Unrecognised rituals

Charles 15 Comments

Posted by Gloria Mundi

There’s been some very interesting stuff recently about the importance of ritual, and how we need to develop more ritual forms for secular funerals. Vide, for example, The extra-rational power of ritual

I find it difficult to draw a line between “ritual” and “ceremony,” and maybe there is no satisfyingly sharp distinction, perhaps it’s more of a continuum than a boundary. A comment on Wikipedia was helpful; it describes ritual as a set of actions “which to the outsider seems irrational, non-contiguous, or illogical.” Maybe a ceremony is a series of shared actions more explicable in every-day, rational terms, and ritual has more symbolic, imaginatively compulsive and non-rational power. Look at Trooping the Colour on the Queen’s birthday; for a Japanese tourist, maybe it’s just a colourful ceremony. For British monarchists, it might have an illogically powerful, ritualistic reference, helping them feel who they are and where they have come from, a ritual that strengthens their sense of identity.

Or like Christmas. I mean the domestic Christmas, not the obviously ritualistic elements of carol services in lovely old buildings. You may, if you are a parent of adult children, have encountered the illogical power of Christmas rituals established in your child’s early years. Of course she doesn’t “believe” in Father Christmas, but she still wants a stocking, the same familiar ornaments – and what do you mean, let’s have beef for Christmas dinner? These things are not entirely (or at all!) rational, they are not ceremonies, but they relate to an individual’s sense of who they are and where they are from.

I’m being flippant, but I think there is an element of ritualistic power about our shared family customs at this time of year. And perhaps there are plenty of other occasions at which we overlook the fact that actions and words may have ritual, rather than merely ceremonial or customary power.

It may be that the way to develop powerful ritual in secular, non-church/temple/mosque funerals is to begin by fully recognizing the ritualistic in what we already do, even at the most ordinary and unchallenging of crematorium funerals here in the UK. Here are a few elements of a crem funeral that seem to me to have ritual potential:

  1. (Most) people wear special clothes. They often wear black or dark colours. Like many ritual elements, this one is entirely non-rational but powerfully emotive because of the cultural associations of black in our society. In some cultures, white is, or was, the colour of mourning (ancient China). If we wear different coloured clothes, we are probably doing so to react against the tradition, and because we want to “celebrate” a life. I think our reaction against “mournful” funeral trappings such as black clothes also has an irrational element to it, and is a decision made for ritual reasons.
  2. We (usually) process in. If we don’t, and the gathering is already seated, everyone stands when the coffin comes in. Why? To show respect. There is no rational reason why you can’t be just as respectful sitting down – the roots of this practice seem ritualistic to me.
  3. We have special music. It may have its roots in the dead person’s life, tastes and views, in which case it is felt to have powerful meanings for those who knew the person. So someone used to listen to Carly Simon in his youth, and one of her tracks “brings him to mind,” as we say. Even though the person had no real-life connection with Ms Simon, he didn’t write the song, didn’t play on the recording, etc. Or the music may itself have originated in religious ritual. I want “Spem in Alium.” Don’t ask me what I believe, just play the disc. It is imaginatively compelling, it can create a sense of personal transcendence, even for non-believers. It has ritualistic power.
  4. We have special words. These words vary much more than traditional burial liturgies of whatever religion, but they are certainly special, for the occasion, and often full of non-rational, symbolic meaning.
  5. We may have a passage of prose, or a poem, often chosen not for its recognized excellence as a poem, but because it says something we can’t state in the language of reason and fact, it may even fly in the face of reason itself. Take the end of Do Not Stand By My Grave and Weep: “I am not there; I did not die.” Er….well, you did, that’s why we’re all here, says the irritatingly rational part of me. But the people present believe that in a sense, you didn’t, you’re still with them, because their memories of you, and the meanings your life created and passed on to them, those things are still with them. So in a symbolic, imaginatively powerful, emotionally compelling sense, no, “you” did not die. That is, what you mean to other people did not cease when your life ended. And part of the job of the funeral may well be to make that so. Personally, I am far from crazy about that poem – so what? I think it often has a ritualistic power for the people who choose it.
  6. Sentiments about the continuity of emotion and memory, the transfer of meaning from a live individual away from his/her lifeless body to the group identities of those present – this is irrational but powerful stuff, and that mouldy old poem is part of it. Such sentiments, I would guess, very frequently re-occur in secular ceremonies. They are part of our developing ritual.
  7. We may have other symbolically powerful elements – flowers, photographs, objects associated with the dead person, all of which may imaginatively represent or summarise the person.

