This Memorial Day: In Remembrance of Ritual

This Memorial Day: In Remembrance of Ritual

Every Memorial Day, as a child, I recall the family dressing up, loading a variety of floral arrangements, and trekking across country to spend the day visiting cemeteries.

The lumbering station wagon would kick up a mighty plume of dust as we pulled into the necropolis. (In my memory, it’s always a dry, dusty, unbearably hot day.) All of the adults craning to look around, pointing, gently squabbling: “I think he’s over there.” “No, he’s by his Aunt…”

We’d eventually find a spot that was generally agreed to be “close enough” and exit the vehicle to search on foot, reading the bare notes of each life, searching for “our people.” As we looked, we’d nod somberly to other pilgrims, seeking also to find the spare markers of their loved ones lost.

I remember, as a little child, wandering amongst the tombstones while my elders dutifully paid their respects, in turn. I took great care to walk around the spaces where their bodies lay so I wouldn’t disrespect them. The older women of my family had put a lot of thought into this production. There were just the right flowers and sprays for each person: something that spoke to who they were, in life. There were small flags for men who had served in uniform. And there were always stories. There were tears. There was laughter.

And I was there, silent. My ears opened wide. I learned about these people — my people — who had passed before I was ever even a glint. In that way, they became palpable and real to me. I felt connected.

As I grew a bit older, some of those graves contained the remains of people I remembered and loved. I could laugh or cry at stories that were real memories for me, and not just family lore. I could take my turn sharing the stories. I knew where Granddad, Uncle Claude, Aunt Anna Belle, Cousin Kenneth, and so many others were laid to rest.

My childhood happened in an America still wrapped in ritual. Rituals have largely fallen away in the rush and press of post-modernity. We still have a few today, although they’re not as common and not taken as seriously.

That is, I think, a shame. I’m not defending any particular rituals. Some of them have been harmful, exclusionary, and have even celebrated ignorance and the baser parts of our natures. But the act of ritual carries important mental, emotional, and social values.

Ritual focuses our thoughts and actions. Ritual intensifies solemnity, joy, and commitment. Ritual binds communities in our shared identity. Ritual reinforces values, goals, and understanding. Ritual has always been a crucial glue that binds people and institutions. They remind us of our histories, embody our identities, and orient us to our desired futures.

And we have made a society that has devalued and dismissed them. Rituals aren’t necessary — and that is, in some contradictory way, their point. They force pause and introspection. That can’t be bad in a world where too many choices, too many distractions, too many shiny, transient baubles vie for our attention and allegiance.

So on this Memorial Day, I’m suggesting that we might want to rethink our collective attitude toward ritual, itself.

The scientific literature is clear: there are many individual and collective benefits to the judicious inclusion of ritual in our lives. In our over-crowded and uber-accelerated world, making some time for ritual demands that we make space for the meaning of what we do with the precious moments of our lives.

Ritual doesn’t have to be grand, but it should be mindful. We shouldn’t be ashamed to be openly un-ironic. We shouldn’t feel that adding some heft and significance to our actions is somehow inefficient and wasteful. Some things in our lives (even common, everyday things) deserve a bit more honor and respect than we now give. Perhaps it’s worth reflecting on which parts of our lives deserve a bit more care and conscientiousness.

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