Reinventing ritual

Charles Cowling

 

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).

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The desire for ritual | My WebsiteThe Good Funeral Guide – Fit for purpose – The Good Funeral GuideJonathanRichard Rawlinsongloria mundi Recent comment authors

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[…] This was not on the whole a statement about their desire for faith, but for ritual. Whether they wer… […]

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[…] Jenni Russell’s words in The Times following the funeral of Philip Gould at All Saints in Westminster will strike a chord among those non-believers who are moved by ritual without embracing faith. See here. […]

Jonathan
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Jonathan

Who needs proof? Just look at any government.

Richard Rawlinson
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Richard Rawlinson

Any proof to the contrary Jonathan?

Jonathan
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Jonathan

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!

Richard Rawlinson
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Richard Rawlinson

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… Read more »

Richard Rawlinson
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Richard Rawlinson

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… Read more »

gloria mundi
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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… Read more »

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[…] I thought of things to write I scanned the comments coming in about this post concerning the desirability of ritual in funeral ceremonies. Here’s the joy of blogging. However […]

Richard Rawlinson
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Richard Rawlinson

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… Read more »

gloria mundi
Guest

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… Read more »

Rupert Callender
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Nice finish Jonathan.

Jonathan
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Jonathan

“…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… Read more »

Rupert Callender
Guest

Hmmmm.