And so on, no doubt we can add to the list.

The officiant (I use the dry term deliberately) at a funeral of a friend of a friend was criticised by someone who observed that those present would have got more warmth and empathy from the bloke in the box than the person at the lectern.

If we want to develop better ritual for secular funerals, we must first recognize and deliver existing elements as well as possible. It is no help to carp to ourselves and our colleagues that all this is not as powerful or original as it could be. New forms of ritual can only evolve from where we are now. Let’s work with that and through it. If we were all doing it really well, that’d be something.


  1. Charles

    It’s a glass-half-full / half empty thing, isn’t it, GM? It’s either a case of, Here we are, it’s not much cop, let’s go back and start again — or Here we are, we’re not there yet, but we’re on our way. I’m with you in the half-full camp.

    Yup, doing it well is the thing. Quality of officiant is an important component.

    But we’re muddling through! And we think about and we talk about these things. That’s really important.

    Thanks for this. Masses of thought condensed. It’s been on my mind, this Christmas thing, the way people just have to do it the way they always have.

  2. Charles

    Hello, all.
    Since I have never commented in this forum before, I feel that I should say something by way of introduction. I am currently a co-director and office manager at Saint and Forster funeral home in Darlington. My partner, Keith, who has 13 years’ experience in the funeral industry with one of the large corporations, bought into a small independent firm in June and I came on board as office help and we havn’t looked back since. We are doing things the way Keith always thought they should be done and finding that it is going rather well! I have no background in the funeral industry at all. Until recently I was an RE teacher and I still earn most of my keep as a senior examiner. Funerals is the very last industry I expected to find myself in, and I am therefore quite surprised to disover that I love it, and that there are so many lovely and interesting people out there. So I cannot claim to know whereof I speak. I am not a celebrant, I’m not even an FD. I do, however, have quite an extensive academic background in the study of religion (all religion, not just Christianity.) I have become somewhat of an adict to this blog and am currently working my way through the archive, and I have been fascinated with the discussions I have seen. So, with those provisos in mind, I hope that people will be indulgent of my first somewhat nervous dipping of my toe into the water.
    I was very interested in what GM had to say on ritual and secular funeral rituals. I think I would define ritual as a series of actions by which we define ourselves in terms of time and space. Rituals make us feel connected to our past and to our future and therefore allow us to feel that we are a part of a continuum; that we ‘belong’. They also often contain an element of cultural self-identification; this is the way ‘we’ do things, again to do with belonging. I think they also give an impression of control, possibly because they are things that we ‘do’. For many, I suspect that this gives a sense of security, particularly in the face of things that we can’t control and that are bigger than us…like death. Ritual is often an ‘acting out’ of our will or intent, because doing something feels more real and powerful than just saying it. Finally, ritual often bypasses the intellect and directly engages with the emotions in a way that is impossible to express in words. I have friends who are complete materialist atheists, and yet who love to attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve because of the way this makes them feel….a complex of emotions made up of childhood memories and associations as well as what Rudolf Otto decribed as the ‘numinous’. It has also become bound up with a sense of decorum…what ‘ought’ to be done. This, I suspect (and I have some evidence for his based on discussions in RE lessons) is why many people who have no particular religious affiliation prefer a church wedding…they feel that it has been done ‘properly’.
    So, if that is ritual, how can it best be applied to a ‘secular’ funeral (bearing in mind of course that secular can mean a number of different things)? As far as I can see, before we can address that question we first need to establish what a funeral is for. In the context of a church (or other religious) funeral clearly established within a body of doctrine and expectation it was clear what the purpose of the funeral was, and this purpose was apparent to the officiant and to thpse who attened. There was a common purpose and this purpose was reflected in both the liturgy and in the ritual of the service. In a secular setting this is not as obvious. What is a secular funeral, particularly one which is devoid of afterlife expectation ‘for’? I suspect that the answer to this question varies from family to family, which is fine (as long as the celebrant has a common understanding with the family as to the purpose of this particular funeral) but it does take us to the heart of why secular ritual is such a thorny issue. If ritual is an acting out of intent then what is that intent?
    I have no answers to offer, just some musngs as to the nature of the problem. Perhaps the only way forward is ritual based on the intent of each individual funeral. As I said, I am not a celebrant and am therefore talking well out of my comfort zone so I hope you will bear my rambilings patiently!

