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What, then, is ritual? We could attempt to describe it by breaking it down into pieces. A ritual is kind of like a recipe - steps that you have to take in order to get a desired result. A simple ritual might consist of making a specific gesture with your hands and saying a few specific words. When a number of rituals are performed in succession, you might call the event a ceremony. Weddings are ceremonies; they contain many small rituals. So, too, are funerals.
There’s something missing from this picture. When you follow the recipe to bake a cake, you end up with a cake at the end. When you follow the steps of a ritual or ceremony, what changes? You can look at the tangible things, of course - the wedding band on a person’s finger, or a person being buried. While these things can feel incredibly important, it’s not just the physical act. When rituals are performed, we might feel intense emotions - joy, or grief. We might, at times, feel nothing or almost nothing.
Getting to exactly what the importance of ritual is from this angle can be challenging; while the steps are concrete, exactly what performing them is supposed to do can be mysterious. That’s because the impact of ritual is highly subjective. Imagine, for instance, you saw a group performing a ritual, but you had no idea what the ritual was for. You might not even know you were looking at a ritual at all! You wouldn’t be feeling anywhere near the same emotions as the people participating.
This might give us some insight as to the purpose of ritual. Rituals are typically performed in groups. Groups often use rituals in order to feel closer with others who are in the same group. When rituals are performed together, they can create a sense of community. This ability to create a sense of togetherness may be one of the most important parts of ritual. This isn’t to say rituals will always make you feel like you’re a part of something bigger; sometimes they can make you feel very alone.
Then again, there are rituals that you only perform alone. You might light a candle before you write in your journal. You might pray or meditate at a certain time each day. These rituals can be intensely personal, which means the importance of ritual doesn’t only lie in its ability to bolster group dynamics. These rituals are meant to empower you. To help you grow.
Therein may be the importance of rituals. Rituals are important because they empower us - individually or collectively. They help us work through difficult problems. They help us create habits. They help us to learn, to grow, to connect.
Our funeral home in Winnipeg is dedicated to ritual. The rituals that are most important to you and your loved ones are the rituals that are most important to us.