Reinventing ritual

Charles 14 Comments


Here is a long extract from the Sunday Times article by Jenni Russell about the necessity for, and power of, ritual. 

I went to an astounding funeral last month. Philip Gould, the pollster who helped to create new Labour, died in November. He knew he was dying and he knew just how he wanted to orchestrate the ceremony.

I have been to many London funerals that are forced by the timetables of crematoriums into being perfunctory affairs. The mourners often have only 40 minutes in which to file into an unprepossessing room, evoke the personality of the person whose life they are grieving for, cry, sing or pray together and move hastily out again before the end of their scheduled slot.

These are often uneasy, dismal events. The readings, the music and the orations are chosen with love and thought. People attend out of great affection or respect. But nothing about the bland settings or the context lends itself to the expression of deep emotion.

Frequently, there is an anxiety about time and a diffidence about the ceremony itself. Speakers can feel shy about what they have been asked to do, partly because there is no form for them to follow. I have been to funerals where the person conducting the event has accidentally missed out whole chunks of it, leaving expectant participants with no role, and others where the music system has broken, leaving an awkward silence.

Everyone wants their own individually constructed service to be meaningful, but as funeral planners most of us are amateurs, and it is surprisingly difficult to make a random collection of readings and recollections feel satisfying to those who have assembled to acknowledge a life.

Philip’s funeral was utterly different. It was held in the Anglican church of All Saints in central London, which had confirmed him months before. The imminence of death had given him an intense interest in faith and ceremony, and his first conversation with the vicar there had been a request for him to conduct Philip’s final service.

This traditional high church service was an unashamedly compelling and dramatic event. It had a magnificent setting, a choir with achingly beautiful voices, incense hanging thickly over the congregation and a vicar who could carry an audience. It was unembarrassed about taking up the mourners’ time. It deployed all the knowledge that the Christian church has developed over two millennia, from ritual chants to mass singing, sermons and prayer, to evoke solemnity, sadness, laughter, empathy, admiration and, ultimately, hope and relief. The speeches, readings and music selected by Philip and his family made it a unique experience, but that variety was contained and transformed by being in an established dramatic form.

The mourners left the church having lived through something extraordinary. Everyone I talked to felt both uplifted and dazed. Several people confided their intention to convert to high church Anglicanism the minute they felt death to be close. This was not on the whole a statement about their desire for faith, but for ritual. Whether they were lapsed Christians or non-believers such as me, what struck us all was that this ceremony met a deep need to have our emotions evoked and expressed. Believing in God was not the point. We just wanted the response to our own lives and to those of our friends to be as serious and as purposeful as this.

This isn’t an argument for Christian ritual in particular. Whether we are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or anything else, it is about benefiting from the understanding of the people who lived before us in our struggle to give our lives structure and meaning. The rituals of celebration, marriage, birth, sexual maturity and death developed only because people found that these were effective ways to bond with others and heighten experiences that might otherwise be lonely or mundane.

Many of my generation spent much of their lives rejecting formal rituals — abandoning religion, avoiding marriages or christenings, writing their own ceremonies. Living in a society whose highest value is individualism, we both want to fit in and to demonstrate proudly just how different we are. Lots of us grew up, as I did, with humanist parents, so there was no long tradition to tap into. Those born into long traditions have often left them behind because they had begun to seem too smug, too processed. They had lost the element of transcendentalism that made them matter in the first place.

In walking away we have lost much that matters. Some people have the knack of creating emotion and significance. A friend who buried her mother in a wicker casket on a Welsh hillside feels nothing could have been more satisfying. For many of us, though, the dismissal of ritual for personalised events would be like turning our backs on Shakespeare because we have faith in our capacity as amateur playwrights. We try, but we cannot create the same effect.

Perhaps the answer is to accept that there is pleasure and reassurance to be found in following forms and rules. I have been struck in recent years by the number of Jewish friends who have embraced the practices of suppers and Sabbaths although they ridiculed them in their youth. In the same way, I now see that Christian ceremonies can still be full of meaning for those without faith. In our desire to be brought together with others and to be uplifted, we don’t necessarily need to demand practices that perfectly reflect every element of our own views.

