Unit 14 -- Ceremonies and Rituals for Connection and Change

Grief in a Family Context --HPER F460/F560

This unit was developed for this class by Rev. Howard Gorle

Goals for this Unit

This is our final content unit for the course and our intent is to address the role ritual and ceremony play in our lives and, more specifically, in relation to loss and bereavement.


The unit this week was written for us by Rev. Howard Gorle, who has worked extensively with bereaved individuals and families. He developed this unit for this class so that we can explore the significance of ritual in our lives and that we can do it in the communal environment of our class.

As you work through the unit, think about how it relates to your own use and experience of rituals and ceremonies. Think of how you use them in your personal and professional life. How might the "frame" of ritual and/or ceremony be used to increase the power of your experience. Consider how you might change your use of ritual and ceremony.



Web Resources


Late in the semester I (Howard) last updated this lecture (fall, 1997), I asked my daughter and grandchild to join my wife, Donna, and do some Christmas shopping for me.  They were instructed  to search for a very specific Christmas gift for my mother in law, Jo. In return I paid for lunch so they could enjoy an afternoon together.  I doubt I'm the only male who asked for help with shopping at that time of year but what made my request unique was that my mother in law had been dead for 8 months and my grandchild was scheduled to make a first appearance in mid January 1998!

Initially, that sounds a little strange.  However, if we examine the 'project' in detail we learn a little about creating and using ritual, symbol and ceremonies to deal with grief within a family system especially around 'holiday or anniversary dates'.

First, some background.

Jo and Donna had been quite close as mother and daughter.  They were 'baseball buddies' (Toronto Blue Jays) as well as friends.  Jo's death was complicated by considerable conflict within her family of origin resulting  in estrangement or 'multiple losses' for Donna. This Christmas is to be the first without her mother and, I suspect,  the traditional contact and sharing with other family members. Donna's sense of 'family support' has been altered.

Project Objectives.

First and foremost, my actions expressed my love for Donna (and my need to make that expression). They symbolized  and expressed my support for her. The acknowledgement of her grief gave her permission to openly express her feelings and a framework within which she was able to further explore her process of reconciliation.

Second, the task emphasized the continuity between three generations of mothers and provided an opportunity for Donna to re-invest more of the mother-daughter energy she enjoyed with Jo into her already strong relationship with her own daughter.

Third, Donna's new role as 'grandmother' and her changed relationship with Jo was acknowledged.  She began a 'family tradition' (more on this later) that made her the link between her mother and her mother's great-grandchild.  Donna has moved toward the role of custodian of Jo's history as an individual, mother and grandmother and being the living repository of Jo's skills of mother-craft and personhood.

Fourth,  family supports were expressed in concrete terms and 'support memories' created.  Our perceptions of family and social support systems are conceived in our 'crisis memory'  before being tested in our present reality.  That perception plays a significant role in our ability to reconcile our grief and cope with future crisis.

Fifth,  Donna and Michelle (and baby) were instructed to shop carefully for an ornament or decoration for our Christmas tree that reminded them of Jo.  They found a tree top angel reminiscent of her hair colouring and complexion. The placing of that angel on the tree by Donna (a ceremony)  served as a reminder to us all of Jo's continued spiritual presence with us and as a catalyst for memories of seasons past.

I've explored a sample of the dynamics of ritual and symbolism as they impact on one member of a family.  I'm a part of this new tradition as is Michelle, my grandchild, and every other family member.  We all experience and interpret this new ceremony from within our unique paradigms.  There are, however, several 'basics' toward the understanding, creating and use of ritual and ceremony to facilitate the grieving process within families.

This lecturer was written from the perspective of the 'philosopher / poet, which is not an unusual genre for a philosopher / poet to use, but, as much fun and as stimulating as that may be, ritual and symbolism in our lives must  be examined from a technical perspective if we are to use it effectively. Ironically, to understand the life giving qualities of ritual we have to start with an autopsy and break ritual down to its component building blocks. (I think of them as Liturgical Leggos)

Why? Because my hope is that at the end of this unit you will have acquired the necessary tools to explore and enjoy your already rich ritual life. Further, the creation of unique, effective rituals as instruments of healing for yourself and others will bring you a greater understanding and appreciation of this wonderful state called `being human'.

