Reviving Rites of Passage in America

Pamela B. Nelson

Mary Nemethy Schimonski
Mary Nemethy Schimonski

an immigrant from Slovakia, holds her first child Ruth. New York City, c. 1918 (216K)

Mrs. Mary Lehota
Mrs. Mary Lehota

an immigrant midwife from Slovakia, delivered 2,803 babies in Philadelphia. Phila. c. 1945 (251K)

Italian swaddling cloth
Italian swaddling cloth

Cotton brocade, Abruzzi, Italy, 1865 (289K)

Two women with their newborns
Two women, one from Alaska and one from India, hold their newborns

Taylor Hospital, Phil., 1967 (221K)

Tee-shirt from Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center
Tee-shirt from Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center

Camden, NJ, c. 1991 (257K)

Graduation at the University of Nebraska
Graduation at the University of Nebraska

Lincoln, NB, 1942 (377K)

Wedding of Ruth Tomwye and Felton Show
Wedding of Ruth Tomwye and Felton Chow

Phila., c. 1925 (207K)

Croatian Wedding
"Croatian Wedding"

by Marijana Grisnik. Oil on Canvas. 1976. (643K)


Made by Cola Celenza. Italy, c. 1920 (102K)

Lithuanian wedding dress
Susan Binkis' Lithuanian wedding dress (Vilnius regional style)

Woven by Aldona Veselkiene and Violeta Fabianovich. Metal buttons by A. Tamosaitis. Chicago, 1984. (392K)

The New Jerusalem
"The New Jersusalem"

printed by Peters. Harrisburg, PA, c. 1830 (89K)

Memento mori
Memento mori

ebony and ivory. Sag Harbor (possibly), NY, early 1800's (851K)

an American funeral
an American funeral

Early 1900's (210K)

Pocket Watch chain made from human hair
Pocket watch chain made from human hair

19th century (86K)

Sign at Forrest Lawn Cemetery
Sign at Forrest Lawn Cemetery

California, 1956 (141K)

Hmong funeral coat
Hmong funeral coat

Made by Pilab Moua. Cotton appliqué Phila., 1992 (268K)

Hmong funeral of Iab Hang
Hmong funeral of Iab Hang

Phila., 1984 (206K)

Qeej (traditional Hmong woodwind instrument)

Laos, c. 1950. Embroidered paj ntaub strips added in 1992 (76K)

A Funeral at Isle Brevelle
"A Funeral at Isle Brevelle"

by Clementine Hunter. Oil on upson board. Louisiana, 1966 (342K)


by Iphigenia S. Nicas. Oil on Canvas, 1992 (713K)

Every ethnic group possesses its own distinct understanding of the life cycle and its own elaborate set of rituals to mark life's stages. For groups in the United States, however, cultural assimilation, intermarriage, modernization, and a national ethos that values innovation and change all have taken their toll on traditional rites of passage. Many of the rituals have been lost entirely, and of those that have survived or have been revived, almost all have changed in practice and meaning. This essay inquires into the ways that traditional rites of passage have evolved in the American context, focusing on traditions for four major life passages: birth, coming of age, marriage and death.

Cultural assimilation, or acculturation, has played a major role in the loss of traditional rites of passage in the United States. On the one hand, Native Americans, African Americans, and immigrants from all continents were often discouraged or prohibited from practicing their own customs. On the other hand, many immigrants themselves eagerly cast aside old-country traditions for ones which reflected mainstream American values. Some members of the younger generations married outside the group and lost both their identity and their traditions. Traditional rites of passage have survived longest in large, cohesive ethnic communities, such as those of the Amish and Hasidic Jews, who have purposes isolated themselves from mainstream American life.

Although assimilation has had a substantial impact, modernization has had the most profound effect of all on the practice of traditional rites of passage in the United States. Most traditional rites were created in stable, non-industrialized societies, paced by seasonal changes and characterized by strong family and community ties. In modern societies those family and community ties have broken down as urbanization has made people increasingly mobile and transient. Similarly, industrialization has moved worklife from home and farm to factory and office. Professionalization has caused duties formerly performed in the home by familv members or neighbors to be performed by specialists, such as obstetricians, outside of the home. With time at a premium in modern culture most ritual observances have been shortened, while commercialization has allowed caterers, funeral directors, and other entrepreneurs to sell rites of passage as commodities. Finally, the inroads of scientific rationalism on religious faith have led many people to abandon religious rites or, at least, to consider them less central to their lives. At the same time, modern life has developed powerful new rites of passage to compete with those it is transforming or destroying. For example, getting one's driver's license symbolizes coming of age--usually at sixteen--in a society that places high value on mobility. Extended, compulsory education virtually requires participation in graduations and other ceremonies of transition.

