“Without participation in rituals or the appropriation of the elements which it mediates, the human person faces psychological conflict, personality impairment, and estrangement from the inner self and outer society. Correspondingly, hollow or weak rituals will threaten the ability of the “pseudo-species” to incorporate new members and maintain a stable existence in the flow of history. Neither individuals nor communities can survive psychologically without ritual.”
Well that is a mouth full, is it not? Of course Erickson is correct and his statement has powerful implications to the funeral service profession, because without overstating the case if the rituals of the funeral are dropped or vanish then the activities of the funeral profession revert quickly to being that of body disposers, which is a terrible unattractive possibility. Funerals and rituals go hand in hand; they always have and hopefully always will. With this ritualistic water mark in mind let us examine the DNA of the impact of death rituals on the human being.
Research in archaeology and anthropology over the last years has continued to illuminate on the meaning and value of rites, rituals and ceremonies. It now has become clear that our historic ancestors had acquired deep insights into their emotions and the needs which these emotions produce in the experience of living and finding meaning to life. With a primitive spontaneous form of wisdom they developed the ritualistic processes which could meet those needs.
This has led many who are interested in such work to a new and more meaningful exploration of the nature and meaning of rituals of various sorts, and for our purposes the funeral ritual in particular. This type of inquiry has made it possible for us to identify ritual activities as basic therapeutic resources for meeting the various dramatic, traumatic, and life altering crisis which are a constant companion for every human being of earth. In fact, most rituals are precisely built around the potentially dramatic and traumatic events or life changing circumstances that are a part of normal living.
It seems that primitive humans with a deep and basically choice less respect for their feelings sought ways of venting them when the circumstances of life placed those feelings under great stress. This type of folk wisdom seemed well on its way to being lost when psychologists and other personality experts like Geoffrey Gore, Erik Erickson, Rollo May and Lawrence Abt began to study these rites, rituals and ceremonies in depth and discovered that they may be the most valid and easily accessible resources available to dealing with crisis in human experience.
Years ago I read Future Shock by Alvin Toffler. In this book Toffler pointed out that the old or ancient ways of doing things have a value that has too often been lost in the hurry and “keep up with the Jones’” approach to modern life. When 25% of California move out and 25% of California’s population moves in during one calendar year, when cell phones create over connection, when instant gratification is not only expected but demanded, it becomes quite obvious that many old ways of doing things will be and have been pulled up by the roots and tossed aside as humanity races from one phantom to another.
Patterns of behavior which have been handed down from generation to generation have implicit in their structure a meaning that can be understood and acted upon by people who are in stress. Those who surround them can also appreciate the role they play in the acting out processes, and this makes it easy for them to enter into the therapeutic activity without even realizing what they are doing.
So what have the student’s of rites, rituals and ceremonies discovered to be the ingredients of this economical healing process that is implicit in acting out behaviors? It appears that acting out behaviors and activities have four common ingredients that are significant and which particularly apply to the funeral ritual. There is first meaning; second message; third group support; and four total involvements.
Let’s examine each of the four. The meaning of a ritual is often not implicit in what is being observed. Rather the meaning is something that is learned and acquired both directly and indirectly. If one were to depend entirely on rational examination of the ritual process one would find that not my help would be forthcoming in the way of understanding. If we were to watch a group of people filing past a casket, praying at a funeral or attending a Funeral Mass, we would find it difficult to make any sense of what we were observing. In fact much of it would seem quite stupid. Think this out logically for a moment. A bunch of grown-up people walking in silence staring at a dead person who cannot communicate could seem senseless. But for people who understand the symbolism of the dead body, the history of the relationship to the deceased, these people can and do enter into the ritual process with great depth of meaning, and hence the funeral can be one of the more meaningful moments in ritual acting out activities.
Much of our life is made up of little rituals that are so integral a part of everyday activities that we do not begin to realize their origin or appreciate their meaning. For instance when we meet a stranger and are introduced one of the first things we do is extend an open palm for a handshake and say “How do you do?” Can you think of a more meaningless question? “What do you do?” perhaps or, “Where do you come from?” “How do you do?” How do you do what? Do whom? However in reality the meaningless question has been filled with meaning as the proper opening remark in a human encounter and so we accept it not for its exact meaning but rather in its implicit meaning.
