Contemporary ritual-makers : a study of independent celebrants in New Zealand : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Social Anthropology at Massey University, New Zealand
Ritual-makers‟ roles as religious specialists with unique expertise on the rituals of their particular societies‟ religions and cultures have been studied closely by anthropologists, but less well understood is how ritual-makers operate in contemporary western societies, taking into account their postmodern characteristics and influences, increasing heterogeneity, and wide diversity of spiritual and cultural traditions, beliefs, influences, and practices. This study re-examines what being a ritual-maker means, based on participant observation and oral histories with independent celebrants in New Zealand.
Independent celebrants are one group of contemporary ritual-makers who ritualise in private contexts, operating as functionaries who are experts in the processes of ritual-making rather than religious specialists. Independent celebrants‟ primary focus is to devise rituals that reflect the significance and meanings their clients attribute to life transitions they choose to mark ritually. There are approximately two thousand independent celebrants in New Zealand facilitating commonly marked rites of passage, including half of all marriages and an estimated similar proportion of funerals, as well as a broad range of other ceremonies including civil unions, namings, ceremonies of commitment, remembrance ceremonies marking death and loss, healing ceremonies, and seasonal celebrations. Individualism is central to these independent celebrants‟ values, attitudes, rituals, and practices. In responding to clients‟ needs and expectations, celebrants create rituals which enact and convey both the continuity of traditions according to culturally-determined expectations along with current personalised meanings.
Growing secularism was partly behind the emergence of this group of celebrants from the late 1970s onwards, as civil marriage and secular funeral celebrants responded to demands for non-religious alternatives to the mainly Christian denominational ceremonies predominant at that time. However, in examining spirituality as it relates to independent celebrants now, rites of passage can be seen as being often richly spiritual, reflecting the personal spiritualities of clients and to an extent those of the individual celebrants with whom clients choose to work. Within
celebrants‟ dynamic ritual-making practices, these ritual-makers take an active role in changing ritual traditions as they go about their work of honouring and accommodating the diverse and changing spiritualities of New Zealanders.