Charles 23 Comments

Posted by Vale

One evening last month we lit some candles, sat by the fire with an old book of photographs and reminisced about my wife’s mother who had died just over ten years before.

It was the first time we had done anything like this, but, over the last ten years, we have lost three of our four parents and are having to learn for ourselves how best to remember. The idea of the quiet time and the candles was our first attempt.

Then, a few days ago, with enormous pleasure and surprise, I came across this from the Gail Rubin in her book A Good Goodbye:

Every January 10, March 16, May 4, and November 2, I light a candle in memory of Grandma Dot, Grandma Min, Grandpa Ben, and Grandpa Phil. I put a picture on my kitchen table, and light a candle next to it the evening before. For that day, I imagine that particular grandparent sitting in with my husband and me as we go about our business and talk about our day.

It’s as if they get a glimpse into our current lives and I feel their presence for that day…

Remembering is about continuity and wholeness. It is restorative. In secular funeral services we tell people that the only afterlife we are certain of is in the stories we tell, the memories we share and the influence we feel in our lives. In the early days remembering is easy but In our fast forward world we have few traditions and no habits of personal and individual remembrance. Life rushes us along and too often the person you have lost feels as though they have been left behind.

Gail lists lots of ways that we could make space in our lives for remembering: cemetery visits of course, but how about memorial obituaries in the newspaper, placing photographs in the room at family get-togethers like Christmas, even household shrines.

We need something – a time or a place, an action, a personal ritual – to make remembering real again. Maybe it’s about tangible memorials and those glorious crafted containers. Maybe its something more private and personal. I know that in March and April I will be lighting candles for my own mother and father. What will you be doing?

By the way we’ve blogged about Gail’s book before. It’s worth reading not least because it led to a great discussion about shrines in the home. You can find our original review – and a link to Amazon if you’d like to buy a copy – here


  1. Charles

    Hi, Vale
    I have been reading through the archives on this blog over the last few weeks, and in the last couple of days I have been fascinated by past discussions about shrines. I have a couple of ‘shrines’ in my house which serve a variety of purposes (there again I am rather…ecclectic, and I did need a continuation sheet in the census for ‘religion’!) I do think that shrines of one kind or another (and not necessarily specifically religious) are of huge psychological and spirtual value. (spiritual is an interesting word, isn’t it?) I also think its a very useful piece of ritual (there’s that word again) to set aside time to remember the dead.
    I have always felt that the Mexican Day of the Dead is a hugely valuable cultural asset (there again, I always have been a little odd). It has never struck me as morbid or depressing, but rather as a way of including those we have known and lost in our society and community. I have always thought it a great shame that there is nothing similar in the UK where families deliberately set aside time to remember their dead and tend to the cemetaries. I have seen photos of cemetaries in Sweden where my Dad has a friend. They are alight with candles as far as you can see. How sad that we do not feel able to do likewise here.
    Over the last couple of years we have establihed a sort of tradition where we have a sugar skull painting party at my house. My parents and quite a few of my friends come along and have great fun. Some take their skulls home and use them in personal shrines or, in at least one case, left them on a grave to disolve. Any left over are donated to our local Mexican restauant, run by friends of ours, for their Day of the Dead decorations. We are doing a joint event with them this year…holding sugar skull painting events for local children with the proceeds going to a local charity. It remains to be seen if this is ‘a step too far’ for the people of Darlington. We didn’t do our sugar skull party this year (just to busy with starting up a new business and me rushing off to Cambridge every five minutes with work) and I really feel the loss of it. It does make a difference to the way I feel. My skull sits on one of my shrines for the year.
    This has been a bit of a ramble, I know, but I do think that we need ritual, and as many of us move away from organised religion we need to find new ways of using ritual in our daily lives including for the commemoration of our dead. Or at least I do.

  2. Charles

    Your not alone in that, Jenny, for sure.We need the rhythm and repetition of rituals to give shape to our lives. There’s a lot more interest now in seasonal, “pagan” (i.e. pre-Christian) dates and rituals, round here at least and no doubt other places too.

    We need to feel the earth tilting under us as it turns away from and towards the sun, as the seasons move round, and we need to mark those huge changes in our own lives, I feel. We need to feel a regular and repeated connection with those who have moved away from us.

