The mechanisms of mourning: how Jewish bereavement rituals benefit both the mourner and the wider community

In Jewish tradition, when one loses a close family member such as parents, siblings or children, there are certain mourning rituals which need to be observed. These start out very stringent, in the period immediately following the death, and become less so in stages over the course of the coming year. During the period after the death until the funeral, which is held as quickly as possible, ideally later that day, or the next, very little is permitted at all except that which is necessary to arrange the funeral. Mourners will sit and sleep on the floor, will not eat meat, and will cease listening to music as marks of their grief and loss. After the funeral, a new stage begins, called ‘shiva’, meaning ‘seven’, referring to the week-long duration of this phase of the mourning process. During shiva, the mourners do not wash or wear freshly cleaned clothes or leather shoes, they sit on low chairs, wear a torn item of clothing, and cover all their mirrors in order to discourage vanity. The house of the mourners is open to the community, and guests come to pay their respects to the mourners and to help and comfort them, sharing memories, bringing gifts of food and assisting around the house.

Going through the shiva process after my mother died in December 2011, and witnessing the environment generated by its observance by both mourners and the wider community, I came to the realisation that the process could be described as a very intricate, very effective piece of social technology. It is a tool enabling everyone to come to terms with the loss and to accept that something is irreversibly different. It helps us to recognise that this difference needs to be adjusted to, and provides the framework within which to do so. In essence, with death the world has changed, and now we, both the mourners and the wider community, need to catch up. The focus on community at this time has a binding effect in that it can renew old acquaintances and even generate new ones, despite the unpleasant circumstances.  Although it is easy to come together to join in one another’s joy, it is much more difficult to join in each other’s grief, yet it is equally important, and this is what the mourning process forces us to do, because the happy occasions and the sad occasions are all part of a whole, and Judaism is for life, not just for simchas (celebrations).

For the mourners, the opportunity is granted to focus on their grieving by sharing memories with visitors without needing to worry about the normal concerns of everyday life such as cooking, cleaning or, importantly, attending to the guests.  The mourner is absolved of all responsibilities and allowed time to focus on adjusting to the new reality they are faced with. I felt that the constant presence of friends and family demonstrated the love of the community, who mourned with us, and also served the function of mandating social interactions rather than a reclusive state of depressing introspection. Although there was little to be said that would ease the pain of the loss immediately, the process does serve to buffer the pain somewhat, like a cushion, or padding around a spikey pill which one needs to take. Then adjustment to the new norm with which the mourner is faced can come with time. One thing that does help is sharing memories, and this, for the mourner, is one of the most important functions of the shiva process. Meeting my mother’s older friends from her university or even school days helped me to consolidate and reinforce these important memories, and has certainly given me new perspectives on her life.  The turn out at the funeral and the shiva also demonstrated something very important to me, which is that we were not alone in our grieving: a whole community of loyal friends and family, both the Reading Jewish congregation and those from further afield, were mourning my mother with us.  In that the magnitude of the grief indicates the magnitude of the loss, it was some comfort to see over the course of the shiva just how wonderful my mother was, and how amazing her legacy is.

For the wider community, the shiva actually forces (subtly) everyone else to also come to terms with the death, where some may have preferred not to face it. People don’t always know what to say when confronted by another’s bereavement, and now that I’ve been on both ends of this, it’s interesting how many messages I got from people saying they didn’t know what to say, and even apologising for not getting in touch earlier, their reason being they couldn’t find anything to say. Normally they resorted to the Jewish ‘set phrase’, and this is another very interesting aspect of the process. The fact that we have a set phrase to be said to mourners is important for everyone else, not least because the mourners themselves know to expect it because it’s ‘what you say’. The phrase, ‘May God grant you comfort and consolation amongst those who also mourn for Zion and Jerusalem’, expresses, in essence, all that should be said, which is the hope that the mourners receive strength from God to face up to their loss and continue with their lives, knowing that they are not alone in their grief, and knowing that others will not abandon them in their moment of need, but rather support them. Bringing everyone together for shiva means that others are not given the chance to avoid the mourners, as if the death might become a taboo subject which could make others in the community uncomfortable to confront.  Additionally, the institution of helping the mourners allows the wider community to contribute, doing something productive, without anyone feeling guilty. The mourners don’t feel guilty for not working, and being helped instead, because they know it is part of the process. In turn, those helping know that the mourners are well aware of this, and this sense of being able to contribute productively to the situation has the effect of empowering everyone, and the community is strengthened as a result.