Before we can discuss ritual we need to agree on the meaning of several important words. The English language allows for much overlap and freedom of use. Anthropologists, liturgists, sociologists and others use interchangeable terms to describe the same event or sequence of events. The words `ceremony' and `ritual' are often used synonymously to refer to a total event.


Our culture endows words with meanings not originally intended. Usually, but not always, we refer to a funeral as a `service' or `ritual'. `Ceremony' carries implications of `celebration' that we deem inappropriate for an event signified by grief. Thus, we can have a wedding and a funeral in the same building, with the same community and leader, on the same day and we will separate the `funeral service' in the morning from the `wedding ceremony' in the afternoon through the meaning and value conveyed by the language.

The technical application of `ceremony' refers to movement or gesture expressing feeling or belief beyond the limitations of speech. An ideal `ceremony' should convey meaning without the use of language. A ceremony can be elaborate or simple, formal or intimate.

A hug, kiss on the cheek, and handshake are ceremonies capable of touching deep emotions and conveying meaning, or they can be used as polite expressions of formal protocol. Liturgically, the elevation of the host, the sprinkling of water, anointing with oil, `laying on of hands' or the joining of hands in marriage is the ceremony.

Closing a casket in view of or with the assistance of the bereaved is a `ceremony' within the funeral ritual. No rite (words) is needed. Deep emotional bonds are laid bare. As the coffin lid is closed the family infrastructure is attacked. The click of the locking mechanism screams "YOU WILL NOT SEE ME AGAIN".

The act of sprinkling or shovelling earth onto the casket in the grave is a poignant `ceremony' within the funeral `ritual' that speaks to the finality of death. It is the action in and of itself that is the `ceremony'.

In a broader sense a dance can be a `ceremony'. That is, when performers rely on body movement and action to articulate emotion and evoke similar feelings from the audience, or to articulate community bonds rather than simply tell a story a dance becomes a `ceremony'.


`Rite' refers to the `spoken word' used in a ritual to convey meaning and value, to evoke an image through the use of metaphor, or elicit commitment or loyalty to a cause, set of beliefs, community or person(s). A rite can express meaning or a `state of being' through sound as in laughter, crying, a sigh, or keening.

The rite may have originated as an oral tradition passed from one generation to the next remarkably unchanged. In time rites were committed to paper, often to become formal, stiff and dry. That is, they were no longer `authentic' (Imber-Black) in that they lack the spontaneity of expression or outpouring of communal emotion and belief instrumental in expressing communal cohesiveness. The same can be said of ceremony, symbol and sign.


Signs are anticipatory. They speak to our intellect and direct us towards and help shape the future. Functionally they direct us to coming events, points in time or positions in space. A highway sign `Off ramp 2 miles' points us to a position in space. `Rock Concert' is a sign pointing to an event and "Off Ramp to Rock Concert on March 28" is a sign pointing to an event taking place at a specific point in space at a specified point in time. A physical article pointing to the numinous (a cross, candle, star of David) directs us to an experience or fulfillment of an expectation, hope or promise. The same article can be a symbol.

An engagement ring or token is given as a `sign' of the love between a man and woman and points towards the consummation of that love at the time of marriage. The wedding ring, given during the marriage ritual as a `symbol' of enduring love speaks to the uniting of the couples past, present and future.

Signs of significant cultural impact tend to evolve into symbols. Drum beats and bugle calls were originally used as `signs' in the military. Troops received directions in battle in the form of unique drum rolls or melodies directing them to advance, withdraw, charge, move to the right or left and so on. The Last Post originated during war as a bugle call signal to withdraw. Its dramatic impact when played today as a symbol of sacrifice, duty and honour stirs up tremendous emotional responses.


