THE BLOG

Holding the Moment - Why We Still Need Ritual in Modern Life

17/10/2014 12:05 BST | Updated 16/12/2014 10:59 GMT

When Grace Gelder's self-marriage hit the headlines last week, it started a conversation about what it means to celebrate single life with a ceremony.

I was the one who led Grace's ceremony that spring day. I'm what is known as a "celebrant" - someone who helps people create meaningful ceremonies that celebrate life, love and death according to their values and beliefs, whatever they may be.

Grace's decision to marry herself was her own way of celebrating her journey and it seems to have opened up the idea that some people want to celebrate the transitions of life in creative ways. It's not about what others tell us we should find important enough to celebrate, or deciding how we should honour our milestones. It's about the universal human need for ritual to make sense of our lives.

I didn't always know this. I learned it when tragedy hit my life, and ritual was the only thing that helped.

The moment I discovered my housemate had died is forever etched in my memory. It was an April night, eleven years ago. I was in a steamy internet café in a tiny town somewhere in Thailand. The air was thick with the hum of aged computers, the buzz of mosquitoes, the thrum of passing motorbikes. It was my 29th birthday and I had come to check my emails for messages from home. And suddenly I found myself reading and re-reading the words of a well-meaning friend who had assumed I had already heard what had happened:

"I was very shocked by the news of Ev. Life is so fragile. I can't believe she's gone, it's hard to take in."

None of it made sense. Ev was like my sister, the first person I would see in the morning and the last at night. Now I had to absorb the news that she had died, suddenly, and there I was on the other side of the world, with no way of making it back to the funeral.

So when the hour of her funeral came, I decided to create my own little ceremony for Ev, on a deserted beach. I didn't yet know about the ancient human need for ritual, across all cultures and all eras of history. I just knew I needed to do something to say goodbye.

I made a little paper boat. With wax crayons, I drew Ev, smiling and waving, with her trademark red lips and her dark brown bob. I lit a stick of incense and stuck it through the apex of the roof and then I waded into the waves, and spoke to the drawing of her on the boat.

I cried as I told her I loved her, wished I had been able to say goodbye and was sending her off, setting her course to sail to where her parents and grandparents were waiting. Then I put the boat into the water and pushed it off towards the horizon. It bobbed away, the incense mast smouldering like a miniature torch, and I watched it float into the darkness until it vanished completely.

I was traveling alone that year, having gone through a break-up and a career change, hiking in jungles and swimming in oceans in the hope of figuring out what to do with the rest of my life.

Ev's death ended up playing a hand in that. It led me to see the power of ritual in making sense of the incomprehensible, how ceremony provides a container for emotion, reflection and transition, the punctuation we need in the frenetic stream of life.

A funeral is a full stop. A wedding is a plus sign. A naming ceremony is a new sentence with its own capital letter. In other cultures, additional rituals are commas, or even semi-colons, used to honour milestones that we don't even acknowledge, from the transition to adulthood to becoming a grandparent, from the anniversary of a death to the changing of the seasons. Without ceremony, it's far harder to really let go of the old or begin the new.

These days, as a secular celebrant, I help people to create their own signposts in this culture. I lead bespoke celebrations to mark the transitions in their lives, from baby namings to weddings and funerals, and everything in between, including celebrating Grace's commitment to being all she can be.

As I go along, one of the many things I'm learning is that it's rarely the chocolate fountain, the finger food, the fine champagne or the great dress that satisfies the soul - even though I love those things as much as anyone. It's the ritual at the centre of the celebration, the fleeting, sacred moment, when we all get to pause, reflect, feel and shift, and step into a whole new chapter.