Ritual Grief

Sonya Wohletz

Part 4 of Some Thoughts on Love and Memory

During her illness, my mother spoke to me about her own mother’s death. She remembered that her mother had not wanted to be cremated because she was afraid that the fire would burn her soul. I never knew my grandmother, but it seemed like such a vulnerable thing to express—her wish to be buried intact, entrusting my mother with her body when she would no longer be able to exert her will. This ineffable, yet insistence of the body, both before birth and after death, fixates our ritual preoccupations, makes our grief (and our joys, pleasures) real.

It occurs to me that I never knew my grandmother but as a disembodied personality, an incomplete alloy of what few things I’ve been told about her. I carry this collaged image within me.

In what way shall we ritualize the ones we’ve lost, even when we are not allowed to see them on through their passing or have not been able to accompany them to their final resting place?

In times of despair, I’ve imagined things. Little girls, with their hair in fancy braids, something that grandmothers have the time to do. Me, braiding my own hair, feeling my grandmother’s fingers on my scalp. Matching yellow dresses for my grandmother and mother, another one, sewn for me—three of us together in an Easter picture, smiling. I smell the familiar desert spring and the cold shock of breeze.

My grandmother is shrouded in a warm mist; silent. I don’t know whether she was loud or quiet (my mother attested to the latter in the rare moments she spoke of her. Another relative told me that she remembered my grandmother’s laugh in the kitchen when she came to visit sisters—her red painted fingernails, elegantly structuring the cigarette in the round). I only have black and white images—full lips, arched eyebrows, elegant and irreproachable. In a formal portrait that used to sit on my mother’s vanity: thick, dark hair, something heavy and soft inside of her. Early photos after her marriage to my grandfather—on the beach in Florida, long-limbed, familiar bearing of the shoulders, beach grass on the horizon—she, gazing at something beyond the lens, sullen and sharp.

I came to know her through these and through my mother, who carried within her a multitude of images, both intelligible and unintelligible. My grandmother had been the one who had given my mother her childhood Southern accent—for which she received speech therapy in Illinois, for the teachers didn’t like the way she said “yell-a” instead of “yellow”. She also cut my mother’s perfect Shirley Temple curls and made her wear a short page-boy cut, for which was resentful. Once in college, she grew her hair long in Pre-Raphaelite fashion. I saw a picture of the two of them together during those times, my mother with her long sea of dark, my grandmother with a pillbox hat, on a sunny front lawn. These images implied certain things, but they could not replace an actual knowledge of, or intimacy with, the grandmother I missed.

But knowing her final wishes, and her deepest fear—that her soul would be destroyed by flame—illustrates something quite profound about her beliefs. It is the only real token I have of her, the only way I have been able to feel her voice—and I do—in an elegant, accented Southern lilt. Cigarette smoke curling behind her ears. The insistence on the sacrality of the body—even when the soul departed—and its inherent function in eternal life after death, suggests to me that my grandmother was a woman for whom objective materialism held no meaning.

Typically, the treatment of the body upon death is an important ritual feature connected with religious faith. For Catholics, the necessity of full body burial connects to the belief in a second coming—the raising up of the dead. The everlasting life of the soul. Following similar theological reasoning, Mary is thought to have been assumed into heaven, body and soul intact. This was possible in her extraordinary case because she was without sin. In Orthodox iconography artists depict this event, referred to as the Dormition, through a patterned composition that places earthly Mary—recognizable as an adult woman, reclined on her bed. She is surrounded by the apostles. Above her bed stands her son, holding in his arms an infant Mary, as a representation of her everlasting soul. This is a curious, though potent, reversal of the Theotokos iconography with which we may be more familiar—Mary the mother, holding the infant Christ in her arms.

In the Orthodox world, Dormition iconography is commonplace, derived from various legends and apocryphal texts; in Catholic iconography, however, it is more rarely portrayed. More often, the event of the Assumption serves as the focus of paintings and sculptures celebrating her triumphant entrée into heaven, though examples of devotion to the cult of the Dormition or “Transit” did become popular among certain religious communities. One of my favorite examples is a large sculptural group housed at a Quiteñan Carmelite museum. A theatrical display of lifelike sculptures, the Dormition becomes a fixed event wherein the viewer participates as a witness in the Virgin’s passing. Here, wooden bodies come to life through the ritual recitation of a novena to memorialize the event. Material and spirit are fused in both the participants and the images through symbolic activation. The mechanism is cyclical and linguistic, but it is also physically charged, reliant on the real presence through images. Before us, Mary lays peacefully on an ornate, Rococo-style bed, suggestive of a colonial elite household. Surrounded by her saintly entourage, she “sleeps,” waiting to be brought, body and soul, to heaven, three days later. The faithful will wait and pray with her; her body will not be corrupted. As an image, she is never disappointing. Consider, in contrast, the problem of Father Zosima from The Brothers Karamazov. Images achieve what organic matter cannot.

