Posted by: thealienist | July 29, 2011

Foundations of Mental Health: Ceremony/Ritual

I recently sang at the funeral for the wife of a friend of mine.  The funeral was very nicely done.  It impressed on me the positive role that ritual can have in our lives.  The function like sign-posts and mile markers on our travels through life.  They remind us of the major events in life and encourage us to stop for a moment, get outside ourselves, and share in the intersection between our own personal self-realization and our communal social existence. 

In ritual, we give up our obligation to be “us.”  We play roles that have been passed down with the rituals.  The roles come with duties and the playing of these roles is often associated with a particular attitude or solemnity.  The modern disdain for playing ceremonial roles among some is often excused as a desire to be “genuine,” but I fear it really represents an inability of these individuals to abandon themselves into the transcendental elements of the ritual.  They rob themselves of experience under the guise of “honesty.”  And lest we believe that only the participants have roles, we as witnesses of the events play a ceremonial role as well.

Funerals:  It is good to be reminded from time to time that we will not live forever.  This is the most shocking message delivered at a funeral.  But funerals also allow us a time to see a person’s life — their whole life — in a way that we seldom encounter outside of literature.  In a good funeral (IMHO), we are told who the deceased was, how they lived, and how they died.  In learning about who they were, we stretch our powers of observation and communication to near a breaking point.  Can a person be condensed to mere words?  We try, but we are left with the feeling that no matter the skill of the eulogist, there remains a real loss.  In learning how the deceased lived, we search for the meaning in their life.  We seek the pattern that explains what they did and who they associated with.  And in learning how they died, we learn from the example of those that go where we must.  They send back scouting reports from where we know we will be compelled to go.  In the end, it is a shame that much of what is talked about and learned from a funeral is too late for the deceased, but it can be a profound growth experience for the community.

Weddings:  The meaning of weddings seems to be getting unclear lately.  For those who choose to limit their meaning to “we love each other for now and thought we’d let you know,” I don’t have much to say.  I don’t think that way so I have little I can add.  On the other hand, there are those for whom a wedding is a solemn ceremony in which a man and a woman are bonded together for life, forming a family with the expectation of having children.  This is the wedding ceremony I am familiar with, and the one I will comment on.  If you have another view, you might find my comments don’t apply to your situation.  Back when promises seemed to mean more than they do today, the wedding vows were serious.  The traditional wedding vows were “I _____, take you ______, to be my wedded wife/husband. To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness or in health, to love and to cherish ’till death do us part. And hereto I pledge you my faithfulness.”  Many also included “forsaking all others” and “obedience.”  These are serious vows, and to express these publicly in front of friends and family was a tremendous event.  To witness this level of commitment, recognize the weightiness of these promises, and celebrate the (now practically unheard of) possession of one person by another, was a momentous occasion.   The lady, for the moment, becomes the bride with all the ceremony, respect, and adornment appropriate for her role.  The man becomes the groom (with much less ceremony, respect, and adornment).  Their friends become bridesmaids and groomsmen. Their occasion and location for their vows becomes endued with a sense of sanctity.  The whole setting is full of symbolism (too much for me to describe here).  The wedding moment is magical.  Later, they can be merely husband and wife.  Today they are a bride and groom.  Later, they can go to work, haggle over bills, step on each other’s toes.  Today, they are something more.  Go to weddings and witness this.  If you are married, remember this.  You promised something great — almost superhuman. Regardless of your situation, let’s take marriage seriously.

Graduation:  It seems that in modern times there are graduation ceremonies for everything.  Some may think that this is a good thing.  I wonder if it hasn’t diluted the meaning of these occasions.  Graduations signal the completion of some kind of “rite of passage.”  In our secular society, it is often associated with completing some degree of training.  The ceremony signals a dividing point where the graduate assumes new duties and responsibilities in the larger society, and society (mostly family) is called to witness this.

Other:  There are too many ceremonial opportunities in our society to list.  Some are religious and help define and unite their specific communities.  Some are military and communicate the values and functions of our various services.  Some others are purely secular and address the community as a whole.  Keep your eyes open for ceremony.  Participate in as much as you can.  Open your life to important experiences that have been handed down through the ages.  A life without ceremony is a life diminished.

Last note:  My father was an Air Force pilot.  When he died, the local Air Force base had F-111’s fly a “missing man” formation at the conclusion of his funeral.  This symbolic show of respect still moves me greatly whenever I see or remember it.  There are no words that could express what the symbolism of a military funeral does for me and my family.



  1. Beautifully written. Thanks for this


  2. Compelling and abundantly true, although one could point out that there is no practice or virtue that cannot be turned to perverse ends (perhaps funerals are the exception to this, inasmuch as mortality can tame even the basest instincts).

    Those who are wary of ritual, in which group I count myself, may claim not only, trivially and tautologically, that ceremony demands conformity, but also that it defines in-groups by excluding out-groups. Throughout evolutionary and written history human beings have used ritual to shore up community, but this has the parallel goal of identifying those who are not of (our) community. The $5000 wedding gown and the country-club etiquette do affirm who we are, but partly by distinguishing us from our (imagined) inferiors.

    The military is a great example of this. I do not wish to denigrate the valor, commitment, and sacrifice of any individuals serving in the armed forces, but it is telling that such distinction is only possible insofar as there are rival foreign forces that, presumably and if and when push comes to shove, must be eliminated. The military may bring out the best in some, but the very need for the military reflects a great darkness in human nature.

    This is just an alternative view, perhaps a shadow cast by your admirable post as the sun rises…


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