We still need ritual!

In his wonderful book  ‘The Sacred and the Profane’, famed historian of religion Mircea Eliade observes that even modern people who reject the tenets of religious belief and practice are unconsciously nourished by the memory of the sacred. As he observes in the Introduction, “the wholly desacralised cosmos …is a recent discovery in the history of the human spirit.”(p 13)

He makes the point that we still need ritual, even in this materialist culture of ours.

He says “What is found in the profane (ie non-religious) world is a radical secularisation of death, marriage and birth; but, as we shall soon see, there remain vague memories of abolished religious practices and even a nostalgia for them…” (p 186)

The Sacred and the Profane
The Sacred and the Profane

I had a very powerful and moving experience of this last week, when with my husband I attended the funeral of a much-loved member of his family. The morning after the funeral, just before we returned home, we were fortunate to be able to take part in a modern, but very moving, rite of passage. It was intended largely for the benefit of the many grandchildren in the family who had been too young to gain much benefit from the previous day’s church service – but was shared by us all.

I took some photographs of this ritual as it was being enacted. That evening, I put up a post on Facebook, with the permission of  our deceased cousin’s wife,  which was very warmly received both by the bereaved family and many Facebook Friends. I decided to write a blog post around the experience for two reasons. Firstly, to demonstrate that in our secular society there is still a vibrant need for ritual, especially to mark the great rites of passage of birth, marriage and death. And secondly, to inspire anyone who reads this with a wonderfully uplifting way of affirming the passing of the spirit of  a loved one.

Here is what I wrote to accompany my photographs:

‘May your soul fly high!’…my husband Ian’s last words to his dearly loved first cousin David, written on a slip of white paper, attached to a shiny magenta balloon, joining all the messages of love and farewell sent skywards today in a wonderfully colourful ritual of celebration of David’s life following his funeral on 10th October 2014. We were privileged to join David’s wife Liz, their five children and partners, and their ten grandchildren as everyone wrote personal messages to David, sending them soaring into the blue. Goodbye, David. You are much loved and will be much missed…

Into the blue...1
Into the blue…1
Into the blue...2
Into the blue…2
Into the blue...3
Into the blue…3






















450 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2014
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page



14 thoughts on “We still need ritual!

    1. And thank you for dropping by to comment, Leslie. I hope this post will suggest the idea of a ritual like this, to other folk when they are considering how to create a lasting memory of a beloved person – especially for youngsters.

  1. Anne, I have attended funerals where balloons were released, but without messages attached. I think it is a wonderful idea to send a final message to the deceased friend/loved one and send their spirit on its way.

    1. Thanks, Bev. The idea was suggested by David’s elder daughter who knew of a colleague who had done something similar. Her feeling was that a dramatic, colourful and participatory ritual like this would be remembered by his quite young grandchildren, even when memories of their grandparent himself had faded…

  2. Anne, this is a really wonderful post as I think we too often relegate ‘ritual’ to traditional religion. Mircea Eliade’s classic riveted me from the start when it was required reading for my first ‘comparative religions’ course as an undergrad 45 years ago…and I’ve never forgotten it. At the time I had no love for religion as such and found myself having no choice in choosing this class…’amazingly’ it set me on a life-long path of a passion for understanding the Universe and our place within it…I was curious to see(having read your post on the outer planets crossing the IC) where they were sitting at the time in my own chart…well what a surprise….Pluto and Uranus were sitting on my MC, within orb of my 9thhouse Pluto/Saturn conjunction, that squares my 12th H Scorpio south node…and there’s a whole past life story there! So while they weren’t crossing my IC it was a life changer in the bigger picture in so many ways…

    1. Exactly, Gaye – the outer planets triggering the Angles and Nodes do indeed, symbolically, herald ‘a life changer in the bigger picture’ as you so vividly express it. Isn’t it interesting, also, how experiences we don’t consciously choose, indeed at times resist, can lead us into a deepening relationship with our understanding of how we connect to the ‘Big Picture’. As a famous scientist once observed, life is not only stranger than we suppose, but stranger than we CAN suppose. Thanks for dropping by, and for your kind words.

  3. A wonderfully evocative image of release in this ritual Anne. So lovely for you all to share too, simple but uplifting in its symbolism.

  4. It’s a wonderful ritual, indeed. It used to be more common here, until people started finding the deflated ballons in our bays and waterways — and in the gullets of fish and birds. There never was any legislation against it, but just as people started looking for substitutes for rice-throwing at weddings (bird seed is preferred by many now), folks started looking for a different ritual that would be less harmful to the environment.

    One thing that came along is fire. Now, you’ll occasionally find written messages put onto a small pyre and burned. In some ways, that’s even more deeply rooted in our past. One of the most amazing examples of such a ritual takes place at the now-annual gathering here in the States called Burning Man. I think you’ll be interested in this piece provided by a blogger I follow, about the burning of this year’s temple.

    1. Point taken about the downside of the balloons ritual. I personally love the idea of ritual burning and really enjoyed both the descriptions and the wonderful pictures on the Burning Man link you left, which may inspire some readers to try out their variation on this particular ritual. Thank you!

  5. Anne, this post and the replies remind me of an English documentary about a famous British nurse during WWI (cannot recall her name), when she nurtured the ill injured young soldiers in France. Each time some of the young soldiers died at the hospital she opened up the hospital window (s)… to let their souls “fly free”

    There are so many “restrictions” here in Norway when it comes to funerals. “the rules and regulations” govern everything.
    Thank you and all, these are lovely ways of doing something “different”.

    lol,Inger Lise.

    1. Many thanks, Inger Lise, for sharing this moving story with us. I expect there have been many variations on this theme of soul liberation throughout history and across cultures.

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