Renewing Life Rituals. Life-affirming rituals should be celebrated in ways that do not cause significant harm to the Earth or to people—and when possible, should actively serve as a restorative ecological and social force.
Throughout history, people have used rituals to mark the transition from one stage of life to another; birth, initiation into adulthood, marriage, and death are the most widely celebrated rituals. Increasingly a common theme joins these rituals, regardless of setting, religion, or culture: massive consumption, which inflicts great costs on the families and communities involved and on the Earth as well. In the United States, for instance, an average wedding costs US$28,000 and a funeral $10,000. (For great books on these subjects, read One Perfect Day, and Grave Matters--the titles should tell you which subject they refer to). They also cause a huge amount of ecological damage: the barrages of toys given at birthdays are often toxic, made using fossil fuel inputs, and shipped thousands of kilometers using more fossil fuels. The typical U.S. wedding not only costs about seven months’ worth of average household income, but generates thousands of tons of carbon dioxide emissions (as people travel long distances to attend the wedding), tons of waste from the mining of gold for rings, and paper waste from invitations and gift wrapping.
But rituals can be reclaimed so that they are not a stressful burden but an opportunity to connect more closely to family, friends, and the Earth. Let me use a personal example. I just got married. Instead of having one wedding, my wife and I chose to hold three small parties—one where we live and two where our two families are from. This way, only we and a few others had to travel long distances. Since the parties were smaller we could invite more guests and spend more time with each of them.We also were able to draw on social capital instead of financial capital, for example by using families’ homes for the parties and friends’ labor instead of hired help, which in turn reinforced our relationships.Moreover, we had simple vegetarian fare at the parties, used e-mail and a wedding website instead of paper invitations, and exchanged rings that I inherited from my family. The whole wedding cost a small fraction of the average—both for us and for our guests (as few needed hotel rooms or flights).
Other rituals can be redesigned as well. Encouraging fewer and/or used gifts (or charitable donations) for birthdays, showers, graduations, and holidays is one important opportunity, as is changing how one addresses a death in the family.More than any other ritual, perhaps, funerals have great potential to become life-affirming and life-giving events. The first step is to plan ahead so as not to be exploited in your time of mourning by funeral home salesmen prodding you to embalm your loved ones with toxic chemicals and stuff them in fancy wooden and metal caskets. Instead, research green funeral homes and options early and put all the details in a will (and encourage other family members to do the same). There are several natural cemeteries that bury bodies in shrouds or simple wooden coffins and use native trees and shrubs instead of stones for grave markers, creating forest parklands in the process.
Ultimately, the goal is to create renewing rituals, bringing families, friends, and communities together to celebrate or to mourn, not in a way that drains precious resources but, when possible, actively builds relationships and heals the Earth.
First printed in World Watch Magazine, Nov/Dec 2008 issue.