To ritualise or not to ritualise…

Charles 12 Comments

By Richard Rawlinson

Ed’s note: Richard wrote this for us at a time when the market in blog posts about ritual was approaching saturation. There’s good stuff here, so we’re posting it now, timeless seasonal greeting and all. 

…that remains the question. In order to express a meaning you need to establish what the meaning is you’re seeking to express – whether by word, act or symbol. Without meaning, the practical reason for disposing of a rotting corpse is hygiene. As a fond, finite and formalised farewell to someone we love and shall miss, a funeral clearly means more.

To mark a death, we pay tribute to a life. By setting aside an official occasion to do so, emotions are aroused which accentuate the loss we’re feeling. This is deemed good as it helps give closure by preparing us for the ultimate parting – when the curtains close on the body, or it’s lowered into the ground, to be with us no more.

A religious funeral’s meaning is exactly the same as that of a secular funeral – except for the fact it offers hope that death is the beginning of a journey towards peace with God. When you take eternal salvation out of the equation, it’s the same – a fond, finite and formalised farewell to someone we love.

The most meaningful ritual of funerals must surely be the presence of the deceased. Being physically close to a beloved dead person feels extraordinary. Having already grieved the loss for several days, we may yet still be unprepared for the upsurge of emotions on seeing the coffin – let alone the face of the deceased in repose if the lid is kept open. No sooner have we grown accustomed to it, the committal shocks again with its absolute finality. He/she is going, going, gone. Forever. Per sempre. Na zawsze. Jamais. Für immer.

So a key purpose of a funeral is to instruct the living in acceptance of death. In both religious and secular funerals, the celebrant collaborates with the bereaved to give a dignified, relevant, moving and loving send-off that helps the living come to terms with their loss.

If a chief aim is to bring emotions to a crescendo to aid closure, what words, actions and symbols best inspire ‘healthy sadness’? We have the essential presence of the body, along with the ultimate tearjerker of its departure. We have eulogies that capture the essence of the deceased, along with poems and other readings. We have music, the most moving art form of all, and, even better, music accompanied by lyrics. We have contemplative moments of remembrance, and processions past the coffin for intimate farewells.

We have buildings with meaning too. Church interiors are often designed to inspire wonder; they’re dramatic backdrops for rituals that appeal to sight, sound, smell, touch, taste and even the sixth, supernatural sense. The chapels of crematoria, not being theatrical Baroque or Gothic in style, are nevertheless arranged so those present can face the drama around the coffin. There’s the inevitable comparison with a place of worship, but they can just as readily be compared to a theatre. The principle of the layout is the same in a chapel as it is in a theatre or even a classroom, a platform for participants whether priests, actors or lecturers. Just as a priest has his altar, an actor his set and a lecturer his slide show, so can a celebrant have scripts and props that give performance resonance. But which script and what props?

Some here have assumed I’m an advocate of more ritual in secular funerals. As a passive observer, I’ve listened to a couple of differing opinions but have formed no firm views. In truth, I’ve been discouraged that ideas don’t spring to mind intuitively, leaving a suspicion that struggling too hard to contrive more ritual implies the proposition itself may be unworkable.

One significant obstacle seems to be reconciling both diversity and individuality. How can a prescribed ritual or standardised wording resonate with an eclectic, perhaps multi-faith, audience and one unique person? Perhaps the answer is any secular ritual must avoid atheistic and theistic specifics to form universal statements about death and bereavement. We all love, we all die, we’re all affected when those we love die.

So without further ado, let’s throw a handful of ideas out there that are sufficiently general, and designed to move us in order to heal us – positive tearjerkers for healthy sadness. In office brainstorms, we say there’s no such thing as a bad idea. This is blatantly false but is nevertheless useful to rid us of inhibitions. By hearing both good and bad ideas, we’re then better able to compare and contrast in a process of elimination. Two half-baked ideas can merge to form something excellent.

To signify the importance of the arrival of the coffin, perhaps a bell should be rung to remind us to stand and to focus our thoughts. Individuals could then choose between a silent procession or one accompanied by music.

Perhaps the celebrant should wear something more distinctive than a somber business suit, just as a master-of-ceremonies at a formal dinner wears a uniform that sets him apart from the guests in regular black tie.