Like Judaism’s set phrases to say and to expect, the set rituals more generally also act as coping mechanisms, and provide a focus which helps to clarify all the confusion of the situation.  Even in matters of death there is beauty in the approach of Judaism, and perhaps it’s unfair even to say ‘even’; after all, what other certainty is there in life which extends uniformly across generations and geographies, encompassing all people at any time and in any place?  Whereas everything else may be contingent, everyone will experience bereavement at some point (and the alternative of not caring enough about anyone else to care if they die is simply no alternative at all), so coping becomes a priority common to all societies and all individuals.  The ultimate end point or goal – the continuation of everyday life, the transition between the previous norm, prior to the bereavement, and the new norm – is achieved through the celebration of the life of the deceased.  This is best done through memories, and memories are best shared through community, hence the focus of the shiva on bringing people in to the house of the mourners.  So maybe as well as the set phrase used to console mourners, it is also fitting to wish pleasant memories of the deceased, and not just of the deceased, but that we should all maintain fond memories of those close to us, because this is what grants us solace in times of difficulty and loss.  The shiva process is, I feel, a remarkably sophisticated system for enabling us this solace; this structure encourages communal support, empowerment and the consolidation and reinforcement of memories, and this is how we face up to the inevitable sense of confusion and helplessness at a time of bereavement.


29 thoughts on “The mechanisms of mourning: how Jewish bereavement rituals benefit both the mourner and the wider community

  1. It made me wonder, what do you do if there are no other Jews around for you? How do you sit Shiva alone?

    Posted by Sarah F | 3 February, 2012, 11:39 am
    • I was thinking about this point as well, and two things came to mind. Firstly, people travel to sit shiva if they have to, and join with other members of their family who are also mourning, or join the community to which the deceased belonged. In this way people are unlikely to be completely alone during shiva. If somehow (and I think it unlikely, and quite tragic) they are, they of course wouldn’t be required not to do anything for themselves.

      Secondly, the requirements as they stand reveal an interesting priority, which turns your question on its head a little: rather than assuming that the community leads to these mourning requirements, or that mourning requirements require a community, we could say that, given these laws of mourning, communities form as natural consequence: communities rely on mourning (as well as on other Jewish activities when we gather together). Because essentially that is what a community is, and the requirement to do many specific things together is arguably what has held Judaism together over the generations. Thus the needs of the individual, not those of the community, are the starting point, and the community should come together around the mourner: the obligation is on others to comfort the mourner, not on the mourner to seek to be comforted.

      I think this is a fundamental aspect of Jewish law, that so many things we do are designed specifically to build family groups, community groups, and, on a larger scale, entire societies. I think this highlights the important role of the individual in building and maintaining the community, whether through joy or through grief – and both are integral parts of life for which Judaism has advice, and around which communities are formed. Do you think that answers your question?

      Posted by Michael Kay | 5 February, 2012, 10:06 pm
  2. An interesting and moving blog with the unexpected consequence of making me feel less Jewish. Michael says that the ritual phrases are helpful. I hate ritual phrases and regard them as meaningless. In the context of marriage I have never understood how a bride could take pleasure from being told that she is beautiful if she knows that the speaker follows Mainonides’ instruction that ALL brides are to be told the same thing.