Those who are skilled at understanding human behavior can start with a simple handshake and begin to add insight and meaning almost immediately. The limp handshake means one thing and the firm handshake another. The clammy handshake says something quite different from the dry palm. The warm and cordial greeting is expressed in one way and the reserved and hostile approach shows up as clearly in ways that are just as easily interpreted by the person who has had some practice.
Some rituals seem quite unreasonable and yet they are so socially meaningful that they are a valued part of life. Imagine three hundred thousand fans gathered at the Indianapolis Speedway to watch drivers risk life and limb by going around a track hour after hour and going at such speeds that the observers only get to see the race cars for a few second. Imagine tennis fans watching as sweating people bat a ball back and forth over a net endlessly for hour after hour after hour. Imagine eleven husky bruisers assembled in battle array to assault eleven other representatives of institutions of higher learning slamming into each other hour after hour chasing an awkward looking ball and for what purpose? Well not to establish intellectual superiority but rather to move that piece of awkward looking inflated animal hide around a carefully manicured stadium for a couple of hours or so. Nonrational? Irrational? Illogical? Of course, but the meaning is not in the reason but in the acquired sense of what is important in the ritualized acting out of the event.
This acquired meaning can be used for fun and fames or it can be employed, as in funeral rituals, for important therapeutic processes such as the acting out of the deep emotions that come with acute grief and the death of an important person in any individual’s life. What at first seems like an absurd process (viewing dead people, lining cars up which move extremely slowly, etc.) may just be the most important form of emotional release that is available to the bereaved and distressed persons. I have for a long, long time felt that critics of funeral activities have missed this point entirely. Lawrence Abt indicates that these rituals give people a chance to act out feelings that are too deep to put into words, and that the absence or diminution of the rituals creates the repression of the emotion of grief. When looked at in this light the apparently meaningless ritual begins to take on a new perspective and quite a different value.
The meaning of rituals is acquired out of a need to cope with the deeper feelings of life. Here probably more so than in most conditions of human communication, the medium is the message. In other words when words fail people implements rituals. The ritual process tells something important to those who are initiated into the social significance of rituals. This is not difficult to see in the least. When one rides past a church and sees many decorated cars, limousines and a woman in a long white flowing gown and men standing around with their hands in their pockets in formal black attire, no one has to identify that the ritual going on is a wedding. Everyone knows that and part of the message is that there is almost universal acceptance of the nature and meaning of the ritual event.
Similarly a long row of black cars following a special car filled with flowers and another special type of motor coach carrying a casket tells everyone that someone has died and that what is going on is a funeral, a special ancient ritual designed to help meet the needs of those who are in acute grief. The message is acted out in such a way that there is instant recognition of the process. Part of the importance of the ritual acting is that there is a minimum need for explanation and those who choose may participate with understanding that is acquired by an all encompassing process that needs no words to interpret it.
The reason rituals carry the type of message they do is that people would have difficulty putting their thoughts and feelings into words unless there were forms of ritualized expression that helped to say it for them. Most human being are not orators or poets and when involved with drama/trauma events if put on the spot are speechless. The more emotional stress surrounding a human event the most people have difficulty putting their thoughts and feelings into words. Hence ritualized behavior is a safety net of sorts; the ritualized behavior comes in handy because it makes it easier to become a part of a supportive group without the responsibility of saying or doing something profound. The funeral ritual then becomes a time for acting out the feelings that may be difficult if not impossible to put into words. Someone else comes with the words.
All my career people who have participated in a funeral ritual but did not utter one word have reported to me what a one in a life time experience the service was, how much better they felt, and that they had great peace of mind; and the person simply sat throughout the entire acting our process, but felt absolute involvement in a very dramatic way with the proceeding. Such is the possibilities of the funeral ritual.
Funeral rituals are usually, or should be, rich in symbolism. In the symbolic forms of expression a variety of nonverbal ways of expressing feelings come into action. The wedding used special attire, special music, special decorations and special settings and special words. Funeral rituals use the same nonverbal expressions. The varied language forms that are the function of art add to the meaning of mere words the special significance that would be attributed to the event.
