to produce food for themselves and for their communities), and to a "Christmas angel" program which supplies gifts to poor children at Christmas. Our organist donated music for the ceremony; a woman loaned her lovely silver trays for our reception; my aunt and uncle made the mints for our wedding reception; and Russ's brother made a clock for us. And we made a gift of our wedding flowers to another couple who were married the day after our wedding.

- Karen Greenwaldt, Nashville, Tennessee

When wedding plans don't go smoothly

Harsh words, tension-filled moments, and decisions that were seen as selfish all stood in the way of our wedding being a grace-filled moment.

In order not to make a mockery of the love we were about to celebrate, we decided to have a service of reconciliation.

Family and wedding party were invited to the church for rehearsal. After the traditional practice, we invited everyone to take part in a short prayer time focusing on the theme of reconciliation. We prayed a common prayer asking for forgiveness and spoke a greeting of peace to each other. Finally, we joined hands and prayed together the Lord's prayer. This experience was a necessary and prayerful part of our marriage.

- Nancy Parker Clancy, Troy, Michigan

Back porch elegance

At our son's wedding, we decided to extend the rehearsal dinner to include family members who were coming to Georgia from as far away as California and Oregon. Having the dinner in a local restaurant was rejected because it was too expensive for our values and budget, and because we wanted this occasion to be a personal expression of our family.

As their wedding gift, close friends of our family made their large, screened back porch available for our party and agreed to serve the dinner and clean up. Our nutritionist hostess helped us plan a meal that was both reasonably priced and delicious. We did all the food preparation the night before. Four of us gathered in her small kitchen and wrapped marinated chicken breast in phyllo dough for hours! We were very tired at the end of the evening, but we had a good time as we did it. We agreed that a less-complicated recipe would have been more practical, but the chicken was delicious and elegant. The rest of the menu was quite simple: garden salad, steamed broccoli, whole wheat rolls baked by another friend, and sherbet. On the day of the dinner, a neighbor cooked some of the chicken in her oven, so at dinner time it arrived hot and steaming.

We borrowed tables and chairs from our church, but since this was to be a family party we used our own china, silver, and linens. A friend brought colorful flowers from her yard, and our hostess made beautiful arrangements for each table. Carefully planned seating helped members from the two family groups get to know each other. The relaxed atmosphere afforded by our host family helped the tired feelings from all the preparation slip away. The gratitude of our son and new daughter, and the support we felt from our gathered families, made this a highlight of our celebrations.

- Rachel G. Gill, Stone Mountain, Georgia

International dinner

Since Dennis and I were both seminary students and we felt that because the seminary was our community at that point in our lives, we decided to be married on campus. Since we had both served as short-term mission volunteers - he in Nigeria and I in Paraguay - and several of our friends and professors had also worked overseas, we decided to have an international dinner with costumes. Friends made West African stew, a festive meal served on African tablecloths at the home of one of our professors. As table decoration we bought several variegated plants which doubled as gifts for members of the wedding party.

- Paula Meador Testerman, Wake Forest, North Carolina

Remember my name

When I got married, I kept my own name. I wanted to communicate this decision to our relatives. Our friends' experiences with either not specifically announcing it or being subtle and understated had not met with success - many relatives ignored the women's use of their own names. We didn't expect such a reaction from close family but wanted to inform more distant relatives. We decided to use the invitation/announcement to let people know.

With my choice of words I wanted to address several points. I wanted to make it sound as unsurprising for me to keep my name as for my husband to keep his. It was not my purpose to be strident, aggressive, or alienating in tone nor to seem critical of any who made a different choice. I did want to indicate some expectation that others would honor our decision.

As the folded invitation was opened, the wedding information was on the right-hand side. On the left side at the bottom we put: We will continue to be known by our own names. Your cooperation will be appreciated.

- Kathie Klein, Atlanta, Georgia

Wedding fiesta in Taos

We wanted to help my daughter make every aspect of her wedding significant. She began by choosing to have the wedding in the place where she had grown up rather than the place where she or the family was currently living. The date of the wedding coincided with local fiestas and Pueblo Indian dances.

Following the wedding, a supper party and dance were held at our little adobe house. After the festivities were over, many of the guests camped out in the beautiful field by the river - some in sleeping bags under the stars, some in tents.

As a part of our larger celebration, we planted a tree in memory of her father who had died two summers earlier. The children presented a romantic play, The Owl and The Pussycat, and had fun swinging at a homemade piñata. Candles and a big bonfire of piñon logs gave soft light to the house and added beauty and warmth to an unforgettable occasion.

- Virginia McConnell, Boulder, Colorado

Incorporating different perspectives and potluck

A major issue in planning our wedding was to create a common and congenial form from two very different perspectives - Cliff and his family are militantly secular and my family and I are rooted in faith. We scrutinized each element of the ceremony to determine how to shape it to express our particular meaning, and to respect the integrity of our differences.

In our planning with Mike, my colleague and our wedding celebrant, we imagined the ceremony as concentric circles with ourselves in the middle. The inner circle was family, spreading out to friends and the larger community. In the church, to bridge the space between the straight rows of seats and where we stood facing those seats, we placed a semi-circle of chairs for our immediate families.

Our parents were involved in the ceremony at two different points. We arranged it to make sure each parent had a role. After Mike and we welcomed everyone, my mother welcomed Cliff into our family and Cliff's father welcomed me. They wrote their own greetings - my mother's included a prayer and Cliff's father's was a story - each standing on its own terms. Later, my father and Cliff's mother brought us the rings to exchange.

For the reception, we organized a gigantic potluck dinner (there were over 100 guests). One close friend's gift to us was to coordinate it. We provided hams and a core group made particular items at our request. The rest was potluck. Since it was spring and since there was no stove in the church basement, we asked only for salad-type dishes or ones that required no heating.

- Kathie Klein, Atlanta, Georgia

A blessing for Hannah

Because the wedding was "out-of-town" for everyone but a few, the bride and groom reserved rooms for most wedding guests in a hotel. The night before the wedding, a group of seven wedding guests, all women, were gathered with the bride. We ranged in age from the teens to the 50s. At first, we chatted. Then one by one, we all offered the bride a word of encouragement, or something we had learned from married life. When we had finished, I asked the bride if there was anything she wanted to ask of us. She replied, "A blessing." She sat on a stool as we gathered around her and placed a hand on her head or her shoulder. Spontaneously, and simply, we asked that she and Bob be blessed in their life together. It was a beautiful moment.

