In all societies, when a person dies,
family, friends, and neighbors respond in structured, patterned ways
to the death. Cultural guidelines determine the treatment and disposal
of the body and prescribe a period of mourning for close relatives.
Death ritual, like much of human behavior, is an expression of a
cultural blueprint, of attitudes, values and ideals passed down by
parents, and their parents, which an individual learns as a member of
The analysis of mortuary practices
provides rich data on the behavior of kin and community. It leads to
people's notions of gods, souls, witches, spirits and afterworlds. It
promises access to their belief and value systems, to their
conceptions of the social and moral worlds. It informs that ritual has
consequences for both the individual and society.
This paper focuses on death ritual from
an anthropological point of view. It begins with an account of
earliest ritual, at least 100,000 years ago, and follows with
descriptions of mortuary practices in more recent context. Two
outstanding works are then reviewed: Rites of Passage by
Arnold Van Gennep, and "Collective Representations of Death," an essay
by Robert Hertz. While Hertz deals exclusively with death, Van Gennep
treats death as one of a number of life cycle crises which command
ritual observance. Next, a functional approach to explain mortuary
ritual is offered. Finally, the concept of deritualization and its
consequences for modern society are considered.
Ritual is behavior; it is "religion in
action" (Wallace: 102). It is personal and private behavior, as it is
social. A sick patient praying for strength to endure pain and the
soldier praying for protection while undergoing bombardment exemplify
Ritual may involve sacred or secular symbols. It is "stereotyped
communication ... which reduces anxiety, prepares the organism to act,
and (in social rituals) coordinates the preparation for action among
several organisms... “(Wallace: 236)
Ritual generally requires a sacred
context, says Lessa, although the prime requisite is that it be
attended by sentiments, values, and beliefs which transcend the
utilitarian. Behavior is ritualistic if it is habitual, socially
sanctioned, symbolic and without any practical consideration. (Lessa
Gluckman emphasizes the social
attributes of ritual and the importance of supernatural sanction in
enforcing conformity. Ritualization refers to the performance of
prescribed actions with the expectation that the behavior will
"express and amend social relationships" and help to secure mystical
"Blessing, purification, protection and prosperity" (Gluckman: 24).
Death ritual is at least as old as our
Neanderthal predecessors who lived in Europe and the
Middle East from 100,000110,000
years ago, and may even reach back to Peking Man, almost one-half
million years ago.2 Wallace describes the ritual handling
of the human body by the Neanderthals. They buried their dead in
caves, depositing the body in the earth with great care. The legs were
usually flexed or contracted tightly against the body, and the head
was frequently pillowed on the arm. Grave goods were often placed with
the deceased. A child's body was surrounded by a circle of ibex horns;
a young man was buried with a hand ax, a flint scraper, and an
assortment of animal bones; an old man was buried with an entire
bison leg, tools, and lumps of red ocher. Burial with tools may have
been related to the belief that the dead man required these implements
for his journey to the other world. Red ocher may have symbolized
blood, life and rebirth.
A human specimen unearthed
by Solecki in Shanidar in the Zagros Mountains of northeastern Iraq
was discovered in soil which contained fossil pollen of prehistoric
flowers. Perhaps the mourners had covered the corpse with flowers as
part of a mortuary ceremony. The flowers may have been symbolic of
rebirth, an expression of magic by irritation (Swartz and Jordan:
Cro Magnon, successors to the
Neanderthal, occupied southern Europe and the Mediterranean littoral
from about 40,00010,000 years ago. They buried their dead in the
mouths of caves in flexed or sleeping positions with grave goods and
personal ornaments. The bodies were heavily painted with red ocher.
Animal bones and skulls found near many of the graves suggest the
possibility of funerary feasts. Wallace described Cro Magnon
implements manufactured from human bone: shallow cups made from human
skulls; human teeth pierced threading on a cord and incised
with ornamental designs. These objects may have been used in a
magical ritual "to control, to secure the good will of, or to acquire
the virtues of the departed... “(Wallace: 228).
begins when a person stops breathing, or is otherwise identified as
dead. Treatments of the body, disposal of the remains, and the
behavior of close kin and others for a specified period of mourning
are spelled out by society.