Perhaps we could just accept, a little more humbly, that the rituals on offer to us have sprung out of centuries of thinking about human need. 


Whole article here (paywalled).


  1. Charles

    “…as funeral planners most of us are amateurs, and it is surprisingly difficult to make…” There’s your real problem, Jenni; it’s not that we aren’t high church enough about death, but that we’re left to do it unsupported.

    This is where the funeral director comes in; or rather, in most cases, butts out. It’s his or her duty to intuitively guide a grieving community to its own best place of mourning, not to just ask them what they want to do – how on earth do a bunch of amateurs know that? Apart from the case of the religious minority for whom it is a church and a couple of thousand years of evolving drama, this community has no guide besides The Undertaker (who’s made damned sure it’s him they go to first for advice), and so it latches on to the next passing ritual like jumping on a random bus without caring where it’s going. As long as it gets them moving, with that familiar red colour and reassuring droning noise, and a driver with a cap on, it saves navigating through the rush hour traffic themselves.

    “…a deep need to have our emotions evoked and expressed…reassurance to be found in following forms and rules…We try, but we cannot create the same effect…our desire to be brought together with others and to be uplifted…the rituals on offer to us have sprung out of centuries of thinking about human need…” Not the language of control and ownership of a personal grieving ritual, is it?

    Jenni and others may have been carried away in the moment far enough to compare the experience favorably with the god-awful cremjob she bemoans, but I can’t help wondering how they’ll be feeling in six months if they realize they opened their mouths to call out goodbye, and someone else’s voice drowned out their own words.

  2. Charles

    Thought-provoking and useful.

    Effective ritual comes out of shared ways of living. As celebrants and mourners, we can walk away from the incredibly difficult job of evolving rituals to suit the lives we have led, and go back to something powerful and familiar from what, for many people, is a culture they no longer live amongst. Or we can try to develop funerals with ritual elements that come from our actual lives as they’ve been lived. I think the writer is undervaluing the small elements of ritual to be found in even a conventional crem funeral, slight though they be – they certainly mean something to some people.

    Perhaps what she is really commenting on is the quality of the performance. That’s probably what worked on the Welsh hillside – closeness to the forces of nature, an elemental quality to the occasion and the place. There’s a source of ritual for you, just ask the Pagans. For many people now, finding solace in incense and a priest with a powerful voice would be a kind of infantilism of the sort non-Christians enjoy, innocently and pleasantly, around Christmas.

    It’s less, I feel, about ceremonies that “perfectly reflect every element of our own views,” than it is about developing rituals that reflect our lives and what matters to us.

    Recently, about 30 bikers turned up to a funeral on their big machines wearing their leathers, we played the music that fitted that sub-culture, and when I asked if she wanted me to say anything about meeting up afterwards, the widow said that everyone knew to come back and set up their tents in the field opposite her house, and party until they fell over. Some of them had already set up there, and they were very helpful and considerate to the widow.

    Ritual elements, or a lack of “forms and rules”? Shared sub-culture, giving form and meaning, or just an inchoate, individualistic episode of hedonistic escapism?

    Finally: the writer’s description of lousy funerals she has attended is unhelpful either way. We’ve all been to lousy Christian ceremonies, and lousy secular ceremonies. People round ‘ere were particularly fond of the vicar who told the crem attendant to take off a CD because he didn’t like the music, and who forgot the family name once, and had to walk over to the coffin and read it off the brass plate. I heard from an FD about a humanist who got three of the names wrong in one funeral. So what? I can deduce nothing from such anecdotes except the varieties of human incompetence.

    Let’s move forwards, shall we?

  3. Charles

    To move forward you have to look at the good and bad aspects of the past and present. The writer, along with fellow non-believers in attendance, was astounded by the moving beauty of recent convert Philip Gould’s Anglican funeral. They clearly compared its ancient, prescribed ritual favourably with their experience at individually constructed ceremonies at crematoria.

    They might be comparing the cream of Christian funerals – a star-packed dignitary’s send-off in a church renowned for its superior setting and performance – with the most amateurish of modern, secular funerals. But the fact that some church funerals are flat and some secular funerals are uplifting does not undermine the fact that religious ritual moves and unites even non-believers.

