In the last 10 days I have been sadly reminded of the importance of the rituals of grief. Perhaps more than any custom the traditions of bringing family, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances together to a funeral and for the visiting around it, the tradition of bringing home-cooked food to the grieving family, the tradition of sending messages of condolences to those who have lost a loved one--all of these traditions are central to maintaining a sense of community, purposefulness, solidarity, and continuity of life in the face of acute loss for the grieving family. Faith, hope, and charity are the foundation of these rituals. In these times, we not only show our support and love for the grieving family, but we also pay due respect to the unique individuality of the person who has passed away and honor him or her for their contribution to our lives.
All of these rituals also remind us of the many ways in which we affect the lives of people without our even knowing it, and lets us know of the importance of every gesture and word of kindness to another person. I am reminded of Wendell Berry's short story, "Pray Without Ceasing," which describes the community's response to a senseless killing. Once the funeral is over, the bereaved family has before it the hard task of putting their life back together, and of finding their peace with the reality of their loss. This is also a time when it is crucial for family and friends to stand fast and be there when needed. Patience and presence.
In all the rituals of grief, women play a primary role, and it is often up to them to organize support for the grieving family. This is a function that women need time to perform not only for the aggrieved but also for the community. It is hard to imagine what society would be without these rituals of grief when a death robs us of the living presence of a beloved human being. Without the reaffirmation of the interconnectedness of friends and family at this time, it would be as if a person's death, and life, had no meaning, did not matter. In the same way, funerals and memorial services that exclude thoughts of God and of the immortal soul seem to come up empty. The reaffirmation of life in the face of the profound mystery of death is as old as man; Neanderthal man placed flowers on the graves of the departed.