RITUAL: A Necessary Marker for Death

There exists a human need for ritual. A need for a physical marker of the Rights of Passage in our lives. Regardless of spiritual beliefs, we all need to feel that our lives mean something, and we need to feel connected to the greater whole.   

Research has shown that ritual can help reduce stress and anxiety, as well as to increase a sense of well-being and confidence (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-rituals-work/), yet it doesn't take a scientist to recognize that partaking in ritual can help us to feel more grounded, more calm, and more centered.

Each right of passage brings with it, a particular psychology. Whether we are stepping into a new role, or saying goodbye to a loved one, there is a psychology that needs to be addressed. With Death, the psychology that needs to be addressed is often two fold:

1) We need something to help us cognitively accept that the person has in fact died, and

2) We need reassurance about our own lives and deaths, and those of our remaining loved ones

How does ritual help us to do this?

Rituals around death act as a representation of the cycle of life.

Consider the main components of funeral ceremonies the world over, most include: 

1.Preparation of the Dead - or preparing a representation of the dead (representative of birth)

2.Prayer, recognition and reflection on the life (representative of the living years)

3. The lowering to the ground (representative of death)

4. Marking the resting spot (Honoring the resting place, and making a place to return to to remember the dead)

In this way, performing a ritual or ceremony to honor a loved ones passing, is essentially a mini representation of this beings life cycle, and of the cycle that all life takes. Imagine that a funeral is like a play, a set of acts that represent the persons journey through this life. 

The funeral ceremonies serve to help us, the still living, to truly comprehend that our loved one is, in fact, dead. They have lived their complete life, as we have just witnessed again during the ceremony. It acts to repeat and cement in our minds the fact that this person is truly gone. It helps to bring us to acceptance.

Just as we learn best through experience (John Dewy, Experience and Education, 1938), the more we are able to physically participate in the ritual or ceremony, the more meaningful and impactful it becomes.

The physical movements and actions that compose the ritual, are what cements the experience in our bodies, in our bones. For instance, going through the act of selecting a flower, then mindfully placing it on your loved ones coffin, is a small ritual in itself, picking it up, and placing it there with reverence brings your body into the experience as a participant, and this is important to ground the experience of your loved ones passing for you in a healthy way.

- On the flip side, if we aren't able to ground our energy around the death of a loved one, we may have difficulty processing the death, for instance we may continually think we will see or hear from them, i.e. we may not fully come to acceptance of their passing-

Whether or not you are able to attend a public service for your loved one, there are countless other ways to hold your own ritual or ceremony, or to otherwise honor their life in a physical way. Some ideas:

Make a donation or organize a donation for the family

Send flowers

Light a candle for your loved one

Burn incense to honor them

Sit and pray for them, and express all that you feel

Go through old photos and memorabilia, and perhaps put up a framed photo that reminds you of them, in a special location in your home or office

Have a bonfire, and silently pay your respects as you reflect on their life, and your time spent with them

Ask your family to pray with you, or to listen as you share your memories, and express your feelings about your loss

Hold a dinner in their honor

Gather items and build an altar, medicine wheel, or other sacred space outdoors, to create a special, representative burial place

Or even better - create your own ritual! These are often the most meaningful rituals of all! Give yourself space, and allow your intuition to guide you! Perhaps use the four ceremonial components to guide you: gather the items to represent your loved one, say or do something to honor their life, place something on the ground, and mark the spot.

After we have performed or participated in a ritual or ceremony for our loved one, our cognitive acceptance begins to set in and rest. This is healthy and very important, that we are able to recognize, that in fact, yes, this one whom we have loved, has died. Now, when we feel shaken by their loss, we can recall the ceremony, and maybe even revisit the location it was held (hence the importance of marking the spot), an experience that often brings renewed peace.

From this place of acceptance, naturally, our thoughts do eventually turn to our own mortality, and that of our remaining loved ones.

How does ritual help us here?

Honoring your loved one in ritual helps you to feel better about their loss of life, because the life they lived has now been recognized fully, and honored justly. This, in turn, reassures you that your deep need - to feel that your life matters, and that you are part of the greater whole - will be honored at your own time of death, as well. For we trust that as we deeply honor others, we will be honored too.

This is not selfish, but a human reality. We need to know that our lives meant something. We need to know that our cycle too, will be honored. 

And your life does matter. And it will be honored. And it is ritual that will bring us to that place.

The cycle continues, and as it does, it honors that which came before


With Love and Blessings,