Every culture from the primitive to the most sophisticated seems to use these forms or ritualized expression to surround important events in life.
The ritual process is vitally important to group life, especially when there are life crises. The ritual gives an opportunity for expressing the feelings of the group in some organized and acceptable way. Everyone senses the meaning and message of the event and in effect finds it an easy way of joining in and saying “Those are me beliefs too.”
A form of social insurance exists in group rituals. When those with special needs are supported by the group, they are impelled at other times to return the support. For instance, those who attend a funeral ritual or wake are saying to the immediately bereaved, “You were doing this for me a few years ago when my emotional need was great. Now I am coming to your support when you need me.” But more than that is said, for indirectly the communication says that, “I am the living evidence that it is possible to meet grief and move through it. Although it may seem unbearable at the time, there is a healing process that comes slowly and I verify it for you because I have survived and may be stronger because of my experience.”
The funeral ritual also creates the atmosphere within which it is proper and valid to express the appropriate emotions of the event. When emotions are repressed they ultimately find detours that may be a threat to a person’s health. When they are expressed in adequate form the release may have important therapeutic value. So the group support at a funeral provides what may not be available in any other way.
The funeral ritual also provides a form of total involvement that is important for working through the powerful emotions of grief. To try to cope with strong feelings through a limited process such as intellectualization, rationalization or sterilization of the event may do more harm than good for the denial of feelings may lead to their repression and adverse forms of acting out or rather worse acting in. Much illness apparently can be traced to the unwise handling of the feelings by various forms of denial.
The funeral ritual affirms feelings and encourages the total expression of the person to what is happening in life. So my funeral rituals center about physical, mental, emotional and spirituals forms of some type of religious expression.
Interestingly enough, funeral rituals center about muscle activity which provide a way of involving the body in emotional expression. This is important for it gives nature a chance to act out the feelings through the normal forms of coping with excess glandular secretion. Most funeral rituals involve movement, a social form of muscle activity that is appropriate for the event.
Funeral rituals also have an emotional setting and provide a variety of emotional stimuli that makes it possible to express the feelings that are close to the surface but may be blocked by restraints and apprehensions. To unblock the impacted feelings may be the most important immediate task for those who are caught up in grief so overwhelming that it paralyzes the more normal modes of expression.
Often times the funeral ritual is entrusted to the religious institutions which gives an intellectual and spiritual perspective to what has happened. It uses philosophical and theological insight to fit the individual event into human history and our need for understanding both the meaning and the message that is implicit in the event of death.
After all that has been written in this article the main topic is the link the funeral ritual and practices to symbols of the collective unconscious as related to bereavement care. So we will start at the beginning. The oldest known evidence of ritual activity in the history of the human experience is the remnants of a funeral/burial ritual conducted in ancient Persia (today northern Iraq) sixty thousand years ago. Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of an ancient burial ground in the Shanidar cave. Here they found seven human remains carefully covered with the shoulder blades of elk, placed in the fetal position, surrounded with food stuffs. Also there were found in concentrated little piles what proved to be the flower pollen from twelve different flowers which were placed around each dead body as tributes. All in all this discovered reflected the basic constituents of the funeral ritual of today, in other words dealing with loss through ritual and verification of ideas that give perspective to individual death in some type of cosmic context.
Through the sixty thousand intervening years there has been a constant need for verification of the value of life and a need to confront openly and honestly the impact of physical death. Phillippe Aries has described these processes in the History of Christendom and shows how the attitude toward life is reflected in the practices that are employed at the time of death. When life had been highly valued, the funeral ritual gave significance to the person who had died and surrounded the funeral ritual with dignity, meaning and time. When life had lost its social significance the funeral rituals were reduced or eliminated altogether as was witnessed in the barbarities of the Nazi prison camps concerning a reverential care of the dead.
If the funeral ritual is an index of cultural attitudes it is important for us to assess the trends of our day in relationship to the acting out processes incident to the death of an individuals. Two trends are evident in out day. One would reduce or eliminate the funeral rituals and clearly reflect the secularized and materialistic mood of the day. The other would build on the discoveries of researchers and therapists which clearly indicate the need (more magnified today than ever) to manage wisely the deep feelings of grief and to use the possibilities contained in the ancient wisdom of funeral rituals for that purpose.
