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© NOVA DECEMBER 2009
A sense of mystery around
ceremonial events is just
part of our human thirst for
meaning, says Eric Harrison.
He shares some memorable
What is it that distinguishes human
beings from other animals?
regard the evidence of funeral rites
around a dead body as the first signs of
a distinctly human consciousness. Many
animals clearly mourn their dead -- it's
perfectly natural for them to do so -- but
we human beings, excessive as always,
aren't content with that. We need the
supernatural as well!
The presence of flowers, ornaments,
food or weapons in a prehistoric grave
suggests that the sur vivors felt the dead
person would still need them. They
felt that death was not final despite the
repulsive evidence, and that the dead
would sur vive in some afterlife. Perhaps
the gifts were a kind of pay off, to make
sure the dead didn't stay around to
haunt them. In any case, what makes us
human, or at least what adds a human
superstructure to our basic animal nature,
is this kind of "spirituality" around death.
This is most vividly illustrated by the
grotesque elaboration of funeral rites in
ancient Egypt, in which a fixation on
death consumed the lives and energies of
thousands of people for centuries.
Ceremonies typically accompany
rites of passage such as birth,
marriage, graduation, leave-taking and
homecoming, grand openings and grand
conclusions, and other Very Important
Events. Yet although involved with such
concrete matters, ceremonies invariably
feel mysterious as well.
A ceremony typically suggests three
things. Firstly, that this particular event
is very important, even if you can't say
why. Secondly, that its significance is
too profound to be fully understood in
words. It commonly needs the support of
images, symbols and music as well.
And thirdly, that this event deserves at
least a few minutes of silent, non-verbal,
contemplation. A ceremony is an invitation
to consider: what does this mean for me?
Of course, the mystery element in a
ceremony is often just befuddlement: "I
know this event is important, and that
other people want me to be here, but I
can't see why." In fact many ceremonies
are painfully devoid of the meaning we
feel they should have. Ceremonies without
mystery are like champagne without
bubbles or alcohol. Indeed, ceremonies
often rely on the free flow of intoxicants
to raise both our animal spirits and our
sense of spiritual significance.
I learnt about good ceremonies years
ago when I was involved in a Buddhist
cult. To my chagrin, I soon found that the
people lacked my interest in meditation,
but that they adored ceremonies. On our
so-called "meditation" retreats, all pretence
at meditation was rapidly sacrificed to
the preparation of huge, theatrical rituals
devoted to the evocation of particular
Each would take days to prepare, and
each varied according to the diety. The
ceremonies typically required multileveled
altars; ribbons, candles, f lowers and
foodstuffs of particular colours; paintings,
incense, gorgeous robes, sacred texts,
magical charms and elegantly wrapped
packages of money. I even recall
ceremonies that required cups made
of real human skulls, filled with ersatz
blood, f lutes made of human thighbones
to call up the local demons and, on one
occasion, the intestines of a pig. These
spectacular, engaging events were full of
symbolic meaning, even though it remains
difficult for me to explain, after all these
years, what they were actually about.
Eventually, I cut my losses and left
that group, as did nearly everyone else
involved, but I do appreciate what it taught
me about ceremonies. They knew how to
do it right. They set the benchmark. I now
have no trouble distinguishing between
a living ceremony and a dead ritual.
I learnt two things in particular.
The first is that the more you physically
participate in the construction and
execution of a ceremony, the more
meaningful it becomes. Blood, sweat and
tears are very useful ingredients in any
important activity. Participants always
learn more than spectators. Secondly,
any regular ritual needs to be refreshed
or it rapidly degenerates into routine. For
example, as a bare minimum, altars need
to be kept alive with a daily supply of fresh
f lowers, water, candles or incense.
Ceremonies are typically about Very
Important Events, but they often feel stale
if they run according to the manual. For
example, I think we often attend funerals
hoping for the best, but also expecting
the worst. Funerals often occur with far
too much bureaucratic efficiency and
haste. They should be an invitation to
contemplate, but some barely give you
time to breathe. Not surprisingly, many
people take matters into their own hands.
Here are some of my memories of great
deaths and funerals...
When one of my friends knew his
mother was dying, he didn't want to send
her to an undertaker, so he researched
the legal requirements. He found that he
could do virtually everything himself, if
he wanted to. He only needed a doctor's
certificate to say she was actually dead,
and a suitable place to bury her. When
his mother died in her little cottage, the
women prepared her body, and she was
laid on a table in the living room for three
days and nights, always attended by at
least one member of the family.
I remember passing her cottage at
this time. Through the open window came
the sound of a child singing, along with
the faint whiff of decay. I peeked in and
saw Amy, her five year old granddaughter
all alone with the corpse, singing songs to
her grandmother. I was most impressed.
Since funerals are as much for the living
as for the dead, I'm sure Amy would
have had very positive memories of her
Another old lady I knew decided it
was just too hard trying to reach a hundred
as her older sister had done. She was
still a lively conversationalist and in full
control of her faculties, but she decided
to choose her time and style of death. A
few months short of her century, she sent
out the message that she would soon be
dead, and invited all her relatives to
say goodbye. Dozens came, young and
old. She then stopped taking food and
died four days later. Her niece who
was attending her told me: "I went into
Auntie's bedroom every hour to check on
her. About midnight, I went to her door
and realised I could no longer hear her
breathing. It was all over."
Of course, it is even better to celebrate
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