As part of the Oxford UK ‘Kicking the Bucket Festival of living and dying’ kickingthebucket.co.uk, I attended an evening entitled Why we need rituals in our lives, with an emphasis on last rites. Speakers, representing Judaic, Hindu, Pagan, Buddhist, Humanist and Muslim traditions, shared how their last rites are carried out. This gave a rich and varied tapestry of the many different ways we honour our dead.
While each presentation was very different and unique, all of them had at the same time a universal appeal which felt very comforting and unifying. In the Jewish tradition for example, there is the ‘shiver’, a seven day period in which the family and community take over all the daily chores for the bereaved, allowing them to do the one thing they really need to do at that time, which is to mourn. The pagans light a big fire; sing songs to Mother Earth and her cycles of death and rebirth, where death is merely seen as dormancy, a sleep before the next awakening. In both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions chanting the Name of God, and the recitation of mantras, is part of the ritual in support of the deceased, but also as a comfort for those who remain behind. A Christian priest who works in a hospice offers his dying patients Holy Communion and anointment with oils or simple non-Christian prayers containing words of love, peace and blessings and the offering of rose petals – a ceremony that invites the entire family. All cultures perform rituals to mark the important stages in a human life, including that of our death. So Why Rituals ? –
– Rituals create order – at a time of destabilising transition
– Rituals give meaning – at a time of uncertainty
– Rituals create community – at times when we might feel lonely and
– Rituals handle ambivalence – which often occurs when we are at the
threshold of something new.
– Rituals engender mystery – When we live in an age of materialism and
control, rituals give a sense of search, play, mystery and
wonder which is vital for the human soul to live and thrive.