- Carolyn Pogue, Calgary, Alberta

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An Alternative Wedding Service

Also see Wedding Alternatives

If there are parts of the traditional wedding ceremony that mean little or nothing to you and thoughts you'd like to include that say more about your own marriage, feel free to explore this with the person you choose to perform the service. Various denominations also make certain portions of the vows a required part of the service, though one mainline Protestant minister in San Francisco makes it a practice to ask a couple into his office and talk with them about their feelings and plans. If they appear ready for marriage, he informs them at the end of the interview that they are married and, except for civil requirements, they need do no more.

But for most couples who choose a nontraditional wedding, the ceremony is the heart of the matter because it is here that you can express your most cherished thoughts. The traditions of some faiths or officials may limit your choices, but most will work with you to make the celebration meaningful for you.

Since the prelude and the processional are the first elements of a traditional ceremony, it makes sense to talk about music first. Its association with weddings dates back to the days when noise was thought to keep evil spirits away, but whatever the reasons for its use, its effect is to evoke emotion. In other words, it can get people into whatever mood you want to create, which should be reflected in the other elements of the ceremony.

If you want a feeling of community, a processional hymn is a good choice. One couple chose to begin with the joyful old Shaker song 'Tis the Gift to be Simple, as sung and danced by talented friends. Other couples prefer the tranquility of classical selections or the informal notes of jazz. And one couple, as they turned from the altar for the recessional, asked their guests to join them in a rousing rendition of I've Got That Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy Down in My Heart. Church musicians are good people to contact first. Even if they're not eager to discuss possibilities with you, they'll usually direct you to other musicians in the community who will be able to explore new ideas with you. One note of caution: music is marvelous as a part of the ceremony, but too much of it may change the wedding to a concert and overshadow what you want your wedding to say.

Other introductions to the ceremony generally include some explanation of the reason for the gathering together, such as the following three examples:

Example one

Reading by minister:

Julie and Kevin have honored us by inviting us to be with them during this time that will make them husband and wife. They wish to dedicate themselves to each other publicly today. The wedding they perform will not join them; only they can do that through an awareness of the spiritual bond which already exists between them. The ceremony is only proclaiming that fact.

It is fitting and appropriate that you, families and friends of Julie and Kevin, be here to witness and participate in their wedding, for the ideals, the understanding, and mutual respect which they bring to their marriage have their roots in the love you have given them.

What Julie and Kevin mean to each other is obvious in their lives, but not easily expressed in the language of a ceremony. To convey the sense of what they wish their marriage to mean, they have asked their good friend Marty to read from Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet. [At this point in the service, the chapter "On Marriage" was read from The Prophet.]

Example two

This reading was used in a Jewish/Christian service:

We are gathered together today as family and friends of Earl and Ellen. They have honored us by choosing us to be with them, and we rejoice with them in making this important commitment, which will make them husband and wife.

The essence of this commitment is the taking of another person in his or her entirety, as lover, companion, and friend. It is therefore a decision which is not made lightly, but rather undertaken with great consideration and respect for both the other person and oneself.

A marriage that lasts is one which is continually developing and one in which both persons grow in their understanding of each other. Deep knowledge of another person is not something that can be achieved in a short time, and real understanding of another's feelings can fully develop only through years of intimacy.

While marriage is the intimate sharing of two lives, it can enhance the differences and individuality of each partner. We must give ourselves in love, but we must not give ourselves away. A good and balanced relationship is one in which neither person is overpowered or absorbed by the other.

We are here today, then, to celebrate the love which Earl and Ellen have for each other, and to give recognition to their decision to accept each other totally and permanently. Into this state of marriage these two persons come now to be united.

Example three

This greeting was used in a Protestant/Catholic service:


Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the presence of these witnesses, to join together Patrick and Janet in holy matrimony; which is an honorable estate, instituted of God and signifying between Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence in Cana of Galilee. It is therefore not to be entered into unadvisedly, but reverently, discreetly, and in the fear of God. Into this holy estate Patrick and Janet come now to be joined.

- Rev. Edward J. Wynne Jr., Caldwell, New Jersey

Charge to the couple

A charge to the couple, and sometimes to the congregation, is common. Involving your friends in the ceremony usually makes the occasion meaningful for all of you, as in the following dedication made before the exchange of vows.

Pastor: This couple comes together out of a community of friends and relatives. They ask our support as they together begin the adventure of married life. We come today to join in marriage _________ and _________. It is our fondest hope that their separate lives may together explore new dimensions of love.

Congregation: We dedicate ourselves to the continuing task of helping them in all ways possible to build a deep and abiding love.

Pastor: We ask for them the excitement of new discoveries and new creations, that their lives may be an adventure together wherever they may go.

Congregation: We dedicate ourselves to the continuing task of helping them in all ways possible to live the most fully human life.

Pastor: We know that love is not a state of being easily achieved. We ask that ___________ and __________ find the courage and the patience to overcome any obstacle to a profound communication - the very cornerstone of all relationships of love.

Congregation: We dedicate ourselves to the continuing task of helping them in all ways possible to meet the challenge of a marriage pledged to honest struggle, open words, and shared lives.

Pastor: And finally, we recognize that love is not limited nor can it be contained. We ask that the love ___________ and __________ feel for each other reach out beyond themselves, to their family and to the world in which they live.

Congregation: We dedicate ourselves to the continuing task of helping them in all ways possible to let their love so shine that it touches all who know them; and may their lives be lived not only for themselves but for all humanity.


Personalization of vows has become a common practice, even in the most traditional ceremonies.

The suggested Lutheran vow, for instance, is open to one stipulation being that the "as long as we live" sentiment remains. The two obvious ground rules for writing original vows are that they be a sincere expression of your feelings for each other and that they be worthy of the occasion. They need not be identical. In fact, if you're taking a standard vow and adding your own touches, why don't you both try making the changes without consulting the other? The vow each of you develops could be the one you use as your promise.

Some vows are quite short, like the examples shown below. Others take the form of a contract specifying the understanding and expectations each partner has about the marriage. Some have included agreements on finances, child-rearing, in-law relations, careers, even provisions for separation - though that seems to insert a defeatist attitude about the marriage from the start.

Others have been short, general statements of purpose - often lettered and illustrated by an artist friend, designed to be read and/or signed at the ceremony.

We think of contracts as a modern innovation, but in ancient times the Ketubah, a legal contract, was used in Jewish marriages to set forth in writing the terms of the marriage agreement, thereby protecting the woman by discouraging the man from divorcing her. Today it is still used in Jewish ceremonies, but in most cases it has become wholly symbolic.