The body may be washed, anointed,
shaved, combed, painted or perfumed. It is left naked or dressed,
covered with a shroud, and sometimes adorned with jewelry. The mouth,
nose, vagina, urethra and rectum may be stopped up, perhaps to
prevent evil spirits from invading the body. Today it is intended to
check the seepage of body fluids. Coins or weights are placed on the
eyelids to keep them closed, to keep the corpse from "staring" at the
As the death is announced, family,
friends and neighbors draw together. People express grief: they weep,
wail, scream, sing dirges, beat the breast, tear the hair, or
otherwise mutilate themselves. The closest kin effect changes in
costume. They wear white, black or red, or paint their bodies; they
rend their clothes; they cover their bodies with ashes or dirt; they
cut their hair, or let it grew, altering their normal appearance.
At a death vigil preceding the burial
(or other form of disposal), mourners sit with the corpse. Originally
the intent may have been to ensure their presence if the dead stirred
and tried to return to life; or if he attempted t: identify the witch
responsible for his death. Perhaps living wished to protect against a
spirit attack, or to assist the poor soul, recently separated frog:
its bodily home.
Inhumation was probably the most
widespread disposal pattern. Originally earth burial might
have been designated to protect the living from contamination,
or to prevent wild animals from molesting the body, or, as a
sympathetic rift, to promote rebirth. The position in the ground
varied: prone, supine, lateral, sitting, or flexed. Often the dean
person was interred with grave goods, e.g., ornaments, tools, or
weapons. Among some groups, a body was temporarily buried, exhumed
after a specified time, and then reinterred in a second burial.
Lessa describes cremation as an ancient
and widespread ritual, standard among the Hindus. He lists several
motives: unwillingness on the part of nomads to leave their dead
behind; fear that the dead might return; a desire to free the soul for
departure to the afterworld; to protect against wild beasts, or evil
spirits; a desire to provide warmth and comfort in the afterworld. (Lessa
Exposure to the elements was practiced
by the Eskimos probably out of necessity, as they were unable to dig
in the frozen ground. The Plains Indians wrapped the dead person in a
blanket or robe, and lashed the body high in a tree, or set it on a
raised platform. The Parsees of India, descendants of the ancient
Zoroastrians of Persia, traditionally left the corpse in "towers of
silence" where vultures and other birds of prey would strip the bodies
of flesh. Contact of the impure corpse with the sacred elements,
earth, fire, and water, was thus avoided.
All societies prescribe a period of
mourning for close relatives and other kin of the deceased. A
beginning and an end are specified. The duration depends upon tire
relationship with the dead: the closer the connection, the longer the
mourning period. The mourners are segregated physically from other
members of the group. During the mourning period, society permits, or
requires, an expression of grief. The depth and duration vary from
group to group and are contingent On kinship connection. Widows
must deny themselves food, ornamentation, and amusement for,
an extended period. Normal activities are curtailed, or set aside,
until all obligations have been fulfilled. Ritual purification is
required before the mourner can resume normal social relations.
Among the lugbara of Uganda, lineage sisters must wash in the nearest
stream after the burial; then they can mingle with others. (Middleton:
COLLECTIVE REPRESENTATIONS OF DEATH
The Indonesian ritual of double burial
is embedded In a complex of ides, sentiments, and values which assume
the interrelationship of the body, soul, bereaved, and society. These
links are emphasized in an intermediary period, a transitional stage
between a first and second burial. Although the ceremonies appear to
focus on the disposal and transformation of the body, they also
involve the destinies of the soul and survivors.
