Why people need rituals

Date Published: 
October, 2006
Original Author: 
Todd Van Beck
A S Turner and Sons, Decatur, GA
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, October 2006
Are time-tested funeral rituals old-fashioned and expendable in today's world, or are they efficient and effective ways
to help the bereaved that we discard at our peril?

How funeral rituals offer comfort, support and healing to the bereaved

"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."-Erik Erickson

Quite a mouthful, is it not? Of course Erickson is correct, and his statement has powerful implications for the funeral service profession. With: overstating the case, if the rituals of the funeral vanish, the role of the funeral profession quickly reverts to body disposition, which is a terribly unattractive possibility.

Funerals and rituals go hand in hand; they always have and hopefully always will. With this ritualistic watermark in mind, let us examine the DNA of the impact death rituals have on human beings.

Research in archaeology and anthropology continues to shine light on the meaning and value of rites, rituals and ceremonies. Our ancient ancestors had insight into their emotions and the needs those emotions created as they lived and searched for meaning. With a primitive, spontaneous form of wisdom, they developed rituals to meet those needs.

This discovery has led to a new and more meaningful exploration of the nature and meaning of rituals, including funerals. We can now identify ritual activities as basic therapeutic resources for dealing with the various traumatic events that every human being faces as a part of normal living.

Primitive humans, with a deep and instinctual respect for their emotions, sought ways of to vent when life's circumstances placed them under great stress. This type of folk wisdom seemed well on its way to being lost when psychologists and other personality experts such as 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 us when dealing with a crisis.

Years ago I read "Future Shock" by Alvin Toffler. Toffler pointed out that the old ways of doing things have a value too often lost in the hurry and "keep up with the Joneses" approach to modern life.

When 25 percent of Californians change in one calendar year, cell phones create over-connection and instant gratification is not only expected but demanded, it becomes 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 desire to another.

Patterns of behavior handed down for generations have implicit in their structure a meaning easily understood and acted on by people experiencing stress. Those around them also understand the role they play in following these patterns, making it easy for them to participate in what is a therapeutic activity without even realizing what they are doing.

Time-tested rituals
So what have the students of rites, rituals and ceremonies found to be the ingredients of this economical healing process? It appears these time-honored behaviors and activities have four significant common ingredients, ones that particularly apply to the funeral ritual: meaning, message, group support and total involvement.

Let's examine each of the four. The meaning of a ritual is often not obvious in what is observed. Instead, the meaning is learned and acquired both directly and indirectly. So rationally examining what is involved in a ritual will not be much help in understanding it.
For example, if you were to watch a group of people filing past a casket, praying at a funeral or attending a funeral Mass, you would find it difficult to make any sense of what you were seeing. In fact, much of what was going on would appear to be senseless.

Think this out logically for a moment: Grown people are walking in silence, looking at a dead person who cannot communicate. Does that make sense on the face of it? But people who understand the symbolism of the dead body and had a relationship with the deceased can and do experience great meaning in this ritual, and for them attending a funeral can be one of the more meaningful rituals in which they participate.

Much of our life is made up of little rituals so integral a part of our everyday activities that we don't think about their origin or appreciate their meaning. For instance, when introduced to a stranger, 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?" or, "Where do you come from?" would make more sense. But, "How do you do?" How do you do what? But this apparently meaningless question has meaning to us. We have learned that it's the proper opening remark to make when we meet someone, so we accept it not for its exact meaning but for its implicit one.

Those who are skilled at understanding human behavior can add insight and meaning to a simple handshake. The limp handshake means one thing and the firm handshake another. The clammy hand 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.

Some rituals even seem unreasonable, yet are so socially meaningful they are a valued part of life. Imagine 300,000 fans gathered at the Indianapolis Speedway to watch drivers risk life and limb by going around a track hour after hour at such speeds that the observers only get to see the cars for a few seconds. Picture tennis fans watching as sweating people bat a ball back and forth over a net hour after hour.

Think about seeing 11 husky bruisers representing one institution of higher learning assembled in battle array to assault 11 representatives of another institution as they slam into each other and chase an awkward looking ball. For what purpose? Not to establish intellectual superiority, but rather to move that piece of inflated animal hide around a carefully manicured stadium for a couple of hours or so.