I take you...

I take you as my wife (husband) and equal. I pledge to share my life openly with you, to speak the truth to you in love. I promise to honor and tenderly care for you, to cherish and encourage your own fulfilment as an individual through all the changes of our lives.

(Groom's attendant - Groom's A; Bride's attendant - Bride's A)

Bride's A: Love is a growing thing...

Groom's A: ...a growing awareness of the meaning of "otherness." Another self who stands outside your self, whose life is a mystery and a challenge, a vexation and a thing of wonder.

Bride's A: It comes from involvement, and grows in living with a person, sharing with him, and building something with him. It requires energy and imagination.

Groom's A: It is impossible for superiors and inferiors to love, since the superior can only condescend and the inferior only admire. Love means recognition between two equals, not exploiting each other's strengths or weaknesses, but rejoicing in each other's presence.

Bride's A: Love must be a bond and yet not binding, else our freedom is stifled in the name of love, and with our freedom, our humanity is lost.

Groom's A: It is a relationship of greater possibility and greater risk, for the power to create is the power to destroy.

Bride's A: Marriage, then, is not a bond made of words or promises or the clauses of a contract.

Groom's A: For no set of rules or promises can possibly exhaust the demands love may come to make on you.

Bride's A: It is a special spirit or style of life between two people. And if it is there, no possible words will make it more sacred or worthwhile.

Groom's A: If it is not, no special phrases will make it exist. The words are an affirmation of that spirit, not a substitute for it.

Bride's A: Marriage is an affirmation of the possibility and power of forgiveness.

Groom's A: It must have permanence. It should be something to depend on, a rock to anchor against the storm, a place to come home to.

Bride's A: Yet its permanence is not that of a wall which shuts things out or seals something in. It should be free and open to the winds of God.

Groom's A: It is a stage on the road of friendship and love and discovery.

Bride's A: It means opening yourself a little more to the possibilities of another self and life itself.

Groom's A: Finally, it was meant to be a continuing celebration of the gift of life and love. For it is in sharing and in joy that it is fulfilled.

Groom: I, ___________, having full confidence that our abiding faith in each other as human beings will last our lifetime, take you, ___________, to be my wedded wife. I promise to be your loving and faithful husband, in prosperity and in need, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, and to respect your privileges as an individual as long as we both shall live.

Bride: I, ___________, having full confidence that our abiding faith in each other as human beings will last our lifetime, take you, ___________, to be my wedded husband. I promise to be your loving and faithful wife, in prosperity and in need, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, and to respect your privileges as an individual as long as we both shall live.

All that I have I offer you. Wherever you go I will go. What you have to give I gladly receive. I pray God will grant us lifelong faithfulness, and so I take you for my husband (wife).

Officiant: ___________ and __________, if it is your intention to share with each your laughter and your tears and all the work and pleasure the years will bring, by your promises bind yourselves now to each other as husband and wife. (The couple faces each other, joins hands and repeats:)

I take you (name) to be my (wife/husband) and I promise these things:

I will be faithful to you and honest with you;

I will respect you, trust you, help you, listen to you and care for you.

I will share my life with you in plenty and in want;

I will forgive you as we have been forgiven; and I will try with you better to understand ourselves, the world, and God;

so that together we may serve God and others forever.


In some weddings, there is an opportunity for each person present to reaffirm his or her own marriage vows. Some include a time for each person present to turn to one another with the greeting, "Peace be with you," and the response, "and also with you."

For more information on alternative weddings, see The Alternative Wedding Book, Northstone Publishing Inc., 1995.

Whatever you plan, remember that the focus is on the act of joining together. All your plans need to leave you feeling excited, but not overwhelmed. It is important, above all, that the bride and groom savor each moment of this day.

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Happy anniversary to you!

On our 25th wedding anniversary, we sent out the following card to friends and family: "In celebration of God's providential care through 25 years of marriage and in honor of your friendship, we have made Edmarc Children's Hospice, Suffolk, Virginia, the recipient of a gift in your name."

- Virginia and Dick Bethune, Pulaski, Virginia

A family affair

Wedding anniversaries are a family affair, especially if children were part of the wedding (not rare anymore in this age of blended families). This can be a special time of celebrating the birth of the family unit with family-oriented activities or gifts. Candles from each family member's birthday cake can be melted down into one big candle for this occasion.

- Meryl A. Buder, Virginia Beach, Virginia

Food bank shares in anniversary celebration

A couple in our church celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with an open house in the church fellowship hall. They asked that no gifts be given to them. Instead, they asked their friends and neighbors to remember the poor and needy.

Some of their friends took this a step further. The friends asked everyone who came to the open house to bring a can of food to share with the needy through the local city rescue mission food bank, the favorite charity of the anniversary couple.

The response was overwhelming. More than 30 bags of food were collected. This food was greatly needed since we live in an area that has been hard hit by plant and steel mill closings. The opportunity to share a little of their blessings was a thrill for the couple and the church.

- Jacquelyn S. Thompson, Pulaski, Pennsylvania

Friends tell all

When my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, my family and I wanted to give them some special remembrances of their life together. On a formal anniversary celebration announcement, friends were asked to bring stories instead of gifts. The invitation read, "If you would like to present a gift other than your presence, we suggest a written account of a special time spent with our parents as a reminder of the richness each of you has added to their life together."

- Kay Goodman, Lexington, Virginia

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The Second Time

Pledges to the children, too

It was the second marriage for both of us. Between us, we had five children. Before we made our wedding vows to each other, we each made vows to our own children, and to our soon-to-be stepchildren. We pledged to our own children that our love and care for them would never change. To our partner's children, we pledged friendship and love. We made it clear that we would always consider our home to be their home, too. My youngest daughter honored us by reading scripture during the service. Our honeymoon was a camping trip across the country. We invited all of them to join us - and all but one did. "Amazing" doesn't cover it!- Carolyn Pogue, Calgary, Alberta

Children participate

Milton and I wanted to share our expressions of love and commitment with our children, our families, and friends. Since this was a second marriage for both of us, it was important for our children - who through our wedding were becoming part of a blended family - to feel as much a part of the service as we did.

Unlike our first traditional weddings, we were determined to have a ceremony that was an expression of ourselves. We chose an open-air stage in a local park with benches in the shade of oak trees. We decorated the stage area with borrowed hanging baskets of begonias and ferns. A small table covered with a white linen cloth and adorned with candles and daisies served as an altar, and hanging on the wall behind the altar was a rustic cross made by our friend who officiated at the wedding. Other friends made paper cranes and hung them as mobiles on each side of the stage.

