Tradition meets aesthetics: the meaning of modern rituals

In a secular and individualised world, rites and symbols are popular but only partially understood.


Maria is dead. She was forty-one years old. Heading home after a hectic April workday at the middle school, she was hit by a car as she stepped off the bus. The setting sun had blinded the driver, who skidded on to the pavement.

Now family, friends, colleagues, and children from Maria’s class gather for the funeral. The small church, one of the city’s older ones, is very crowded. The coffin stands in front of the altar. It is sky blue, Maria’s favourite colour, decorated with white roses and a photograph of Maria taken last summer. She is wearing the white linen pants suit, that was her favourite summer wardrobe. Because the family did not want Maria to be wrapped in the traditional shroud, her body is dressed in the same suit worn in the photograph. A sea of flowers in all imaginable colours surrounds the coffin. Maria’s husband, their two children aged ten and twelve, a fifteen-year-old from an earlier marriage, parents, sisters and all the other mourners are without exception dressed in light colours, following the wish expressed in the family’s obituary notice.

How to conduct and arrange the funeral was not self-evident, in the face of Maria’s dramatic, totally unexpected death. The husband sought help from sisters and friends. How would Maria have wanted it? What did she like? What music, what colours, clothes, flowers? What symbol should be chosen for the obituary notice? They chose a bird. Her colleagues had their own choice, the school symbol.

There was no doubt, however, that the funeral would take place under the auspices of the Swedish Church. Not because anyone in the family was particularly churchly, but no one felt negatively disposed on principle, either. The church space, with its power and ritual character, was quite simply the right environment; no alternative was considered. Moreover, Maria was good friends with one of the congregation’s woman priests, who is now conducting the service with great personal engagement.

Speeches, music, and songs follow. The hymns are Lina Sandell’s ‘Just One Day, One Moment at a Time’, ‘Spread Your Wide Wings’, and then ‘Fair Are the Meadows’. Maria’s friends from the choir sing ‘Just a Closer Walk with Thee’; a single flute rises with Taube’s ‘The Sea Never Shimmered So Before’; and a trumpeter plays Rod Stewart’s ‘I Am Sailing’. The fourth-year classes sing ‘Who Can Sail Without the Wind?’ for their teacher. The family’s selection has been made in consultation with the undertaker, with the idea of being reasonably familiar and easy to sing – as well as heartfelt and ‘light-filled’.

The family was dubious about the priest laying the traditional three scoops of earth on the coffin. It felt wrong, dirty in some way. Couldn’t three white lilies be used instead? They had heard of others doing this. But the priest explained the meaning in this act of transfer, and the family saw its purpose, transformed from dirt to ritual ingredient.

Towards the end of the funeral each of Maria’s three children lights a candle for their mother, the family makes its farewell, then other mourners. Slowly, the stream of children and adults flows past the coffin. Closing prayer and benediction, the ceremony is over; it is time to walk out to organ music. The guests gather for a memorial hour that is open to everyone (which is not always the case); the former husband and his new family are included.

Maria’s body is conveyed to the crematorium. Eventually, her ashes will be interred. Then only the immediate family will take part.

This funeral is fictitious. Even so, the story is not arbitrary. It builds on many voices, in statements supplied by relatives, clergy, and undertakers. The story of Maria’s funeral exemplifies a cross-section of contemporary practice. It is my point of departure for this discussion of contemporary ritual activities: their individual, cultural, and social meanings.

Ritual Choices

Maria’s story could have shown more details and complications typical of a funeral in Sweden in 2005. Alternative scenarios are imaginable. Maria or her husband could have come from a country where tradition demands an open coffin at the funeral. How are such wishes resolved within the Swedish Church? It might have been the funeral of an old person, dead after a long stay in a home for the elderly, with few funeral guests. The funeral might have aroused conflicts within and between old and new family constellations, with consequent exclusion and bitterness, requiring intensive mediation by undertaker and priest to ensure any funeral at all. The funeral could have been a civil ceremony. The ashes could have been scattered at sea, not interred.

Today, rites and symbols are often chosen freely, with great inventiveness. Profane and religious features may be combined, ritual elements taken from different traditions and religions.

