Words, words, words

Charles Cowling

 

First posted by Charles on 9 Feb 2010

I’m putting this back up as a contribution to recent debates started by Jose and Richard.

Following my post about the ineptitude and ineffectiveness of words, I stumbled on this piece in the Sydney Morning Herald. It’s actually about citizenship ceremonies, but you’d never guess it from the way I’ve plucked the extracts:

Traditionally, ritual, including rites of passage, is embedded in our religious culture. And it is true that religion seems to have a competitive advantage when it comes to this stuff. Religions have been practising their liturgy for a long time. The godly are very good at all of the non-verbal aspects of ritual from bells and smells to crazy cozies to speaking in tongues. Great ceremony is about an absence of speeches and many faiths get this.

Moreover, the godly have the advantage that they feel that they are consecrating their rites in the presence of their transcendent God. That ineluctably gives an ineffable power to the ceremony. The godless will obviously struggle to match that attribute of faith. And we need to get better at the non-verbal stuff. We atheists can talk the leg off a chair but we can’t sing or chant or dance the leg off an amputee.

Now a real rite of passage doesn’t just rejoice in change. It is the change. A ceremony which merely celebrates but doesn’t cause the change is not strictly a rite of passage. Graduation ceremonies from university are rites of passage because you don’t get the damned piece of paper without enduring the ceremony. On this definition, school graduations strictly aren’t rites of passage because the exam marks after the ceremony are the life-changing event, not the school graduation or valedictory service. So funerals aren’t strictly rites of passage because unless you’re a time traveller, your funeral won’t end your life, just celebrate it.

We, of the secular world, often fail to employ those non-verbal rituals that make a ceremony. You can easily cock up even the most moving event by speeches. During my days of municipal service, these ceremonies meandered between inspirational and pedestrian. The pedestrian bits were inevitably the speeches. The best bits were non-verbal – the Mayoral handshake, the familial hugging, the singing of the national anthem, the presentation of the symbolic wattle and the giving of certificate. All of these had no words merely music or actions.

Religions don’t have a monopoly on rites of passage but they do them better than us. The secular world needs to learn more about celebrating without speeches. We need to have rituals we perform together and not passively watch. I think we are still a century or so away from really learning these skills.

At the heart of great ceremony is performance that is not normal. Normal is pedestrian. Words are dull. We need transforming ceremony and that requires anything but speeches.

Read the whole article here.

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Richard RawlinsonRupert CallendercharlesBelinda ForbesQuokkagirl Recent comment authors

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Richard Rawlinson
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Richard Rawlinson

Rupert, belated reply: good luck with your alfresco pyre campaign! Even though fire wasn’t involved it reminds me of the funeral scene in My Own Private Idaho…

http://www.totalfilm.com/features/13-awesome-movie-funerals/my-own-private-idaho

Rupert Callender
Guest

Dear Quokkagirl,
{great name..}
If you go to either The Natural Death Centre’s website, or my company,www.thegreenfuneralcompany.co.uk you will find under “press” some stuff I have written in support of this campaign. Anyone know a good QC who might work for free? Does Geoffrey Robinson read this?

Belinda Forbes
Guest

Ever tried to encourage people to sit near the front at a funeral? There’s the family, then an unseemly rush for the seats at the back! But we celebrants do try to get people to participate – honest!
I like words and I take great care about putting them in the right order – and when you get a smile or a gasp or a sob or a hearty laugh, you’re getting participation.

Quokkagirl
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Quokkagirl

And Rupert, tell more about your campaign

Quokkagirl
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Quokkagirl

Elements of ritual are weaving their way slowly into funerals now because the families want them. The processing of families behind the hearse – the ‘file past’ at the end of a service, the families who come forward and touch or kiss the coffin as they enter or leave the crem, the bringing forward of flowers or ‘gifts’ to the coffin, especially during periods of music filled reflections (which can be such painful moments because the music will have been chosen to be relevant and will therefore be emotionally charged, the lighting of candles and the blowing out of the… Read more »

Rupert Callender
Guest

Ah Richard, maybe I can convert you to our secular/religious non-denominational come one come all, out-door funeral pyre campaign? All the drama of the furnace, all the joys of the great outdoors!