Reviewing the ways that the rituals surrounding birth, coming of age, marriage, and death have changed over time in the United States shows the effects of assimilation and modernization. It also reveals, however, the various ways in which an increasing number of Americans are trying to preserve or revive rites of passage that are both traditional to their ethnic heritage and meaningful in contemporary life.


Although birth is a biological event, every culture creates rituals practiced before, during, and after birth both to integrate the newborn into society, and to orchestrate the transition of the mother, the father, and other family and community members into their new social roles. In some cases an infant is not considered human until these rites of passage take place.

In America, as birth moved from the home to the hospital traditional customs were lost. Professional doctors were attending the births of most middle-class Americans by the end of the 19th century. Midwives, however continued to deliver half of the babies in large immigrant communities.(1) Midwives as well as the older women of the community helped to maintain, for a time, the birthing traditions of their homelands. In the large Croatian neighborhood of Strawberry Hill in Kansas City, Kansas, midwives delivered babies at home and cared for the mother and child after the birth. Old women would visit the new mother and bring as gifts a chicken, a dozen eggs, a bottle of wine, and a box of crackers, foods considered important to the mother's recovery from childbirth. Such traditions were lost as women increasingly, chose to give birth in the hospital due to its reputation for safety and its use of anesthesia. Hospital routines themselves became rites of passage reflecting a belief system based on the supremacy of science and technology. Today, in fact, with hospital births the standard practice, some newly arrived immigrants believe that home birth is against the law in the United States.(2)

Nevertheless, a few ethnic traditions survive even in the modern hospital. Some Chinese-American women while in the hospital giving birth, "reject hospital food, pour out cold liquids, have special dishes snuck in by Chinese visitors, and only dampen a towel to pretend having showered" ."(3) Although they trust western medical practitioners to deliver their babies, they feel that American hospitals and doctors "don't care about" laying the foundation for future good health in the mother and child by restoring the balance of yin (female, dark, and cold) and yang (male, bright and hot) in the body of the new mother. According to traditional Chinese beliefs a woman has too much yin after giving birth, so she should eat only warming foods and avoid showering or getting chilled in any way. (See "Doing the Month" case study)

Generally, the rituals that occur well after the moment of birth, such as brit milah (the Jewish circumcision ceremony, or "briss") and baptism, have survived best. These rituals serve to incorporate the infant into the family and wider community and symbolically invest the baby with an identity based on gender, name, religion, and social role. Although in many cultures the mother is ritually reincorporated into the community after a period of seclusion, few such traditions have survived in the United States.

The Jewish circumcision ceremony physically marks a baby boy as a member of the Jewish community and symbolically creates a covenant between God and the child. As American Jews have adopted the cultural value of gender equality, however, Jewish customs that exclude women from religious participation have been challenged. As a result, a new Jewish rite of passage, a covenant-making ceremony for female babies, has become increasingly popular.

Coming of Age

In traditional societies, the period marking the transition from childhood to adulthood was relatively brief, occurring over the course of just days or weeks. Sexual identity was a central aspect of most corning-of-age rituals. For girls it established their eligibility for marriage and child-rearing. For boys it initiated them into their responsibilities of supporting a family, and taking on civic and religious duties. These rituals reflected the societv's basic beliefs of what it means to be adult.

Since the end of the nineteenth century, however, Americans have treated the transitional period as an entire stage of life called adolescence. Lasting years, adolescence now encompasses physical maturation, sexual initiation, the attainment of educational and vocational experience) possible or actual military service, and the legal entitlement to drive, drink alcohol, and vote. American boys and girls alike share many of the same coming-of-age events, reflecting the modern breakdown of traditional adult gender-role differences.

As the process of growing up has lengthened, the point at which an individual actually becomes an adult has become less clear. In contemporary America, rituals that used to signify the clear and complete passage from childhood to adulthood now function only as one of the many transitions of adolescence. For example, a Jewish- American boy might view his bar mitzvah as an important step toward maturity, but he would hardly consider himself an adult at age thirteen, as he would in traditional Jewish society.

Of all the life-cycle rituals, those that mark coming of age are perhaps the most vulnerable to acculturation. Because teenagers tend to adopt mainstream values, and try to fit in with their peers, ethnic coming-of-age traditions often seem irrelevant or in conflict with other priorities. Recently, Carla Goseyun's traditional Apache Sunrise ceremony conflicted with her selection as an All Star in a Little League baseball tournament. Initially, Carla was extremely reluctant to give up the status she would gain within mainstream society as an All-Star ball player. In the end she went through with the Sunrise ceremony and came to value it in the process.(4) (See "Sunrise Ceremonial" case study.)