`Symbols' speak to the wholeness of being human. They are holistic in that our intellect and psyche come together in symbols to express the otherwise inexpressible. Symbols have a past, present and future. Our collective memory, our present understanding and dreams for the future can be united in symbols. King Arthur's sword symbolizes a chivalrous past when honour, valour and dignity were united in the concept of the virtuous knight. In the present tense the sword expresses our willingness to commit to those same values, a willingness to suffer hardship if necessary, and our commitment to a fellowship or culture dedicated to those mores and norms. Simultaneously, the ideals expressed in the symbol of the sword are gathered into our dreams of the future. Seemingly disparate elements, (glorious past, elusive present, and unattainable dream) are expressed and experienced in the here and now through symbol.

The integral elements of symbol are unlimited, bounded only by human experience and creativity. Colour, form, sound, gesture, movement, texture, pitch, and rhythm and so on impart a unique quality as `read' by the group or individual. The power inherent in symbols is the ability to speak to the innermost depths of our individuality while binding us to the collective whole of the group.

All our senses are attuned to symbol. The Marine Corps uniforms, flags, and weapons are `visual symbols' displayed during and within the context of an honour guard `ceremony'. Bugle calls and drum rolls are `auditory symbols'. At close quarters the resonance of the music is felt viscerally and seems to `shake loose' dormant feelings.

I reviewed the class discussions from previous sessions (i.e, postings to the conference software in fall, '97) and noted four trends emerging from class members:

First, there was a marked emphasis toward an understanding of ritual solely in terms of spirituality and religiosity.

Second,  the questions 'How do rituals work' and 'Why do they work?' never came up.

Third,  we never made a distinction between our 'conscious' and 'unconscious' rituals.

Fourth, how do we 'think' or 'process' symbols and ritual?

Before we proceed, let's examine the 'mechanics' of ritual in more detail.

Rituals, Spiritual and Secular.

Western culture interprets 'sacred' as only being spiritual or religious.  In 1915 Durkhiem challenged this phenomenon and described ritual as a framework that highlighted something in society that had been set apart or been made special.  He described 'Sacred' as something to which meaning and values have been ascribed that take it beyond the ordinary of life.  Thus, we all have possessions, relationships, and beliefs, that are sacred to ourselves or  the small group(s) to which we belong,  but may not be 'sacred' to those outside the group.


"Who desecrated my favourite beer glass by pouring milk into it?"  yelled Bob.
     "I didn't know it was a 'sacred' glass."
"Well, it is and I'm damned angry you used it without permission.
      "It's just an ordinary glass, not the bloody holy grail!!!!!'
"No it's not 'ordinary'.  It's the last of six glasses that me,  my brother and our buddies shared a beer with before we went overseas. I drink from it every 23 May, the day our ship went down.  I was the only survivor."

The 'specialness'  or 'sacredness' of the glass, as something set aside or viewed as beyond 'normal' was not  particularly  spiritual or religious.  In fact, it was associated with a bitter anger and desire for vengeance this WWII veteran had carried from 1943 to 1993 - fifty years -  and  prevented 'Bob' from making his way through his grief, reconciliation and ultimately, reconciliation.  The glass was invested with symbolic meaning and had become an object of attachment.

So, ritual can be both secular and / or spiritual as well as healing and / or destructive.

In 1971 Alvin Toffler, the author of 'Future Shock' was lecturing at Western where I was a student.  He envisioned the pressure of industrialisation resulting in the  loss of much of the  ritual and structure that has bound western society together and the resulting vacuum that results.  He pointed out that the transition simultaneously provided opportunities for us to create new and relevant rituals that coincided with our technology.  He was certainly 'right on' in the area of grief.  The 'old' supports have passed away and we are in the process of re-interpreting the meaning of death and loss and of developing new rituals and ceremonies to express that meaning.

Regrettably, the 'rituals' emerging may not touch on the five traditional powers of ritual.  For example,  there is a growing trend (US 8% in 1995) for families to opt  for direct disposal of remains.  No funeral, viewing, or intimate family contact.  The body is taken directly from the place of death to cremation.  Society has assigned a monetary value to family death.  The Human Resource manual for a local firm may grant 4 days pay for the loss of a child or spouse, three for a parent, one for an uncle and so on.  The days off should be used to tidy up loose ends, and life goes on.  Or does it?

