Rites of Mourning

John Morehead has been penning some more post Burning Man reflections which feed into my own interests in alternative ritual. He notes:

This Burner recognizes something that scholars have touched on as well.. For example, Sarah Pike says that this mourning process at Burning Man is "a substitute for failed rites of passage in the outside world, healing emotions left behind after more traditional death rites were completed." The resonance of such ritual and communal acts of memorialization at Burning Man may point out a deficit in the ways in which we deal with death in the West.

But we need look so far to see this deficit. Witness the numerous makeshift shrines at the feet of telegraph poles along busy Sydney streets. Testament to primal needs to express grief in ways beyond what custom normally offers.

I recently made the observation on one forum that Australian census statistics on religious preference said more about people's wedding and funeral preferences than about their everyday spirituality, but the emergence of these roadside rituals says to me that people are looking for more even here.

The new expressions of Christianity we are seeing birthed in the West have, unsurprisingly, focussed more on life rituals than funeral rituals, and I think that is as it should be. But as these expressions mature I think we should expect to see new Christian grief rites emerge as well. And after all, death is not the only thing we need to grieve.

What might such rites look like…?

5 thoughts on “Rites of Mourning

  1. I think Judith Voirst’s wonderful book, “Necessary Losses: The Loves, Illusions, Dependencies and Impossible Expectations That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Grow” would be a terrific place to look for the kinds of grief rituals that are needed.
    This powerful book has been so very helpful to me…if you haven’t seen it, Matt, I highly recommend it to you…and anyone else! I can’t imagine that it is not still available…I’ve had mine for 20 years!
    Our Christian heritage should provide us with great insight and strength about embracing loss, but perhaps it is another casualty to our materialistic and self-serving culture that we try to escape all forms of loss…and thereby fail to grow.
    Hmmm….I think I’ll just have to read it again!


  2. I was recently asked to conduct an informal wake, marking 40 days after a friend’s mother had died. The occassion was marked by a gathering of friends and family. In preparing for this I spent some time with my friend talking about her mother. They had not had an easy relationship, but I emphasized the importance of happy childhood memories and there were several which came to mind for my friend.
    So the way the event unfolded was roughly:
    1. A few words of introduction followed by some Bible readings (Ecclesiastes 3, Psalm 23, John 14 1-6)
    2. A time of remembering the person who had died – my friend and her brother sharing happy childhood memories, playing a favourite piece of music, a slide-show of photos.
    3. A time of silent prayer and for lighting prayer candles. Everyone present was invited to light a candle for anyone they wished to pray for. They were invited to share who it was for or to remain silent.
    4. Summing-up prayers – in which anyone was invited to pray aloud, and in which I tried to give voice to the love and grief which was being poured out, and giving thanks for the love. We ended by all saying the Lord’s prayer – then broke up for an informal afternoon tea.
    The occasion meant a lot to my friend and, I think, was healing for her and her brother.
    Neither I nor my friend are Catholic, but this suggestion came from a mutual friend who is Catholic. I remembered that when I lived in Poland in the 90s there was a strong culture of remembering the dead. Families would put up posters, often with a photo of the deceased, in public places on the anniversary of their death. So there was a strong sense that the dead were not forgotten but frequently and publicly remembered.
    I think it is this aspect of publicly remembering the dead which helps the grieving process, and which we so much lack in a culture of private religion.


  3. Thanks for sharing that ritual with us Mike. I think you particularly hit the nail on the head with that last observation. I will have to chew on that more as I explore this further.


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