What Ancient Cultures Teach Us About Grief, Mourning And Continuity Of Life


Published:

The cemetery of Oaxaca at night during Day of the Dead.

In October each year, Mexican and Mexican-American communities observe “Día de los Muertos” (the Day of the Dead), a three-day celebration that welcomes the dead temporarily back into families.

Festivities begin on the evening of Oct. 31 and culminate on Nov. 2. Spirits of the departed are believed to be able to reenter the world of the living for a few brief moments during these days. Altars are created in homes, where photographs and other personal items evocative of the dead are placed. Offerings to the deceased include flowers, incense, images of saints, crucifixes and favorite foods. Family members gather in cemeteries to dine not just among the dead but with them. Similar traditions exist in different cultures with different origins.

As scholars of death and mourning rituals, we believe that Día de los Muertos traditions are most likely connected to feasts observed by the ancient Aztecs. Today, they honor the memory of the dead and celebrate the continuity of generations through loving reunion with those who came before.

As Western societies, particularly the United States, move away from the direct experience of a mourner, the rites and customs of other cultures offer valuable lessons.

Loss of rituals

Funerals were handled in the home well into the 20th century in the U.S. and throughout Europe. Sometimes, stylized and elaborate public deathbed rituals were organized by the dying person in advance of the death event itself. As French historian Philippe Ariès writes, throughout much of the Western world, such death rituals declined during the 18th and 19th centuries.

What emerged instead was a greater fear of death and the dead body. Medical advances extended control over death as the funeral industry took over management of the dead. Increasingly, death became hidden from public view. No longer familiar, death became threatening and horrific.

Today, as various scholars and morticians have observed, many in American culture lack the explicit mourning rituals that help people deal with loss.

Traditions in ancient cultures

In contrast, the mourning traditions of earlier cultures prescribed precise patterns of behavior that facilitated the public expression of grief and provided support for the bereaved. In addition, they emphasized continued maintenance of personal bonds with the dead.

As Ariès explains, during the Middle Ages in Europe, the death event was a public ritual. It involved specific preparations, the presence of family, friends and neighbors, as well as music, food, drinks and games. The social aspect of these customs kept death public and “tame” through the enactment of familiar ceremonies that comforted mourners.

Grief was expressed in an open and unrestrained way that was cathartic and communally shared, very much in contrast with the modern emphasis on controlling one’s emotions and keeping grief private.

In various cultures the outpouring of emotion was not only required but performed ceremonially, in the form of ritualized weeping accompanied by wailing and shrieking. For example, traditions of the “death wail,” which allowed people to cry their grief aloud, have been documented among the ancient Celts. They exist today among various indigenous peoples of Africa, South America, Asia and Australia.

In a similar way, the traditional Irish and Scottish practices of “keening,” or loudly wailing for the dead, were vocal expressions of mourning. These emotional forms of sorrow were a powerful way to give voice to the impact of individual loss on the wider community. Mourning was shared and public.

In fact, since antiquity and throughout parts of Europe until recently, professional female mourners were often hired to perform highly emotive laments at funerals.

Such customs functioned within a larger mourning tradition to separate the deceased from the world of the living and symbolize the transition to the afterlife.

Rituals of celebration

Mourning rituals also celebrated the dead through carnival-like revelry. Among the ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, the deceased were honored with lavish feasts and funeral games.

Such practices continue today in many cultures. In Ethiopia, members of the Dorze ethnic community sing and dance before, during and after funerary rites in communal ceremonies meant to defeat death and avenge the deceased.

In not too distant Tanzania, the burial traditions of the Nyakyusa people initially focus on wailing but then include feasts. They also require that participants dance and flirt at the funeral, confronting death with an affirmation of life.

Similar assertions of life in the midst of death are expressed in the example of the traditional Irish “merry wake,” a mixture of mourning and celebration that honors the deceased. The African-American “jazz funeral” processions in New Orleans also combine sadness and festivity, as the solemn parade for the deceased transforms into dance, music and a party-like atmosphere.

These lively funerals are expressions of sorrow and laughter, communal catharsis and commemoration that honor the life of the departed.

A way to deal with grief

Grief and celebration seem like strange bedfellows at first glance, but both are emotions that overflow. The ritual practices that surround death and mourning as rites of passage help individuals and their communities make sense of loss through a renewed focus on continuity.

By doing things in a culturally defined way – by performing the same acts as ancestors have done – ritual participants engage in venerated traditions to connect with something enduring and eternal. Rituals make boundaries between life and death, the sacred and the profane, memory and experience, permeable. The dead seem less far away and less forgotten. Death itself becomes more natural and familiar.

Funerary festivities such as Day of the Dead create space for this type of contemplation. As we reminisce over our own losses, that is something we could consider.

Daniel Wojcik is a professor of English and folklore studies, and affiliate faculty in religious studies at the University of Oregon. He has published widely on the topics of apocalyptic belief, death and mourning rituals, visionary culture, art and trauma, alternative spiritualities, subcultures, and vernacular belief and expression.

