I have been reflecting on the topic of ritual. Many things might be said, but where my mind was lingering - is that rituals are typically thought of as a signal of the beginning of something.
A christening. A marriage. An ordination. A graduation ceremony - although it marks the end of a school cycle - it is really is more about looking forward and preparing for the next step. Think about the commencement speech. Though it might have a sentimental quality... it's typical focus is the future... Even handshakes and the greeting "How are you?" are a ritualistic way that we begin to encounter one another. Retirement parties are not called "Ending Work" parties - the name signals actually what the next step is - retirement. Usually the person retiring will fill in party-goers on their plans for retirement.
And, usually with these beginnings, the ritual signals the community to be more aware of these individuals... we want to offer them more support in this new phase of existence. Support for the new couple, the new parents, the new graduate.
The only ritual I can think of that the common culture uses with the conception of it marking an "end" of something - is a funeral or memorial service.
Which causes me to reflect on this difference and ask some questions.
For those with a casual relationship to the departed or their family, the funeral or memorial may, indeed, seem like an ending. A closure. Something that has finished. They might attend the ceremony, feel like the process is complete and go on about the rest of their lives.
But for those who are intimately touched by the loss - the funeral or memorial are really just a beginning.
Perhaps we can shift the societal view of funerals and memorials. Maybe we can conceive of it as a different kind of beginning.
It certainly marks the beginning of grief, or a new phase of grief. It is certainly a shift in some people from anticipatory grief to literal grief.
For those intimately effected, on a practical level, it is the beginning of a new set of personal challenges. Re-forming your life's contours. Setting an amended course, perhaps being adrift for a time. Numbness to be followed by acute agony and pain in missing the departed.
But even deeper, it may mark the beginning of a dialogue. A conversation with self, the universe, God or the departed. Maybe it is the beginning of a conversation about ultimate meaning. About the "why" of death. About what makes the little time we have on earth of value.
I would suggest that those who officiate these ceremonies - clergy, rabbis, officiants - need to consider what we do when we lead these services. While looking back at the life of the departed is a good and fitting part of the ceremony and something that certainly everyone wants - looking forward toward the hard days ahead for those who are deeply grieving should be included in homilies, sermons and speeches. We need to be truth-bearers to tell a rather uniformed world that this is not closure, it is just the beginning of a long - sometimes complex - conversation between the intimates of the departed and the emotions and personal circumstances they now find themselves in.
We need to let people know that the funeral or memorial does not give the grieving intimates of the deceased "closure."
It is a beginning. A BEGINNING that signals a need for long-term support.