Irrational? Illogical? Of course, but the meaning of this annual fall ritual is not found in reason but in the community's acquired sense of what is important in the ritualized acting out of the event.

The use of the funeral ritual
This acquired meaning can be used for fun and games, or it can be employed, as in funeral rituals, for important therapeutic processes such as the acting out of the deep emotions that accompany the death of someone important in any individual's life. What at first seems like an absurd process (viewing dead people, lining cars up and then driving them extremely slowly, etc.) may just be the most important form of emotional release available to the bereaved.

I have for a long time felt that critics of funeral activities simply don't understand this point. Lawrence Abt indicates that these rituals give people a chance to act out feelings too deep to put into words, and that the absence or diminution of the rituals causes the repression of grief. When looked at in this light, these rituals can be appreciated from a new perspective.

Rituals come about from a need to cope with the deeper feelings of life. Here probably more than in most instances of human communication, the medium is the message. In other words, when words fail, people fall back on ritual. Rituals communicate something important to those who understand their significance.

This is easy to observe. If you ride past a church and see decorated cars, limousines, 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 tell you that a wedding is taking place. Everyone recognizes the elements of this ritual, and part of the message is that there is almost universal acceptance of its nature and meaning.

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 the grieving survivors. Part of the benefit of ritual is that there is instant recognition of the process, so those who choose to participate may do so easily.

Ritualized forms of expression help us when we would have difficulty putting our thoughts and feelings into words. Most people are not orators or poets, and when faced with a traumatic event are more likely to be speechless. The more emotional stress surrounding an event, the more people have difficulty putting their thoughts and feelings into words. Hence ritualized behavior is a safety net of sorts.

Ritualized behavior comes in handy because it makes it easier to be 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 supplies the words.

Throughout my career, people who have participated in a funeral ritual without saying a single word have told me that the service was a once in a lifetime experience, made them feel much better and gave them great peace of mind. These people simply sat throughout the entire ritual process, but felt absolute involvement in a very dramatic way with the proceeding. Such are the possibilities of the funeral ritual.

Funeral rituals usually are, or should be, rich in symbolism, as symbolic forms of expression give people a variety of nonverbal ways to express their feelings. Weddings use special attire, music, decorations, settings and words, and so do funerals.

Every culture from the primitive to the most sophisticated seems to use these forms of ritualized expression at important life junctures.

The ritual process is vitally important to group life, especially when there are life crises. Rituals provide an opportunity for the group to express feelings in an organized and acceptable way. Everyone senses the meaning and message of the event and in effect finds joining in an easy way to say, ''Those are my beliefs, too."

Group rituals include a form of social insurance. The person who today is receiving the group's support at some point in the future will join the group in giving support to someone else. For instance, those who attend a funeral ritual or wake are in effect saying to the bereaved, "You did 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 in addition, what is being communicated indirectly in this case is a message of hope: "I am the living evidence that it is possible to meet grief and move through it. Though it may seem unbearable now, there is a healing process that comes, slowly. You can see that 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. When emotions are repressed, they ultimately take detours that may threaten a person's health. Expressing them may have an important therapeutic value.

The funeral ritual also provides a form of total involvement 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. Much illness can be traced to the unwise denial of feelings.

Expressing feelings four ways
The funeral ritual affirms feelings and encourages their expression through physical, mental, emotional and spiritual expression.

Most funeral rituals involve some movement, giving the body a way to be involved in expressing emotions. This is important, for it gives nature a chance to act out feelings through the normal way of coping with excess glandular secretion—physical exertion.

Funeral rituals also have an emotional component and provide a variety of stimuli to help people express feelings that are close to the surface but that they may be blocking. Unblocking these feelings may be the most important task for those so overwhelmed by grief that they are paralyzed and unable to express any emotion.

Often the funeral ritual is entrusted to religious institutions, which use philosophical and theological insights to provide perspective on what has occurred and fill our need to understand both the meaning and the message of death.

