Posted by Gloria Mundi
There’s been some very interesting stuff recently about the importance of ritual, and how we need to develop more ritual forms for secular funerals. Vide, for example, The extra-rational power of ritual
I find it difficult to draw a line between “ritual” and “ceremony,” and maybe there is no satisfyingly sharp distinction, perhaps it’s more of a continuum than a boundary. A comment on Wikipedia was helpful; it describes ritual as a set of actions “which to the outsider seems irrational, non-contiguous, or illogical.” Maybe a ceremony is a series of shared actions more explicable in every-day, rational terms, and ritual has more symbolic, imaginatively compulsive and non-rational power. Look at Trooping the Colour on the Queen’s birthday; for a Japanese tourist, maybe it’s just a colourful ceremony. For British monarchists, it might have an illogically powerful, ritualistic reference, helping them feel who they are and where they have come from, a ritual that strengthens their sense of identity.
Or like Christmas. I mean the domestic Christmas, not the obviously ritualistic elements of carol services in lovely old buildings. You may, if you are a parent of adult children, have encountered the illogical power of Christmas rituals established in your child’s early years. Of course she doesn’t “believe” in Father Christmas, but she still wants a stocking, the same familiar ornaments – and what do you mean, let’s have beef for Christmas dinner? These things are not entirely (or at all!) rational, they are not ceremonies, but they relate to an individual’s sense of who they are and where they are from.
I’m being flippant, but I think there is an element of ritualistic power about our shared family customs at this time of year. And perhaps there are plenty of other occasions at which we overlook the fact that actions and words may have ritual, rather than merely ceremonial or customary power.
It may be that the way to develop powerful ritual in secular, non-church/temple/mosque funerals is to begin by fully recognizing the ritualistic in what we already do, even at the most ordinary and unchallenging of crematorium funerals here in the UK. Here are a few elements of a crem funeral that seem to me to have ritual potential:
- (Most) people wear special clothes. They often wear black or dark colours. Like many ritual elements, this one is entirely non-rational but powerfully emotive because of the cultural associations of black in our society. In some cultures, white is, or was, the colour of mourning (ancient China). If we wear different coloured clothes, we are probably doing so to react against the tradition, and because we want to “celebrate” a life. I think our reaction against “mournful” funeral trappings such as black clothes also has an irrational element to it, and is a decision made for ritual reasons.
- We (usually) process in. If we don’t, and the gathering is already seated, everyone stands when the coffin comes in. Why? To show respect. There is no rational reason why you can’t be just as respectful sitting down – the roots of this practice seem ritualistic to me.
- We have special music. It may have its roots in the dead person’s life, tastes and views, in which case it is felt to have powerful meanings for those who knew the person. So someone used to listen to Carly Simon in his youth, and one of her tracks “brings him to mind,” as we say. Even though the person had no real-life connection with Ms Simon, he didn’t write the song, didn’t play on the recording, etc. Or the music may itself have originated in religious ritual. I want “Spem in Alium.” Don’t ask me what I believe, just play the disc. It is imaginatively compelling, it can create a sense of personal transcendence, even for non-believers. It has ritualistic power.
- We have special words. These words vary much more than traditional burial liturgies of whatever religion, but they are certainly special, for the occasion, and often full of non-rational, symbolic meaning.
- We may have a passage of prose, or a poem, often chosen not for its recognized excellence as a poem, but because it says something we can’t state in the language of reason and fact, it may even fly in the face of reason itself. Take the end of Do Not Stand By My Grave and Weep: “I am not there; I did not die.” Er….well, you did, that’s why we’re all here, says the irritatingly rational part of me. But the people present believe that in a sense, you didn’t, you’re still with them, because their memories of you, and the meanings your life created and passed on to them, those things are still with them. So in a symbolic, imaginatively powerful, emotionally compelling sense, no, “you” did not die. That is, what you mean to other people did not cease when your life ended. And part of the job of the funeral may well be to make that so. Personally, I am far from crazy about that poem – so what? I think it often has a ritualistic power for the people who choose it.
- Sentiments about the continuity of emotion and memory, the transfer of meaning from a live individual away from his/her lifeless body to the group identities of those present – this is irrational but powerful stuff, and that mouldy old poem is part of it. Such sentiments, I would guess, very frequently re-occur in secular ceremonies. They are part of our developing ritual.
- We may have other symbolically powerful elements – flowers, photographs, objects associated with the dead person, all of which may imaginatively represent or summarise the person.
And so on, no doubt we can add to the list.
The officiant (I use the dry term deliberately) at a funeral of a friend of a friend was criticised by someone who observed that those present would have got more warmth and empathy from the bloke in the box than the person at the lectern.
If we want to develop better ritual for secular funerals, we must first recognize and deliver existing elements as well as possible. It is no help to carp to ourselves and our colleagues that all this is not as powerful or original as it could be. New forms of ritual can only evolve from where we are now. Let’s work with that and through it. If we were all doing it really well, that’d be something.