Those of you who regularly read this blog know that a very dear friend of mine passed away about two weeks ago.
The funeral got me thinking about rituals and the function they play in society. In our Muslim society here in Kuwait, the funeral – or ‘Aza‘ – lasts three days beginning with the day of the burial. During these three days, condolences are received by the family of the deceased in two shifts, one from morning to about noon, and the second following the afternoon prayer until sunset. The sexes are segregated during the funerals with men giving condolences elsewhere.
I’ve always had a less than favorable view of our funeral tradition; the thought of the deceased’s family being forced to sit there for three days receiving people, when I’m sure all they want to do is curl up in bed and weep, seems terribly harsh. I suppose the purpose of the tradition is to illustrate to the family that they aren’t alone in their grief and that society shares their mourning. But I’ve never truly understood that because most of the funerals I had attended had been for distant family or family of friends, i.e. the grief was not personal to me, but secondary in nature. I was grieving someone else’s loss rather than my own.
Consequently, I felt like more of a spectator to someone else’s grief, which made me feel like the tradition was impersonal and our presence at the funeral was an imposition on a family that – perhaps – would rather turn inwardly in their mourning.
In this case though, it was different. It was personal. I was in mourning, weighed down by grief, and many of the people filtering through the funeral offered me, and our friends, condolences as they did the family.
I began to see the tradition in a new light; I began to see its function; I began to see how the ritual might serve as a comfort to those who’ve lost someone dear to them.
It seems to me that’s what all rituals are meant to do, bind you - the individual – to something greater than yourself. To provoke a sense of unity and shared emotion, be it joy or grief, celebration or commiseration.
As I thought more on this, I realized our society has dozens of little rituals and traditions that are so embedded in our lives that we don’t realize we’re doing them. We invoke God’s name before we eat and again when we’re done; while Arabs greet each other with a kiss to each cheek, elders are greeted with a kiss to the forehead; we perform ‘Noon’ for our children when they become toddlers whereby baskets of candy and coins are poured over and around them while the kids scurry about with bags to collect them all.
I also think about rituals that are slowly fading away; grandmothers applying Henna to the hands of their granddaughters and wrapping them up in old sheets for the night – as my own grandmother did to me; weekly gatherings at the patriarch’s house for lunch or dinner; taking the kids out for our version of ‘trick or treating’ halfway through Ramadan.
The Holy month of Ramadan is coming up in a couple of weeks, and with it will come a whole host of additional rituals, from the specific foods we tend to eat only during the month, like ‘gaimat’, ‘kanafa’, ‘tashreeba’, etc, to beginning our days at 9pm because we were fasting from 330am to 7pm.
It’s one of the only times when the country feels like a unit, with all of us observing the same rituals and traditions. That’s what the whole point is, to feel as though you’re participating in something larger than yourself, and in so doing will engage in a kind of joint empathy and awareness of those less fortunate than yourselves.
Maybe that’s what all rituals are meant to convey, this experience of union, of a living, breathing link between yourself and others.
Joseph Campbell says that people aren’t searching for the meaning of life, they’re searching for the experience of being alive.
And maybe that’s what rituals help to do.
What are some traditions and rituals that you engage in? What about your characters? Do they have any specific traditions?