    Have any studies been done comparing the effects on the family of the Jewish /Muslim next-day burial with the Christian / atheist custom of having a lapse of a week or more, and the family organising a wake after the event. I have attended more non-Jewish funerals than Jewish ones, and have felt that wakes have been difficult to organise. The mourners have to worry about finding a venue, guessing how many people might attend, and deciding on menus. I have not been able to ask the mourners if they found this a comforting thing to have to do or a nuisance. The shiva rituals make all that unnecessary

    Posted by Natalie Kehr | 5 February, 2012, 9:37 am
    • Hi Natalie, thanks for commenting; I felt the specific set phrase used here was useful to me, and it could of course be supplemented by other sentiments. I also felt that it was useful for others who did not know how to express the emotions they felt, and this acted as a welcome safety net, which, because it was formalised and institutionalised, and we the mourners knew to expect it, was perfectly acceptable. A bereavement is awkward enough without adding to it. We could see the set phrases as the provision of a ‘lowest common denominator’ mourning practice, in which even those least able to express themselves, or less comfortable doing so, are given the opportunity to say what needs to be said. It equalises the playing field, like a school uniform, and acts in favour of those who, in this case, want to provide comfort or consolation but are simply unsure how.

      You say you believe ritual phrases in general to be meaningless. I believe that when the person using it is aware of the purpose and feeling behind it, as I have tried to explain above, and when the recipient is similarly aware, that there is much meaning present. We many not always see this meaning as a manifestation of personal emotions transferred from one individual to another, but the user has delegated the meaning to the comfort provided by the strength of the traditions and of the community. From this broader context the statement is imbued with meaning and with appropriate sentiment. I think we could argue that it does require both the user and the recipient to be aware of this, and to accept and be acting within the same framework, but when tapping into this, the meaning becomes clear. In short, when used in the right, genuine spirit, I believe this practice to be very beneficial.

      Your point about the bride is interesting. However, I would not equate the two examples. I believe Rambam was asserting that a bride should be made to feel beautiful on her wedding day, a sentiment with which I am sure no-one would disagree, but was not providing a set phrase with which to do so. I am also unsure if this recommendation is even as ancient as the set phrase of the mourning process (although I will happily accept a source which demonstrates otherwise). Even if it were, the argument would be the same as above: this is a minimum requirement, to be expanded upon with more personal sentiment, but it is at least a starting point, a priming of the pump. Indeed, if a groom who was perfectly capable of making his bride feel beautiful through his words and deeds merely cited a phrase from the Rambam, or anywhere else, instead of putting some more effort into it, and considered his obligation fulfilled and thus his job done, I too would probably be pretty disappointed.

      Your question about the studies is one which I have been wondering about as well, and although I don’t know the answer, I brought it up on the blog of a student of comparative religion, here: http://ajewishvoice.wordpress.com/2012/02/02/why-comparative-religion/

      I hope this answers some of your points, thanks again for taking an interest!

      Posted by Michael Kay | 5 February, 2012, 10:41 pm
  3. Over lunch today I asked the Christian ladies at my table to tell me what they feel about the differences between the Christian and Jewish funeral rituals.

    Half the group felt that it was very important that they were able to personalise the funerals of their loved ones. One lady said that she would have gone mad if she had not had the distraction of having to make so many arrangements. On the other hand another lady said she liked the idea of a standard funeral as soon as possible after the death. Some of the ladies were more ambivilant. They had found it a great strain to have to make decisions about what to include in the the service, who would speak, and what sort of wake to have. On the other hand they felt that funerals should be personal. I think problems do arise if different family members have different ideas about what constitutes a good funeral.

    I suggested that the community support during the shiva week might be lacking in the Christian custom of having the funeral as a sort of climax of several days of activity. I was told that parish priests spend a lot of time doing post-funeral visits.

    I was surprised when one person felt that their homes would be too small to accommodate all the people who might want to express support and condolences. They obviously get comfort from having large numbers of people involved, and think a church hall is the ideal place for a funeral. I am not a party girl, and I personally think one should have time to have a proper conversation with everyone at a gathering. So in theory I like the idea of having shiva week. In practice I have only had one friend who has gone in for the full week, and I only went to the first night. That night the officiating Rabbi said that God did not only want old people in heaven and that is why a twenty year old girl had been killed while walking along a country road. I could not face listening to that Rabbi on other nights!! I found another way of supporting our friend during the following year – I wrote a computer program for him which speeded up his experiments with pottery glazes.

