Unrecognised rituals

Charles Cowling

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.

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gloria mundiRupert CallendercharlesRichard RawlinsonRICHARD NEWMAN Recent comment authors

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gloria mundi
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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… Read more »

Rupert Callender
Guest

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.

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

Wow, great answer, thanks GM. You’re on a roll!

gloria mundi
Guest

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… Read more »

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

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… Read more »

RICHARD NEWMAN
Guest
RICHARD NEWMAN

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… Read more »

Charles Cowling
Guest

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…

Vale
Guest
Vale

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… Read more »

Jenny Uzzell
Guest

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.

gloria mundi
Guest

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… Read more »

Jenny Uzzell
Guest

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… Read more »

Charles Cowling
Guest

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… Read more »

Rupert Callender
Guest

Bingo. Thanks Gloria.