Using cultural data on the Dayak of
Borneo, Hertz describes their activities at dean. The body is washed,
the eyes closed, and the orifices plugged with coins or beads. The
corpse is placed in a sealed coffin, except for an opening which
allows the drainage of putrid matter into the earth. sometimes the
fluids are collected by the mourners for ritual use. A sealed
container is used, they say, to guard against the escape of evil
power. The body is temporarily buried in a deserted place in the
Between this first, or provisional
disposal, and the final burial, an extended period elapses, ranging
from eight months to six years, an average of two years. This span is
required, say the Dayak, to allow the decomposition of the body and
the drying of the bones. Fear and pity are characteristic during this
intermediate stage. All attempt to avoid the contagion of the corpse;
its evil power can strike down the living. The dead man's clothing and
possessions are destroyed, his house and trees destroyed, and the
streams he fished in, tabooed. Yet there is concern for the welfare of
the body, too. To protect against evil spirits, his eyes are closed,
the orifices plugged, a vigil maintained, and gongs beaten. His
relatives bring his usual meal twice a day until the final ceremony,
sit with him, and treat him as if he were still alive.
The soul, like the body, is undergoing
transition. The Olo Nhaju believes in a dual soul. The corporeal
remains with the body until the final burial, while the "marrow of the
soul", the essence, wanders incessantly, unable to enter the homeland
of the dead until the completion of the ritual duties by the
survivors. The soul lives marginally in two worlds. It belongs neither
to the afterworld, nor can it resume its existence on earth. In this
condition, it may seek revenge against its kin, especially if they
fail to fulfill their ritual obligations. But the living show concern
for the soul, too. Treated as an intruder in both worlds, destined to
wander indefinitely, the living ensures a favorable outcome by
meeting their responsibilities.
The mourners, like the body and soul,
are in a precarious state. Ritually charged and dangerous, they no
longer can live as others do. They do not dress, adorn themselves, or
eat the same foods as their neighbors. They may not leave the village.
The mourners are shunned, not only by men, but also by the spirits.
"They are forsaken, not only by man, but also by protective spirits:
as long as their impurity lasts, they cannot hope for any help from
the powers above" (Hertz: 38).
The final ceremony frees the
participants in death. This collective celebration involves not only
the mourners, but the entire group. The long intermediary period
allows the family to accumulate the large store of foodstuffs
necessary to accommodate the many guests attending the great feast.
Often a number of families will pool their resources in a collective
For the Dayak, the final ceremony has
three objectives: to give a final burial to the remains of the
deceased; to ensure the successful removal of the soul to the land of
the ancestors; and to free the living from their mourning
obligations, permitting them to return to normal social life.
begin the final ceremony, the corpse is exhumed and brought back to
the village. If the bones are not completely bare, the bits of flesh
are removed, wrapped in a new cloth and placed in a coffin. For
several days, the family celebrates by dancing, eating, singing and
drinking. Sacred vases and other family treasurers enjoyed by the dead
person during his lifetime are brought to accompany him on this
journey. The bones are then removed to their final sepulture, a small,
ironwood house raised on high posts.
The transfer of the remains from the
initial burial site to the final resting place liberates the deceased.
"It liberates him from the isolation in which he was plunged since his
death, and reunites his body with those of his ancestors" (Hertz.
The final service ends the travail of
the soul, releases it from the grip of death, gives it peace, and
ensures its entrance into its new home with other ancestral souls.
Priests and priestesses arrange this spiritual transport. Reciting
magical incantations, beating the drums, using their strange Mowers,
they invite the celestial spirits to return to earth. They will carry
back to the afterworld a boatload of waiting souls, sacrificed
animals, and treasures displayed at the final feast.
Practices during this final ceremony
also affect the survivors. Human sacrifice and the taking of heads
are essential elements. Victims are chained to a sacrificial post. The
mourners dance around them, poke them with spears bringing screams of
pain; the louder the better, for the heavenly souls welcome this. When
the victim drops, he is beheaded, his blood collected by the
priestesses, and sprinkled on the living "to reconcile them with their
deceased relative" (Hertz: 63). This act of sacrifice "desacralizes
the living, gives peace and beatitude to the soul of the deceased and
(probably) regenerates his body" (Hertz:
63). After the sacrificial
ceremony, the relatives of the dead purify themselves by washing in
The final ceremony completes the
separation of the dead from the living, and ensures the soul entry
into the community of the sacred ancestors. The livings are freed
from their mourning obligations. They return to normal activities, and
resume their interrupted social relations. The celebration marks the
end of a perilous time.” …the dark period dominated by death” is over,
“a new era begun” (Hertz: 56).