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

I think I’d rather wave goodbye at the church steps just as one does newlyweds as they drive off on honeymoon. Then again, we want to be with our loved ones to the very end, so following the hearse from church to crematorium for the final curtain closing is a natural desire. On that note, do many want to see the furnace part, too? After my recent church/crem experience, I’m more strongly favouring burial, the elements of earth and wind, the lowering of the coffin into a grave seems more poignant than the muzak, air-con and oven.

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

Charles ‘At the heart of great ceremony is performance that is not normal’. At the heart of great ceremony is also meaning, hence my agreement with you about religions currently being at an advantage. As this debate progresses, I’m optimistic people will make significant breakthroughs regarding rituals and symbols with new resonance/relevance to secular funerals. In 1984, George Orwell writes: ‘People simply disappeared, always during the night. Your name was removed from the registers, every record of everything you had ever done was wiped out, your one-time existence was denied and then forgotten. You were abolished, annihilated: vaporized was the… Read more »

Rupert Callender
Guest

Risk is almost essential Charles, you’re right. But of course, the place where you are least able to risk anything is at the crem. At a recent natural burial, in my preamble I invited people to come up and sign the coffin at any point during the proceedings, in fact specifically before we were preparing to carry the coffin up the hill to the grave. Nothing spoils this moment of practical and emotional communal steeling for the task ahead than a queue of people clutching marker pens. The funeral proceeded, with many spontaneous happenings and marvelous unplanned heartfelt moments, but… Read more »

Jonathan
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Jonathan

Just a word of caution, Gloria mundi; I’ve invited the congregated people to approach the coffin (at a crematorium), and nothing could have felt more awkward when no-one at all did so. Check it with the family first, and tell them to let everyone expect it. Better still, give a very good reason why they should participate in this frighteningly unfamiliar act – ‘Wot? Touch the horrible thing? Why?’ As a celebrant you’ll need to have established a very close and trusting relationship with these people. Ru and Claire understand this, but they’re the ones who’ve done the whole thing… Read more »

gloria mundi
Guest

Like the bell idea very much, Quasimodo,and am right with you on the power of non-speech elements, including silence – experienced a lovely Quaker-ish silence at a wedding I helped to run; and Ru’s point is worth having in pokerwork over the ambitious celebrant’s bed-head: if it is dreaded, it won’t work. Permission to approach the coffin as a release for everyone there – who’s the Anglo-Saxon dulwit now? Never thought of making that direct statement to the gathering, only to the family. Duh! Shall get on with it forwith. There we are. That’s what Cowlings are for, in case… Read more »

Rupert Callender
Guest

I think the idea of incorporating a little Tibetan handbell into your ceremonies is a fine idea Charles. Simple and effective. Some of the other things you mention, candle lighting and dove releasing in particular, we have done but no longer do much. There are too many opportunities for awkwardness to creep in, doves that are reluctant to fly, bloody matches. Hand holding can become excruciating, and anything that makes one person feel uncomfortable breaks the spell. Dreading what comes next is the death of ceremony. Singing is fine if you are lucky enough to have a group who are… Read more »

gloria mundi
Guest

I suppose (sorry to take a second bite, Charles)it’s not whether we need more or fewer words, more smells and bells, fewer of same etc – it’s what works, for these people, in that place. Of course words feel inadequate at times, as the piece Charles links to makes plain, but in another sense, words are where we live. Good priests, good secular celebrants, find the right ones, and know the manner in which to say them best.

gloria mundi
Guest

Interesting. He’s right: words in the form of speeches may often be overplayed in secular funerals. He’s wrong: words don’t have to be dull, we all know that from watching the reactions to a poem from granddaughter which may be a terrible poem in one sense, but it’s powerful stuff there and then. And the anecdotes that work so well, and make people laugh and cry – these words are not dull. Our job is to separate the dull words and lose as many of them as possible. And I’m not sure he’s right about rites of passage – do… Read more »