What the choices have in common is that they express individuality and subjectivity; they proceed from the individuals concerned. It is the individual, rather than ideology, belief or collective, that the rituals make manifest. In Maria’s funeral, the arrangements proceeded from her personality. People asked themselves what Maria would have liked, rather than what ought to be done in accordance with what the tradition, the collective, and the church offer. The choices Maria’s friends and family made, on the other hand, are not so unusual. They are inspired by what they have seen and heard and by suggestions from friends, the undertaker, and the priest.

By such means, the unique also becomes general; the choices reflect a particular time, a particular social and cultural context. The elements people choose to assemble for a personally directed ceremony often have a Christian foundation, even in civil ceremonies.

But did the husband and the others who arranged Maria’s funeral know that, in an ecclesiastical context, the coffin’s blue colour denotes the otherworldly and divine? It is more widely known, perhaps, that white symbolises innocence and purity. But white is also holiness, resurrection, and joy. Did they know, among many other possibilities, that the rose as well as the lily are the Virgin Mary’s flowers? That the bird chosen for the obituary notice is the soul that is leaving the body, its earthly prison? Frithiof Dahlby’s De heliga teckens hemlighet – symboler och attribut is a gold mine for anyone interested in Christian symbolism’s many-sourced possibilities. Many of these symbols are not restricted to Christendom, of course, and many are significantly older than the religion itself. But it is unlikely that many people read this or similar texts and painstakingly ponder the significance of the symbols before they organise a wedding, funeral, or christening.

A New Ritual Paradigm

This way of putting together personally coloured rites is sometimes described as ‘shopping behaviour’: You assemble rites and symbols the way you want to. You buy the rite but not the underlying ideology. Such descriptions are often critical. The rite-shopping person of our time often stands out as superficial and ignorant in relation to people of another time or other places. There or then, rites are seen as fixed, not to be influenced, strongly bound to uniform systems of norms or religion. Here and now, rites are merely empty aesthetics without anchorage in spiritual values.

Regarded as criticism of civilisation, this approach to evaluating the actions of contemporary people is frequently employed. Statements about the present age often hold unspoken assumptions that earlier times were better – or worse. This may apply to violence, diseases, or abstract concepts like happiness. Whether it was better or worse before depends, naturally, on what kind of violence or which diseases one considers, as well as what the concept of happiness means.

The old days were, for the most part, indeed different. But one cannot assume that everyone in the old Swedish peasant society necessarily preserved church symbolism more than the people who are organising life-cycle rites today. Most Swedish peasants could neither read nor write. The language used in the pulpit was hardly ordinary. Elements from church activities and symbols, not least the cross, were frequently used in folk medicine and magic. The symbols’ powerful charge found many areas of application in folk practice. Even in the past one finds flexibility in using symbols and ritual elements, a use that did not always accord with the theological interpretation.

Crucial differences do exist. So crucial that the American anthropologist Catherine Bell speaks of a new ritual paradigm. One important difference is the transformation of ritual meaning from local to global circumstances. Formerly, it was first of all the power relations and world view of the local society that ritual acts re-created and upheld. Today’s western practitioners of rites feel themselves united instead with something universal and common to all humanity. In Bell’s opinion, there may be a romantic view of the intrinsic potential of ritual to function as a healing cure for modernity’s fragmentation and felt lack of connection.

Another important difference is that, in today’s rituals, society is defined from the self, rather than the self from society. In the story of Maria’s funeral, just such a view is manifested in a ceremony based in the personal and subjective. The photograph on the coffin is connected to the living Maria, her family and friends, not to the fellowship of other dead Christians or God. The church’s message is secondary.

The legitimacy and authority of the new ritual paradigm no longer derives from specific religions and traditions. When the rite itself has become more important than the belief complex to which it once belonged, there is greater demand for that rite to affect the cognitive orientation and wellbeing of those taking part, to touch their hearts. Formerly, a well functioning ritual was a rite performed in the correct way. Now, a ‘feel good effect’ is required instead, an experience over and above the ordinary.