How and Why Do Rituals Work?

This is a brief overview of social and psychological theory.  More of a 'teaser' than review.

Van Gennup (1929) first described periods of crisis or change in our lives as 'rites of passage' and focused our attention on how we move through the major life changes in the context of our tribal cultures.  Subsequent investigators made clear the power of community in facilitating those transitions using ritual.

First, our rituals establish an agreed upon social order in which we feel familiar or a sense of 'sameness is evoked.  We can go on 'auto-pilot' and separate ourselves from the mundane or other demands of daily life  to deal with the stress of the transition.

Second,  our commitment to culture and family,  our sense of belonging, is strengthened through our shared experience and our observations of others perception of the same experience.

Third,  rituals reaffirm meaning.  That is, the central 'meaning structure' of our community allows us to explore the paradox that is life:  good vs. evil, life vs. death, origin vs. destination.

Ritual can incorporate both sides of a seeming contradiction and allow us to experience both sides.  I 'celebrated' my daughters wedding and simultaneously experienced loss.  My tears were not seen as unusual or out of context yet they expressed both joy and pain.

Fourth, the boundaries set by ritual allow a freedom and safe environment within which  to express our conflicting emotions and handle ambivalence.  (Note:  the design of ritual should  never assign feelings but allow for the freedom of expression of them.)

Fifth,  it can, but need not be,  an encounter with the luminous, spiritual, or transcendent.

These are functional descriptions of ritual.  Do not confuse what rituals achieve with how the consequence of ritual are experienced.

The power of ritual has been explored scientifically as well. One neurobiological  explanation of how we 'experience' ritual comes  from d'Aquile, Laughlin, and McManus (1979),  who hypothesised that the different components of ritual (or intensity or 'density of meaning')  result in the stimulation  of  positive limbic discharges in areas of the brain.  In turn, these discharges result in a 'spill over' of  left and right brain hemisphere functions. They postulate that the 'Aha'  or sudden insight experience, or the 'shiver up the spine'  (goose-bumps, 'hair standing up') felt throughout the body are the result of this limbic stimulation.

Brain activity differs during the reading of different types of material.  For instance,  when Ornstien and Thompson (1994) measured brain activity of volunteers reading heavy technical material and subsequently, when they read folklore or 'fairy tales' brain activity differed substantially.

The right hemisphere, that which processes symbol, and intuitive information was more active when the subjects were reading folklore while the left 'digital' brain remained constant.   Thus, it may be that ritual, which is composed of symbol and is processed by the right brain may act in a similar manner to the reading effect.

Remember that the power of symbol lies in how we read it.  Symbols must be interpreted or read. `Reading' is the assigning of value and meaning to symbols. Our `reading' is dependent upon and dictated by the paradigm through which we sense them. We interpret or read symbols from within our unique ecology

Again, the question 'Why' is not addressed, rather the focus is on the physical 'what it is' that responds to the environmental stimulation, but it is a  beginning towards our understanding of our sense of 'personhood' in biological and cognitive terms.

Finally,  Conscious and Unconscious rituals.

Our 'unconscious' rituals began as very 'conscious' attempts to engage or connect with our particular ecology.  The morning greeting, hug, or sharing the morning newspaper, were once tentative, open rituals, that, because they worked, became part of our daily 'routine'.  There is nothing wrong with that as long as we take the time, periodically,  to examine our 'routines' in light of possible changes in our relationships with our environment, significant others, our personhood, and sense of belonging.  In due course, meaningful rituals may become routine or habit, and while they may continue to 'function' in their role of helping us cope in the period of time between life transitions, they may not 'work' during  a rite of passage such as death.  Our 'richness of life' depends on our willingness, (and sometimes courage) to examine our ritual behaviour.  Ritual behaviour helps us cope with crisis and change.  That does not mean our rituals are 'healing'; in fact, they may be part of a denial system, or other method of dealing with threatening circumstance that function to protect us from reality or pathology.

