Do we ritualise death to quell our own Sorrows and Anxieties?

Simple rituals, even those that are invented or made up can reduce people’s feeling of grief, say Harvard University experiments

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A Cemetery. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Veneration of the dead is one of the integral parts of religious practices all over the world
  • The earliest evidence of burial comes from Upper Palaeolithic burial sites dating back thousands of years ago
  • Studies show that we ritualise death for our own sake, to quell our own sorrows and anxieties

From mummification to ‘sky burials’, human beings have always shown some form of obsession when it comes to the dead. Mortuary rituals are universal across cultures, but how the dead are dressed vary widely.

While expensive lined and cushioned mahogany or walnut caskets often used in modern Western burials, the Zoroastrians used to place corpses atop specially constructed Towers of Silence for the scavenging birds, said a Scroll.in report.

The Dani people of West Papua, New Guinea also had to cut off their own fingers after the death of a loved one. This seemingly severe and incomprehensible ritual applied to any woman related to the deceased, as well as any children.

For some cultures like those of the Melanesians of Papua New Guinea and the Wari people of Brazil, the best way to honor the dead is by eating them.

Sky Burial Image Source:Wikipedia Commons

For thousands of years, Tibetan Buddhists practice ritual dissection, or “Sky Burials” — the tradition of chopping up the dead into small pieces and giving the remains to animals, particularly birds. Sometimes, the body is also left intact.

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According to Scroll.in, the earliest evidence of burial comes from Upper Palaeolithic burial sites dating back thousands of years ago. The grave goods and other similar burial practices indicate at least rudimentary afterlife beliefs. Even now, veneration of the dead is one of the integral parts of religious practices all over the world.

Death is also central to Christianity. After all, the crucifix is an instrument of torture and execution. Christians also observe special days dedicated to death, such as Good Friday. Rather than celebrating the anniversaries of their births, most saints’ days fall on the dates of their deaths

The Psychology Of Rituals

“Funerals, I had decided, are for the living.” ― John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

Studies show that we ritualise death for our own sake, to quell our own sorrows and anxieties. There is increasing evidence that rituals serve to regulate our emotional reactions. According to experiments conducted at the Harvard University, simple rituals, even those that are invented or made up can reduce people’s feeling of grief, said the Scroll.in report.

Rituals also serve other purposes and are indications of stress relief. Certain studies show that when people become more rigid and repetitive when put in stressful situations , they are in fact relieving stress and reducing anxiety. Rituals may also serve to stave off our own anxieties concerning mortality.

Furthermore, as rituals call for social gatherings, they create a comfortable atmosphere that binds people together over the loss of a loved one. Hence group rituals, particularly those involving synchronous behavior, also foster a sense of social cohesion that can help us to feel more physically formidable.

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According to Scroll.in, another purpose of ritualising death could be that it helps us to deal with the feelings of guilt associated with disposing of a corpse. When a process is formulated and followed for generations, the central focus is shifted from disposing the corpse to saying goodbye to the one we loved. By doing so, they cease to be people and become objects that we can dispose.

Despite the wide diversity in the traditions of disposing the dead or to bid a last goodbye, it seems that death rituals are meant to make us feel less helpless in the face of our grief and pain.

-prepared by Ajay Krishna, an intern at NewsGram. Twitter: @ajkrish14

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