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Crafting Your Own Ceremony, From Religion to Commitments

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You've found the person you want to spend the rest of your life with—the hard part's over. Now, you must decide—what's your ceremony going to be like?

Maybe you and your partner are of the same religious background, but it doesn't have a major influence in your life right now—but it does to your mom. Maybe you're of different backgrounds, and want to find ways to incorporate different religious elements in your ceremony. And maybe you don't actually want to get legally married at all.

The good news? Whatever you decide to do is totally acceptable—your ceremony can be whatever you damn want it to be.

"In New York State, I have two legal obligations," wrote Sharan DePalma, the celebrant behind Blissful Bonds Ceremonies, to Racked via email. "First, I must ask them if they understand what they are entering into—the question of intent; and two, I must legally pronounce them. That's it. Everything else is left to our imagination!"

While weddings inside a religious institution can be fairly rigid, a non-denominational ceremony can be very interpretive—it's really about what the couple wants, said Sarah Ritchie, a celebrant who has presided over many weddings (including the one Racked gave away last weekend). Couples "often have a feeling that there are really two discrete options," Ritchie told Racked. "You can either have a religious ceremony in a religious institution, or you have something that is purely secular. And they don't really appreciate what their whole spectrum is."

Image via Oleg Fotografo/Shutterstock

Celebrants like Ritchie see their function as showing what's available to the couple—which is pretty much anything they desire. "It's my job is to put a whole bunch of things out there for their consideration, and let them give me the feedback," she said. "Sometimes they know they want to have religious elements, but many times they've ambivalent. But once they get into the process, they start having clarity."

Sometimes, "wanting" religious elements in a ceremony refers to making an observant family member happy. "The main reason a couple chooses to add religious elements into a typically non-religious ceremony is to please a relative," observed DePalma.

If that situation arises, "the best way to take care of this is to allow someone who is observant...to somehow participate in that ceremony," suggested Ritchie. "So if you're not too keen on having a scriptural passage in the ceremony, but your mother is a very devout Catholic, then maybe you want to have her read a piece, so it's an indirect incorporation of the religious element."

"I can't tell you how many times I've had Grandma or another relative pull me aside after a ceremony to thank me for mentioning God or offering a blessing," DePalma said. They almost seem relieved to know that their faith wasn't abandoned by the couple."

Photo via cunaplus/Shutterstock

And at other times, Ritchie has seen "people who are kind of connected to their faith and tradition in their past...and they want to honor that" in their ceremony.

So how exactly do celebrants go about adding in these religious elements? Whether you're standing under a Jewish chuppah, lighting a Christian unity candle, or following the Hindi Seven Steps of the Saptapadi, "it's about finessing," said Ritchie, who often refers to these elements as cultural rather than religious. "It's a matter of being respectful and appropriate about boundaries, and not hesitating about being creative about how you talk about it."

For the couple forgoing the marriage license, a commitment ceremony can look just like any other typical wedding, said Sarah Wright, the board chair of Unmarried Equality. "If you walked in on it, you wouldn't necessarily know that there was any difference because they look very similar from the outside," she said. "They are generally making vows of some sort, or declarations of their love and their commitment to the relationship. The only thing that really is different is the representative of the state is not there to sanction it."

Photo via Sofia Andreevna/Shutterstock

Something that could appear different from the outside is the officiant, or lack thereof. "In some cases, the couples choose to do [officiate] themselves," Wright explained. "They lead the ceremony themselves, so they have a dual role. When they have an officiate, if you will, it's usually an immediate family member."

"The emphasis throughout is on the commitment and the caring nature of the relationship," she continued, noting that the same can be said of traditional, law-binding marriages. There's "a little more freedom and willingness to go off script" during the ceremony.

Regardless of the type of ceremony you want to pursue, find an officiant or celebrant that is willing to work with you and your partner to craft something that represents who you are as a couple. "The ceremony is truly left up to our imagination," said Depalma. "We can get very creative."

Assistance by Paula Ya-Jen Ho
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