Some coming-of-age rituals are being revived or reinvented as many Americans begin to recognize the value of ritual in marking the entrance into adulthood. One group of Philadelphia African Americans in particular, recognizing the difficulties their children face in a society where racism is still a powerful force, has created a new rite of passage for their teenagers. Called Unyago (a Swahili word which refers to tribal ritual), it uses African-inspired ritual to affirm the youngsters' African heritage, and builds their self-confidence through weekend retreats on such topics as leadership, money management, African-American history, and sexuality.


Some form of marriage is known to have existed in all human societies. Its traditional function in most of those societies has been to stabilize sexual relations and to unite a man and a woman in order to provide care for the young. in addition, marriage has linked and allowed for economic exchanges between different kin groups and has served as the primary coming-of-age ritual for women.

Although some Americans, such as those in large ethnic communities and recent immigrants, continue to practice the wedding traditions of their heritage, most do not. They have adopted a standard form drawn from English and other western European traditions, which reflects the modern American ideals of romantic love, individualism, secularism, and consumerism. This is the wedding of the white satin gown, tiered cake, and tossing the bridal bouquet.

When economics and family control, rather than romantic love, characterized the way marriages were made, the bride's dowry and trousseau were essential to the wedding arrangements. Now modernization and the breakdown of the extended family have made weddings less the affair of family and community, and more the affair of the couple. Some girls might still create a hope chest for themselves, but except among the Amish, who have kept their traditional lifestyle, dowry and trousseau traditions rarely are maintained today.

Recently, some Americans have chosen to preserve or restore some of the wedding traditions of their heritage as an affirmation of their ethnic identity and as an antidote to the often impersonal nature of commercial or secular weddings. The wedding of Paul and Susan Binkis serves as an interesting example. Though not Lithuanian American herself, Susan wanted to celebrate her fiancé's heritage with an authentic Lithuanian country wedding. After a great deal of research, the couple developed an afternoon celebration which incorporated all the major traditions. The clothes for both the bride and groom were made to traditional specifications by a Lithuanian-American master weaver. Among the customs practiced were hanging the matchmaker in effigy, and "capping" the bride with the traditional headwrap worn by married women. Some significant departures from tradition reflected modern American customs and values. For example, the wedding lasted one day rather than the traditional three, and although the bride had a trousseau chest full of goods, they were gifts that she gave away to those who had helped with the wedding.

In the past intermarriage tended to result in the loss of ethnic traditions. However, with the rise of ethnic awareness and pride over the past few decades, many couples now create wedding celebrations which highlight and blend their ethnic traditions. Andy and Bopha Skinner celebrated their marriage with a Cambodian ceremony as well as a Baptist church service. The ceremonies were adapted to fit the values and needs of both the bride and the groom. At the Baptist service, which was held in English and Cambodian, Bopha chose to wear a Cambodian-style dress rather than a white gown. At the Cambodian ceremony, the use of alcohol as a ritual medium was minimized to accommodate Andrew's religious objections to it. Also because of their opposition to smoking, the couple gave candy as wedding favors, rather than cigarettes which are given out at most Cambodian weddings.


In most traditional cultures, matters of the other world are at least as important as matters of this world. Actions in this life are influenced by concern for one's fate in the afterlife and for one's relationships with the spirits of the dead. Most traditional funeral and memorial rituals reflected this perspective. They not only moved the deceased individual out of the society of the living and into the afterlife, but they also sustained relationships between the living and the dead. In addition they provided for a period of transition for the living and a means for reincorporating mourners back into the community.

Eighteenth-century Americans generally were guided in life by the fear of going to hell and the hope of reaching heaven. Over time, the rise of scientific understanding, belief in the ability of humans to create progress, declining death rates, and growing doubts about the existence of an afterlife, all led to a dramatic shift in mainstream American culture away from concern for the afterlife and toward a primary focus on this life. In removing death from the home to the hospital and funeral home, in the practice of embalming, in the use of flowers and the elimination of somber trappings at the funeral, and by discouraging displays of grief or mourning Americans sought to affirm earthly existence and to deny death any power over their lives.

