I really don’t understand “ritual”. I mean; I understand what it is intellectually and I can even imagine why some (many?) people want it (need it?), but it doesn’t “do” anything for me and I simply don’t feel an attraction to any of it. Maybe this is another function of my schizoid personality.
I would define ritual as a gathering of people to engage in a commonly understood and choreographed process of interacting with each other. It really is like a dance with certain defined steps and “rules” and roles that the participants are supposed to know and observe, very much like a ballet or opera.
There are many forms of ritual in human society. Obviously there is religious ritual, but other common forms include courtship rituals, marriage rituals, generic social rituals like attending work-organized “Holiday” parties, or going on the classic family summer-vacation – and then there are death rituals. I am reminded of this because the other day we had a sudden and high-profile death at the place where I work. There was an immediate scurry (and I mean within a couple of hours) to set up a tribute web-page and a place for “quiet communal reflection” and within about 12-hours there was a community gathering complete with local TV-news coverage and memorial address by the widow. I passed on all of it.
It is not that I had anything against this guy; he seemed quite pleasant personally and I think that he did a great job and was very good for the institution, but he was about 4 or 5 levels above me in the organizational hierarchy and other than saying hello to him twice in the last 2-years as we walked past each other, I had no contact with him.
I suppose that the reason why people like to gather together to memorialize someone who has died is because – to put it crassly – misery loves company. I guess that when you are sad and upset it makes many people feel better to know that others are feeling the same way. I really didn’t know this guy at a personal level however, so there is a limit to how “bad” I can feel about his demise, unfortunate as it may be for him and his family. I also find it hard to believe that very many of the hundreds of people (literally) who are involving themselves in these rituals knew this guy any better than I did. What compels them to participate in this? Is it supposed to make his family feel better that these hundreds of nameless strangers are willing to stand around and listen to eulogies about him? Is it that folks are afraid of being labeled a weird-o and sociopath if they don’t go-along and do the “normal thing” (something that I have no concern about for myself)? Maybe it is just that this is An Event and people like to see-and-be-seen in any crowd so that they can think of themselves as safely nestled in the bosom of The Human Herd.
I remember when my father died a dozen years ago. I loved my father very much and I still miss him today, but I was entirely lost and confused by the rituals involved with his passing. His second wife organized a memorial service for him some time after his death and insisted that I travel hundreds of miles to attend, which I did to gratify her. I was completely befuddled by the expectations that everyone seemed to have for me as the sole surviving blood-family though. I guess that I was supposed to “just know about these things”, but I was unprepared when the minister announced moments before the service was to begin that I should stand up and Say A Few Words about my father to this gathering of people who I had never met before. Had I realized this some time earlier, I might have been able to organize my thoughts into a presentable form, but being surprised by this unexpected obligation, I simply refused. As I sat there silently in the service listening to others blather I started to feel downright annoyed by what was going on. This was my father after all and I had a closer connection to him than any of these other people did. My relationship with him and my memories of him were deeply personal and I felt insulted that these strangers wanted me to expose these feelings publicly for their perusal and judgement. How dare they make such demands at a difficult time like this? It was as if they wanted me to strip naked and run around the block a few times for their puerile satisfaction.
On the other hand, ritual is just supposed to be about participating in the communal dance and going through the motions dictated by the formulaic rules, it isn’t really about actual “meaning” at all.