  3. Charles

    Jenny, thank you. I rather think this wins you Usual Suspect status at first posting.

    Acting out. Absolutely. Playscript. I think we need more of that. And decorum. Yes, yes. Thank you for that.

    Thank you for all of this. If you’d like to be one of our guest bloggers, Jenny, that’d be our gain with bells on.

    Brilliant. I wish I’d listened more in RE lessons, now. (Actually, they were called Scripture. That tells you how old I am.)

  4. Charles

    Sometimes, if a passage is of some length, I find it worthwhile just to pick a really good bit out, and quote it, like this:

    “…ritual as a series of actions by which we define ourselves in terms of time and space. Rituals make us feel connected to our past and to our future …they also often contain an element of cultural self-identification; this is the way ‘we’ do things, again to do with belonging. I think they also give a sense of security, particularly in the face of things that we can’t control and that are bigger than us…like death.”

    Just so everyone can see how really good it is. If that’s you nervously dipping your toe in the water, Jenny, I reckon you’ll be after Olympic Gold when you start swimming!

    Ritual based on the intent of each individual funeral – that too is helpfully concise and clear. I wonder if we can accumulate and share some ritual tools and ideas to help us do that with the great variety of individual intents we face each month? i.e. maybe there are, despite this variety, ritual elements we can build round a group of celebrants – obviously, such a tool-bag would be larger and more rattly than the established faiths…h’mmm. There’s more life in this topic!

    Thank you. really helpful.

  5. Charles

    Thank you for that!
    They were called Scripture lessons when I was at school too…that’s one of the reasons I became an RE teacher…the ‘there has to be a better way of doing this’ approach (because I always loved the subject) I think that sums up our approach to funeral directing too!
    Many thanks for making me feel so welcome.

  6. Charles

    This is top stuff Jenny, and I think it points to new avenues for exploration.

    What is that we do (as GM) points out that is already ritualised?

    How do we, as celebrants dedicated to trying to determine the values and feelings, the focus for self identification, improve our range of ideas and our extend our repertoire of ritual actions?

    There is a question in here too about authority. Rituals persist in part because there is a priestly caste who acts as the point of continuity and guardian of what is right. In the secular world the task falls to people like us: who grants us our authority?

  7. Charles

    And so we come round once more, Vale, to the Riddle of the Ages: What is the status of secular celebrant? It’s a very, very good question – to which, needless to say, I don’t have any answers. But I know that I always felt beset by identity crisis…

  8. Charles

    As a person with the experience of managing a crem chapel, I read your piece with some interest, but the point of funeral ritual is ‘commonality’. I have always encouraged personalisation of any funeral and more often than not the ritual of a religious funeral is as dry as a bone!