A number of themes
emerge from Hertz's work. First, death is not an event, but a process.
When respiration stops, the body receives a temporary burial. A
transitional period between the initial disposal and the final burial
provides the time for the decomposition of the body, the purification
of the bones, the journey of the soul, and the liberation of the
mourners. During, the intermediary period, the link between the living
and the dead continues. Mourners visit the dead, speak_ with him, and
bring his meals. He remains a member of the group until the final
A second theme
concerns immortality, a cycle of life, death and rebirth. For the Olo
Ngaju, "death is not a singular event occurring only once in the
history of the individual, it is an episode that repeats itself
endlessly and that merely marks the passage from one form of existence
to another" (Hertz: 61). Life and death are inextricably interwoven.
As death follows life, life springs forth from death. Death is the
seed which brings life. Death is not a mere destruction, but a
transition. As the old body dissolves into nothingness, a new body
begins to take form. Transformation is the order of things.
Finally, the Dayak
conceive a reciprocal relationship between the living and dead. Both
depend upon each other, the living for protection and largesse, and
the dead for periodic offerings, respect, and commemoration. Mutual
care and concern are the essential ingredients in a proper
VAN GENNEP: THE
RITES OF PASSAGE
For Van Gennep,
rituals performed at death resemble those played out during other
critical periods in the life of the individual, e.g., at birth, social
puberty, or marriage. rife is a journey, the individual a passenger.
Along the way, the individual confronts periodic challenges which he
must manage if he is to move to the next social station. To help the
person cope with these crises, society has developed ceremonial
responses which Van Gennep labeled the "rites of passage."
All rites of
passage follow a standard pattern. A rite
of separation is followed by a rite of transition and concludes with a
rite of incorporation. These themes of separation, transition, and
incorporation mark every life cycle ceremony, although each is
differentially emphasized depending upon the group and the occasion.
Rites of separation are important in death, transition in death,
pregnancy, betrothal, and initiation, and incorporation in marriage.
Separation means to
relinquish a previous social status, a requisite for movement into a
new social position in the social structure. To be born is to move
from the world of the unborn to the society of the living. To die is
to depart the world of the living, and to enter the home of the
ancestors. To mourn is to detach as a wife, or husband, to become
widow or widower.
Movement from one
status to another is gradual. The person enters a transitional or
luminal period, a sacred and dangerous time, during which normal,
ordinary activities are interrupted. Now the individual is suspended
between two worlds, between the past and the future, between a former
condition and a new social destiny. In limen, one undergoes
transformation, shedding an old social identity while molding a new
emerges from limen ready in a ritual and social sense to assume the
responsibilities of a new social existence. A rite of incorporation,
which includes a ceremonial meal, confirms the transformation of the
individual. Each person eats of food brought by others. "All are
united to all, so that a complete and profound union is affected among
the members of the group" (Van Gennep: 170).
model fits well the analysis of initiation (social puberty) rites.
The initiate is separated physically from his home, parents and
neighbors. He is transported to a mysterious and sacred place, where,
together with peers, he faces a series of trials and ordeals. During
limen, his former identity is obliterated, and a new social and
spiritual self takes shape. The metamorphosis completed, he is
accepted into adult society in a rite of incorporation at which he
joins with others in a communal meal. He has made the transition from
the asexual to the sexual worlds.
Marriage, too, lends itself' to Van
Gennep's analysis. Separation is evident as the betrothed moves from
one household to another, from one family to another, from one
village to another, from limited social responsibility to full adult
Betrothal, the transitional period, may
last for several years. Among the Chaga of Tanzania, reports Van
Gennep, tree long transition allows the groom's family the time to
raise the bride price promised to the bride's family. The slaughter of
an ox signifies the end of the betrothal. After the wedding feast, the
couple begins married life together.
