We can think of ritual closure as an ideal of intention. It asks that people do all they can to ensure that the transition to the other world has been unambiguously completed, that no residue of unfinished business – that is to say, unexpressed emotion – remains. More importantly perhaps, the completion of their ritual responsibilities to the dead moves the living into a new phase of life as well. These are rites of passage for the living.
The opposite of ritual closure is a certain kind of denial. When those in mourning do not (or are not allowed to) give sufficient time and emotional expression to the grief process, the wounds of loss close too soon and remain in a sense infected. Thus, across the world we find various examples of the curious yet psychologically sophisticated practice of “secondary treatment,” in which the condition of the corpse becomes a model for the condition of the soul, and the community inspects the decomposing remains for signs that the soul has moved on to the other world.
In some rural Greek villages, archaic pagan customs still underlie a thin veneer of Christian belief. After a death, the community participates in ceremonies intended to serve the needs of the dead, to feed them, especially those who cannot enter Paradise without having had their sins forgiven. Long after the funeral, the women sing daily laments at the grave. Anthropologist Loring Danforth notes the similarity of these chants to wedding songs, a reminder of the mythic “marriage with death.”[ii] After five years, the relatives exhume and inspect the bones of the deceased. If the body has not completely decomposed, everyone assumes that the soul continues to wander as a ghost. So they re-inter the bones for another two years, at which point they again exhume them.
Clean bones are evidence to all that the soul has been forgiven and has entered Paradise. The bones are then deposited in the ossuary, or bone-house. The empty grave becomes available for another – temporary – resident. The period of liminality for both the soul and his or her relatives ends, and everyone can move on, free of the weight of both grief and responsibility.
Forms of secondary burial occur in many other places, including Borneo, Madagascar, Spain, Celebes and Bali, where the bones of the dead are dug up (after the flesh has decomposed) and cremated in elaborate ceremonies. To the Balinese, the recently deceased are dangerous, even demonic; but after the rituals of closure the people venerate the dead as ancestral gods. Having completed the passage to the other side, the souls of the dead have become potential allies for those who exist on this side of the veil.
This is the reciprocal relationship between the worlds. In exchange for being of help to the living, it is said among the Guatemalan Maya that the ancestors ask to be fed through two actions of the living. The first is continued full expression of the emotional life, especially mourning. The second is regular expression in art, ritual and eloquent language of beauty. The living feed the ancestors through an aesthetic response to the world, writes shaman Martin Prechtel:
The Tzutujil (Mayans) believed that the dead rowed themselves to the other world in “a canoe made of our tears, with oars made of delicious old songs.” Our grief energized the soul of the deceased so that it could arrive intact onto the Beach of Stars…(of) the salty Grandmother Ocean…on this beach of star souls our dead were well received by the “last happy ancestor.
The ancestors fed on grief. But when the community buried a person and truly felt grief was absent, or if that person had not been fully initiated, the soul could not complete the journey and was forced to turn back. It would then take up residence in the body of a young person – often a grandchild. The ghost would “eat the life of that person” through violence, accidents and alcoholism until the community finally understood and completed the appropriate rites of mourning.
Western writers such as Freud, Danforth and Ernest Becker have explained that these customs resolve the opposition of life and death by denying the finality of death through belief in the afterlife. But by reducing ritual to psychology they do more than patronize tribal people; they miss a profound insight. These extended periods of emotional expression complete the ritual obligations to the ancestors and create closure to a degree almost inconceivable to the modern mind.
Death is so common (a daily event, writes Some´) in any Third World village that the regular occurrence of authentic funeral rituals ensures that a load of suppressed grief never builds up to toxic levels as it does in modern culture. Properly conducted – that is to say, lengthy and emotionally cathartic – funerals give everyone who attends (in West Africa, the entire village) the opportunity, indeed the responsibility, to resolve any unfinished business they may have with their own dead, or with anyone else.
And thus, such people have the extraordinary capacity to live in the present moment. Perhaps this fact is the source of the common observation by Western travelers that Third World peasants, despite grinding poverty and political repression, are happy. Some´ writes that life in his village rotates around mourning and celebration of the fact that the people have paid their dues to the dead: “The other side of real grief is real joy.” And these regular descents into the chaos and emotional extremes of radical ritual allow continual rebirth of the community without recourse to violence.
Mexican poet Octavio Paz contrasted his own culture, which has always had a daily, intimate relationship to the dark side of existence, with ours: “A civilization that denies death ends by denying life.”