Perhaps the entire ceremony could be structured more formally. It could begin with a formally scripted greeting to fit all ceremonies: beautifully crafted words that remind us of the gift of life, and the significance and inevitability of death. The middle section could blend prescribed words with open parts for eulogy and poignant songs, readings or prayers. The set words could perhaps introduce the unique parts to enhance their poignancy and keep them on message. The climactic ending could return to prescribed words, reflecting universal feelings when saying goodbye.

Perhaps it should be encouraged as integral to the ceremony that the audience files past the coffin, laying down flowers as a physical symbol of respect. Perhaps candles could be lit on the way out as a final sign that the deceased lives on in memory. 

Nothing radical there. No suggestion we start to don death masks, or introduce communal wailing and beating of breasts. Too churchy? Well, the Church does ritual well on the whole, and the hope of eternal salvation has been conscientiously avoided. Too traditional? Those who equate progress with ever increasing informality will no doubt find it so.  

Happy New Year!


  1. Charles

    This is a very helpful, nutritious and thought-provoking post, thank you Richard, and you give us a construction which I feel I shall be working on, to see and feel what is authentic for the occasion in hand. I agree that avoiding a/theistic rumblings, (but not necessarily avoiding spiritual explorations – oh, these terms!) that is the way to hold open funeral ritual to as many attendees as possible, in a non-Church funeral.

    I like the idea of some statements that are resonant enough always to be used before and after the unique bits. If something about life and death is true in November, it’s probably still true in April!

    I’ve long been interested in the way civil/secular/humanist celebrants sometimes worry that a ceremony is not unique, because it contains words that have been used before. I used to worry about that – but we all share a common humanity, and some things will be true for an ex-fighter pilot, last of the Few, as much as for an alcoholic homeless man. We can move in and out of the uniqueness of a life, to find resonant general words that affect us all.

    I guess I’ve been groping my way through some of these conundrums, and now you’ve given me a clearer focus and some practical ideas. I shall check back with this post as I work on a “script” for Wednesday – can’t say fairer than that!

  2. Charles

    One thing we are all missing in our debates on how to create new rituals is that modern Paganism has done just that. Wicca is a 20th Century construct, albeit one that has in place an alleged lineage. The rituals it uses seem timeless, and that is part of their power. These things need to be done with sincerity and purpose and when they are, they work.

  3. Charles

    Monotheistic rituals are timeless too, Rupert. Don’t Wiccans dance naked around bubbling cauldrons containing eye of newt and toe of frog? I’m sure it appeals to many but…

  4. Charles

    I find myself suspicious of too much “aim”, “purpose” and “in order to”. Or of trying to evolve a formula for these supposedly formulaic events.
    It would be enough for me if each funeral was a gathering of folks coming together and being given a focus for being real in their individual experience of loss of this person; and, in so doing, perhaps inch towards this regarding death as well.
    I don’t really like the hidden manipulations inherent in “tearjerker” , nor the rather glutinous “healthy sadness”. Nor even the idea of “bringing emotions to a crescendo”.
    I’ll settle for heartfelt and authentic…. for each unique person and their family; gear everything to that, and find small ways to involve everyone.
    The more ways to do this the better – so thanks for sticking your neck out with these ideas.

  5. Charles

    Thanks GM, glad it offered some food for thought. When writing it (before your gem came out) it felt like a shaggy dog story: a lot of thinking out loud in build up to proposing some specific ideas. I didn’t know what they’d be at the outset and was aware that paragraph after paragraph of contextualising introduction was delaying any punchlines. The third to last paragraph, about formal structure and scripts, is possibly the relevant bit.

    James, I appreciate words like tearjerker etc sound manipulative in the context of devising funeral ritual. But can’t scripts, even when self-conscious of their aim and purpose, be heartfelt and authentic too? Tricky!

  6. Charles

    Agreed Ru, pagans and Wiccans have their seemingly timeless and very effective rituals, and parts of those (elements, seasons, points of the compass) can perhaps be nicked and used to effect by those who wouldn’t accept their whole set of beliefs. But for the (many) people who are not pre-disposed to ritual of their sort, we maybe need to develop a more open-ended, less specific kind of ritual.And that’s why I find Richard’s third-last para so useful.

    In a sense, the Wiccans etc are easy – they’re already there, like Richard’s Catholics. It’s the in-betweeners that cause many of us to scratch our heads, isn’t it?

    Seemsa to me a “healthy sadness” is a sadness that is sharp and profound, but not gloomy or sombre; one that can lie alongside smiles of recognition and delight at the life that was shared without either inhibiting joy, or denying grief.