Part Two - Formal Ritual - "Making it Personal"

What follows is a continuation of the introduction to this unit where I introduced the notion of "creating ritual" for specific purposes.

When I first graduated from seminary and entered parish life I was primarily concerned with insuring that a funeral was conducted `in the appropriate manner'. Family counselling and consoling were to be one after the necessary religious rituals had been completed. Liturgical studies were centered on the correct form, gestures, rite, vestments, etc. without any study or understanding of how those elements impacted on the bereaved.

I now officiate, consult, or counsel (before or after) for 100 to 200 funerals each year. The vast majority of these services are for families with negligible or non existent church affiliation. They have requested a clergy for a variety of reasons. (That's a topic deserving of research - Why do non-religious families seek the services of clergy when a loved one dies?) Several observations are worth sharing and are important to an understanding of ritual and the healing process.

It sometimes appears that the impact of the rite, including the sermon, is less potent the closer you are to the source of grief. Think of ripples on a pond when you throw a stone. Casual acquaintances and those attending out of a sense of duty or obligation listen to the words. They let me know if I made an error in the order of service, mispronounced a name, or made a theologically challenging statement. These are the folk riding the extreme ripple.

Immediate family or those most grief stricken may experience a psychic shut down during the ritual. The last viewing, closing of the casket, the overall atmosphere in the chapel, and any number of unknown factors contribute to a numbing effect. Requests are often made for transcripts of the sermon by these folk. Their comments tend to be "There was something you said." or "Was there a poem or something you used? I can't remember but it was so comforting." When pushed to be more precise they are vague and often mystified by their feelings. What they are responding to is a human connectedness that begins prior to the funeral. Remember, I have no previous interaction with them prior to their loss.

A meeting with the family in the family home is arranged for the day following death. Their agenda is to `do the right thing' for the deceased. My agenda is to discover their family rituals, probe their symbols, assess their needs. I `read' the physical make up of the home. Where is Dad's favourite chair in relation to Mom's? Photos on the wall? What is the seating arrangement of the family during my visit? Who leads the discussion? Is there evidence of human interaction lying about? (board games, cribbage boards, jig-saw puzzles that have been worked on from two or more angles). Does the family dog cringe when I move my hand quickly past its head? More important is the ability to "Read the Human Document".

Read the Human Document? Yes. You cannot rely on `body language' although that too is important, but, how do you read the `body language' of a Parkinson's patient? A child in a wheelchair? Listen to the language not the grammar or syntax. Listen to the images. You must psychologically move into their ecology. See what they see, hear what they hear, experience what they experience. Let their rituals speak to you.

This personal, intimate visit, in surroundings familiar to the family, allows me to  `experience them'. I leave with much hard fact. More important, I leave with the sense of their pain, anger, frustration, fear.....their humanness, and that helps me lay the foundation for the grief work that follows the funeral.

My task during the actual funeral service as the officiant / priest / shaman / healer is to connect with their grief. I speak to the family directly. I use their names, maintain eye contact, and stand facing them. I attempt to touch them with the tone of my voice and the inflection of my words. Can you picture being stroked or held by a human voice? It often happens when your listening to a talented singer. I have to avoid the temptation to "play to the crowd" and focus on the immediate bereaved. My use of ceremony is limited and focused. The informal rite (Sermon) addresses the family rituals and symbols and (I hope) lays a foundation for grief work. The formal rite (Liturgy) is a challenge to personalize. It is acting. Read familiar material publicly for years and try to keep it fresh. Ceremony is focused on the reality of the death (closing the casket, use of earth) and demonstrating support (hugs).