    I have assisted funerals devised and created by family and close friends which have left other mourners completely perplexed. I had a pagan gay funeral where the principal mourner was barefoot and dressed in a shroud. I said to him that I would presume he would want the Celtic Cross removed. Definitely not he said, it had pagan symbolism, with incense swirling around, I said that he was free to create his own ritual provided I didn’t have to clean fresh blood off of the carpet!

    There are three elements to every funeral which combine to form the framework of social ritual:

    SPIRITUAL – prayers and reflections.
    liturgy and poetry.
    participation in hymns/eulogy.

    CULTURAL – service performed according to prescribed rites or

    EMOTIONAL – recorded and performed music.

    While I am here, might I recommend to any celebrant who conducts the funerals of NVF’s or stillborn babies the piece by Thomas Arne ‘Sleep Gentle Cherub, Sleep Descend’ (version with Tamsin Little) is perfect and works well with the Wesley on repeat.

  9. Charles

    Excellent blog, GM. You demonstrate how certain rituals are embedded in our culture whether or not we consciously uphold them.

    This point is enhanced by Jenny’s feedback. Vale has added further food for thought by raising the subject of the authority of those bringing us rituals in ceremonies.

    If the definition of ritual includes personal choices, albeit ones adapted to an extraordinary occasion, as well as received conventions then perhaps they can and do proceed without someone with total authority status at the centre. A master of ceremonies helps things run smoothly but doesn’t necessarily press gang people to do things beyond their comfort zone.

  10. Charles

    Thanks Richard; I wonder if sometimes we create an unnecessary polarity between a celebrant who assumes status and authority, and a master of ceremonies who “merely” arranges things, introduces others who speak/play/sing, etc?

    I’ll stick my neck out and say that good celebrants have to assume – take – a degree of authority, establish a certain status, however much they are/not delivering the ceremony themselves, in person. That necessary status is not, of course, to say they should dominate.

    Authority, for example, can come from the way celebrants deliberately and unselfishly remove themselves from the centre of attention of the funeral being planned at a family meeting. To be boringly obvious, authority is not the same as dominance, and it is earned by empathy and respect for whoever is in front of you, whatever their circumstances. And one sure way to blow your status is to assume an authority you haven’t earned!

    But if we are to develop some shared ritual elements that have power, help people know who they are and where they’ve been, and yet respect “the intent of each funeral,” each family culture, then we need authority without dominance, we need to help a family discover what they really can achieve for themselves.

    Piece of cake. Don’t know what all the fuss is about….

    Vale asks where we get our authority from? It’s existential. It comes from us, with this family, now. The family gives it to us, when – if – they find our compassion and empathy has earned it.

    You’re only as good as your last funeral. Nothing is fixed. It only looks that way.

  11. Charles

    Yes indeed, GM, this is your rollover week. Some more words: expert, guide, agent, collaborator, mate. And what’s the word for when someone is wholly dependent on you? I do like that ‘holder of the space’ notion, too. In short, a different relationship and, therefore, role in every case. When it’s over, give them all the credit you can for having found their way and the words and music, etc, to light that way. Reflect praise, accept it grudgingly.

    Ah, I do believe all this brow-furrowing gets us places.

    Knowing where to park your ego. Heck of a knack.

  12. Charles

    Very good indeed Gloria. And yes, Charles, that phrase ‘holding the space’ contains it all. Knowing when to shut up and knowing when to speak cannot be taught, but only comes from listening to what is actually going on, which only comes from genuine interest in other people.

  13. Charles

    Ahem. I hate to plug an obsession of mine, but the most intense form of listening to “what’s actually going on” seems to me to demand that one is fully in the present moment – mindfulness. Meditation helps people get there (obviously, not whilst they’re actually meeting the family!)

    Thanks guys; to stop my head growing too huge, I’ll use Charles’ excellent words – “reflect praise, accept it grudgingly.” Spot on, in funerals work and elsewhere.

    I would not even be capable of thinking as above were it not for the disreputable collective of dangerous funereal anarcho-syndicalists known loosely as the Good Funeral Guide.

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