Subtopic: Rituals and Rites of Passage

Grade Level: 5th-6th

Author: Jennie Rasband



A rite of passage, which marks a time when a person reaches a new and significant change in his/her life, is something that nearly all societies recognize and often hold ceremonies for. These ceremonies are held to observe a person's entry into a new stage of life and can be anything from a high school graduation ceremony or a birthday party, to a funeral. Most rites help people to understand their new roles in society. They can also help others learn to treat people in new ways after they experience certain rites of passage.

Most rites of passage fall into three main phases: separation, transition, and incorporation. In the separation phase, the participant is taken away from his/her familiar environment and former role and enters a very different and sometimes foreign routine that they are forced to adjust to and become familiar with. A rite that would fall into this category would be birth. The infant leaves a very safe and secure environment in their mother's womb to an extremely different one in the real world. Death can also be a separation rite, depending on a person's belief about what happens after someone dies. Societies have devised ways to mark these separations and aid in the transitions that will take place. For instance, the naming of babies marks the significant event of birth. Funerals and the many different funeral customs mark the separation that takes place when a death occurs. Funerals can also help those left behind to make the necessary changes needed to adjust to being separated from loved ones.

The transition phase is the time that the participant learns the appropriate behavior for the new stage they are entering. This phase can include the time when a person becomes engaged to be married. At this time, they are learning about the new stage of life they will soon enter -- marriage. They are also adjusting and preparing for it, or making a transition. The transition phase may also include the time that children enter adolescence and leave their childhood behind. This is the time when people learn and grow and prepare to be an independent adult in the real world.

The last phase, incorporation, takes place when the participant is formally admitted into the new role. Marriage is a good example of a rite that would take place in the incorporation phase. After people are married, they have taken on a very new and different role, having prepared for it in earlier transition and separation rites.

There are many, many rites of passage in our lives. Some are considered to be more significant than others, but almost every day we live can bring about transitions. However, there are five times in one's life that are often considered to be the most significant times of change. These are the rites that we will learn about in more detail as we study the significance behind rites of passage. They are: Birth, Leaving childhood and becoming an adolescent, Leaving home, Weddings, and Death/Funerals. To recognize these significant times in our lives, societies typically hold elaborate ceremonies. Each different culture or society may choose to mark these rites in very different ways. Each ceremony is unique and meaningful to one's own culture. In this mini-unit we will study these significant rites of passage and how different cultures uniquely mark these changes as they come to pass in the lives of their people.


Bahti, T. (1971). Southwestern Indian Ceremonials. Las Vegas, Nevada: KC Publications.

Bruchac, J. (1994). A Boy Called Slow. New York, NY: Philomel Books

Lutske, H. (1986). The Book of Jewish Customs. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc.

Tiersky, E. & M. (1975). Customs and Institutions. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.

Van Gennep, A. (1960). The Rites of Passage. Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago Press.

"Rite of Passage." The World Book Encyclopedia. 1989 ed.

Slave Narratives-Part 3. Vol. 12 St. Claire Shores, Michigan: Scholarly Press, Inc., 1976.








Time Allotment: 4-5 class periods plus homework

Resources Needed: A Boy Called Slow by: Joseph Bruchac

Numbered Heads Together information on weddings

Jigsaw information on SW Indian death/funeral customs

Butcher paper, markers, crayons (for name posters and murals)


A. Brainstorm. Ask students if any of them know what a rite of passage is. Allow for a few different responses before revealing who was right, or if no one comes up with the right answer, to tell them the actual definition. (A rite of passage is something that marks an important change in one's life.) Have students brainstorm all the things they can think of that would be considered a rite of passage in their lives. Write their responses on the board.

