My attitude towards rituals completely changed after recently watching the 1997 television miniseries True Women. It happened quite suddenly, in the span of only ten seconds. When I saw a frontier woman burning her mourning clothes on her husband’s grave, I understood the importance of ritual for the first time in my life.
I had never seen this done before, nor had I ever read about it. Yet, I instinctively knew it symbolized a significant transition. She had grieved long and deeply, and now it was time to get back to being fully present in the life that remained.
I realized then, that we don’t have anything like this nowadays to help us move beyond our grief. Even joyous occasions, like a boy becoming a man and a girl becoming a woman, lack the attention of ritual. With the exception of the Jewish Bar Mitzvah and the Latin-American Quinceañera, there is no celebration to commemorate our transition from childhood into adulthood.
While many modern cultures continue to observe weddings and funerals, even those rituals are becoming less revered. We often get married without a ceremony, or we don’t get married at all and simply live together. Then, after we breathe our last breath, we’re not even guaranteed a memorial service.
If we have devalued the significance of life to the extent that we no longer pay much attention to its particulars, no wonder we are struggling to feel significant ourselves. After all, if we don’t matter enough for people to celebrate the momentous events in our lives and to grieve our passing, do we matter at all? Does our life matter?
Although each one of us absolutely does matter, when we lose the rituals that serve as evidence we have a harder time believing it’s true. Yet, it’s not just about us believing we matter. It’s also about communicating to others how much they matter.
I finally see that rituals give us that. They show us we belong. They show us that people care about us and we care about them.
Although I used to view the word “ritual” in a negative light, I no longer see it that way. I finally understand that rituals provide a platform for supporting one another through all the transitions of life. They provide a means of rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn.
When that widow ceremoniously placed her black dress on the fire, I thought of those of us grieving divorce. I wondered how different it might be if we had a way to signify when it was time to begin to trust again and to love again. Or even to hope again.
Putting on mourning clothes might seem archaic, but you know what? At least we’d get so sick of wearing the same outfit day after day that we’d reach a point when we were ready to burn the stained and smelly old thing and get on with our lives. In fact, maybe that was the whole point.
“Rituals are important. Nowadays it’s hip not to be married. I’m not interested in being hip.” – John Lennon