    The idea of having ritual phrases was so new to the gathering that I could not get any reaction from them. We have random seating at our probus meetings so I might not sit with any of the same ladies for months, but if I do sit with them again I will ask have they have given any thought to the value of ritual phrases.

    You might wonder what we have done. My mother-in-law had a stroke a couple of years before she died. The personality we had loved died with the stroke. We mourned then, and when her body eventually died had a cremation as soon as possible after the event. When another elderly relative died we arranged a cremation as soon as possible after the death. A couple of weeks later we had a gathering of all her many friends at her flat and each friend chose 2 items to keep in memory of Doris. The funerals were conducted by Reform Rabbis, and my husband spoke at each one about the deceased.

    Posted by Natalie Kehr | 8 February, 2012, 4:32 pm
    • Hi Natalie, thanks so much for these really interesting insights; I can appreciate the desire for a personal touch, in fact it so happened that the pall-bearer at my mother’s funeral, who worked for the cemetery, was a distant relative of my father’s. For us the comforting aspect of the funeral was that we were able to talk with everyone who came, and we weren’t hurried. We really appreciated that.

      I feel for the lady who said that the arrangements she needed to make were a welcome distraction, there is certainly something to be said for having something to busy yourself with, although I feel the Jewish approach intends to strike a balance between this busyness and the need for time to focus solely on grieving, for example the fact that the mourners are discouraged from doing any work around the house.

      I think it’s a shame that the rabbi you mentioned officiated at your friend’s shiva house said that, and I admit I would probably also not be too impressed with such a sentiment. But it is so difficult to know what to say in such a situation, and I suppose what provides a comfort to one does not provide a comfort to all. Thanks also for sharing your own thoughts and memories; I really appreciate your taking the time and trouble to respond like this.

      Posted by Michael Kay | 8 February, 2012, 11:44 pm
  4. It’s interesting to read about the different ways of approaching mourning. When I lost my life mate/soul mate of thirty-four years, I was mostly alone, and that was best for me. His death was such a tremendous agony that I could barely stand myself. Being with others would have been an intolerable burden. I managed to do everything I needed to do, including leaving our home of twenty years and move 1000 miles away to take care of my aged father, but all I remember of those months is the unremitting pain, both mental and physical. It felt like an amputation. Now, I am appalled at the callous things people said to me, but at the time, all words, hugs, tears brought me comfort.

    Posted by Pat Bertram | 12 February, 2012, 3:14 am
    • Hi, thanks for reading. I’ve become very interested in how different people, cultures, traditions deal with loss, as it is of course so universal, being the only certainty in life. For me I feel that one of the most important elements is community, but as has been raised above, not everyone is lucky enough to have access to this in the same way; indeed, not everyone has the same priority in the first place, and maybe solitude is better for some.

      I wonder how much it has to do with our previous experiences of larger communities or extended families as positive or negative? Not surprisingly, I expect it is most important as a general rule to be in as comfortable a place as possible: for those made profoundly uncomfortable by crowds or too many people, this will not help at all; on the other hand, those used to the support of many others (as my father, sister and I are) take some comfort from their familiar presence.

      Posted by Michael Kay | 12 February, 2012, 3:37 am
      • A lot does have to do with family. If one doesn’t come from a close-knit family, it’s easier to deal with grief alone than to add to one’s problems by trying to make others understand.

        Posted by Pat Bertram | 12 February, 2012, 4:44 am
  5. I’m sorry for your loss. And thanks for sharing those insights. That is indeed a beautiful mechanism, and it really shows the wisdom behind religious ‘ritual’. In a world where so many have become sarcastic about religion, it’s wonderful to read a piece that actually proves the benefit in a ritual.

