The Importance of Ritual

by | Aug 11, 2023

The definition of ritual is “a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, actions, or objects, performed according to a set sequence. Rituals may be prescribed by the traditions of a community, including a religious community.” (wikipedia) Rituals can be: 1) a mythological reenactment, or a long-standing religious ritual that reenacts a sacred story; 2) a rite of passage, which is a culturally significant marker of a new stage of life; 3) a family ritual, which are often less religious- and community-oriented and more relaxed. 

When I look at rituals around death, all three types are often incorporated into dealing with grief. Our Catholic faith provides the Order of Christian Funerals which include the rituals of Wake or Vigil Prayers, Funeral Mass, and Rite of Committal at the graveside as journey markers as we hand our loved one back to God. What do our religious rituals do and why should we follow them? Rituals spell out in symbolic ways the meaning of something significant in process in our lives. In experiencing the death of a loved one, we use rituals symbolically to express our love and honor for the individual. 

The Wake 

In the days prior to mortuary personnel taking over the care of the dead, the one who died was “waked” at home. The family would bathe then dress the body and lay the body out in a homemade casket in the parlor. Relatives, friends, and neighbors would come to visit the family, share stories and food, and then stay with the family as they awaited the time of the funeral Mass. The body would be carried to the church for the service and then taken to the cemetery, which was often near the church. Burial prayers would be said as the family said their final goodbyes. 

Wakes were serious business. The immediate family was all present, usually dressed in dark clothing and they interacted with everyone who attended. They stood near the casket and visitors offered condolences to each family member prior to viewing the deceased. People knew they were expected to attend a wake of someone known to them. This was the first stage in journeying home to God.  

Today’s wakes are very different. There may be a casket, urn, or no body at all. The room is often full of photos of the deceased from infancy through senior years. There may be some flowers but also memorial cards for donations to a cause or group that the individual supported. There may be no prayer service. Often, there is no wake at all. There may be an hour visitation prior to the funeral at the church, but no real time to interact with the family. There is no time to share stories or how one knew the individual. What had taken several hours and sometimes days in the past, is now reduced to perhaps 45 minutes of contact. 

When a wake occurs at the church, there is no sense of journey or procession from wake to funeral (church). Those processions were solemn, showing respect for the dead. It was marking a rite of passage from the family to the larger church community. This practice has basically vanished in many places, leaving us empty and wanting something more that oftentimes we can’t verbalize. 

The Funeral 

This is the time we gather as a Church community to remember the one who died and hand him/her over to God. We pray for the individual and choose Scripture and liturgical music that speak of how this person lived the gospel message. We honor the body by clothing it again with a pall, the reminder of the white baptismal garment received when a person was first welcomed into the community of faith. We use the Paschal Candle and incense to show reverence. The priest speaks prayers of resurrection and returning to our Creator. The community holds up the family members during the Mass. The deceased was part of this community, celebrated life events, Eucharist, and the liturgical year here. It is appropriate to ritually return him/her to God. 

Today, we often find people trying to push the wake into this celebration. They request eulogies, which are not even mentioned in the Funeral Mass, non-liturgical music, or readings that are not from Scripture. I believe this is because we have missed the Wake ritual which fulfilled these desires. The wake provided a multitude of times to speak of the deceased, use their favorite secular music and poetry in memory. When the wake is removed there is that “gap” that wants filling, much like the third type of ritual mentioned at the beginning of this article. 

A major change that I’ve seen occur in the past 40 years is that many times, children of the deceased are no longer practicing the Catholic faith. When it comes time to plan the Funeral Mass, or any of the rituals, they’re not comfortable with what they no longer know. They sometimes will say that they don’t want a Funeral Mass which goes against their parent’s faith practice in the community. This is one of the reasons I encourage people to include Mass planning in their preparation for death. By having your Funeral Mass plan at the parish, this will help your family know what you want 

There is another part of the “celebration” that has become its own ritual, which is the lunch. This can occur either following the Mass or the burial. Sometimes it’s open to those who attended the Mass, other times the family decides to go to a restaurant or relative’s home on their own.  I’ve seen the lunch become something of what the Vigil had been earlier—a time to share stories, music, memories, and connect with the family. This is more acceptable than trying to merge it as an expectation of the Funeral Mass. Often a parish, we will set up the lunch room with a microphone, podium and bring in any displays and memorabilia. This seems to work best for all involved and can feel more like what a Wake used to be.  

Burial Rite 

 This is the last formal ritual. When the service in the church is concluded, the body is carried or processed to the grave or tomb. It is welcoming the loved one to his/her final resting place and into the communion of the saints. The final prayers entrust the deceased to God and to a future hope of resurrection. It’s the last goodbye. The cemetery is a holy place where you know your loved one will be cared for until the end of time. You have a place to come to remember, share stories, and pray.  

Humans are ritualistic, whether it is the pattern one follows when rising and preparing for the day, singing “Happy Birthday” to mark their appearance in the world, or how one performs certain chores. Rituals surrounding death provide a concrete way for the living to begin the painful process of continuing life in the midst of grief, supported by the Church and her members.