Part 3 - Creating Family Ritual

A simple ritual in my home is `saying grace' or a blessing before the evening meal. This has been in place since marriage so our children grew into it quite naturally. I designed a rite that was simultaneously simple yet comprehensive. "Father, for the wonder of your love, the beauty of this world and the bounty of the harvest, we thank you. Amen". Children were active participants soon after they could speak and used a popular child's rite: "God is gracious, God is good, and we thank Him for our food. Amen." Occasionally my boys would slip in a prayer more to their mindset: "Good food, good meat, good God, lets eat. Amen". Or, having returned from summer camp would proclaim "Over teeth, over gums, lookout guts, here it comes" to which Dad would solemnly proclaim "Amen". With these minor exceptions the rite was standardised.

The `ceremony' consisted of holding hands in an unbroken circle around the table.

When my two oldest children were 11 and 9 an additional element was added. On the occasion of a family birthday this simple ritual became an agent of great healing and expression of love. We maintained the ceremony (hand holding) and basic rite (simple but formal prayer) and added the informal `prayers of thanks' of each family member for the person who was celebrating their birthday. Thanks for events or services, special occasions, humour, friendship, for "listening to my problems" or "being there when I needed them" were simple, yet eloquent tributes. The birthday person had no choice but to sit quietly and accept these offerings of love, praise and thanks. The impact this had on family dynamic and the self-esteem of the participants was beautiful. The `simple' ritual now evoked powerful feelings of love and loyalty. The group infrastructure was strengthened. Our children (and their families) look forward to this event each year.

The ritual was intimate, private and closed. I made the decision to `open' it up. When grand-parents visited our home during their `birthday season' we included them, unannounced, in our birthday ritual. Grandparents were familiar with our ritual blessings so, joining hands with us, eyes closed and heads bowed, they received an outpouring of love and appreciation they could not deny, shrug off or escape. Again, the impact was overwhelming. My wife saw her father cry for the first time when he was initiated. Uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews and nieces followed over the years.

Following the death of a family member we decided to continue the practice on the anniversary date of death and the birth date. (note the change from `me' to `we'). The informal rite was retained with the focus on what the deceased had left us (memories, good feelings), taught us (how to laugh, fish for bass), and what we missed most (stupid jokes, home made pies and cookies). Not everyone can participate in the rite but we are all part of the `ceremony'. So together we engage in a family reconciliation of grief. Some are vocal, some sit quietly and cry while holding and being held. A this point we have not introduced `symbol' and given the existing dynamic I doubt it necessary.

Two years ago my cousin died at age 30 of the flesh eating disease leaving an 10 year old daughter.

In February of the next year his father died following a stroke. My aunt, who has been blind since her teens had to have her seeing eye dog killed 2 weeks before her husbands death. The family had not fully grieved my cousin's death. His sister said "It's just too painful to even think about" I was asked to do the funeral. I spoke to them about their grief and together we developed a `ceremony' to facilitate grief work. Sunday dinners were a family time of great import to this family. Two items that spoke of father and son were settled on as symbols that the survivors most closely attached to their memory. Grandpa's `smelly old Bulldog pipe' and Barry's favorite set of chisels in a cedar box. No plates were or empty chairs were to be used, no speeches, no fanfare. As the family gathered to the table Barry's daughter quietly placed his chisels in the center of the table. Her aunt then set Grandpa's pipe on the chisels. There was a brief, uncomfortable silence, then the meal was set on the table. The family reported that it became easier to talk about Barry and Grandpa with something tangible present. There was laughter. Younger children picked up the pipe and did Grandpa imitations. Grandma related stories of grandpa teaching her how to cook.

In the first example `rite and ceremony' were the component elements of the ritual. The grief ritual was built on an existing family structure. In the second example symbol alone facilitated grief work but once again it was built on an existing family ritual or event. (Sunday dinner)

Part Four - A Workshop (The fun part)

Examine your personal life for rituals and examine the component parts. How do you greet your spouse, say goodnight to your children, have a bar-b-q, work together doing housework, choose a vacation spot. How did the ritual begin? Evolve? Is it open or closed? Can you build on the existing ritual and enrich it? What does it say now and what will it say if you add to or alter it?