    I’m beginning to think that for me, the idea of a birthday ritual for dead parents, for example, gives strength and meaning to the random memories and mentions they get in our busy lives. Though what you do for an ancestor you couldn’t stand is less clear to me in our personalised culture. I suppose formerly, in some cultures, the necessary rituals were said even for those ancestors people weren’t too sorry to see the back of, because that’s simply “what one does.”

    Thomas Hardy wrote that you could always tell the difference between the singers and dancers in the folk tradition whose art came from an unbroken line of observance, and those who were revivialists. The latter did it with enthusiasm and bright-eyed interest. The former..just did it, because that’s what you did, and always had done. (I paraphrase more than a little here!) Is that dead ritual that needs to be replaced, or was it working at a deep level, way below the level of enthusiasm and analytical interest?

  3. Charles

    Now that is a fascinating question, thank you! There does seem to be a revival of ‘folk’ tradition and the ‘new version’ is far more self conscious of its purpose and value than the old. Many ‘traditional’ cultures are keento move on and modernise, leaving their old traditions, often re-labeled as ‘superstitions’ behind. Very interesting. From our perspective, though, I supose that the important thing is that the revived or re-invented rituals have meaning and purpose and fulfil an obvious need in many people.

  4. Charles

    Very interesting what you say, Jenny. And GM. Too often the baby goes out with the bathwater. It’s worth reflecting perhaps that the rejection of old traditions has a lot to do with banishing ‘unruly’ and ‘licentious’ behaviour – the shenanigans of the Irish wake, funeral strippers in Taiwan. Where these traditions have survived it is in a bowdlerised, sterile form. A concert of folk music nowadays is unlikely to resolve itself in the promiscuous and riotous drunken fornication that Tom Hardy knew all too well. Folk music has gone twee.

    The Mexican Day of the Dead is a good example of unruliness. But I wonder whether it is more than informative to our culture; could it ever translate? Do we not need to design our own practices?

    And to what extent should our grieving and remembrance rituals acknowledge and incorporate elemental unruliness?

  5. Charles

    Thank you for these thoughtful and thought provoking comments, both.

    There are two sorts of ritual aren’t there? The calendar rituals – Christmas, Easter etc. and the life stages – birth, puberty, marriage death.

    Life stages still retain all of their significance and we live in a world full of formal patterns of behaviour to mark them – although we are still finding new ways of expressing meaning in this post religious world. It is the old calendar rituals that are broken, it seems to me, but I am sceptical about the new paganism that goes back to the Belatnes and Samhains of the – largely imagined – past. They were for then. Celebrating them now feels so artificial.

    We actually need to find the ritual in the rhythm of our lives now. Your phrase, GM, that we need to feel the tilting of the earth, really resonates with me. Christmas and Easter – for me – retain deeper meaning because they are also marking the turning of the year. Perhaps we need to be alert to other turning points. I’ve often wondered, for example, whether a September celebration could be started. Don’t we all feel that quickening at the end of summer that is part new term and part the start of those long dark evenings of autumn?

    And then there is the slow progress into the dead of winter. Would it possible for all of us to start celebrating with the Hindus their winter festival of light?

  6. Charles

    I, too, love GM’s words about the tilting of the earth in relation to the sun. We need to feel our ancestors’ presence in the ground we walk on and the air we breathe and the water that falls on our roofs and comes through our taps, as much as in our memories. To feel them in our bones, to know them. Come to that, if we’re to wake up and stop destroying the world, we need to feel our distant progeny walking in our wake…

    We can do so much more than just remember the dead; and yes, we do need a day of the dead of our own making that isn’t simply a version of an existing one that doesn’t relate to us. How about a day of the unborn?

  7. Charles

    Interesting I was reflecting the other day how lucky I was to have inherited cooking equipment and other things from my Grandparent’s. Roasts are always carved with Grandad’s carving knife and Nanny’s striped jug if used for custard! Birthday cake is always served on Granny’s wedding china plates and in that way they are with us for lots of family meals and celebrations. I have photos of family and friends that line my hall and it does encourage my own family and visitors to stop and ask about people. I do like taking special times out to remember people but I also value the ability to weave them into my everyday life and that of my children. That’s why I still have the cassette compilations my friend Hazel made me in the play room, pretty antiquated and puzzling items for the kids but lots of happy memories for me!