The demand that rites involve emotional movement opens people to disappointment. Tedious officiating, an unengaged priest, music that is difficult to sing, dreary sandwiches for the memorial hour’s refreshments, or a dull wedding dinner can destroy the ritual experience. Never mind that everything has been done ‘correctly’, following the program, containing all the items prescribed by the ecclesiastical or conventional rule book. It’s not enough. Those who organise special occasions are aware of this. The pressure to create the optimum wedding celebration, the most heartfelt funeral, or the nicest naming ceremony produces an ‘experience stress’ typical of our time. But help is at hand.

Ritual Innovators

The profession of undertaker has greatly changed in Sweden. Out of the more or less hidden activity of the coffin maker or the midwife shrouding the corpse, a well-trained, skilled profession has developed. The undertaker expertly pilots the bereaved through a growing selection of symbols and activities linked to the funeral ceremony. In the story of Maria’s death, for example, the children’s each lighting a candle at their mother’s bier may have been included at the undertaker’s suggestion, or the priest’s. Because modern expectations build into ritual occasions the demand for personal experience, achieving active participation is important. One way for colleagues to take active part, to demonstrate their engagement, is to place their own obituary notice in the newspaper. For Maria’s friends in the choir and children from the school, each group can present its own song in the church. The more the funeral guests, particularly the closest mourners, can be brought to participate, performing actions perceived as ritual, the greater the chance that emotional engagement will be reached. Then the rite works, too.

Catherine Bell speaks of a gap between religious longing and religious resources looming so large that people can experience traditional church rituals as mute. They lack personal appeal and personal meaning. At Maria’s funeral, the family’s dubiousness about the three scoops of earth on the coffin illustrates this gap. The priest had to explain the symbolic content of the rite in order for it to speak to and appeal to the family. Ritual innovations function here to complement the traditional cult ceremonies.

Undertakers are far from alone as innovators of ritual. The wedding trade in particular is full of new features in flowers, coiffures, limousine service, pastries, etc. Wedding expositions that show such services attract large audiences. Organisers of festive occasions can take care of all or parts of the celebration of a special event, applying intuitive flair to seeing that the participants’ need for emotional experience is satisfied. Another inspiration for the changing and renewal of rites, according to Catherine Bell, is research on ritual. One must remember, in this case, that anthropological research has had significantly more influence in the United States and Great Britain than in Sweden. In the United States, people have heard of the superstars of ritual research: Victor Turner, Clifford Geertz, and Arnold van Gennep, to name a few. More important, people have also heard of their research results, at least in summary, and they use them. Popularised versions of Turner/Geertz’s model of ‘the ritual process’, writes Bell, make people expect that these rites are supposed to work as a sort of social alchemy. The rites are expected to create kinship among people, as well as between people, things, and nature. By analysing rites and ritual activities performed by people in some completely exotic place, the researchers unintentionally intervene in both the domestic and the studied ritual practices.

The United States is certainly not Sweden – even if many Swedish priests are well acquainted with van Gennep’s terminology for rites of passage. In connection with funerals, the differences between the two nations’ death customs are usually pointed out. The dead bodies wearing make-up put on view in American funeral homes are usually held up as an eye-catching example of dissimilarity. In Sweden, a ‘natural’ look goes, at least for the dead. Since no public showing of the body occurs either, the Swedish need for embalming and cosmetics is also not comparable.

Nevertheless, many new features of ritualization, as in many other fields, come from the United States – such as elaborate wedding and graduation festivities. An American influence appears also in the idea that people need help learning to mourn. Special institutes and courses address this learning process. It is not unusual in Sweden, as in the United States, to use techniques that are perceived as more ‘primordial’. Professional shamans are sometimes recruited to teach how to do it. A more modest method is to draw inspiration for new rituals from scientific descriptions of exotic rites, or sometimes of old rites native to one’s home place.

In the latter case, there is an interesting link to Swedish ethnology. Around Christmas, Easter, Midsummer, All Saints’ Day, and various other annual festivals, telephones at the ethnological archives ring off the hook. An endless stream of journalists wants to know how things used to be done, how customs have changed, what can be expected in the future, what it means that things are done the way they are, and so on. The same questions are asked at regular intervals about burial, marriage, and other life-cycle rites. Archivists sometimes get pure consultation queries from the public concerning name-giving, customs specific to particular provinces, and the like.

