Frazer Blog

What are rituals, and why do we need them?

by | Jul 13, 2016 | For Families, Funeral Profession

Someone pouring a vial into a mortar and pestle

What’s your morning ritual? A nice big breakfast with the family? An early workout at the gym? Or maybe it’s quick cup of coffee before running out the door?

What Makes a Ritual

Rituals are inherently tied to the human experience and countless rituals have existed in human history. The oldest known ritual is more than 70,000 years old and consisted of early humans worshipping a stone python.

Early humans had their own burial rituals, too. But rituals aren’t just the actions of “primitive” and superstitious societies. Modern society is filled with rituals, both religious and secular.

We all have our own rituals. There’s the basketball player who goes through the same routine before a free throw, or the student who wears their lucky socks when taking an exam. We have rituals for all parts of our life, big and small. Rituals play an important role in death, too.

So what exactly makes a ritual, a ritual? According to Webster, it’s defined as “a formal ceremony or series of acts that is always performed in the same way.” Sounds simple enough. But if rituals are simply the same actions repeated over and over, why are they found throughout our history and across cultures, and why do we continue to participate in them?

It’s because rituals and traditions work.

Psychology of a Ritual

Rituals can serve many purposes. They can calm our anxiety or increase our confidence. They can ease our grieving or strengthen our relationships with one another.

In the face of uncertainty or tragedy, the familiar structure of a ritual has been found to help return a sense of control. In a recent study, people recalled a past relationship or a death of a loved one — many wrote about the rituals they performed to help get through the loss, and though the rituals varied greatly, all participants reported a higher sense of control and a diminished sense of grief than those who simply wrote about the loss itself.

The study also explored how rituals helped those who lost the chance to win 200 dollars and found similar results, with those performing rituals getting over it faster while those who didn’t feeling angrier. The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, concludes that “engaging in rituals mitigates grief by restoring the feelings of control that are impaired by both life-changing (the death of loved ones) and more mundane (losing lotteries) losses.” An in-depth analysis can be found here.

Rituals in Funerals

Funeral rituals can vary immensely. The fact that funeral rituals can be found across every religion and culture is a testament to their power.

Public funeral rituals help us feel a sense of community. When a community gathers around the deceased it reaffirms how much the deceased was loved. Private funeral rituals help us slowly reenter our routines and adjust to a loss.

It’s no secret that certain aspects of funeral rituals are changing and in a couple decades the funerals we think of as traditional may be completely different. But while the ritual may change, the purpose will not. Rituals always will be around to help us through a loss.


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