  8. Charles

    Jonathan’s eloquence, his future-wards look, and Katie’s delightful grounding in the family home, prompt me to chip in again.

    If there really is a developing sense of need for new rituals, then those needs will surely, eventually, evolve new forms? So maybe what is needed is the right sort of leadership and example, so more and more people understand the powerfully positive effects of a shared observance.

    Maybe yes, Vale, we could edge gently up against some rituals rooted in a religion other than ours and adapt them, eg diwali. After all, that’s what the early Christians did with pre-Christian festivals.Jesus was born, we’re told, “in the bleak midwinter,” just when people need a symbol of hope and light…and he was, we are told, resurrected in the early Spring, just when …etc. Well, that was convenient, then!

    And, by george, we’re already doing a little of this stuff. In secular ceremonies, people sometimes/often light candles. Light against the darkness of death, hope in the face of loss, etc etc.

    More candles, I say. They’re a magnet for symbolic and ritual thought. Provided there is darkness around them.

    But this is 2012,so: Health Warning: this candle gives off light and heat. If you apply your clothing to it, you may ignite. It may also inspire deep-rooted and non-rational feelings.

  9. Charles

    Yes, Charles, I agree. The Mexican Day of the Dead is a Mexican ‘thing’ and wouldn’t translate wholesale into British culture. Personally I love the whole ‘sugar skull, Catrin and Catrina’ thing, but then, I am rather odd, and I have a spitituality that is perhaps best described as ‘eclectic’! I think what I really meant was that the sense of respect for and community with ancestors at a specific time of year is a ‘good thing’ that we would do well to take into our own culture and ‘normalise’, albeit in a very different way. It would, for example, be nice to see graveyards tended ad ‘brought into’ the communities of the living. Incorporating childrens play areas and picnic sites and lit with candles at certain times rather than being shuned and avoided by most of the people most of the time.

    Vale, I’m not sure that this is a ‘post-religious world’, at least for the majority of people. I think this is one of those periods (the last one I think was around the 1st to the 3rd century) when there is a large shift in religious and spiritual thinking and assumptions are challenged. (It was also this period, in the Roman Empire, that saw the beginning of burial societies, many of them bound up with one or other of the Mystery Religions). I think this may well be a liminal period, many are rejecting the organised religions that held power in the past (although many more are responding by clinging to them all the more closely, leading to the rise in fundamentalism that we are seing in many religions.)I’m not so sure that the neo-pagan ceremonies are obsolete either. For a start, they are not ancient. whilst there were, I have no doubt, winter festivals and halvest festivals and the like, the much publicised ‘eightfold wheel of the year’ is a modern invention, devised, I beleive, by Ross Nichols. Does it matter that it does not, in fact, date to the dim and distant past? Not in the least. It was devised quite recently by modern people who felt the need for a new spirituality more deeply rooted in nature and as such is well suited to the modern world. In fact, it is the result of just what we have been discussing, new ritual evolving out of a need to say something new, with spiritual relevance to the future rather than the past. The fact that so many believe it to be ancient is symptomatic of another deep seated human need…the need for roots and tradition. Which is why Christian ceremony remains comforting and meaningful even to many who have no Christian faith.

    As to the ‘Winter festival of Divali’ I think we do, after a fashion. We hear many people talking about how we have lost sight of the ‘real meaning of Christmas’, but I’m not so sure that we have. Perhaps rather it is the meaning of Christmas that has changed and evolved as we have needed it to. For Christians the ‘true meaning’ of Christmas is and always will be the birth of Christ, but for the rest of us, I suspect it still has the same spiritual value that midwinter festivals of light have always had. The birth of the sun and light in the midst of the darl of winter, the rebirth of hope, the triumph of good over evil, the triumph of all that is good and noble in humanity, the celebration of communities and families and, to be frank, the chance to have a jolly good knees up when we all feel dark and cold and miserable. This is what the midwinter festivals that Christmas was ‘grafted on to’ have always been about and why so many of the deities of the mystery religions were born at this time. I suggest that to most who are not devout Christians this is still what it is about at its best. My nextdoor neighbours are Hindus (in name at least, they are not especially observant) It is a standing joke between us that my house looks far more ‘Hindu’ than theirs and I have before now arrived home to find them rather sheepishly holding up their little girl to my window so she can see one of my shrines. We both see the funny side I think. The point is that while they go to the temple and let of a few fireworks at divali, they celebrate their major winter festival at Christmas and it seems to me that if Christmas continues to evolve in its function as it is doing it is the perfect vehicle for a multi cultural, multi and non-religious nation to celebrate together without contradiction or dogma getting in the way.

