When people exclaim how small the world has become, they’re usually noting how short a time it takes to travel from one part of it to another. A journey that used to last months or years now takes a single day.
With a few clicks of a remote control, we can switch, without getting off our sofa, from a Polish to an Australian to an Israeli spy show or detective yarn, or watch a documentary about a Japanese composer, New York night club, or Chinese re-education camps.
Another way our world has shrunk is in the ways we mark important events, such as marriage and death. For many, these have lost their connection to community and transcendent meaning and purpose, and so their authority. Instead, they are matters of personal, subjective preference.
Weddings and funerals have varied widely across the world in their rituals and customs. They express religious belief and observance, or practical considerations such the difficulty of burying a body in stony ground.
But one thing they’ve had in common is that people followed rites and customs of their communities and faiths. Individuals and families didn’t make up their own ceremonies out of whole cloth. Until now.
Weddings, for instance, always and everywhere (until about the year 2000), brought the sexes together, joined two families, and were acknowledged and celebrated by their community according to its rituals and customs. Traditional Christian and Hindu wedding ceremonies, for example, differ markedly in their customs and rites, but express a profound sense of the rite’s sacred and communal nature. They connect the couple and their families to the community, to past, present, and future generations.
Such traditions remind the couple and the community of the sacramental significance of marriage, which is inseparable from its sexual, generative nature. They proceed, after the man and woman have given assurance that they’re entering the bond knowingly and voluntarily, to an exchange of vows between the couple of fidelity and permanence until death. By custom, the celebration continues with speeches and earthy jokes alluding to hopes that the marriage will be fertile and blessed with many children.
In a 1997 article in First Things, David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, pointed to one seemingly innocent but telling indicator of the shrinking of our idea of marriage from a communal and transcendent understanding to one that is individualistic, subjective, and mundane. This preceded the shift in legislation to redefine marriage altogether as a kind of state-registered friendship without regard to sexual complementarity, the generations, generative sex, or children.
Already, with the blessing and support of pastors—who readily gave up their authority as expressions of community and spiritual authority—the couple themselves compose their own vows and present them to the community, rather than the other way around. It’s a striking reversal of traditional rites. The two approaches, Blankenhorn argued, “reflect strikingly divergent views of marriage and of reality itself.” As he explains:
“In one view, the vow is prior to the couple. The vow exists on its own, exerting social and sacred authority that is independent of the couple. In this sense, the vow helps to create the couple. For in making the same promise that others before them have made, and that others after them will make, the couple vows on their wedding day to become accountable to an ideal of marriage that is outside of them and bigger than they are.
“In the new view, the couple is prior to the promise. The vow is not an external reality, like gravity or the weather, but instead a subjective projection, deriving its meaning solely from the couple. … Rather than the vow creating the couple, the couple creates the vow.”
The change shaped, as well as reflected, a profound shift in the meaning and integrity of the promised commitment. A pledge of permanence “so long as we both shall live” has given way to the intention to stay together “as long as love lasts.” It’s an expression of the “divorce culture” and a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Less noted but even more varied is the range of ways that families and mourners have found, in our secular, individualist times, to mark the death of a loved one.
Put differently, we see the loss of a shared sense of how to grieve the deaths of others in our family and community. Traditional ways to mourn, inherited from a period that was more communal and more attuned to the transcendental, have fallen into disuse for many, but nothing comparable has replaced them.
In my own extended family, recent funerals have ranged from the exiguous (where the intent had been for no service at all, but where participants felt the need for some scant ceremony and improvised one on the spot) to the elaborate (combining U.S. military honors with the prayers of Buddhist monks and attendance of many from the surrounding area).
The wishes of the deceased (e.g., for no fuss to be made) may not recognize the need of survivors to come together to acknowledge the gap left in their family or community, and to reconnect with those from whom they had become separated by distance or different paths in life. The death of someone in our family confronts us with our own finitude and with its transcendent meaning—or meaninglessness.
Remarks or rites at a funeral, even suggestions, can be felt as imposing one’s view on others. What seems to one family member as a nonreligious and nonspiritual ceremony, a “humanist funeral,” to others looks like something else, a pagan ritual that celebrates nature and denies the supernatural. The end result may be a kind of “celebration of life” that, as far as possible, offends no one, but is a kind of denial of death.
A wake before a funeral, or family gatherings or picnics at the graveside months or years later, may have been traditional ways of grieving or remembering the departed. Faith traditions celebrate, remember, and pray for the departed, as in the Day of the Dead, All Saints Day, and All Souls (Nov. 1 and 2). In the Catholic Church, the entire month of November is the traditional time to visit the graves of loved ones, as is the anniversary of their deaths. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, there are varied customs and rituals for remembering and praying for the dead throughout the year, as well as reminding the living of their own mortality.
In modern societies, a death—devastating as it may be for the individuals most closely involved—seems, by contrast, to make barely a ripple in the life of a community or workplace. Life, shorn as it may be of meaning and purpose, goes on.
The New Individualism
The increased involvement of individuals, couples, and families in designing their own weddings and funerals seems to promote a new freedom of choice, a liberation from cultural or religious constraints and prescriptions. That’s how even professional celebrants, the ministers of weddings and funerals, often present it. It’s a new participation of the laity in rites and ceremonies that hitherto had developed and been transmitted across centuries and that had left limited room for innovation and creativity.
But does this new freedom empower us to submit to and participate in the communal and sacred rites of our culture and faith tradition, just as our predecessors had across generations and centuries? Or does it leave us spiritually impoverished and isolated?
Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawaii and was a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is” and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.