Ex: *Taking first steps *Turning a certain age

*Going to kindergarten *Staying up later than younger siblings

* Paying adult fares *Walking to school by themselves

B. Mini Lecture/Name Activity: Explain to students that the first rite of passage every person goes through is birth. Birth is a major adjustment for the infant as he/she leaves the familiar environment of the womb and takes his/her place in the world. Naming a baby is a part of this birth rite. There are many unique customs that different cultures observe when naming their children. For instance, some people belonging to the Jewish faith believe it is improper to name a child after someone who is still living. They also believe it is improper to discuss names before the birth of the infant. Have students share with a partner where their names come from. (Who are they named after, what nationality is their name, etc.) Then assign students to go the library and look at a name book and find out what their own name means. Ask them to talk to parents at home about what family customs or traditions their parents observe when naming their children.

C. Literature Extension. Read to class, A Boy Called Slow. In this book, Sitting Bull performs a deed which is so courageous and significant that it earns him a new and more respected name. Have students write about something they have done or would like to do that would prove them worthy of leaving their childhood behind and gaining a new respect for themselves by becoming an adolescent. This could include things like, saving a cat that was stuck in a tree, teaching a little brother or sister how to read, etc. Have students give themselves a name that describes their worthy deed they have written about. (Example: Teacher of the Young. Their ideas will be much more creative than mine could be.) Have students design a poster with their new name and an illustration of their deed.

D. Group Discussions. Another important rite of passage is that of leaving home, although not all people choose to do this. Some people move out as soon as they are through with high school to attend a distant college or to seek independence from parents. Some people choose to attend colleges close to home and continue living at home until they get married, while some choose never to leave home at all. Group students into groups of three or four. Have them discuss in their groups the advantages and disadvantages of leaving home. Have a leader from each group tell the rest of the class two of their group's choices of advantages and disadvantages.

E. Numbered Heads Together. Form class into small groups (3 - 4 students) and then give each group member their own number. Hand out to each group the included information on different wedding customs and ceremonies and the attached questions. Have groups read the information thoroughly. Then give the groups a certain amount of time to go over the questions together. Tell students that in order for the team to do well, everyone has to know the answers. Ask student to make sure that everyone in their group knows the answers and can explain them. Call out a number. The student with that number answers the question for the team. (Students will answer by writing answers on the board.) Talk with groups about the answers and how they made sure everyone in their groups knew the answer. What helped? What did not help?

F. Interview. Assign students to interview their parents about their wedding ceremony or their grandparents' wedding ceremonies. Share findings with class the next day. (Make sure students have options of asking grandparents or other adults in case of divorce, death, or single parents, in which interviewing could cause awkwardness or anxiety.) Some questions could include: Were there any traditions that were honored at your wedding? (Throwing rice, wearing something borrowed, new, blue, etc.) Where was the ceremony held? Who was invited? Were traditions included from both the groom's family and the bride's family? How did they differ? It might also be interesting to have children search out cross-cultural examples of different kinds of weddings.

G. Jigsaw. Explain to class that the final rite of passage a person enters is that of death. Each culture has its own unique way of burying their deceased and holding funerals. At this time, we will discuss the different beliefs and customs ancient Southwestern Indians observed when taking care of their dead. Divide class into groups of four and number students off. Have students first meet with their expert groups (those who have the same numbers). Hand out reading material (provided at the end of this unit) to expert groups and allow adequate time for thorough and thoughtful reading of the material. Then allow experts to discuss what they have read and what they thought to be the most important points from their reading. Now have students go back to their original groups. Each person should share with their group the information they were responsible for. To make sure each person is accountable for the information, have each group collaboratively create a mural, illustrating what they have learned from this jigsaw experience.

H. Open Discussion/Thought paper. After all of the previous activities have been completed ask the students to answer the following question: "What is a rite of passage and what are some of the ways they are recognized among different cultures?" Allow students to discuss answers openly. After discussion, have each student individually write a short essay, describing their own personal response to the previous question.



*Responses for brainstorming activity will be assessed.

*Explanations of names will be assessed.

*Posters for literature extension will be assessed.

*Group responses on advantages/disadvantages of leaving home will be assessed.

*Answers to Numbered Heads Together will be assessed.

*Murals on funeral/death customs will be assessed.

*Thought papers and responses to final question will be assessed.