Traditional ethnic funeral practices were lost when they conflicted with hospital and funeral industry procedures and with mainstream attitudes toward death. Among Mexican Americans, for instance, loud wailing once was an important custom at the wake, but the practice has been effectively discouraged in the United States by funeral directors who feel that it inappropriately disturbs other clients.(5) Other ethnic funeral practices can be accommodated more readily within standard funeral procedures. Thus Asian Indians in New Jersey are able to maintain their tradition of cremation by choosing funeral establishments which offer that service.(6)

On the other hand, the New Orleans jazz funeral is an example of how some traditions can survive even though they diverge considerably from the mainstream norm. The joyful music and exuberant dancing which follow the funeral rites reflect African beliefs that death is not the end of life, but a transition into a world in which the spirit continues an active existence. The need to provide elaborate and costly funerals stems from a very real fear that spirits can inflict harm on the living if they feel neglected.

As with other rites of passage, the traditional funeral customs which are most intact today are those of recent immigrants. The funeral practices of Hmong (a people from the mountains of Southeast Asia) refugees reflect their deeply-rooted cultural value of reciprocity. In repayment for all they received While growing up, the children of a deceased Hmong are expected to provide a four- or five-day funeral for hundreds of people. Each child furnishes a ritually slaughtered cow for the funeral feasts, and the deceased parent is buried with the many traditional appliquéd robes and pillows given by the children. The funeral is both a material display of family honor and a matter of reciprocity. Nevertheless, the Hmong have difficulty finding funeral homes that will accommodate their traditions, and it is even harder for them to maintain other values that they consider important. Believing that any intrusion into the body at the time of death causes harm to that person in their next life, the Hmong try to avoid medical procedures which involve inserting needles or tubes into someone who may be about to die, and they completely reject embalming.(7)

Americans are more likely to observe the memorial traditions of their heritage than the funeral traditions. Ukrainian Americans, Chinese Americans, and Mexican Americans among others continue to observe traditional memorial customs. Holding picnics at the grave and leaving wreaths or other items reveal ongoing beliefs in the need to provide for the dead and maintain a relationship with them.

Although many funeral traditions have been lost, Americans of various ethnic backgrounds are beginning to rediscover the healing power of rituals which allow for grieving and a successful transition back to normal life. The creation of the AIDS quilt as a means for mourning and remembering friends and family members who have died from AIDS is an example of growing appreciation of the need for mourning and ritual in death. Similarly, just as roadside memorials mark the sites of highway deaths in Puerto Rico, painted memorials have appeared on the sides of buildings near the sites of accidental or violent deaths of young Puerto Ricans in New York and Philadelphia.(8) Such memorials are a community's response to the increasing violence that their young people suffer and a means by which the tragic deaths will not be forgotten.

It has been said that American society has become de-ritualized, but the forces of assimilation and modernization apparently are giving way to a renewal of some aspects of traditional ethnic ritual. More and more Americans who are attempting to rebuild community and rekindle their own spirituality are discovering that the rites and customs of their heritage can bring meaning to their lives today. Most especially they are beginning to realize the pivotal role that rites of passage can play in both the personal transitions of a lifetime and the communal transitions from generation to generation.

Pamela B. Nelson is Curator of the museum at the Balch Institute. In addition to "Rites of Passage in America: Traditions of the Life Cycle," she has curated five other Balch exhibitions including "Something Old, Something New: Ethnic Weddings in America."


click on note number to return to text.

(1) Richard W. and Dorothy C. Wertz, Lying-In: A History of Childbirth in America (New York: The Free Press, 1977).

(2) Carolyn Sargent and John Marcucci, "Khmer Prenatal Health Practices and the American Clinical Experience," in Childbirth in America: Anthropological Perspectives, Karen L. Michaelson, ed. (South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey Publishers, Inc., 1988), p.87.

(3) Barbara L. K. Pillsbury, "'Doing the Month': Confinement and Convalescence of Chinese Women After Child birth," in Anthropology of Human Birth, Margarita Artschwager Kay ed. (Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company, 1982), pp. 142-143.

(4) Anna Early Goseyun, "Carla's Sunrise," Native Peoples 4 (Summer 1991): pp. 8-16.

(5) Norma Williams, "Changes in Funeral Patterns and Gender Roles Among Mexican Americas," in Women on the U.S.-Mexico Border: Responses to Courage, Vicki Ruiz and Susan Tiano, eds. (Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1987), p. 209

(6) From interview with Manju Sheth, New Jersey, 1992.

(7) From an interview with Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk assisted by Dr. Bonnie O'Connor, Philadelphia, 1992.

(8) Joseph Sciorra, "In Memoriam: New York City's Memorial Walls," Folklife Annual 1990, James Hardin, ed. (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1991).

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