My own work as a researcher of funeral rituals, apart from what has been published, has involved countless lectures, appearances, and interviews. The invitations come from undertakers, priests, journalists, and the general public. Over time I have noticed that some of the hypotheses, ideas, and results I presented have been incorporated into our age’s discourse on what holds true for modern funerals. This calls for reflection. Apparently even Swedish researchers are influencing and legitimising the ritual practices of our age.

Ritual Meaning and the Practice of Distinction

Rites distinguish, set apart. Ritual ceremonies separate certain developments from the ordinary to-and-fro of everyday life. They are marked by their contrast effect: by seriousness, stillness, reflection. Phenomena that are ordinary in themselves, such as candles, flowers, and music, are put together in a different way, where the unified whole creates the ritual effect.

Spatiality is crucial. Regarded as ritual space, the church has a great advantage. A church space is charged in advance with ritual power and in itself contrasts with the spaces of everyday life – home, office, workshop, school. The atmosphere which the rite needs exists in a church. In church, the transport to the alternative worlds that are an important part of ritual meaning is more easily attained. The everyday can be transcended and left outside during the ceremony. Even when the church space is not chosen as a platform for ritual ceremonies, spatiality has great significance. Places are chosen with care for weddings, funerals, christenings, or name-giving ceremonies. Homes are transformed with flowers and candles placed in special arrangements. Chapels and wedding rooms in city halls are decorated with a feeling for solemnity. If the ceremony takes place outdoors, sites of natural beauty are chosen. All of these spaces are charged by sacral symbolism with ritual meaning, and they are set apart from the ordinary.

Rites make distinctions. Not only do they distinguish between the everyday and the ritual; they distinguish among people, too. The rite unites those who take part in it. Those who do not belong are kept separate, outside the ritual magic circle. This becomes painfully clear to people who want to be included but are not invited to attend. Former spouses may not be invited to confirmations, birthdays, or graduations. Half-siblings may not be welcome at a wedding, or friends who do not hear until afterwards that a funeral has been held. Who is to take part or not, who is to be invited or not, can be very problematic for organisers of a ceremony. Where is the line to be drawn? There are instances of peripheral friends who have stopped saying hello because they were not invited to a wedding. And many are the testimonies, not least on the internet, of how wronged people can feel if they were not invited to a ceremony.

Rites are important. Rituals are a way to structure, interpret, and manage the world. Our modern rites are as historically and socially determined as rites in other times and places: for example, today’s ritual emphasis on the universal, human, and simultaneously personal; our pluralistic way of assembling rites from different traditions and religions, or making up new rites; our idea of rites’ socially healing significance.

All rituals partake of a dialectic with society and culture. There are homologies and correspondences between ritual ceremonies and other values in society. It is therefore not surprising that, in a pluralistic society with many parallel systems and religions, religion becomes a private matter and public institutions are kept free from religion. Nor is it surprising that a society characterised by cultural pluralism is also marked by ritual pluralism.

At the same time, religion and ritual can be given a sharper profile, simply in order to make them distinguishable in the hubbub of the many possibilities. A cultural pluralism open to many alternative identity structures, spiritualities, and patterns of life also contains its own opposite. The longing for uniform principles, one order instead of many, and clear moral rules to go by, stimulates the antithesis of pluralism – fundamentalism, a topic discussed by other essays in this book.

Rites are mutable. Even Christian liturgy, one of the world’s most stable ritual traditions, is being changed and adapted. Practices that were once weeded out of the Protestant Church, branded as Catholic, can return with new content. With greater interest in symbolism, for example, the sign of the cross may be used more often. Unchanged rituals can take on added ritual charge with time and be given new meaning.

Functioning rites are not empty aesthetics. Funerals like Maria’s express values with great cultural significance: individuality, subjectivity, personal responsibility and choice, body and clothes as markers of identity. Such rituals also express situational kinship, emotional authenticity, the combination of innovation and tradition. Funerals like Maria’s satisfy the demand of our age for participation and emotional engagement. Here, individual and cultural meaning are united. Rites create meaning, now as in past ages.

Translation by Anne Cleaves.

This essay originally appeared under the title Ritual Meaning in The Future of Religion: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess, 2001.


Lynn Åkesson