This second project should be approached with caution. Think of your role in your family rituals. How could that ritual and your role in it be healing process for your loved ones in the event of your death.  Imagine how you would use ritual as a grief tool in relation to someone who is still living. I know some of you are facing critical issues at this time. If you feel the need to do anticipatory grief work and you feel your ready, enlist the help of a family member or support person.

Part Five - Using Ritual to "Connect"

Sacramental Ritual

Think of yourself, your lifestyle, actions, and so on as 'ceremonies and rituals' and of how others may read you.  In trying to 'connect' with our fellow humans we sometimes fall back on the mechanical or technical aspects of personhood.

This is a re-introduction to an understanding of personhood as `sacrament'. A concept   that has long been missing from `Western Civilised Humanity'. A 'sacrament' is a symbol or expression of something that goes beyond that which we are able to express and experience outside our regular modes of communication. We seldom, if ever, use the word outside of a religious context. It has lost its secular application. This is at odds with our understanding of humans as `spiritual beings' as described by the International Work Group in Death Dying and Bereavement.

Think of the difference between `spiritual' and `religious'. Regiment and Religion share common philosophical and language roots. They both suggest systematising or putting in order under a central authority (regere, to rule or religare, to secure or fasten.). Spiritual is unique. I can be ultra-religious and completely dead spiritually.

As a priest I was introduced to the study of `sacrament' or Sacramental Theology and the accompanying definitions, theories, forms, rites, ceremony and drama. What became apparent to those who dared question the authorised definition was no universal agreement on what a sacrament is or does exists. Theological arguments abound over the meaning of religious jargon like transubstantiation , consubstantiation, or the difference between `matter' and `form'. Semantic arguments revolve about what constitutes a sacrament (Christianity, in its many forms, has, over the centuries recognised from two to thirty). Debates have ranged from the devout sincere to the absolute ridiculous: "If a fly falls into the consecrated wine is the fly now holy or is the wine contaminated?" The `shoot from the hip' old school Protestant definition of a sacrament most quoted today is "An outward visible sign of an inner invisible Grace". Thomas Cramner came up with that in the mid 16th century and it stuck.

The word itself is rooted in Roman Military and Commercial practice. `Sacramentum' describes an oath of allegiance together with a down payment towards a future settlement. A soldier was given a sacramentum or payment in advance for services due. The British application of the sacramentum upset American colonists prior to the revolution. British naval recruiters offered generous libations of ale to unsuspecting colonists, give them the `King's Shilling', which the naive promptly spent on more alcohol, and when the poor chap woke up on board His Majesties Ship of War his recruiter informed him he had entered into a contract from which there was no escape. `Fiscal Restructuring' led to the later practice of simply bopping the recruit behind the ear and carrying him on board ship in a sack, thereby saving both the `King's Shilling', the cost of rum and birthing the phrase "He was sacked" meaning `he experienced a status change against his will'.

Merchants could give tradesmen or farmers a sacramentum against goods to be manufactured or grown. In commercial terms the `down payment' you made on your home was the sacramentum or promise to complete the contract. Thus, the sacramentum was that which moved you from one state of being to another; from freeman to soldier, debt free to indebtedness, apartment dweller to home owner, from independent to partner. The giving and receiving of an engagement ring was a sacramentum indicating that a contract to marry has been entered into and a sacramentum (down payment, oath of allegiance or promise) has been made. A few misguided souls `read' the ring as a `symbol' of ownership instead of a `sign' pointing toward a love union.

Western philosophers added the Greek concept of `gnosis' or mystery to that of contract. By some unknown means the sacramentum was discharged or completed resulting in a change in status, or `state of being' brought about or experienced through the `power' of the sacramentum itself. The sacramentum now invoked supernatural powers that evoked changes in the non-material spirit world and the human psyche and signified a transformation that could be seen and recognized.

I'm proposing a secular functional definition of a sacrament as "That which acts in a mysterious or not understood manner as a catalyst or agent of change transforming a person from one state of being to another". (single to married, non-believer to believer, wounded to healed, distressed to comforted.) [Incidentally, given the diverse background of the class membership, I'd like you to think about and share with us your response to this definition.]