In American marriage, the honeymoon
period may be viewed as transitional. The newlyweds have been formally
united in marriage, and have presented themselves at a reception for
the community. They depart on a honeymoon, to a magical place (often
in the sun) where they luxuriate in a wonderful dream world. Normal
responsibilities, e.g., working, shopping, cooking, and cleaning do
not have to be met at this time. Like Van Gennep's actors in limen,
the honeymooners are special and set apart. Soon the couple return to
earth, to the real world, there to begin married life. The honeymoon
Death ritual subsumes elements of
separation, transition and incorporation. Symbolic of separation in
death is the deposit of the corpse in the grave, coffin or cemetery;
burning the dead person's tools, jewels, house and other possessions;
killing wives, slaves, and favorite animals of the deceased.
Mourning is transition. The bereaved
are segregated, physically and socially, from the living. In limen,
they are cut off from the dead and from their friends and neighbors.
Normal social life is suspended for them for a prescribed period of
mourning, their activities hemmed in by taboos.
Reversal of normal patterns occurs
during the luminal period. In Europe, this included stopping all
clocks in the home, the turning of mirrors toward the wall, the
emptying of water vessels, and the opening of doors and windows (Lessa
1971: 760). A Jewish mourner during Shiva is forbidden, for
seven days beginning with the day of the funeral, to leave home, to
greet another person, to wear leather footgear or any new garment, to
bathe, use makeup, shave or cut hair, or have sexual relations.
The mourner sits on the floor or on a
low stool, and not on a chair or sofa. From the seventh to the
thirtieth day, the person may not shave or wear new clothes. He must
refrain from participation in festive activity for a full twelve
months. (Wigoder: 273-274)
Incorporation occurs when the mourners
have fulfilled their ritual duties and have been cleansed. Together
with others in the group they partake of a communal meal. They may
then reenter the normal, social world.
For Van Gennep, the themes of death and
rebirth recur periodically during the life of an individual.
Physiological death occurs when a person stops breathing. It happens
once. Socially a person dies many times, on those occasions when he
undergoes transition from one social station to another.
Turner finds symbols and metaphors for
death in initiation rites. "The initial may be buried, forced to lie
motionless in the posture and direction of customary burial, may be
stained black, or may be forced to live for a while in the company of
masked and monstrous mummers representing the dead" (Turner: 25). In
Ndembu (Zambia) initiation rites, circumcision is a metaphor for
killing, says Turner, since
it kills the novice's childhood status. The blood soaked site of the
operation is called "the place of death or dying" (Turner: 21).
Van Gennep saw a man's life as a series
of separations, transitions and incorporations. Death and rebirth
follow one upon the other, a cycle that repeats like the seasons of
the year, or the waxing and waning of the moon. With eloquence he
wrote: "For groups, as well as for individuals, life itself means to
separate and to be reunited, to change form and condition, to die and
to be reborn. It is to act, and cease, to wait and rest, and then to
begin acting again, but in a different way. And there are always new
thresholds to cross; the thresholds to cross; the thresholds of summer
and winter, of a season or a year, of a month or a night; the
thresholds of birth, adolescence, maturity and old age; the threshold
of death and that of the afterlife for those who believe in it." (Van
Functions of Death
One approach to the
study of ritual emphasizes the social and psychological functions of
behavior. Social functions refer to the effects of a rite on the
social structure, the network of social relations binding individuals
together in an orderly life. The immediate or direct effects on the
individuals involved in the ritual are psychological functions
For hertz, death
ritual offers a respite, a breathing spell, time for the society and
the individual to accommodate to a dramatic change. Physical death
does not, all at once, convince people that a person has died. Images
of him persist. His connections to society are too strong to sever in
a moment. The acknowledgment comes slowly. The long intermediary
period of the Dayak death ceremony provides the opportunity for this
Death not only
involves the extinction of the physical body, but also the blotting of
a social identity. "When a person dies, the society loses in him much
more than a unit; it is stricken in the very principle of its life, in
the faith it has in itself" (Hertz: 7'.). Ritual is a collective
response to this attack. In effect, society looks death squarely in
the eye and reaffirms its own will and resolve. Life will go on,
irrespective of the loss of an individual.
communities, individuals play a wider range of social roles so that
everyone is relatively important. Death becomes a kind of "national
calamity" since the deceased leaves behind physical property, a
spouse, and also bundles of roles and statuses which have to be
redistributed if social equilibrium is to be restored. (Lewis:
131-133) Mortuary rites, often spaced over a period of months, provide
time to recruit for the social positions left vacant by death.
promote the solidarity of the group. Mandelbaum observes that death
ritual among the Kota of south India brings people together at moments
of crisis. It reminds them of their responsibilities to the dead, to
the bereaved, and to
ethers in the society. He points to the cohesion of the immediate family
at this time, as relatives console the Mourners and give material aid.
