As Western societies move away from the direct experience of a mourner, the rites and customs of other cultures can offer valuable lessons.
You may not be aware …. Funerals were handled in the home well into the 20thcentury throughout Europe, and often elaborate public deathbed rituals were organized by the dying person in advance of the death event itself.
Loss of rituals
However, over time, such death rituals declined and what emerged instead was a greater fear of death as medical advances and hospitals took control over death as the funeral industry began to manage the dead. Increasingly, death became hidden from public view. No longer familiar, death became an avoidance at all costs, scary, threatening and the discussion of it became taboo.
Fast forward to today, and what has emerged is the observation that our current culture lacks the prescribed mourning rituals that help people deal with loss.
Traditions in ancient cultures
In contrast, the mourning traditions of earlier cultures prescribed precise patterns of behavior that facilitated the public expression of grief and provided support for the bereaved. In addition, they emphasized continued maintenance of personal bonds with the dead.
As death was a public issue, the social aspect of these customs provided comfort to mourners through the enactment of familiar ceremonies.
This allowed for grief to be expressed openly and in an unrestrained way that was cathartic and communally shared, very much in contrast with the modern emphasis on controlling one’s emotions and keeping grief private.
In cultures around the world including ancient Celts, the Greeks and Romans, indigenous peoples of Africa, Australia, South America, Asia, ancient death rituals have been documented as a way of life, where death is viewed as part of the natural life cycle, not apart from it.
Such customs functioned within a larger mourning tradition to separate the deceased from the world of the living and symbolize the transition to the afterlife.
Rituals of celebration
Whilst funerals generally remain sombre affairs in our present custom, these lively funerals allowed for expressions of sorrow and laughter, communal catharsis and commemoration that honoured the life of the departed.
A way to deal with grief
The ritual practices that surround death and mourning were viewed as rites of passage to help individuals and their communities make sense of loss through a renewed focus on continuity.
By doing things in a culturally defined way by performing the same acts as ancestors have done, ritual participants engage in traditions to connect with something enduring and eternal. Rituals create the bridge between life and death – death is less final and brutal and the departed are less forgotten. Death itself becomes more natural and familiar.
What can we take from this?
Maybe it’s a step too far for our culture to adopt the 3-day funerary festivities such as “The Day of the Dead”. But there is something we can learn these ancient, sacred death rituals that could mean that grief does not have to be so enduring, so paralyzing and so painful for many?
Could we open up our minds and embrace the concept of a more spiritual view of death, to bring more ritual into our grief to help us through it? Or even to question the notion that maybe the soul goes on as other cultures believe and that the physical world is only a small part of all of this?
I believe there is much we can learn from the healing power of ceremony, ritual and ancient practices that could mean that death need not be quite so devastating and that we don’t need to fear it in quite the same way.
We know that death will come to all of us and our loved ones, so why are we just not better prepared for it? We choose denial over acceptance, yet is it time to embrace death in the same way we do birth? And accept that all life is cyclical ….
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this … your views on whether you believe in an after-life and where our soul may go … and whether you think there’s something we can learn from these other rich, cultures and ancient practices