Sacraments are administered and experienced within the context of a ritual or the ritual itself may constitute the sacrament. It may be or use ceremony (movement), rite (words), symbols (water, oil, a pipe, plant, ceramic dish..)and signs (directions for living) or complex combinations of all elements. The ritual can be open or closed, formal or informal.

Now, given that a `sacrament' is an agent of change, are you as a member of the helping, healing professions, an agent of change or are you a delivery person? Are you an administrator or applicator of healing tools and techniques or are you a `healer' in your own right or `persona' who uses all available tools to facilitate healing?

Think of the performing arts. There are numerous pianists and singers who, although technically correct, fail "To Connect" with an audience. An artist `reads' (assigns value and meaning) to the words and score, and somehow (gnosis) connects with deep emotions, memories, joys, and pains deep within me. I cry, laugh, `mellow out' or `chill baby'. Is the agent of change (sacrament) the script or is the `power' the interpreter of the script? Is it possible to be an agent of change or `Living Sacrament' by simply `being'. (If you have mastered `simply being'  let me know. We'll publish.)

I challenge my peers and students (nurses, social workers, gerontologists, clergy) to engage in an experiment. For a period of one week make a deliberate, conscious effort to leave your personal baggage and props outside the door when you work with a client. No bibles, beads, white lab coats, favourite theories, `techniques', name tags, authority, or other props allowed as far as is humanly possible. You can identify and categorise (assign a numeric value to) a heartbeat. How do you `read' their psychic pulse?

This is the third project: Be aware of your use of ritual as part of the healing process. How do you use it to `connect'? What are your genuine ceremonies? Do you `touch' with your eyes, voice, gestures? How do you use ritual to keep clients in an `objective field of view'. Be aware of your `presence' as a calming, confidence giving agent of change. Do you 'do' symbols or are you one? Be a Living Sacrament.

Well, I hope my thoughts give birth to your thoughts and thanks for taking the time to read this.

God bless,



Post your responses, questions, observations, and insights on the readings in the e-anthology and for the "lecture" on Oncourse.

  1. For this unit, I would like you to return to the directions you got in the preliminaries for this unit: How do you use and experience rituals and ceremonies in your personal and professional life (or student life, for those of you who aren't yet working). How might you use the "frame" of ritual and/or ceremony to increase the power of your life (and loss) experiences. Consider how you might change your use of ritual and ceremony.
  2. What is your response to the lecture information and the tasks of the workshop (parts 4 and 5)? Did you learn something new about how you "do" your life?
  3. In earlier lectures, we've discussed the idea that death does not end a relationship; rather, it transforms the relationship. Hazell and Vasquez also address the use of ritual, within a culture and transcending culture. With those thoughts in mind, address the following questions: How do ritual and ceremony allow for change and connection at the same time? In what ways do they provide meaning for the loss experience?


Further Reading

Creating Ritual:

Metrick, Sydney Barbara, Crossing the Bridge: Creating Ceremonies for Griefing and Healing from Life's Losses, Celestial Arts, Berkley California (1994)

Metrick, Sydney Barbara and Beck Renee, The Art of Ritual, Celestial Arts, Berkley California (1990)

Study of Ritual:

Counts, David R., Counts, Dorothy A., Coping With the Final Tragedy, Baywood Publishing Company, Amityville, New York, (1990)

Hatchett, Marion J., Sanctifying Life, Time and Space, Seabury Press, New York (1976)

Gersie, Alida Storymaking in Bereavement, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London (1991)

Jones, Cheslyn et. al., The Study of Liturgy, Oxford University Press, New York, (1992)

Metcalfe, Peter & Huntgington, Richard, Celebrations of Death 2nd Ed., Cambridge University Press, (1991)

Some', Malidoma Patrice, Ritual: Power, Healing and Community, Swan / Raven Company, Portland, Oregon, (1993)

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Page created: 3/1996. Last updated: 12/10/2008.
URL: http://www.indiana.edu/~famlygrf/units/ceremonies.html
Copyright 1996-2008, Howard Gorle.

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