Other Kotas, and also non-Kotas who knew the deceased lend their
presence and assistance, creating a wider integration.
Howells likens funeral ceremonies to
our periodic oaths of allegiance to the flag. They serve to unify the
members of the community, to remind them: of a common commitment.
Among the Kanuri of the Sudan, death
brings the members of the community together and confirms the
individual's membership. No matter what differences exist between
people, a funeral demands attendance because the deceased was a
relative, a friend, or a "man of our to.-,n." Not to participate was
"unthinkable" (Cohen: 72). In attending, a person shows respect for
the dead. He also reinforces the links with the bereaved and with the
society as a whole.
For Radcliff-Brown, death rituals are
the collective expressions of feeling appropriate to the situation. In
this common display of emotion, individuals signal their commitment
to each other and to the society itself. Ritual functions to affirm
the social bond. (Radcliffe-Brown: 168)
In Van Gennep's view, the rites of
passage prepare the individual to step into a new social status, ready
to assume new social responsibilities. Further, they focus attention
on this change in social identity. The person has taken on a new
social personality and must be treated in a manner appropriate to his
new status. Finally, Van Gennep saw regeneration as a law of life and
of the universe. From time to tire, societies lost energy, suffered
cultural fatigue and had to be reenergized. The rites of passage
functioned to revitalize there.
Firth noted that many funeral rites
were associated with "ideas of completeness of sequence in human
affairs" analogous to ceremonies of farewell. Here society takes
formal notice of the termination of social relations. (Firth: 317)
Mandelbaum refers to the need to complete "the proper order of a
person's career" (Mandelbaum: 197). This final stage must be
celebrated just as other previous social transitions had been marked
during the life of the individual. In a sense, the dead man's family
and friends gather in collective reminiscence of earlier moments they
had shared with the dead person. They engage in a summation of a man's
lifetime, of his character, achievements, successes, less often of his
shortcomings and failures. They assert that in death the individual
continues to invite the respect and regard of his fellows.
Funeral orations made over the dead by
chosen orators are the "keynote of the Mapuche burial ceremony" (Faron:
72).Each orator speaks in laudatory terms of the exploits, virtues,
and character of the deceased, of his noble qualities, of his meaning
to his family and friends, and of their loss and grief.
In primitive society, "ordinary human
events" such as death, marriage or puberty are rendered extraordinary
and sacramental. Diamond calls them "ritual dramas" as man takes
center stage. He regards these rites as an art form. Around them
cluster the esthetic creations of primitive society, the masks, poems,
songs, and the dance, the "quintessential rhythm of life and culture"
(Diamond: 199). in the performance of these ceremonies, man raises
himself above the purely biological, and confirms his humanity and the
cultural character of human existence.
Douglas touches on this theme of transcendence in Dinka death practice. A
revered Dinka spearmaster3, nearing the end of his life,
chooses the time, manner and place of death. As his breath ebbs, he is
placed in a coffin and carried to the grave. He utters his final words
to his grieving son. He is then ritually murdered by suffocation. By
this free decision, says Douglas, the spearmaster cheats death. By free will, he sets himself apart from
other creatures that must live as nature ordains. Man transforms as he
strives for "perfect fulfillment" (Douglas: 209-2i0).
Grief and sorrow, pain and loss are
experiences associated with death. Douglas writes that funeral
customs remind the living that death and suffering are integral parts
of nature (Douglas: 210). They remind us, too, "of the gravity of death and do not allow
us to develop indifference" (Lessa 1971: 757).