For Muslims, the dead are also treated with ritual reverence; the family members clean the body, wrap it in cloth, and bury it directly in the earth. But whereas the Christian tradition represents an anxiety over the incorruptible body (particularly relevant in hagiographies, the perfectly preserved corpse), the Muslim tradition acknowledges a primal cyclical relationship between body and earth. Place is important; body becomes place. Place and memory become fused, as they have been for my partner’s brother, who is buried in a quiet cemetery in Meşrutiyet village, peeking through the brambles to the Black sea down below. In the winter it is cold and grey here; with the spring, bright leaves burst through terse bark. The flowers come, the plants in the cemetery awaken from the deep night and the living speak to them there, glass of tea in hand. There is no need for images. In fact, images would only distract from the unmediated nature by which our human bodies commune with the earth.

Humans have always responded to tragedy, both personal and communal, with ritual—a cultural mechanism by which we acknowledge our problems and physically enact measures pleasing to the gods. Alternatively, in the absence of a belief in or love for supernatural deities, we take steps to reduce perceived threats and consequences for bad behavior and imbalance. For the individual that suffers from crippling anxiety, this metaphysical transaction can be observed in obsessive practices or in therapeutic measures meant to ameliorate uncomfortable sensations. For the rationalist living in the age of COVID-19, adhering to public health protocols (social distancing, frequent cleansing) can be said to reflect the ritualistic impulse in the age of science. And while these activities have an observable, measurable effect on health outcomes, at their core, I believe they preserve the DNA of the symbolic order through which we have managed to collectively order our experience in a bizarre, magical universe.

When it comes to the ritual approach to death, however, we are somewhat at more of a loss. Public health concerns have disrupted the nuanced approach to grief. In New Orleans, for example, where funeral processions, second-lines, and public gatherings replete with music and dancing, are suspended as the city suffers from the highest infection rate in the US. Culture has been an important site of healing through generations of hardship for New Orleanians. It is hard to imagine the city without its music, its parades, its collective grief in full color. Other regions around the world are reporting disruptions in the grieving process as well: Shiva, the mourning period in the Jewish tradition, has been suspended or transferred to disembodied Zoom meetings in Israel. The bereaved are left with an image of ritual rather than the physicality of ritual itself. The same is true in Muslim countries, where the body washing for COVID-19 victims has been disallowed. Funerals have either been banned or limited to few participants. The whole world grieves, but now, more than ever, it grieves through images.

Technology has enabled many of us to transmigrate certain ritualistic practices to what we might call an analogue ritual channel, but for many, it will not suffice. Live images, streamed images, transcribed and encrypted images flood our world view. Necessity, it seems, has suspended the orthodox insistence on the truth of presence. We will take what we can get, even collectively code a new auratic understanding of the images we ingest daily by whatever means we can. It is a strange diet, to be sure, but it also illuminates the ways in which technology has fundamentally changed our relationship to images and ritual over time.

For those for whom the realm of the digital represents no symbolic challenges, the efforts to enforce social distancing—even in the event of grief—are not a deep affront to humanity. However, for many, these disruptions represent a real, spiritual threat—with devastating consequences. The scientist in me scoffs at the mega-church gatherings that continue to occur here with regularity, flouting the official mandates. How could people be so irresponsible? Don’t they understand that they are endangering themselves and others selfishly? At the same time, the anthropologist in me understands the need for ritual, particularly in times of distress. Humans, without ritual, are rendered vulnerable, because eliminating ritual threatens to collapse the process by which we meaningfully orient our behaviors and symbolic representations for the collective good.

If a ritual, however, undermines the very purpose of this process, then the ritual loses its efficacy and must adapt to meet changing demands. This is by no means a simple negotiation.

Organized religion in particular tends to be very resistant to change. Tradition is often cited as a legitimate reason for continuing to practice behaviors and beliefs even when they are at odds with environmental and social concerns. Among the many explanations we could cite, perhaps the most fundamental is the threat that change poses to set epistemological systems. If the meaningful order is called into question, the whole structure may appear fragile—internal weaknesses exposed, contradictions—the irrationality of collective behavior laid bare.

This is where the disconnect between so-called secular culture and religious culture lies. Both are ritualistic to the same degree, I submit, because ritual is a fundamental human need. However, one group openly admits it, and, in fact, institutionalizes its symbolic orientation through a detailed codification of ritual. The other only tacitly admits it under certain circumstances, while ostensibly projecting an unwavering commitment to an idea of objectivity untethered from cultural practice. This, in some ways, provides the potential for positive change to reflect current needs and understanding; however, in some ways it denies its participation in a very fundamental human need—that is, a shared practice of ritual.

This crisis has presented us with the unequaled opportunity to acknowledge our need for ritual—whether spiritual, atheist, agnostic, health-wise, or other. Incredibly, we are learning ways to provide outlets in ways that are both safe and satisfying at a rapid pace. This, to me, demonstrates the great adaptability of human culture as well as the innate role that empathy plays in our survival. That is not to say, however, that we do not face challenges. The time has come for a truly universal grieving ritual.

For those that grieve and who are never able to ritualistically fulfill the demands of that grief, we are all called to grieve with you.

A final, disembodied image as I zoom out: from above—mass graves neatly lined up: grey earth, brown earth. The first reports from Iran terrified me. Now, they seem commonplace. Order superimposed in the chaotic matrix of nature. Our friends and family members will be laid to rest here. The living will carry on and bear the images of those lives forward.

The Thread
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