It was a casual wedding. A friend played the recorder as everyone gathered for the ceremony. Accompanied by our children, each of us walked to the altar where each child declared his support of the marriage. Family members from both sides and friends also pledged their support and lighted candles as a symbol of their promises. After we said our vows to one another, we marched out to an old fiddle tune played by a musician friend.

Dinner on the grounds followed. We supplied barbecue and punch bowls with iced tea and lemonade while guests brought their favorite dishes. Wedding cakes were gifts from friends. After dinner we had an old-fashioned barn dance. Our casual dress (I chose a peasant dress and Milton wore dress slacks with a knit shirt), and that of our guests, enabled everyone to dance until their feet ached.

As we had hoped, it was a wonderful, fun-filled day and uniquely our own. We will always cherish those memories, including the pack of dogs that roared through the park and helped themselves to one of the pans of barbecue.

- Janie Howell, Ellenwood, Georgia

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In many pre-modern societies, aging was regarded as a natural part of life, and the elderly were treated with respect, if not reverence. The high esteem accorded the elderly was based both on the fact that they had survived to be old, as well as the wisdom accumulated from many years of living. Moreover, the sense of interdependence within the community made respect and care for the elderly a natural expression of gratitude for their earlier contributions.

In modern Western society, the passage from middle age to old age is generally perceived to be at retirement. The idea of retiring at a particular age - whether at 65, 70 or some other age - is new. It is an outgrowth of industrialization when machines began to produce a surplus of products and, combined with increased longevity, created a surplus of laborers. At the turn of the century, only 39 percent of the people in the U.S. could expect to reach the age of 65. Now more than 70 percent can expect to reach that age. Of course, people retired before the Industrial Revolution, but there were no standard ages at which retirement began. In earlier times, the age for retirement had more to do with an individual's health or financial status than with chronological age.

Some people eagerly anticipate retirement. For them, it offers a break from heavy work schedules and time to focus on other priorities: spend more time with family, travel, hobbies, etc. Others dread retirement. Some see it as a symbolic inauguration of deteriorating health. For others it means an unwanted change in routine, the loss of job satisfaction, too much leisure time, decrease in social contacts, and reduced income.

While the consumer culture offers many comforts and conveniences to the aging, its prevailing values undermine respect for older people. In an aging society, the consumer culture idolizes youth. To people living on reduced and fixed incomes, having money to spend is touted as the source of happiness and satisfaction. For those most in need of community, individualism is prized above the common good.

As is the case in all passages, more than the individual is involved. Births are passages not only for the baby, but for the parents. Getting married is a passage not only for the bride and groom, but for parents and friends. Death is not only a passage for the deceased, but for the survivors. Retirement and other later passages - selling the family home, entering a nursing home, etc. - are not only passages for the individual, but for the surrounding family and community as well.

Most retirement ceremonies point to the accomplishments of the honoree and look forward to the positive side of retirement. Recognition of the community's indebtedness to the retiree should be coupled with recognition of the community's new responsibility to and for the person. Somewhere - in the family and/or in the religious community - there need to be rites that anticipate the joys and the sorrow of the next phase of life. Rites are needed, not unlike a wedding, that celebrate the new relationship with the rest of the family and community and call attention to family and community responsibilities in this new relationship.

- Reprinted from To Celebrate: Reshaping Holidays & Rites of Passage

Time to get deeper into the fray

What is coming up for me is not retirement from anything, as I see it. It is advancing. When you live in an industrialized country where the majority of the poor are little children, you have to think about moving deeper into the fray. For dozens of years, I've made my living consulting with a smorgasbord of anti-poverty groups. When I stop consulting, I intend to keep right on working with some of these groups as a volunteer.

- Gene Sylvestre, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Homer's heifer celebration

Our pastor, Homer, retired after many years of service to our congregation. For many of us, he was the only minister they had ever known. For his retirement celebration, the children's choir led the congregation in singing The Farmer in the Dell. After one verse, the director asked the congregation to continue singing with word changes she would suggest, beginning with "Homer needs a cow." As the congregation sang, two of the children carried in a life-sized cardboard cut-out of a cow. The congregation continued singing, "Homer needs a goat; a chicken; a rabbit; a pig; some bees." With each verse children brought in cardboard facsimilies.

After the song a prompted questioner rose to ask, "What will Homer do with all these creatures since he is moving to a very small house in the city?" In response, all the children chorused, "He can give them to needy people through the Heifer Project" (an interfaith, nonprofit organization dedicated to alleviating hunger by helping low-income families around the world to produce food for themselves and for their communities).

And that is what he did. All the creatures we sang about represented gifts to the Heifer Project that had been solicited to celebrate our pastor's retirement.

- H. J. Kopke, Cleveland, Ohio

Retirees make hospital possible

In the small North Carolina town in which I grew up, there was a desperate need for a new hospital. With the complexity of federal regulations about funding, the necessity to raise a large amount of money locally, and the demands to find suitable administrative personnel and additional medical personnel, the job was mammoth and time-consuming. I watched from a distance as two men and a woman, all retired, took on the job and succeeded. Only retired people could have given so much time, combined with their wisdom and experience. One of the men was my father. I flew there for the grand celebration of the hospital opening and his 80th birthday.

- Julia T. Gary, Decatur, Georgia

Washboard band scrubs myths about the aging

The Northside Shepherd Center's Washboard Band began more than eight years ago. Jane Carrier, leader of the band and emcee at their performances, has been a professional musician in the country music field since the 1930s. A member of the Atlanta Country Music's Hall of Honor and a senior citizen herself, Carrier understands the need of older people to stay involved and to feel useful.

As program director at the Center, Carrier leads the band and teaches the rudiments of performance - including complicated rhythms and high-kicking dance routines. Performances are greeted with appreciative whistles, enthusiastic cheers, and standing ovations. Currently, the band is adding occasional radio and television invitations to its busy schedule.

In addition to providing happy times and purpose to its members, the Washboard Band is beginning to provide some financial support to its home base. A modest fee for performances allows the band to contribute to the Center's varied programs for community elders.

The Washboard Band is but a reflection of the larger community to which it belongs. It is, in fact, a microcosm of this community - a caring, energized, productive and happy group of folks who happen to be elders. Housed in the basement of Tenth Street United Methodist Church, Northside Shepherd Center is patterned after and affiliated with the Shepherd Center in Kansas City, an organization founded in 1972, to help older people stay in their own communities.