Mortuary rites serve private and
personal functions as well as social ones. As passage rites, they
support the individual as he accomplishes transition and moves
through uncharted waters. They signal the gradual release of the
bereaved from the "psychological tentacles of death" (Howells:
159). Well wishers distract
the mourners and bolster their spirits. A mourning period allows the
bereaved to readjust personally and to contemplate a future without
the physical presence of the dead person. "Ritual dramas" allow the
person to "maintain integrity of self" while taking on a new social
identity. The individual "acts in new ways without crippling
anxiety"... (Diamond: 198).
For Malinowski, death rites functioned
to allay anxiety. The crisis of death triggered "a chaos of emotion"
which might result in mental conflict and possible disintegration.
Mortuary rituals dampened the potential danger to the individual and
the group (Malinowski: 97-99).
Also, these ceremonies prepared the individual for his own
ultimate demise. "Any survivor who has gone through a number of
mortuary ceremonials for others becomes prepared for his own death" (Malinowski:
Some observers identify religion in
modern society with deritualization. Kimball, referring to a decline
in sacred ceremonialism, notes that fewer rites of passage are
celebrated today although the need for ritualized expression is no
less than in earlier times. When they are marked, they are private and
individualized, unlike life cycle ceremonies in traditional societies.
There they provided an occasion for group participation at the same
time the individual was undergoing social and ritual transformation
Lessa refers to the virtual
disappearance of many of the external evidences of mourning in
American society. Rarely seen anymore are black clothes, black
armbands, black bordered handkerchiefs and stationery, crepe veils and
mourning jewelry (miniatures, lockets, brooches, rings, and earrings
(Lessa 1971: 764).
acknowledges a decline in sacred ritual which he attributes to a shift
in social relations in modern society.
In tribal societies, members of the same family share the same
household, work in the same fields and worship the same gods. Ritual
delineates and marks off social roles, lessening the possibility of
confusion. It dilutes the effect of a negative moral evaluation in one
sphere in those situations where an individual does not perform as
expected in a specific role. Furthermore, it dampens the effect of
conflict. A disturbance in one institutional encounter would spill
over were it not for the isolating qualities of ritual.
Ritual is less important in our world
because relationships are distinctive, played out in different
physical surroundings with different sets of performers. Roles and
judgments are segregated. Disputes are compartmentalize-.. Conflict is
contained within institutional boundaries.
Fortes discusses the importance of
passage rites in traditional society. Ceremonial participation teaches
and reminds the individual of the responsibilities he is to be charged
with. he learns to act in accordance with norms and sanctions that
legitimize the role. Ritual binds the holder to his new office. It
invests him with legitimate authority. It confers citizenship on the
If ritual is less important in modern
society, it is because of the availability of alternative channels of
access to new social positions. In traditional society, an individual
has to undergo ritual passage in preparation for a new social role.
Today an individual moves ahead by gaining credentials, by meeting
universal criteria set by schools and colleges, and by birth, marriage
and death registries.
Wallace does not see deritualization,
but rather a transformation of ritual away from the sacred. Ritual
continues an integral element of a secularizing religion. It is not
ritual that weakens, but supernaturalism. "...belief in supernatural
powers is doomed to die out ... as a result of the increasing adequacy
and diffusion of s21entific knowledge and of the realization ... that
supernatural belief is not necessary to the effective use of ritual"
Whether ritual is diminished in
importance today, or whether it is being transformed, it nevertheless
continues to capture the energies and emotions of many Americans in
sacred and secular
circumstances. On Christmas Eve, in churches across the land, millions
celebrate the birth of Christ. It is a special time for non-Christians
too. We speak of the holiday season, of the Christmas spirit, of peace
and good will. We renew relationships as we mail our Christmas cards,
some to people we may riot have seen for months or even years.
Shoppers jam stores in December buying sprees, and families and
friends reunite for the traditional dinners and gift giving.
On New Year's Eve, in clubs, hotels,
restaurants, and at home, people congregate to welcome the new year.