Robert Dobler is a lecturer of folklore at Indiana University.

This article was republished from The Conversation.

See also:
How An Ancient Singing Tradition Helps People Cope With Trauma In The Modern World
What’s A Death Midwife? Inside The Alternative Death Care Movement

Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

Daily Astrology

May 21, 2018

The Leo Moon is void of course until late tonight. As a result the day lacks verve, not the best way to begin a working week. Expect attention spans to be short even as the desire for attention may seem exaggerated. Some needs remain unfulfilled…
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Alternative Health Directory

Browse all listings »

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Calendar

May 2018

Spend a day in conversation with angels! Heal and empower yourself with the energy of angels. You will learn the special healing gift that each of nine healing angels brings and how this relates...

Cost: $111

Where:
Be Well Studios
3358 White Mountain Highway
North Conway, NH  03860
View map »


Sponsor: Pathway Of Joy
Telephone: 207-329-7192
Contact Name: Linda Huitt
Website »

More information

Do you desire more connection and intimacy? Do you want to increase the quality of your intimacy? Does fear of rejection, misinterpretation or expectations hold you back from initiating?...

Cost: $187 per person

Where:
Watertown Center for Healing Arts
22 Mount Auburn St
Watertown, MA
View map »


Sponsor: Conscious Intimacy
Telephone: 415-244-1652
Contact Name: Brynn Bishop
Website »

More information

With Dido Nydick A Restorative Yoga practice to experience relaxation for well-being. Each class will consist of a reclining pose sequence designed to restore the nervous system and help release...

Cost: $25

Where:
YogaLife Institute of NH
6 Chestnut Street
Lower Level
Exeter, NH  03833
View map »


Sponsor: YogaLife Institute of NH
Telephone: 603-867-3969
Contact Name: Alice Bentley
Website »

More information

Sunday yoga is back! Hatha Yoga with meditation to get you ready to tackle your spring intentions. Sign up for series or drop in. 

Cost: $75/5 classes; drop in $17.00

Where:
Dragonfly Wellness Center
176 Jackson Rd
Devens, MA
View map »


Sponsor: Dragonfly Wellness Center
Telephone: 978-227-8297
Contact Name: Anita Perry
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...
No Events

Feel the bliss of opening your spine, while being totally supported and meticulously aligned. Great for sciatica and low back pain! Classes also held Saturday mornings.

Cost: $18 drop in

Where:
Bliss Through Yoga
484 Bedford St
East Bridgewater, MA  02333
View map »


Sponsor: Bliss Through Yoga
Telephone: 508-331-3564
Contact Name: Janice
Website »

More information

8 Week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Course with Erin Woo Tuesdays, May 1 - June 19, 6–8:30 pm *Includes an all day retreat on Saturday, June 9 from 9 am - 4 pm Come explore the...

Cost: $290

Where:
Balance Bethlehem
2087 Main Street
Bethlehem, NH  03574
View map »


Sponsor: Balance Bethlehem
Telephone: 603-869-2125
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...
No Events

YogaLife studio would like to offer this opportunity to slow it down, step back, notice your breath and sit quietly in community. Join us Thursdays from 5:40-6:30 PM. No Yoga...

Cost: Free

Where:
YogaLife Institute
6 Chestnut Street
Suite A
Exeter, MA  03833
View map »


Telephone: 603-969-8968
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

May 25 - 27 The heroic and shamanic journeys weave throughout human history. Each requires the protagonist to journey into another order of reality, a landscape of magic and mystery…...

Cost: $325 – includes food

Where:
Putney, VT  05346


Sponsor: Circles of Air and Stone
Telephone: 802-387-6624
Contact Name: Sparrow Hart
Website »

More information

Designed to prepare individuals who are interested in helping themselves and others in a rewarding career as a Professional Certified Hypnotist/Hypnotherapist. Live demonstration, supervised...

Cost: $1995 ppd. (Early Bird by 5/14 - $1795)

Where:
Women of Wisdom
118 Washington Street
North Easton, MA  02356
View map »


Sponsor: Women of Wisdom
Telephone: 508-230-3680
Contact Name: Women of Wisdom
Website »

More information

Dominic Boag is one of the UK’s finest psychic mediums. Dominic has been taking his events to audiences across Scotland. He is the Scottish Sun’s Psychic and writes his own column named...

Where:
American Legion Post 440
295 California St.
Newton, MA  02458
View map »


Sponsor: Greater Boston Church of Spiritualism
Telephone: 617-861-1440
Website »

More information

May 25 - 28, 2018 Save the date! Four days of learning, earth healing, music, meditation, dance and delicious organic food! All are welcome!

Where:
Old King Farm
567 Money Hole Road
Benson, VT  05743
View map »


Telephone: 802-537-3460
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...
No Events
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags