In our push toward a multicultural society, Americans have lost sight of our individual past. In our rush to be democratic, we have lost our sense of dignity. In our urge to be open, we have lost our appreciation for ritual.
Our lives used to be filled with ritual. Ages ago, when life revolved around the twin suns of the natural, agrarian world and the formal religion of our homelands, ritual imbued every life, every day. From feast days to harvest moons, ritual was woven into society; one might even say that ritual created society, shaped it, set its rhythm. Ritual infused everyday events with power and meaning, and helped us mark those once-in-a-lifetime events with the importance they deserved.
But now? Bit by bit, as we demand a more secular government, we remove ritual from public life. As we struggle to reconcile the dogma of religious teachings with the evidence of scientific inquiry, we dilute the power of those rituals our religions provide. This all became starkly clear to me a short time ago, in the wake of my mother’s death.
My mother passed just before Christmas, taken down by a very aggressive cancer that brought her from health to her deathbed in less than three months. The night she died, my wife and I packed our bags and headed down the coast, expecting to meet up with the family for the funeral.
There was no funeral. Not for the public, nor for the family. In fact, her body was sent for cremation before we even arrived. Even though this was in accordance with her wishes, I found it disturbing. I am not religious; after 50 years as a theist, I’ve finally given in to rational atheism, but even so, I felt the need for something to mark her passing, some ritual to bring us together as a family. While I didn’t expect my father or siblings to sit shiva, I had expected some ritual at which we could gather and openly mourn.
But there was nothing. Unfortunately, even more disturbing was what happened later, when my mother’s remains were ready for us. I went with my father to the funeral home—probably the most respected funeral director in my home county. Again, in accordance with my mother’s wishes, there was no fancy urn to bring home, just a simple box, but even so I expected there to be some level of decorum attending the transfer of her remains. I mean, really, if a funeral home isn’t tapped into the need for ritual, who is?
We arrived and walked into the foyer. A young man (and I mean young, like first-moustache-young) in a grey suit met us. His demeanor was solemn and conciliatory, but despite the fact that my father had called in beforehand, he did not know who we were. His attitude, in fact, was more like a salesman with good manners than the facilitator of a watershed event for a distraught family. My father told him who we were and why we were there, and the young man said yes, he could help us; if we’d just wait here for a moment? We stood there, in the foyer. We noted the viewing rooms to either side, with their pedestals on which was displayed information about the deceased recumbent within. One was for a gentleman my father recognized from Rotary; we viewed his guest book and photo. Soon, the young man returned.
The young man had some papers, an envelope, and a paper shopping bag emblazoned with an advert for the funeral home. Imagine leaving Nordstrom’s with a purchase…that kind of bag. The young man went to the pedestal with the photo of the man my father knew. He pushed the photo aside and put the papers down next to it; then he produced a pen and instructed my father where to sign.
With growing horror, I realized that the box with my mother’s remains was in the bag. We had not been brought back into a receiving room or office. We had not even been offered a seat. We were standing there in the foyer, and we were being handed a tote bag like we’d just bought a scarf or some face cream. This transfer of human remains, this emotional moment for my father, had been reduced to a business transaction.
Rituals. We are abandoning them. Births, graduations, weddings, funerals, these are all most of us have left, and we’re even abandoning some of them.
Rituals are good for us. They remind us of the passage of time, and of how singularly precious life is. Since admitting my atheism, I have an even stronger appreciation for ritual. We have lost most ritual to time and our own modernity. Gone or nearly so are Naming Days, Samhain, the bris, the Festival of Souls, and a thousand other moments. Our lives now pass by quietly, unmarked by ritual, virtually uncelebrated. This, is not good for us.
Regardless our cultural background, regardless our religious views, we must always remember that Life, and our journey through it, is wondrous. Each of our lives are worthy of note, worthy of celebration, worthy of appreciation.