    Posted by Yacoob | 29 February, 2012, 10:27 am
    • Thanks! I hope sharing these thoughts can help others to understand the benefits of such practices, even if they themselves don’t engage in them. I feel a little more tolerance doesn’t go amiss.

      Posted by Michael Kay | 29 February, 2012, 10:49 am
  6. I have been given another non-Jewish reaction. A very sociable lady said she thought the Jewish idea of a quick burial was a good idea. She also commented that she likes to talk about her husband, but their only son has dealt with his grief by avoiding all talk about his father. It has led me to wonder if there is any correlation between what a person regards as the ideal funeral arrangements, and their desire or reluctance to talk about the deceased in the years that follow.

    My instinct is to not hang back from making comments like “X would have been delighted about ……” or “Y would have been furious about ……..”. But I am not renowned for my tact, so perhaps people might think I should not initiate mention of the deceased. How does Pat Bertram feel about people now making it obvious that they are sometimes reminded of her husband?

    On another subject, Michael, I wish you hadn’t called your blog “Thinking through my fingers.” My thoughts become much clearer when I am writing them down, and I feel that the title should really be mine :-),

    Posted by Natalie Kehr | 29 February, 2012, 11:59 am
    • Hi Natalie, thanks for this! I find references to my mother now can still be a little jarring, but I expect this is because it is still quite recent. I’m not sure how I’ll feel in future of course, but I would not be surprised if this fades a little, and I would like to think that in time recounting such memories will only bring comfort. Maybe the perceived danger is that constant dwelling on what the deceased would think or do in any given situation will only lead to a preoccupation with the past and a failure to move on. I would also be interested to hear Pat’s thoughts on this.

      Regarding the title of the blog though, the phrase is not actually mine, although I thought it original when I ‘coined’ it, and I certainly thought of it independently; see my About page for a proper attribution, and why this is significant to me personally… 🙂

      Posted by Michael Kay | 29 February, 2012, 12:21 pm
  7. When thinking about funeral rituals, one cannot ignore the Indian practice of Sati / Suttee. Comments have been made that it was a sign of extreme grief, but I have always found it odd that it occurred in societies where marriages were arranged. I can imagine not wanting to live after someone I have chosen to love has died, but find it difficult to imagine that I would feel the same about a husband chosen for me by my male relatives.

    It is also significant that suttee was practiced by women, and not by men. On Sunday the Essex Humanists had a discussion on whether religions discriminated against women. We tended to concentrante on the Abrahamic faiths who certainly all don’t give women the same status as men. I am cross with myself for forgetting to mention Suttee in that context.

    Posted by Natalie Kehr | 29 February, 2012, 12:59 pm
    • I didn’t know what Sati was, so I looked it up on Wikipedia. It is the practice of a man’s widow throwing herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre to die and help to alleviate his sins. It puts me in mind of a kind of Japanese ritual suicide, junshi, which was carried out by a Samurai warrior upon the death of his master as a show of grief. In both cases it is the subservient member of the pairing who sacrifices themselves after the death of the dominant partner. In a society which prioritises the life in the world to come, after death, or the honour or reputation of an individual, over and above life in this world, such ritual responses would seem to make sense. I need hardly add that any such act as this would be utterly forbidden in Judaism, as human life in this world is considered to be so unique and precious. It is interesting how such a practice would actually absolve the individual mourner of their pain and grief. I imagine it would, however, simply widen the circle of mourners.

      Posted by Michael Kay | 29 February, 2012, 3:15 pm
      • Wiki may not be reliable, but I have been thinking about this quote “It was deemed an act of peerless piety, and was said to purge the couple of all accumulated sin, guarantee their salvation and ensure their reunion in the afterlife.[3]”

        The idea of a voluntary death affecting the future salvation of another person is not as exotic as it appears at first sight. We are told by Christians that Jesus so loved us all that he agreed to be born as a man so that his death could atone for the sins of believers, and ensure their blissful afterlife. Agreeing to be tortured to death does not appear to me to be very different from other forms of suicide, though speaking personally I would choose a less painful death.

