The power of ritual is well known to science. Studies have shown how even small rituals can reduce anxiety, foster community, and help people find meaning and agency during times of uncertainty.
But what happens when we live in a society where our rituals, particularly those surrounding death, are no longer as common or meaningful to people as they once were?
While many cultures have formalized and communal ways of acknowledging death, Western society’s attitudes towards death, and our overall loss of religious and cultural rituals, have made grieving often feel like a lonely and isolating experience. We live in a society where death and grieving are seen as private, and sometimes even shameful, experiences. People are afraid to say the wrong thing so they say nothing at all.
In her book The Long Goodbye, author Megan O’Rourke writes “In the days following my mother’s death, I did not know what I was supposed to do, nor, it seemed, did my friends and colleagues.” As she discovers, in a society willing to be open about almost anything, “grief is the last taboo.”
That silence about death and grieving hurts us, both as individuals and as a society. It shows up in our bodies, our social connections, and mental well-being. For us at Be Ceremonial, it’s important to break that silence.
Our co-founder, Megan Sheldon, believes that death should be a part of life, just like grief is a part of love. Megan is part of a movement of death educators, death doulas, and end of life care providers seeking to bring these conversations out into the open, or in the case of the Death Over Dinner movement, right to the dinner table.
She says in her Dear Death love letter, “We need to learn to tell a new story, a story that talks openly about death and dying, a story that reframes grief not as something we get over, but something we learn to walk with.”
As shifting attitudes, new ideas and even new technology continue to change the ways we live and die, and traditional institutions no longer feel as relevant, our age-old need for ritual in the face to loss hasn’t changed at all. Rituals are a way to “create structure where there is none,” according to Bruce Feiler, best-selling author of Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age. It doesn’t matter if they are part of a larger spiritual practice, or unique to your family, hundreds of years old or brand new, these small deliberate acts can help our minds and bodies cope in times of crisis.
Bringing intentionality and meaning to difficult moments benefits not only ourselves but our communities as well, giving those around us a way to walk with us on our journey of love and loss. In a culture where death is often surrounded by silence and denial, acknowledging what is both deeply personal and universal in grief helps give voice to the joys and sorrows of life, and connects us with our shared humanity.
Whether it’s sharing our end of life wishes, helping a grieving friend or having more open conversations about death, we can all learn to be a part of creating a culture with a healthier and more open attitude to death and grieving.