The Northside Center is a place where elders are actively engaged with each other, and with the process of building community. These elders are still learning how to live.

- Rachel G. Gill, Stone Mountain, Georgia

Rite to retire

One: Retirement is a perfect time for taking a serious look at this gift we call life. It is also a time to examine our relationship to our Creator. With retirement, there is time to think, to study and to pray; there is time to see life in a new perspective, to be thankful. And most of all, there is time to live!

For many of the significant transitions in our lives, there is a ceremony - a ritual, a rite of passage - in which we cast off an old status and assume a new one. In the presence of family and friends we take on new responsibilities. From birth we go through personal, educational, and professional changes that indicate beginnings. Baptism, confirmation, and marriage are religious rites in our church. Jews celebrate bar and bat mitzvah, marking the passage of boys and girls into manhood and womanhood and adult religious responsibilities.

Today, we shall begin a new rite in our church, a service that I hope will become an annual event. Those in the congregation who are 65 years of age or more and who wish to redirect their lives to renewed growth and service may come to the altar for a time of celebration and dedication. The congregation is invited to join in a litany of support for their redirection.

In this community of faith, love, and service, we come to celebrate a time of passage for some of our members - a passage through retirement to redirection.

Congregation: We believe that we are created in the image of God; that we are intended for a special relationship with God through Jesus Christ and, thereby, for service to all humankind. At this moment we, of all ages, reaffirm this statement of the purpose and meaning of our lives.

Minister: Retirement is a gift, a wonderful gift of increased personal freedom and time. Our friends at the altar come now to ask for God's guidance and help in redirecting their lives.

Seniors: We pray that we may be open to new direction, new insights, and new opportunities for service.

One: This congregation challenges you as mature and experienced elders among us to use your gift of time and freedom to increase your understanding of a life lived for God and in close relationship with God.

Seniors: We pledge ourselves to increased study of scripture, to regular times of meditation, and to prayer.

Minister: We recognize your accomplishments and contributions as members of this congregation and affirm your experience and knowledge. We need your continued involvement in this fellowship and actively seek your wise counsel.

Congregation: As a congregation, we applaud the accomplishments of our senior members and are grateful for their contributions to this community of faith. We celebrate their passage into a new phase of life and offer our support.

Minister: Let us pray. Dear God, you are mother and father to all; you defend, nurture, and support us as we seek to serve you. We thank you for our friends and loved ones standing here, for their past service to you in their business, professional, and family lives. We celebrate their entry into this new phase of life, a time for renewal in the faith, for growth and service.

For the new challenges and opportunities that will come to them and for the new roles that they will assume, we seek your nurture and support. As a congregation, we pledge our help in this time of passage, knowing that your divine guidance is always there. Let this be a time when our congregation, your church, will grow in its mission as we work together, all ages, in keeping with your will and to your glory. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, we pray. Amen.

- Julia T. Gary, Decatur, Georgia

The gift of a lifetime

The Gift of a Lifetime program is the Presbyterian Church's response to the growing numbers of older adults among its members and in the communities where its congregations are located. This program gives older adults an opportunity to serve as full-time volunteers, sharing with others the gift of growing faith, commitment, experience and skill.

The program has two specific goals: to help congregations develop new approaches to older adult ministry, and to demonstrate the importance of older people's faith, experience, leadership, and commitment. Volunteers are placed for two-year periods and begin their ministry assignments with a two-week orientation and training conference.

- Presbyterian Office on Aging, Atlanta, Georgia

Grandpa's room

Great-grandpa was too old to live alone and was coming to live with us. We fixed up his room with comfortable, used furniture and a clock; we selected our best pictures for the walls and made new curtains. We put lace doilies and fresh flowers on all the tables so the room wouldn't look empty when he came, but we left room for the things he would bring with him.

He arrived with two suitcases and his violin. In the suitcases he brought his clothes, some pictures, and his Bible. He put his things away and we had supper. It was a special meal to welcome him, but it was just his family.

It was clear from that first day that this, like a good marriage, was a "till death do us part" arrangement. He was immediately part of the decision-making process and was made privy to all household and family matters. Everything was done beforehand to make him feel he had just come home. I think the simplicity of the occasion and the homey, readied room - which we were already calling Grandpa's room - made it easy for him to slip into the family.

- Sheryl Craig, Warrensburg, Missouri

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Next to death, divorce is probably the most traumatic life passage. That it is now so commonplace does little to alleviate the pain, suffering, and sense of failure often felt by the wife and husband, their children, and other family and friends. The reasons for divorce are as many and complex as the people involved, but prevailing values in the consumer culture could contribute to a high rate of divorce.

There are numerous rites with which to move through the passage into marriage - engagement, showers, wedding - but, apart from legal proceedings, there are almost no rites to move individuals and their families through the passage of divorce. Perhaps one of the reasons for the absence of divorce rites is the assumption that to provide such rites would be to encourage the incidence of divorce. Moreover, newly-divorced people often find themselves isolated from former friends, especially couples. Sometimes the isolation is self-imposed, perhaps out of shame. Sometimes it is because friends are not able to cope with the experience themselves. The reality is that many people are left to pass through this nightmare alone. Not only the former spouses suffer, but their children as well.

Although there are few existing rites for the divorce passage, couples and individuals are expressing a need for them, and many are creating their own rituals. As in marriage ceremonies, there is a need for expressions of grief as well as joy at changing relationships. There is a need for the divorced person to recognize the death of a particular relationship and the sadness that brings, as well as to celebrate the joy and excitement of entering a new life. Like funerals, such rites provide a medium for family and friends to grieve and to offer support when words are inadequate.

Adapted from To Celebrate: Reshaping Holidays & Rites of Passage

Divorce: A service of ending and beginning

Leader: It is Christian tradition for the community to gather and to surround major events in the lives of its members with worship, with songs and prayers and expressions of mutual support in the presence of God. We observe marriage with weddings, birth with baptism and blessing, and death with funerals.

Divorce is a major event, similar in many ways to death. We are only beginning to learn to put it into a public worship setting - much like a funeral - in which we can deal with our guilt and our grief, our gratitude and our hope, in the healing fellowship of the Christian community. There is no long tradition here, no established guidelines, but with reverence toward God and with kindled affections and tender hearts toward those who have suffered a grievous loss, let us worship God.

Hymn: Be Still My Soul

Call to confession: In his time on Earth our Savior encountered many people whose relationships were tangled and who suffered from a sense of failure and guilt. He invited them: "Whoever comes to me I will in no way cast out." He forgave them: "I do not condemn you. Your sins are forgiven." Let us bring our tangled relationships, our failures and our guilt to him.