        Posted by Natalie Kehr | 29 February, 2012, 4:58 pm
  8. The Suttee was often forced on the widow who was drugged and egged on by family to perform her ‘duty’. It was not actually part of the religion as I understand it but was rather to do with an extreme expression of loyalty. To make a voluntary expression of grief is normal – to be forced to it is disgusting.

    I still find talking about my Mum hard – she was only 64 – and can empathise with Michael and his family because Carol was only 54. These days even the three score years and ten allocated to normal human beings appears a little short of the normal; but it does get easier and the year helps as do the rituals. The things you remember most strongly are those which touch you most deeply during Shiva – and those stick out as islands of caring and support above a sea of pain.

    Posted by Rabbi Zvi Solomons | 29 February, 2012, 2:58 pm
    • Thank you Rabbi; I agree that the common theme appears to be free choice vs. coercion, although if a society in general sees a certain value as ideal then the boundary may be blurry. Might some see the requirements of shiva to be a coercive expression of grief? Perhaps this is not so clear cut. Maybe the correct distinction to make is not free choice vs. coercion but the belief in the ability and strength of the individual to overcome such obstacles vs. the pessimistic, deterministic alternative, that humans in this world and in this life are simply victims of fate or destiny with no power over their lives or decisions? In both the Indian and Japanese cases the victims of the ritual suicides would seem to be accurately described in this way. I’d welcome some comments on this train of thought.

      Posted by Michael Kay | 29 February, 2012, 3:28 pm
      • No it’s only coercive if it is forced. This is a formalistic approach and not coercive in any way – indeed you won’t see any Rabbi trying to force any mourner to sit shiv’a even though it is considered a good thing to do for psychological reasons, beside halachic ones. They will suggest three days then one day as these are the levels suggested as minima. Not to sit at all is considered wicked, unless the dead told you before death and made you promise not to sit, which many consider as absolving family of shiv’a. My late father was against shiv’a because he experienced it as an obligatory event in Bournemouth, and it was by all accounts dire. When he died my family all sat and it was very therepeutic.

        Posted by Rabbi Zvi Solomons | 29 February, 2012, 3:44 pm
      • Self-determination versus determinism: that sounds like a very Jewish debate. I do think that shiv’a tries to encourage the bereaved to overcome some of their inhibitions in talking about the dead and learn to deal with reality rather than trying to avoid it or to see themselves as wind-blown helpless subjects of the universal forces battering their lives.
        I would say that this is what ritual can help us to do – it puts us in control of our life by making a space where we feel comfortable and creating our own format where we feel we touch the eternal.

        Posted by Rabbi Zvi Solomons | 29 February, 2012, 3:48 pm
  9. To your first point:

    A good point Rabbi, but if it essentially comes down to it being considered wicked not to sit at all then that simply pushes the question back; it might make it a lesser degree of coercion, but not something altogether entirely different from coercion. It brings a compassionate element back into the process, admittedly, but the pressure of the society could still be encouraging a mourner to do something which he or she does not at all want to do, which leaves us with either the need to justify coercion in general or demarcate between one example of coercion (Jewish) and another (Indian or Japanese). I would rather the latter (although this may be personal preference), hence my alternative dichotomy given above.

    To your second:

    I agree, beautifully put.

    Posted by Michael Kay | 29 February, 2012, 4:02 pm
  10. From experience I can tell you that funerals without any ritual are highly unsatisfactory. We have been involved in 2 such funerals. In one, the widower, my husband and I entered the crematorium, the funeral directors carried the coffin into the room, put it down, presssed a button and it disappeared. Nobody said anything. We all left the building. The widower was a difficult loner so he possibly welcomed not having to talk to many people. We took the widower to Cosmo for dinner so that he would have some company.

    The 2nd funeral was even worse. The deceased had said that his widow was to be the only person attending at the crematorium. Our involvement was to take her to Cosmo for dinner that evening. The widow doesn’t have any family. Her husband’s family are all very frum and were reluctant to let people know they had a non-charedi relative, but she has a very large circle of friends who were denied the opportunity of giving her support.