    The sooner secularists escape the proselytising of militant atheists, with their faddish and totally unreasonable insistence that science must destroy religion, the better.

    ‘Religion’s power to console doesn’t make it true,’ said Dawkins, without even bothering to think about why religion has had the power to console throughout human history, and especially those without the privileges of a millionaire author.

    Even atheist Camille Paglia is persuaded that a ‘totally secularised society with contempt for religion sinks into materialism and self-absorption and gradually goes slack’.

    Ritual, like the arts, expresses the profound in our nature. Can it be achieved in funerals without religious faith? If so, will it reduce the obsession with the self? Will it provide an antidote to the atheist jihadists whose scientific theories have nothing of value to say on the aching questions of life, death, love and meaning.

  4. Charles

    I don’t think we’ll get far in the development of new rituals for secular funerals until we stop arguing about belief and concentrate on shape and meaning.

    This may be anathema to Richard; and of course I wouldn’t disagree that powerful Christian ritual can help non-believers and believers.

    Dawkins, BTW, has written some brilliant and useful things, but often his baby gets thrown out with the bath water, of which there may well be quite a lot.

    But Dawkins Shmawkins, who cares (from a professional point of view) – what works? Everything Richard says about Christian ritual moving and uniting non-believers: would he agree that a good secular ceremony can do the same for believers? I have had Christians come up to me and say they were moved by the ceremony (I’m sorry if that sounds immodest, but let’s get on with this, shall we?) – or is Richard going to stick to the high ground of his Christianity and say you can’t have profound meaning without religious faith?

    I’m not sticking the high ground of my non-faith, I want to work on an event called a funeral. If we can move and bring people together by developing new ritual for secular funerals, then it may have “bits” in that look like religion, just as Christian funerals often have “bits” in that look like secular funerals (very un-sacred music, anecdotes about a life.)

    I think it may also be worth pointing out that atheistic scientists can indeed have very profound things to say about meaning, and about life and death. And could we stop referring to them as “jihadists?” It is an unpleasant metaphor (bombs, remember?) and just has a polarising effect – doing exactly what Christians frequently and no doubt rightly accuse Dawkins and co of doing.

    The rhetoric matters, doesn’t it?.

  5. Charles

    Fair cop, Gloria. I guess I was having one of my militant atheist bashing moments. As you know, I don’t consider most secularists to be God-haters. I’d have few friends if that was the case. And, yes, I definitely agree a good secular funeral can move a Christian. However, the meaning is certainly different without faith. I imagine the focus has to be on life and the memory of life if there’s nothing after it. I’ll stop using words like jihad if you prefer, but I was merely referring to the war of words waged by the likes of Sam Harris and his essay, ‘Science Must Destroy Religion’. I agree rhetoric matters. Magnanimity is a virtue. Peace!

  6. Charles

    Gloria, I’m back again with a thought about your comment about the need for ritual meaning without belief.

    When we describe the West as secular all too often people interpret this as meaning the Church is facing inevitable and terminal decline, that science and reason have triumphed over superstition and myth, that our civilised culture no longer needs the props and comforts of religion.

    It’s true church attendance is in decline but the fact is a majority in the West believe in God and tend to describe themselves as religious, according to government-conducted census in all European countries including the UK. It’s natural to argue that what people now understand by Christian identity or belief in God is so vague as not to be meaningful, that it’s no more than a sense that they are good, decent people.

    But the figures are also evidence of a Christian persistence, albeit in the form of religious belief without willingness to belong to a church. Secularism, far from marking the end of Christianity, is arguably its latest expression. Secularism is Christian ethics shorn of its doctrine. It is the ongoing commitment to do good, understood in traditional Christian terms, without a concern for the technicalities of the teachings of the Church.

    Such an argument will not please those who think secularism is an ideology immersed in a life and death struggle with Christianity, for whom the Church is the enemy, willing to employ all tactics necessary to maintain its power in society.

    Let’s liberate ourselves from the fiction of goodies and baddies. There might then be a chance of harmonising ritual, with secularists not ashamed to feed on their heritage.

  7. Charles

    If you’re gullible enought to believe the conclusions of a government conducted census, Richard, it’s no wonder you can believe in a god!

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