Ritual and bereavement care
My main concern here is the link between funeral rituals and practices to symbols of the collective unconscious as related to bereavement care. The oldest evidence discovered of ritual activity in the history of the human experience was the remnants of a funeral/burial ritual conducted in ancient Persia (today northern Iraq) 60,000 years ago.

Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of an ancient burial ground in the Shanidar cave, where they found the remains of seven people placed in fetal positions, carefully covered with the shoulder blades of elk and surrounded with food stuffs. Also found were concentrated piles of pollen from a dozen different flowers that had been placed around the bodies. It's interesting that what was discovered reflects the basic constituents of the modern funeral ritual.

Through time people have felt the need to have the value of life confirmed and to confront openly and honestly the impact of physical death. Phillippe Aries described these processes in "History of Christendom," in which he shows how a society's attitude toward life is reflected in the practices employed at the time of death.
When life was highly valued, time was devoted to a dignified and meaningful funeral ritual that granted significance to the person who had died. When individual lives were not considered significant, the funeral ritual was reduced or eliminated altogether.

If the funeral ritual is an index of cultural attitudes, it is important for us to assess today's trends. Two competing trends are evident. One would reduce or eliminate 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 deep feelings of grief brought by death, drawing on the ancient wisdom of funeral rituals to do so.

Over a 38-year career, I have seen, time and again, the funeral ritual serve as a wise foundation for dealing with grief. I have mapped the eight steps of funeral rituals which make it possible for us to use the insights research has given us to give group support, help the bereaved deal with the reality of death and to express the deep feelings death evokes.

The eight steps of funeral rituals
1. Verifying the death. Work with the relatives of soldiers listed as missing in action indicates that it is difficult, if not impossible, to start the healthful process of mourning without verification of the death. Starting a funeral ritual without proof of death is as difficult to manage as waiting endlessly for that proof.

2. Notifying everyone who had a relationship to the deceased. This enables all to share in the funeral ritual and experience its therapeutic benefits. This is why obituaries are so vitally important to the significantly bereaved—it is their cry for help, their way of saying to the community, "Look what has happened to me!"

3. Confronting the reality of death.  According to Dr. Erich Lindemann, this is the most important part of the psychology of the funeral ritual, because only by confronting the reality of death are the barriers of denial broken, starting the true work of mourning. This is the moment of truth, seeing is believing, and should be done in a setting such as the funeral home where conversation and expression of feelings can occur without embarrassment.

4. Receiving community support. The sustaining community—family, friends and colleagues—can share in confronting the reality of death, thereby confirming it. They help to create a climate in which real feelings are expressed rather than denied.

5. Participating in the formal funeral ritual. At this point, all turn away from the physical remains and draw on spiritual resources to help move toward the future, as life must go on. This is a time for education about the spiritual nature of all life and the value of acknowledging life as more than simply a biological event. These moments can help everyone confront the reality of death and its meaning for those still alive.

This is also a chance for anticipatory grief work, and for some people to do 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 the process of eventually transcending the pain of human loss.

6. Making the final disposition of the physical remains. The burial or other disposition completes the process of dealing with the physical aspects of death while at the same time verifying the hard fact that life continues. It is this continuance where 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 and should whenever possible be delayed until after the funeral ritual.

7. Providing ritualistic reentry to life for the bereaved. There are a number of rituals in which others can engage to show their support for the bereaved. They include sharing a meal after the committal service, returning to religious or other activities and doing something to recognize anniversary dates. It is important that the bereaved not feel they have been abandoned after the disposition.

8. Providing professional support for the bereaved. This goes to the core of funeral home aftercare programs, church bereavement support groups and individual counselors. As professional caregivers 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.

Counseling is needed to help the bereaved do some of the important work involved in long-term mourning that can never be completely done in the funeral ritual. Here the sensitive professional or concerned friend can be there for the bereaved person until it is clear he or she has moved back to the mainstream of life rather than staying caught up in the whirlpool of grief.

When one considers the psychological process basic to the wise management of acute grief, it becomes clear that the funeral ritual is probably the most available, economical and valid form of psychological and spiritual intervention available to the bereaved.