“Dying, a man may be loved, hated, mourned, missed; but once dead, he becomes the chief ornament of a complicated and formal social celebration.”
These words from author John Steinbeck are cynical, but revelatory: across cultures, in many different ways, we embrace rituals at the time of death. And, we bestow them freely upon the deceased, whatever character flaws the deceased may have possessed in life.
Social science teaches that these behaviors do, in fact, serve a positive function.
Sociologist George Homans wrote that rituals “give society confidence, dispel anxieties and discipline their social organizations.”
Defining rituals as symbolic behaviors before, during and after a meaningful event, social scientists Francesca Gino and Michael Norton note that research confirms these practices are effective — they can help alleviate grief, reduce anxiety, and produce much needed comfort.
Most importantly, rituals, even in these COVID social distancing days, bring people together — they moderate the tendency many of us have to isolate in the face of overwhelming circumstances.
Robert Waldinger, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, recently told Medical Xpress that “Research has shown that human connection is a big way we get through tough times. We don’t do nearly as well isolated as we do together.”
In the case of death of a spouse in a marriage, Waldinger cited studies indicate surviving husbands experience more stress than surviving wives because wives generally have stronger social networks. All the more important for husbands to participate in memorial activities.
Rituals cannot produce a practical result — the deceased are not coming back, no matter how many times sequences of regulated behavior are performed — but they have the power to restore a measure of control to a chaotic situation. They provide some sense of certainty when a new normal suddenly arrives.
Recognizing the need to grieve in individual ways, the funeral industry has moved away from traditional services to more inclusive, user-friendly rituals. Secular Humanism, which does not subscribe to religious principles, is one of the main dynamics in play — celebrations of life, which include music, eulogies and moments of silence, have a spiritual feel, but not in any conventional sense.
Poet W. H. Auden’s Funeral Blues (“Stop the clocks, cut off the telephone…for nothing now can ever come to any good”), featured in the movie, Four Weddings and a Funeral, is now a common refrain. Funeral directors have had to accommodate their own views to this reality — customized services are here to stay.
As author and podcast co-host Casper Ter Kuile has written: “The core needs of introspection, ecstatic experience, beauty, feeling like we’re part of something bigger — these have existed for millennia. But how we create these experiences varies over time.”
No matter how the service is conducted, post-funeral events are very important parts of the ritual.
Research suggests that a reception, where family members and significant others gather to eat, exchange meaningful stories, and collectively bond over the shared loss can be integral to grief recovery. COVID has dramatically impacted gatherings; however, when conducted in accordance with CDC guidelines, they serve a vital function.
In the days and weeks following a passing, other rituals are valuable: visiting the grave or placing cremains in a special spot in the home, reading self-help and inspirational literature, keeping in close contact with loved ones, lighting a memory candle, and finalizing legal affairs are all part of the mosaic. New terrain for survivors is being charted here, baby steps are in order.
Expectations have to be adjusted: it is now believed that the landmark 1969 work by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying, where a predictable step-by-step progression of working through grief is explicated, was off the mark — grief is individual, gains and losses are much more fluid. Seeking professional help can be necessary at times.
One of the most ironic findings by Professors Gino and Norton on the benefits of rituals is they “appear to benefit even people who claim not to believe rituals work.” Could there be a stronger argument for an end-of-life memorial?