They wear party hats and carry noisemakers as they revel and make
merry. It is an evening of laughter and letting-go. Hundreds of
thousands jam Times Square in New York, and as midnight approaches, they raise their eyes upward, eyes fixed on a symbolic
lighted apple. Millions more join in the excitement on television. As
the apple begins its descent, they begin to chant in unison: ten, 9,
8, 7....... Happy .few Year, Happy New Year. Champagne corks pop,
people hug and kiss, and all intone "health, happiness, and
Sports events also provide a focal
point for collective ritual. Football fans filled with excitement
plant themselves in front of their television sets in mid-January, on
Super Bowl Sunday4. Friends visit and share a meal or a six
pack of beer as they wait kickoff time. It is a day of enormous
On the whole, ceremonies involving the
individual have declined in importance in modern life. Birth, naming,
and puberty, when they are celebrated, do not command the energy and
commitment they once did. 1,1arriage and death, however,
continue to summon ritual participation. 1,1ost Americans
still are married by a clergyman, for sacramental or other reasons.
The bride and groom wear special clothing as do members of the wedding
party. Especially the bridal gown and veil are treated as if sacred.
After the ceremony, the couple exit to a shower of rice, an ancient
At a reception, guests eat, drink,
sing, dance and give gifts. Solemn moments are swept away in laughter
and happiness. The couple holds center stage as surrounded by family
and friends; they join in their first dance as man and wife. Then
members of the wedding party move onto the floor in prescribed order.
The bride dances with her father as the band plays "Daddy's Little
Girl," and the groom dances with his mother to the strains of "Mr.
At a signal, usually before the main
course, all rise to join in a toast to the newlyweds by the best man.
During the meal, a collective glass tinkling directs the couple to
kiss. Each kiss is a profession of love, but it is also an expression
of the acquiescence to the public wills, a union of two individuals,
but also a commitment to community. By this tinkling, too, the guests
acknowledge the new status of the pair.
The couple, hands together, cut the
wedding cake and feed each other. Each guest eats a slice of communion
with the new husband and wife.
Following the dinner, the bridegroom
removes his wife's garter in a public display and tosses this over his
shoulder to a group of single men, gathered in a cluster, who leap for
the prize. The counterpart of this male ceremony is the tossing of
the bridal bouquet by the bride to a line of unmarried females. The
lucky woman who catches it is supposed to become the next bride.
After the reception, the two secretly
take their leave and depart for a honeymoon. The marriage ceremony has
lasted for part of a single day, but it has been a day filled with
sentiment and feeling.
Death, too, continues to issue a
ceremonial call. The dead person has been embalmed, prepared, and
dressed for final disposal by a professional mortician. He is viewed
at a wake at which mourners, friends and relatives renew old
relationships. It is a time for reminiscence, for recounting the past
for tears and for grief.
A clergyman performs a funeral service.
he reviews the life of the individual, of his place in the lives of
the others, and of his past gifts to the living. Blessings are
intoned, and prayers for the repose of the soul uttered.
A motorized procession in a rented
limousine carries the corpse to the cemetery. Sometimes the procession
passes by the house of the
dead man for the last time before proceeding to the cemetery. At the
grave, the clergyman recites more prayers. Before the coffin is
lowered, members of the family strew flowers on the coffin. After the
service, the procession returns, and mourners, friends and neighbors
partake of a communal repast.
Although we continue to fulfill our
obligations when death strikes, our involvement is short-lived unless
we are mourners. When the funeral service is over, the ritual support
ends and the bereaved are left to their private agonies. Kimball
laments that people have to accomplish their transitions alone with
private symbols. Once the funeral is over, the guests leave. They no
longer care to dwell upon death.
While we are not indifferent to death,
as some charge, neither do we invest ourselves so deeply as in the
past. By distancing early from the mourners, we banish the memory of
the dead, adding to the burden of the bereaved. What effect this
shrinking commitment will have on us as people remains to be seen.
Perhaps a greater danger lies in our
indifference to life. An inability or an unwillingness to resolve
problems of mass starvation, malnutrition and inadequate health care
all over the world will test our minds, wills, and souls in the years
to come. Violence and war, the proliferation of weapons of
destruction, of megaton bombs and Saturday night specials promises a
future of blood and misery.
Wallace predicts the eventual
displacement of supernaturalism by a new, non-theistic, ethical
theology which centers on man during his stay on earth. Ritual will
not disappear, but will be transformed toward the secular. What is
needed is to orient this ritual around an ideology which reasserts
the value of human life.