Wedding Information (for Numbered Heads Together)

In this article, you will learn about traditions observed in three different wedding ceremonies.

A common practice among Jewish couples is the tradition of the bride circling her groom seven times under the wedding canopy. She does this because the phrase "and when a man takes a wife" is mentioned seven times in the Bible. The circling is also significant of the seven days of creation and the Bible story in which Jacob labored for seven years for Rachel.

Another tradition Jewish couples observe during wedding ceremonies is the breaking of a glass underfoot by the groom. When he does this, the wedding party shouts Mazel Tov! a dozen times. This is done because of the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is recorded in a sacred Jewish book that during the joyous wedding of an important man, he took a glass of great value and shattered it, startling his guests. When asked why he did this, he told them that even in the midst of the most joyous occasion, one should never forget the destruction and loss of our Temple.

In many American weddings, it is tradition for the bride to throw her bouquet out to her guests. The person who catches it is said to be the one who will be the next to marry. In a typical American wedding, it is said to be bad luck for the groom to see the bride on the day of the wedding before the ceremony has taken place. It is also considered to be bad luck for the groom to see the wedding dress at anytime before the ceremony.

In the days of slavery in America, there was no way to legally recognize the union of slaves in marriage, since slaves were not seen as citizens. So in order for slaves to demonstrate their union in marriage, they would jump over a broomstick, the woman jumping one way, the man jumping the other way. This was their way of recognizing that a marriage had taken place.


1. What is the significance of the Jewish bride circling her groom seven times during the wedding ceremony?

2. What is one of the superstitions typically observed during American weddings?

3. Why did slaves have to come up with their own way of recognizing their union in marriage?

4. What is the symbolism behind the Jewish groom breaking a glass during the wedding ceremony?

5. Why do you think traditions are important parts of weddings?


Death/Funeral Information (for jigsaw)

Ancient Southwestern Indian Beliefs About the Afterworld--taken from Southwestern Indian Ceremonials by Tom Bath. (pg. 16, 28, 37,51)

A. Rio Grande Pueblos

At birth each person receives a soul and a guardian spirit from Iarkio, the Mother of All. At the time of death both the soul and guardian leave the body but remain in the house of the deceased for four days before making the journey to Hipap, the entrance to the Underworld. The guardian spirit carries a prayer stick, necessary for the admission of the soul to Shipap. Depending on the virtue of the individual the soul is assigned to one of the four Underworlds. Those qualified to enter the innermost world become Shiwana (rainmakers) and return to the villages in the form of clouds.

B. Zuni

At death the corpse is bathed in yucca suds and rubbed with corn meal before burial. The spirit of the dead lingers in the village for four days during which time the door of its former home is left ajar to permit its entry. On the morning of the fifth day the spirit goes to the Council of Gods in the village of Kothluwalawa beneath the water of Listening Spring. Here the spirit becomes a rainmaker. If the deceased is a member of the Bow Priesthood, he becomes a lightning maker who brings water from the "six great waters of the world."

C. Papago

Disposal of the corpse took place soon after death as the ghosts of the deceased were greatly feared. Formerly burial was made in a rock crevice and covered with stones or in a stone cairn roofed with logs. Food and possessions were placed with the body in the grave to accompany the spirit on its four day journey to the Underworld "somewhere" in the east. The afterworld was believed to be a place of much rain and plenty of food.

D. Hopi Pueblos

At death, the hair of the deceased is washed in yucca suds and prayer feathers are placed in the hands, feet and hair. Over the face is placed a mask of cotton which is representative of the cloud mask the spirit will wear when it returns with the cloud people to bring rain to the village. Women are wrapped in their wedding robes; men are buried in a special blanket of diamond twill weave with a plaid design.

The ghosts of the dead are feared rather than death itself. To prevent the ghosts from returning to bother the living, pahos are given to the spirits of the deceased, and the trail back to the village from the burial site is ceremonially closed with sacred meal. Those who did the actual burial are purified with juniper smoke.

The spirits of children who die before they are initiated are believed to return to the mother's house to be born again.


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