The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Doing the rite thing

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

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On Monday, in response to this:

… we get to carry on without the benefit of a formal ceremony or other ritual observance after near-bereavement experiences like the breakdown of a relationship, or redundancy, or a child leaving home. We resolve those privately.

Kathryn Edwards wrote:

… from my ritualist perspective … how is it that we stumble through quasi-bereavement sorrows such as job-losses and relationship break-ups WITHOUT rituals?

It appears that she may have Harvard on her side. This won’t surprise anyone who knows her. 

Behavioral scientist Michael I. Norton became interested in mourning rituals after reading Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, which describes elaborate ways that parents, spouses, children, and friends dealt with the massive loss of soldiers during the American Civil War. It got him to wondering whether rituals were merely a traditional part of the grieving process, or whether they truly alleviated grief.

“We see in every culture—and throughout history—that people who perform rituals report feeling better,” says Norton, an associate professor in the Marketing unit at Harvard Business School. “But we didn’t know if the ritual caused the healing.”

Norton did some experiments and found that rituals indeed alleviate and reduce grief, even among people who don’t inherently believe in the efficacy of rituals.

In one experiment, the researchers set out to determine whether rituals led to an increased sense of control, and whether that sense of control served to alleviate grief. To that end, they asked 247 individuals … to write about either the death of a loved one or the death of a relationship. Some participants were asked to include a description of a ritual they performed after suffering the loss; others were not.

Norton and Gino were surprised to discover that the majority of the recounted rituals were neither religious nor communal. Rather, they were personal, private, and occasionally angry—but in a controlled way. 

After the writing exercise, all the participants completed a questionnaire, using a numbered scale to recall how much they felt out of control after the loss, as well as the extent to which they still grieved the person. Those who had described a personal ritual also reported feeling both more in control and less aggrieved after the writing exercise, indicating the power of merely reflecting on ritualistic behavior.

If you’re still interested, do read the whole article. One of Norton’s conclusions, in particular, is vitally important for all students of funerary rituals:

Observing a ritual is not nearly as powerful as performing a ritual.

Whole article here.

One comment on “Doing the rite thing

  1. Wednesday 5th June 2013 at 4:50 pm

    Thanks, Charles. That’s really useful! Although I was a tad surprised by the Reeces ad in the middle 🙂

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