  7. Charles

    No, Richard. By and large they don’t.

    I think Rupert has summed up beautifully what Neo-Pagan ritual has achieved. A modern ‘invention’ it nontheless works beautifully in that it expresses meaning and intent clearly and powerfully. It also shows the clear connection to the cycles of nature and life and death that has been mentioned beore here in this context, I believe. The belief system ehind it is irrelevant in this context (not that there is a single belief system behind it….) the point is that it is meaningful and powerful and I suspect many elements could usefully be adopted elsewhere.

    I agree with James that it may be a mistake for secular funerals to try to construct a ‘new’ liturgy that is universally relevant. The purpose of a secualar funeral and, indeed, the beliefs of the family arranging it will vary hugely, so how can there be a ‘one size fits all’ ritual or liturgy? The funeral about which Charles posted today, is an example in point. No script, no ‘service’ but, I suspect, a great deal of ritual. Surely whatever is meaningful to the family is the important thing and the job of the celebrant (or at least one of the jobs) is to help the family to express that ritually if that is appropriate. (Again, this comes with the disclaimer that I am not a celebrant, I merely throw these ideas ‘out there’ in the hope that someone might find them interesting!

  8. Charles

    Point taken, Jenny.

    Just as different religions from Catholicism to Wiccan through Buddhism have different rituals, so too can there be a veritable cornucopia of secular rituals, depending on the preference of the secularist.

    Some secularists might empathise more with the nature cycles, if not the witchcraft, given pre-eminence in pagan, polytheistic religions. Some secularists might identify more with the traditional rituals of, say, Chrsitianity, but without the faith in the one God.

    My blog, of course, focussed on the latter as Wicca is of no interest to me personally. Perhaps someone else can write about pagan-inspired secular ritual which doesn’t require faith in witchcraft and magic.

  9. Charles

    Valuable discussion. What I take from this is the idea that having ready a set of valid statements about life and death, grief and celebration, may help us to build a structure round the uniqueness of a life. (With variations, with tuning, of course.) Like having really good poems or passages to suggest, if that’s what they want.

    I don’t think that’s the same as saying we should develop a “one size fits all” funeral. In discussion,we perhaps sometimes pretend that every family we come across is ready to develop an entire funeral, with ritual elements and life stories – with our help, of course. This, I find, is by no means always the case.

    Sometimes a family has little enough to tell us, for a variety of reasons. It will be up to us to find the resonant statements and actions. That immediate choice (this family, this person, here and now – what to say?) can be pretty scary.

    I’ve been relieved to realise, over time, that I can allow myself to use similar (not identical) statements and thoughts at a number of funerals, without feeling that I’m not doing my job properly. This discussion contributes to my peace of mind. And I use those statement because they seem to work.

    If only more people had that powerful feeling of identity with the forces of nature and the seasons, we could nick more of the Wicca-type ritual – but you can’t, of course, launch it on a family for whom it may have very little resonance.

    And because we are committed to developing better secular funerals, more powerful, more helpful events, more effective ritual – we sometimes have to face the fact that a family may just want the damn thing over with. We may regret or even secretly deplore this, but – this family, this person, here and now…

  10. Charles

    James, thanks for that. I had begun to wonder if I were the only one who doesn’t care too much for any move to ‘ritualize’, though I may be mis-interpreting you there.

    I find any prescribed ritual uncomfortable (unless it is initiated by the people organizing the funeral for their lost person) because ritual requires to be driven by the spirit of the participants. The celebrant is the last person to dictate the direction of the ceremony; her job is to follow rather than lead, to intuit what are usually fumblings in the dark and guide others to their destination, if they have one. A prescribed (as in pre-written) ritual, even a good one, can only limit. I for one go out of my way to resist the cut and paste option of words that work as well on Wednesday as they did on Monday; they work for a given audience, not a given truth, so you can’t even write them until you know the language of at least your key audience members well enough – usually no more than a couple of days before a funeral, certainly not before you’ve met them.

  11. Charles

    Yes, cut and paste sounds convincingly dismissive, Jonathan, or one could simply say “a similar form of words that has worked before and might” – pause for check again with family culture, language of context, as you say – “work again on Friday.” Let’s not polarise too much. Of course the celebrant is the last person to dictate anything, but she doesn’t approach the family with an empty rattlebag. And yes, of course not before you’ve met them, and for sure, (relatively) last minute is best.

    Ah, what works, works. Rule no. 1. Actually, the only rule.

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