Ceremonies vs. Rituals

I was going to write an entry about creating funeral ceremonies. As I began, it occurred to me that this topic was going to take more than one entry. So I figured I would do an entry introducing the concepts and explaining the basic elements of a funeral ceremony, and then have a few entries on creating ceremonies based on different religious foundations. Then, as I looked at different religions and cultures, I realized I’d bitten off more than I could chew. I wasn’t attempting a blog entry, I was writing a book. A very thick book. I then considered abandoning the topic because it was just too big and overwhelming, and what do I know about this anyway? Then I realized I know more than most, having attended funeral services for dozens of religious and cultural groups. And so long as I approach this topic with humility and an openness to criticism, I may well teach and learn more than I ever intended when I first began this blog.

I begin this journey by defining rituals vs. ceremonies, two terms which I feel reflect very different ideas. A ritual is something we do on a regular basis. It is the thing which becomes habit. When I get up in the morning, I wander into the kitchen and get myself and my wife a cup of coffee. Then, after a few minutes spent waking up my mind, I spend twenty minutes waking up my body with a short yoga routine. I do this almost without thinking. This is my morning ritual. In the same way, when I attend or perform a religious service, I repeat the right words at the right time without really needing to think about it. This is my religious ritual.

Dealing with death is not like this. For most people, death is not something we do regularly enough that our responses to it are natural and automatic. No two deaths are the same, so they do not inspire a ritualized reaction in us. Most of the time, death is first experienced with shock, even when it’s expected. And one of the things we do to come to terms with a death, is to create a ceremony. A ceremony is something scripted which we do to honor someone. It is a written statement to the world or the universe, or to whatever god(s) or goddess(es) we worship, that allows us to say, “Look at this life I’ve been a part of, and that has become a part of me.”

After some time has passed, there are things we may come to do ritually in remembrance of someone who has died, and those things are also important. We may bring flowers to a memorial place on a regular schedule, or light candles in a church or on a personal alter to remember them. We may set a place for our beloved dead at the table on special days. This may have cultural significance or may be something we’ve just created or even hijacked. My grandmother was an Irish immigrant born on March 17. Since we always went out for corned beef and cabbage on her birthday, I adopted the ritual of making it every year after she died. This ritual lets me honor her annually.
And of course I steal the Dia De Los Muertos ritual of setting a place for her. The first year I did this it was a beautiful ceremony. Now, many years later, it has become a very comfortable ritual.

Many of the worlds major religious have pre-scripted ceremonies and rituals for dealing with death. These can be useful so far as they actually serve the purpose for which they are intended. Sometimes these types of ceremonies and rituals are enough, and sometime it is necessary for us to create out own. But we can only know if they are serving their intended purpose if we know what that purpose is. So what purpose do these things serve? Is it just a way we hold on to those we love after they have died, in desperation to not have to let go? I don’t think so. I think there is great value in both ceremonies and rituals.

Our rituals in the world allow us to align our minds with a way of thinking by repeating an action over and over until it becomes instinctual. After a while, it is no longer an effort to perform a ritual, because this is what is natural. And to perform a ritual around the death of someone is to repeat to ourselves that they are gone, and we are still here. We remember them, and we come to terms with our own mortality.

Our ceremonies give us an opportunity to hold up the life of the person who has died and look at the deeds of that person, look at the things they have created which still remain, and to take a good look and the ways in which that person is still with us, in our minds, in their achievements, in their family, and in their legacy.

So for me, when I deal with death through ritual, I come to terms with my own mortality. And when I deal with death through ceremony, I get to experience the immortality of the one who has died. For me, my rituals are something I do privately; it is the way I deal with things on my own. But ceremonies are the public expression of my love. And the purpose of future entries on this topic will be to look at the ways we can build meaningful ceremonies and therefore, ways we can express our love for those who have died. We can also take this opportunity to look at the ceremony we would write for ourselves, and think about what we want our legacy to be.

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One Response to Ceremonies vs. Rituals

  1. Deborah Lipp says:

    This is lovely. There is another component of ritual that I think is important here; the ritual tells us what to do. The sense of “I don’t know what to do” and “I don’t know what to say” can be overwhelming, both to the bereaved and the people there to support them. Ritual tells us what to do and how to behave, whether it’s saying formulaic words of comfort or knowing that it’s proper to pay a shiva call.

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