    Sorry, I may have drifted a little off topic here, but I do think new rituals and new ways of expressing and experiencing spirituality are developing an evolving all the time. The rituals around death understanably move slower than most but we will get there, I think. And, GM, yes, I couldn’t agree more, candles….you can never have too many candles!

  10. Charles

    What a useful discussion this is turning out to be. Jenny’s point about places associated with death rituals being shunned except on necessary occasions: Patrick McNally (The Daily Undertaker, lovely blog)had a post ages ago (sorry – short of time to go and find it) about a crem+ cemetery in, I think, Canada, where they have arts and social events, try to make sure it is a centre for the community – but then, it is a lovely-looking modern building, whereas most UK crems are…Also, UK crems may bring in less money to spend on such. American funerals seem to be very expensive in comparison, I believe. We need a group of co-operative and ritual-minded people to adopt a nice-looking crem/cem, and turn it into a genuine community centre, a Nice Place To Be – when you’re alive, as well as when you’re not!

    Now that would be a sea change.

  11. Charles

    Hey, that was quite a meaty comment, Jenny! Your erudition brings a great deal to our discussions.

    Wholly agree with bringing life and children to cemeteries. The bereaved and the dead have been quarantined for too long. There is no reason whatever why crematoria chapels should not be used as community spaces. Those which can’t, the one-trick, churchalike spaces, should be knocked down and rebuilt. Let’s not overlook another thing: we have far too many incinerators in this country. There is no need for every crematorium to have its own incinerator.

    I notice no one has addressed the question of unruliness and to what extent we should address the vital, elemental, Bacchanalian life forces and impulses that grief gives rise to.

    I love what Belinda says. Yes, our dead should be integrated into our daily round, in both discourse and action. I always fold the dishcloth and hang it on the tap because this is how my wife’s mum always used to do it. It doesn’t stop there, of course. These are all informal, habitual observances, none too trivial.

    Formal observances, for which time is set aside and commemorative work done are, I am sure, desirable. And I am sure here that an idea of duty is essential. It is Confucian filial duty that informs Chinese practices.

    The cultural background, of course, makes for stony ground. Freud, the ‘closure’ cult, the stiff upper lip, etc have made us into a people who expect the bereaved to go away until they’ve got over it and put it behind them. The trick is to carry it all beside us. Only Jonathan, in one of his frequent forays into genius, could also suggest that we should carry the future with us, too. But he’s right, of course.

    My brain is hurting now.

  12. Charles

    Well, they’re certainly up for it on a Friday night!

    Seriously, though, what is the psychological profile of someone in grief? Have there been any studies done? What do grievers need in order to enable them to express and process grief healthily? The rationale so often held up for funeral ceremonies is that we’ve been doing them since the dawn of time. But do we need still need them now? If so, what precisely do we need to do?

    There’s a whole canvass here for some bright student of the mind. Or a team, perhaps.


  13. Charles

    I feel grumpy because Mr Branson disconnected me for almost two days and I’ve struggled to follow this fascinating discussion. A murrain on his flocks I say!

    You were very right to pick me up up on my sloppy ‘post religious’ Jenny and I’m fascinated by the parallel with the latter days of Rome. I’m going to see if I can do some reading about that.

    It did crystallise my thinking though. I’d used post-religious as a shorthand for describing how some of us have moved past the point where Christianity sets the terms and boundaries of the discourse about ritual. We are off into that liminal period you describe. What it has made me realise though is that – in true post modern fashion – it is wrong to think about new rituals for society as if it was ever going to be possible (or desirable) for us to create a new overarching and comprehensive framework for rituals. The secular/ spiritual life outside of the old orthodoxies doesn’t work like that – meaning is, of it’s nature, personal and the rituals we devise will inevitably be as diverse and specific as the people celebrating them.