Dear Lord, we all start out with high hopes and good intentions, especially in our marriages. When we take our vows we mean them sincerely. But sometimes communication breaks down. Sometimes we are betrayed, and sometimes we ourselves betray.

Love can be so wounded that it dies, and a loveless marriage becomes a living lie and a source of endless pain, blocking any meaningful future. And in the friction between adults, children are hurt. Have mercy on us, O God, in the shame and guilt and failure that we feel. We do not ask that you approve of us, but only that you forgive us. Forgive us all, for when a marriage fails in the Christian community, we are all involved. Amen.

Silent personal confession

Assurance of pardon: Hear the comforting words of our Savior: "Whoever comes to me I will in no way cast out...Your sins, which are many, are forgiven. Go and sin no more." Amen.

Response: You are the Lord, Giver of mercy.

A Prayer of Thanksgiving: Great God, giver of every good gift, we thank you for all that was good about _________and _________'s marriage. For their first love, for years of faithfulness through good times and bad, for the wonderful children, ______________, who came to bless their home, for the way each furthered the work of the other, for joys and sorrows shared that are too numerous to name, we give you thanks. As we value the lives of loved ones who have died, help us to value all that was good in this marriage that is ending. You are the giver of all good things, and we praise your name. Amen.

Hymn: If Thou but Suffer God to Guide Thee

Unison prayer of grieving: God of all comfort and mercy, hear our grief. Something very precious has died and we want to cry, to wail, to mourn, perhaps to scream in our anguish. You know our pain and sorrow and you hear our anger and distress. Our brother Jesus wept, and we know that weeping is a part of our humanity. So we offer you our tears and beg for your comfort. Comfort us, O God. In Jesus' name. Amen.

Hebrew scripture lesson: Psalm 46

Unison prayer of hope: Creator God, you make all things new. And you can give to ________________ and _______________, their children, and to all of us a new future, a time full of hope and of unforeseen possibilities. We pray that in your wisdom you will prepare us and lead us into that future one day at a time, one step at a time. Your love is in our hearts. And we rest assured that if our hope comes from you, we will live in your light. Praise be to you. Amen.

The New Testament lesson: 2 Corinthians 5:16-19

Expressions of concern and support: We now invite the friends of _____________ and ____________ and their children to stand and speak simply from the heart your concerns and your support.

Hymn : Blest Be the Tie that Binds

Benediction: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Amen.

- North Decatur Presbyterian Church, Decatur, Georgia

Children need support from both parents

When my parents divorced, I was only 11 years old. The divorce was hard on my mother, and I spent a lot of time at home trying to console her. My reaction to my situation at home was to cause trouble at school. My mother had the foresight to know this might happen, so she spoke with my teachers letting them know about the divorce and the tough time I was having at home. This simple alerting process helped my teachers respond to me in positive ways. They helped me at school by allowing me to do things alone so I would not make trouble with the other students. This enabled me to deal with the divorce without spending a lot of time in trouble.

Divorce has many implications for children, but one I have become aware of is the loss of the parent without custody. The child might spend time with this parent, but it is not the same relationship the two once had. In my case, my father moved out of our house. He saw my brothers and me on weekends, but he could no longer discipline us the way he once had. He talked with us, but he did not reprimand us for fear we would not want to see him.

My mother was busy with work and her night classes so she had little time to spend with us. My dad could spend time only on the weekend, so he became more like a friend than a parent. Though I love him, we will never be able to have the same relationship we once had as parent and child.

- Joe Hayes, Morrow, Georgia

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Pregnancy loss

Modern medical technology has made it possible for the bonding process, that series of interactions through which we humans come to know one another, to begin much earlier in pregnancy than ever before in human history. It is, for example, possible to know one is pregnant within days of conception, to know the sex of the baby before mother "begins to show," and to see fetal responses to the mothers voice and activity even before she can feel movement. These dramatic yet commonplace developments and today's drastically reduced childhood mortality give the impression that prenatal and infant death are relatively rare. Unfortunately, the common perception is illusory. Far from being an infrequent event, perhaps as many as one-fourth of all pregnancies end in death before birth.

The death of a child before birth is a crisis of unrealized magnitude; it remains a frequent family crisis in modern life. These deaths can be very lonely times for the bereaved parents. In these lonely and painful circumstances, the opportunity to worship is an opportunity to challenge God for answers, to forgive and be forgiven, to share one's grief with others, to remember and celebrate special moments, and to hear a word of hope.

- Marilyn Washburn, M.D., M.Div., Avondale Estates, Georgia

Those babies were real

It is strange that an infant, wanted or unwanted, planned or unplanned, an infant not even properly born, let alone named, can affect a person. It has been almost 20 years since my five-day-old daughter died, and almost 25 years since a miscarriage, but those babies still affect the way I see love and life, children, the world, and myself.

I know now it is a mistake not to properly grieve infants or even fetuses who die. Somewhere inside (and from society) we hear the message that "we didn't know them - it's not as if they were real." And so we "buck up"; we "get on with life."

But they were real. They changed my marriage, my faith, my outlook on life, my other children's lives. If I had to do it over again, I would have a funeral, or make up a ritual of loss. I would gather together the people who loved me and ask them to weep and wail with me. I would forget about being brave until all my tears had fallen.

I am sure that no one outside my immediate family remembers those babies. But I do. They changed me.

Today, organizations for bereaved parents allow parents to grieve in community with others who have been down the same sad road. Their names are listed with funeral homes, social service agencies, YMCA and YWCA, and mental health groups.

Death of a child

Learning to live with the death of a child is best done in the presence of other bereaved parents. In small or large groups, you will likely discover that what the rest of society might call strange or bizarre is very much normal. You will likely hear about personal rituals that help people readjust to life. To the uninitiated, some rituals may appear unusual, but they seem to maintain a necessary connection with the deceased and to offer creative and personal expressions of a grief that has no equal. These rituals are expressed most often on the anniversary of the child's death, on the child's birthday, on the first day of school, and during "regular" celebrations such as Christmas, Hanukkah, Halloween, Easter, Mother's Day, and Father's Day.

Rituals include writing periodic letters to the child, visiting the gravesite, giving a gift to a library or school on the birthday in memory of the child, hanging the child's Christmas stocking and having members of the family write notes to the child to place in it, burning special candles during the holidays or on some special date, decorating a small Christmas tree and placing it on the gravesite, making a quilt in memory of or with the clothing from the deceased, and so on. Most bereaved parents agree that the most difficult time of year is December; perhaps this is why rituals are more important then.