Over a thirty eight year career I have seen time and again the funeral ritual serving as the wise foundation to deal with grief. I have mapped our eight steps of funeral ritual activities which tend to follow the lived rituals of the death experience. These eight steps make it possible for the best insights of research to be implemented in a way that can give group support, aid in confronting reality through funeral rituals and also provide the emotional climate needed to express deep feelings.
The eight steps involve first, a death. Work with missing-in-action relatives indicates that it is difficult if not impossible to start the healthful process of mourning without verification of the death of the individuals who is supposed to be mourned. To start a funeral ritual without evidence of death is as difficult to manage as waiting endlessly for the verification that would seem to warrant the working through of the deep feelings.
Second is the process of notification of all who have a relationship to the deceased so that they may share in the funeral ritual and experience its therapeutic benefits. This is why obituaries are to vitally important to the significantly bereaved – it is their community cry for help, it is their way of saying to the community “Look what has happened to me!”
Third would be the confrontation with reality. This according to Dr. Erich Lindemann is the most important part of the psychology of the funeral ritual because confronting reality, and by only confronting reality are the barriers of denial broken with the result that more effectively than anything else this starts the true work of mourning. This is the moment of truth, no games, seeing is believing should it be in a private setting like the funeral home where conversation and expression of feelings can be encouraged without embarrassment.
Fourth is the support of the sustaining community, the family, friends, and colleagues. Here they share in the confronting of reality and thereby confirm it. They held to create the climate where real feelings are expressed rather than denied. If anything is a larger than life experience death would take first place.
Fifth is the funeral ritual in a formal sense where eyes are turned away from the physical remains so that spiritual resources can be verified and used as a resource for moving beyond the past into the future where the rest of life must lived. This is a special time for education concerning the spiritual nature of all life and the value of spiritual resources which acknowledge that life is more than simply a biological event. These special moments can help all persons to confront the reality of death and its meaning for those still alive. It can give a chance to do anticipatory grief work, at the same time that it is helping others do some of the unfinished grief work. The funeral ritual is a testimony to the value of life in the spirit. It also affirms that a life has been lived, valued, recognized and given up and in so doing enhances the value of all life. This is the time to embrace the cosmos and to begin to move beyond grief’s negativity. The funeral ritual starts this process of eventually transcending the pain of human loss.
Sixth is the final disposition of the physical remains. The earth burial or cremation completes the process of dealing with the physical aspects of death, but at the same time it verifies the hard fact that life continues and it this continuance we find the possibility for growth a hundred fold. When cremation is chosen it should not be a device to eliminate the therapeutic value of the funeral ritual but should whenever possible is used as an alternative to burial in the earth. It would have its logical place at this point in the funeral ritual and would be used instead of burial only and not as an alternative to the wisdom of the funeral ritual itself.
Seventh would be some form of ritualistic reentry for those who are acutely bereaved. This could be a return home for some form of group sharing, or perhaps a return to religious and/or philosophical activities which create new meaning in the process of the bereaved reinventing themselves. Perhaps it would involve special recognition on special anniversary dates, or special times at the cemetery. In effect it is an effort to stay with the acutely bereaved rather than an apparent abandonment of them at the time of the disposition of the dead human remains.
Eighth is continued connective with the bereaved in a professional sense. This goes to the core of funeral home aftercare programs, church bereavement support groups, and individual counseling of the bereaved. Remember as professional care givers in the death environment our choice is not whether or not we are going to counsel the bereaved, the only choice we have is whether or not our counseling will be wise, careful and helpful. This is to help the person do some of the important work in the process of long term mourning that can never be completely done in the funeral ritual. Here the sensitive professional or concerned friend can stay with the bereaved until it is clear that they have moved back in the direction of life, to the mainstream of life, rather than to remain caught up in the whirlpool of their grief.
When one considers the psychological movement that is basic to the wise management of acute grief it becomes clear that the funeral ritual acting out process is probably the most available, economical and most valid form of psychological and spiritual intervention that can be provided to the bereaved.