March 13, 2007

The Importance of Rites

Bert Keizer has written a very illuminating article about the importance of rites in our society. A rite might be defined as a performance which we use to deal with something that otherwise is so vast in its implications that we can't comprehend it. Whether you are religious or not, the moment of death for example is so vast that its difficult to comprehend its reality, its difficult to work it out. Having talked to Christian friends and from my own experience, the rite of a funeral is an amazing gain in this sense- it allows you to understand what has happened, to feel you have made some effort, some action, some, even, atonement for what has happened and you can move on. Keiser argues that rites for us are the ultimate human displacement activity. Evolutionarily biologists have often observed for instance that cocks can often in the middle of combat get confused evolutionary signals and not know what to do- so they peck the ground instead of each other. Similarly we find it useful to do something in order to assuage our grief about something that we can't effect. I'm not sure about the evolutionary theory- but the idea that a funeral is a way of reasserting control over death is something that I think is very true- the process of organizing it, meeting your loved one's friends and exchanging memories is incredibly therapeutic- it is activity and sometimes where there is no basic understanding (whatever your metaphysical beliefs the reality of death is something that is hard to cope with), activity is all that we have.


edmund said...

very good post and very true

Ian said...

I think the absence of meaningful ritual in modern secular society is problematic, as we have little way of formally marking important events in our lives: my daughter is highly unlikely ever to be baptized, my marriage took place in a registry office - funerals seem to be one of the last rites available to us, and that pun is entirely unintentional... There is a large school of thought that ascribes problems among young men in part to the absence of any sort of 'initiation' into manhood, in contrast with other times and cultures.

My better half attended a ceremony at which she received British citizenship, at the cost of having to swear allegiance to the Queen. Now, such ceremonies tie back into this idea of marking (or not) the significant events in peoples' lives, but I found this particular invented tradition sticking in my craw, especially since I've never had (and doubt I ever would) had to swear the same allegiance: it seemed like nothing more than a sop to the anti-foreigner brigade.

It's a tough one, for me: I bemoan the absence of customary ceremony, yet treat invented traditions, especially the smorgasbord approach of much new-agery, with immense suspicion. I was highly struck by the ease with which ritual - especially in the form of ancestor worship - remains a natural aspect of life in Vietnam, despite its ostensibly socialist and actually modernising society.

Now I suppose I really should go and read the original article ;)

F said...

I think funerals are much more, they are the first step towards civilisation. Burials and funeral ceremonies are the recognition of the value of the individual and society.