    Now that the Cosmo restaurant no longer exists, we would be really stuck if other friends or relatives opted for such bizarre funeral arrangements.

    Posted by Natalie Kehr | 29 February, 2012, 4:25 pm
  11. Michael, I’m sorry for your loss. My dad died almost 24 years ago, quite suddenly, and I always think how my mother reacted to the words “sorry for your loss”..she said, I didn’t lose him, I know exactly where he is! She smiled (most of the time) but it shows how insufficient words are sometimes. That’s when a hug fits the bill perfectly, and I’ve found that the virtual hugs via Facebook for example, work pretty well, too.

    My dad’s shiva week was exhausting but it was comforting for the reasons you state – we were always surrounded by those who loved my dad, we had no decisions to make, and no one expected anything different from us. When one follows the traditions, the kick in when you need them. It’s good to tweak things sometimes, but I saw first hand how the whole shiva process helped my mom.

    I had always been stumped by what to write on sympathy cards, but I drew from what was important to me when people wrote to me about my dad – sweet stories they share, and the urging to hold on to memories that are comforting.

    Thanks for your words –

    Posted by anitasilvert | 1 March, 2012, 5:00 pm
    • Thanks so much for this Anita, and of course, as you mentioned in your comment on your blog, knowing that this is a ritual which has been practised as a tradition for so long and by so many is also a form of comfort.

      Humour is good where possible, and where not, hugs are always appreciated.

      Thanks again!

      Posted by Michael Kay | 1 March, 2012, 6:32 pm
  12. Thank you for you comment on my blog post ( http://beyondanomie.wordpress.com/2010/12/19/wandering-the-desert/ ) mentioning your entry here. I am not Jewish myself so lack a detail knowledge of the rituals you mention here, but if I think back to when I lost my own mother there was certainly something comforting (or perhaps more accurately, “grounding”) about going through my own set of expected actions.

    I do quite firmly believe that most of us – perhaps all of us – have a deep-seated disquiet regarding the concept of death. We understand it intellectually, but struggle to absorb it as part of us emotionally. Thus, the death of a loved one (or even someone we know of distantly, or perhaps purely through their high-profile) can challenge our emotional sense of balance. Societies have developed a myriad of complex coping mechanisms to deal with mortality and enable a means to accept the pain: philosophy, family lineage, religion, medicine/science, psychological models of grief reactions… the list goes on. The rituals and forms associated with death act as a predictable and unwavering port in an emotional storm. Sometimes that’s important because they can offer comfort, or at least an active duty to perform, or even because they offer something tangible to rail against when actually you want to rail against the universe. In that sense, they normalise the otherwise unacceptability of death both for the mourner, and yes, for the wider community.

    Posted by beyondanomie | 6 March, 2012, 3:10 pm
    • Hi, thanks so much for commenting. I have certainly found the mourning rituals very grounding, and the fact that they are institutionalised and formalised means that everyone knows what to expect and I find this minimalises the awkwardness that could otherwise surround certain changes in the way I’m doing things these days.

      The reason I linked you to this in the first place of course was because I believe it provides an interesting example of the concrete benefits of a community within a spiritual/ritualised lifestyle. As you can see from some of the other comments above, not everyone feels that this would be for them, but as I said, this is a personal balancing act between the individual and the communal.

      Thanks again!

      Posted by Michael Kay | 7 March, 2012, 12:25 am
  13. Yesterday our 7 year old grandaughter made a little cardboard coffin for a daddy long legs that had died in the house. She buried it in the garden and decorated the grave with rose petals and labelled the grave ‘RIP Max’. Her 5 and 3 year old cousins have spent about an hour performing a bug funeral, complete with leaf decoration, drawings, and poems. Rituals are obviously important to humans.

    The recent BBC programs on funeral directors did show that some people are now taking control of the rituals and not simply following those of their community.

    Posted by Natalie Kehr | 30 September, 2012, 8:27 am

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