In December, nondenominational candlelight services are held annually by chapters of the Compassionate Friends, an international organization of bereaved parents and siblings. At this service, the children are remembered with candles and flowers, and their photographs are displayed.

Ritualized customs are also important within the context of the family's religious or cultural practices. During grieving, some people let their hair grow, or cut it off. Some cultures encourage wearing black for the period of a year. In some traditions, family members bathe the body before the funeral; in others, a funeral director does this. It is important to give these rituals careful consideration. Skipping them in order to try to "hurry" grief is usually fruitless.

It is important, too, to remember that when a child dies, you don't "get over it." You need to learn to say goodbye again and again and again, sometimes alone, sometimes with others. You need to learn to live with the loss. You need to repeatedly re-create yourself in order to learn to live a new way.

"Build a relationship;

Do a good deed;

Suffer as well as you are able."

- Victor Frankl, Holocaust survivor

Living with loss

When Todd died I wondered if I'd ever be happy again. The absence of our vibrant 15-year-old son left a hole in my heart and in my life. A deep, dark vast hole. Today, a few years later, I'm glad to be alive once again. The drag in my step has given over to a skip. The tight rope around my chest has dropped away, allowing free and easy breathing. The iron hand squeezing my heart has released its grip. Facial lines of worry and fatigue have softened to make room for the crow's feet of crinkled smiles. Once again I respond to people and things. Life is good!

What made the difference? How does one move from the devastation of loss to a rich and full life? When we experience loss we have a choice. We can choose to be hateful and bitter or to grow and develop and become contributing members of society. In examining my personal loss and in conducting workshops where I've observed and counseled others going through grief, the following insights for constructive coping have emerged.

These insights don't erase a loss, but they do assist us in using loss for good. However, they're mere words unless they're woven throughout by a common thread - that of hope. When hope is present one can face loss. For Christians, that hope lies in knowing God is with us. My favorite symbol of hope is that of the caterpillar. In his furry coat, he crawls over Earth's hills and valleys, constantly facing obstacles, but trudging on. His hope lies in someday soaring over the obstacles in his new-found freedom as a butterfly. My prayer is that in our losses we may experience such hope: the hope of a caterpillar waiting to become a butterfly.

- Vivian Elaine Johnson, Minneapolis, Minnesota

(Adapted from "Living With Loss," Faith at Work, April 1979)

A Daughter's Funeral

The young daughter (25) of a friend of ours died of cancer. Instead of a funeral they had an open house and potluck one afternoon between 1:00 and 4:00 p.m. People came together out of love for this girl, to talk and share their feelings. They were encouraged to speak to the group about their memories and feelings. Some of her friends sang songs that she had enjoyed.

The ashes of her body were later scattered in a beautiful wooded area in a private ceremony.

- Beth Brownfield, Golden Valley, Minnesota

Preparing for release

In July 1982, Elaine and her husband, John, received a devastating blow when they learned that their younger daughter, Adele, had an inoperable brain tumor. After a brief period of hope that radiation therapy might save her life, relapse began. As the paralysis spread and Adele lost all means of verbal communication, her world became progressively narrower, and so did her mother's. John had an outlet in his job and their older daughter, but Elaine devoted herself almost entirely to providing home care for Adele. This could have become a heavy burden; instead, her spiritual world broadened during the long silent hours she had to reflect on the gift of life.

Adele died peacefully at home on January 15, 1984, surrounded by her family and a special adult friend. Elaine prepared herself for releasing Adele by doing something tangible. A friend who did wood-working made a simple pine casket at John and Elaine's request. Using a dainty pink calico fabric, Adele's favorite color, Elaine lined the box and covered the lid herself. This object, at first a "vessel of horror," gradually became familiar as she worked on it with her hands. At the same time, the reality of Adele's impending death and Elaine's own need to surrender her to God also became more acceptable. Lining the casket helped prepare Elaine to release her little girl to God's trust.

- Ann C. Sherwin, Raleigh, North Carolina

(Adapted from "Standing in a Garden," Christian Living, August 1984)

Ancient rite helps grieving process: Death of a spouse

My husband died very suddenly of a heart attack on the summit of Torrey's Peak, one of Colorado's highest mountains. He died in our youngest daughter's arms, although our son and members of a rescue squad tried several hours to revive him.

When our family went to the mortuary, I asked for a pan of water and a cloth to bathe my husband's body before cremation. I had just read about an ancient rite where the person nearest to the deceased bathes the body, a custom that is still practiced in many cultures. Although we had never had this kind of experience before, it felt right. It was an important part of a grieving and healing process for me and a very special way to say goodbye.

- Virginia McConnell, Boulder, Colorado

Open house memorial

Several months after my wife died, our family decided to have an open house as a memorial to my wife. Guests were invited to bring finger food and a recollection or comment for a memory book. We showed family slides, and with the warm comments and memories shared by friends, it was a true celebration of her life.

- Robert K Marsh, Berkeley, California

Grandmother's quilt

An Ontario quiltmaker made an unusual tribute to her grandmother by making a quilt in her memory. She used pieces of tatting, crochet, and embroidery that her grandmother had made, photographs that had been transferred to fabric, and excerpts from her grandmother's diaries (hand-lettered with indelible ink on fabric). To bring it all together, she used flowered fabric similar to fabrics she remembered from her grandmother's home. Making the quilt was a productive and beautiful way to grieve her own loss, and to celebrate her grandmother's life.

Sugar cookies make wonderful memories of grandmother

After the memorial service for my grandmother, who had died several months earlier, a number of people came back to our house for a meal and conversation. My sister had baked two of my grandmother's most often-used recipes - one was her legendary sugar cookies and the other a loaf-style chocolate cake. It was a lovely way to remember, as everyone there had at one time or another tasted these special goodies from Grandma's kitchen.

- Jane Ander, Rock Island, Illinois

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Hospice Care

Dying with dignity

The hospice movement in the United States grew out of several concerns of the 1960s and early 1970s. The hospital environment was no longer one of "hospitality," but of impersonal technology; the cost of care began the skyrocketing course on which it continues; and many people sensed an absence of any control over their own lives once they entered the foreign territory of hospital rules and regulations.

In an effort to reclaim an opportunity for intimate personal relationships, reduce the costs, and once again make dying a significant life passage, especially at the point past which medical technology has little to offer, dying people simply went home. In many situations, however, nursing, pastoral, social, and to a lesser extent, medical support were needed for the comfort of dying persons as well as their family members. So, the home-based hospice was born.