    It doesn’t matter at all in this context if I don’t feel I can identify with the neo-pagans – all I ought to do is cheer them on for trying to articulate meaning in their lives. My real job is to find ways to celebrate the meaning and rhythms of my own heart.

    And of course, as a celebrant, come back to the task of trying to work with families to find the meaning in their experience and give it some sort of body and form.

    I am sorry if this has been obvious to everyone except me, but I feel I have a small epiphany…

  14. Charles

    Hi, Vale
    Yes, I think that is exactly it! There is no longer a body of shared belief of assumption that we all ‘buy into’ so ‘new rituals’ that are at all meaningful will be very personal and individual.

    Charles, thanks for that…I am actually at the point where I am looking for possible areas to research for a PhD…that one is definitely going on the list! I am inclining towards looking at various groups and trying to find out what each one sees as the ‘purpose’ of a funeral. Hmmmm.

  15. Charles

    Good oh, Jenny. But do, please, make it available to everyone when you’ve done it. As taxpayers, we at the GFG are miffed at the way taxpayer-funded academics’ research is available only on payment of swingeing subscription rates which we cannot afford.

    A further moan, perhaps, is that academics don’t do enough work that is of use to people.

    Do we need funeral ceremonies? If so, what do we need to do? These questions must be amenable to the right sort of research.

    Do it, please!

  16. Charles

    Now here I take issue with you a little, I think. I agree completely that publically funded PhDs need to be of some use to the public, or at least to a significant niche within it. However, my biggest issue with the education system at the moment (trust me, you do NOT want to get me going on education) is that it is increasingly bound up with what fiscal value it has. We were even asked at one point to come up with a ‘vocational RE qualification’….WTF??

    We desperately need a system where people are involved with education because of an inherrant curiosity…a love of knowledge in and for itself. I had it…it was starting to disappear from my sixth formers…it had to, education is now a fiscal investment. Oh it makes me cross!

    My MA dissertation was on the development of beliefs about reincarnation in Hinduism (the concept is totally absent in the earliest scriptures)…a minority interest if ever there was one…but something I seriously needed to get out of my system. That said…I funded it myself.

    Sorry about that little rant…now, yes, of course I would. Also, as I said, funded research is something that someone has invested in so yes, it should be useful!

    When I thought about doing a PhD I always assumed it would be something else in textual criticism, odd that since I’ve been working here I’ve changed my perspective completely. Something to do with funerals…yes, and something of wider public use/ interest…yes! How strange the world is!

  17. Charles

    Actually, your thesis sounds very interesting. The impulses which generated an idea in reincarnation are probably universal and therefore informative about all of us.

    I agree with you about the utilitarian tilt education has taken and have experience of its absurdity and wicked wrongheadedness.

    I am a believer in utility, though.That includes research which illuminates understanding, enriches knowledge or simply delights. I hold no monetarist brief.

    I cannot approve of the way academics publish research findings in journals whose subscription rates put them way out of reach of taxpayers.

    I have a feeling that your work will escape these bonds!

  18. Charles

    Ah, I see where you are coming from now! Does not all knowledge ‘illuminate understanding, enrich knowledge or simply delight’ someone though? Its the idea that all ‘worthy’ research has some commersial value or brief that gets my goat!

    Agree with you that all academic research should be freely available to anyone who wants it, otherwise what’s the point. Some universities require you to assign copyright to them when you submit…herein lies much of the problem!

  19. Charles

    What, you cede copyright?? So whose intellectual property is it? Blimey.

    You go to these conferences, Jenny. You pay to get there, then pay to get in. I suspect the eggheads have all expenses paid by their depts. People do these 20-min talks. And at the end of really quite a lot you ask yourself in berwilderment, What on earth was the point of that?

    The language they use use is another bugbear. I once took Prof Tony Water to task and gave him a good drubbing to boot for not having liberally bespattered with the jargon of sociology a particularly lucid talk he gave about something or another. He was justly proud. How I wish there were more.

    I don’t want to sound adversarial. There are lots of very good and nice academics out there, especially in this field.

    But I can’t afford a subscription to bloody Mortality!

  20. Charles

    Yes, I do take your point. The academic world, along with the funeral world could do with a damn good shake up and restructuring. I’m up for it πŸ™‚
    I absolutely agree, knowledge should be free.
    For what its worth, I’ve pais for every conferrence I’ve attended πŸ™‚

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