Studies revealed that hospice patients lived longer, and with more comfort and dignity, while their care cost far less than that of hospitalized patients. There remained, however, many of the terminally ill whose family members could not care for them at home, so only a couple of years after the beginning of its home-based program, the first "freestanding" hospice was built by Connecticut Hospice. As more patients began to choose hospice care, and as health care workers grew increasingly familiar with its benefits, hospitals began to develop hospice units or wards - islands of alternative care within traditional hospital settings. This movement back into the hospital has resulted in the diffusion of hospice learnings and philosophies. Now health care providers themselves are wondering why people have to be dying to get hospice care.

And the learnings are many. We have proven that family-given care is more intense as well as loving; that the opportunity to care for a loved one can be healing to the family as well as to the dying person; and that families can almost always learn to manage necessary "high-tech" equipment, including ventilators and intravenous pain medications. The costs are lower and pain is better-controlled. Health care professionals have worked together as interdisciplinary teams, establishing new relationships and new respect for one another's contributions. All these developments and more offer a great deal to health care delivery in many situations.

But, there are concerns as well. Because of the cost efficiency of hospice care, federal legislation made hospice care Medicare-reimbursable, and many "third party" insurance companies have followed suit. While this has made hospice care available to many persons who could not otherwise afford it, this development has also opened the door to the possibility of "for-profit" care for the dying, and threatens to divorce the hospice concept from its very personalized, grass-roots origins. Only a great deal of vigilance will protect the fledgling institution of intimate personal care from commercialization.

- Marilyn Washburn, M.D., M.Div., Avondale Estates, Georgia

Hospice: Stewardship of the rites of passage

The most devastating reality of terminal illness is the continued loss of control over daily life. Accordingly, the goal of hospice care is to give dying persons and their loved ones as much agency over, and autonomy in the midst of, their situation as possible.

Hospice, then, is spiritual care inasmuch as caregivers explore what gives meaning and order to the living, dying, and grieving of those they serve. Hospice structures this meaning and order by supporting rites of passage which will enable them to journey along an uncharted path; rites fashioned from their family tradition, cultural milieu, and religious heritage.

Consequently, hospice doesn't do things for those who suffer. Rather, hospice allows persons to continue to be in the midst of their suffering.

- William E. Wallace, Director of Hospice, Grady Memorial Hospital, Atlanta, Georgia

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Memorial Societies

Memorial societies are cooperative, non-profit, democratically-run consumer organizations that help members get simplicity, dignity, and economy in funeral arrangements through advance planning. They are not run by funeral directors.

These societies act in an advisory capacity and often have contracts or agreements with funeral directors, helping members get exactly the services they want at reasonable cost. Although a few of the large societies have paid secretaries, the work of the societies is usually done by unpaid volunteers. Memorial societies do collectively what few individual families are prepared to do - they inquire around, compare services and prices, then share this information with their members. They do not collect payment for funeral services.

There are memorial societies in some 200 cities in North America with a combined membership of more than one million people. Most societies charge a nominal one-time membership fee, and some have a small "records charge," which they collect from the family at the time of death, via the funeral director. Families moving to another city can transfer their membership at little or no charge. Likewise, when a death occurs away from home, the society in the host city and its cooperating funeral director will assist the family.

Memorial society members commonly save 50 to 75 percent of usual funeral costs. The savings are in part due to collective bargaining by the societies, but more from the simplicity that members are encouraged to practice.

The success and popularity of memorial societies has led to imitations. Private companies calling themselves societies have entered the funeral service business. If someone from a "society" tries to sell you something or offers you a prepayment plan, investigate carefully. Memorial societies have no commercial interests and rarely charge membership fees over $25. The societies are an outstanding example of how consumers, by democratic group effort, can empower themselves at the grassroots level.

Nearly all bona fide societies in the United States and Canada are members of their respective national organizations. If you have doubts about a society, check to see if it is a member of the national association. For more information about memorial societies, where the nearest one is to you, or how to organize one, contact one of the two national associations (see appendix).

- Adapted from Dealing Creatively with Death: A Manual of Death Education and Simple Burial by Ernest Morgan

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How the dead can help the living

There are many ways in which socially-concerned people can arrange to serve the needs of their fellow men and women after they have died. Many lives can be saved, and health and sight can be restored to thousands through the intelligent "salvaging" of organs and tissues from persons who have died. Medical and dental training requires thousands of bodies each year, for anatomical study. Medical research, too, needs our cooperation, in the form of permission for autopsies (not permissible if the body is left to a medical school) and the bequeathal of special parts, such as the ear bones of people with hearing difficulties.

If we truly accept our own mortality and genuinely identify ourselves with humanity, we will gladly help in every way we can. These ways are steadily increasing through the bequeathal of organs.

Although many driver's licences have a form which gives permission for organ bequeathal, these permissions may be overturned by the family at the time of death. It is most important that family discussions are held before there is a death, to ensure that everyone understands the donor's desires and understands exactly what is involved. Discussion with the family, and exploration of the issue with a doctor should be carried out before there is a crisis.

The dead helping the living: Anatomical gifts

The day will come when my body will lie upon a white sheet tucked neatly under the four corners of a mattress, located in a hospital busily occupied with the living and the dying. At a certain moment a doctor will determine that my brain has ceased to function and that for all intents and purposes, my life has stopped.

When that happens, do not attempt to instill artificial life into my body by use of a machine, and don't call this my deathbed. Let it be called the bed of life and let my body be taken from it to help others lead fuller lives.

Give my sight to the man who has never seen a sunrise, a baby's face or love in the eyes of a woman. Give my heart to the person who has nothing but endless days of pain. Give my blood to the teenager who was pulled from the wreckage of his car so that he may live to see his grandchildren play. Give my kidneys to a person who depends upon a machine to exist from week to week. Take my bones, every muscle fiber, every nerve, and try to find a way to make a crippled child walk. Explore every corner of my brain, take my cells, if necessary, and let them grow so that some day a speechless boy will shout at the crack of a bat or a deaf girl will hear the sound of rain against her window.

Burn the rest and scatter the ashes to the wind to help the flowers grow.

If you must bury something, bury my faults, my weaknesses, and my prejudices against my fellows. Give my sins to the devil, give my soul to God.

If by chance you wish to remember me, do it with a kind deed or a word to someone who needs you. If you do all I have asked, I will live forever.

- Robert Noel Test; reprinted from The Bank Account, January 1987, with permission from The Living Bank, Houston, Texas.

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