“Go to any archaeological site anywhere in the world,” quoth Dr. Margaret Mead in a class I had (long ago) somehow gotten myself into at Emory University. “Go to any archaeological site anywhere in the world and one of the first things you find are sacred artifacts. From that evidence,” she taught, “we can deduce that our species has always at least dabbled in some sort of religious ritual.”
According to Lady Margaret – short, round, articulate and strictly business, she was – there are four rituals that are found in almost every ancient culture: rituals of birth, rites of passage, marriage and death. We two-legged critters have somehow sensed that these Big Four life transitions were important enough to be marked and acknowledged with religious ceremony.
When I was in graduate theology school at Emory, one of the many ways I avoided studying was to live and work at a home for children in Atlanta called Hillside Cottages. The children there – ages 8-14 – were court appointed from homes torn apart by alcohol, drugs, violence, sexual abuse and dysfunctionalities I never knew existed. We had a campus dog named “Greta.” A dachshund. And all the kids loved Greta. And fed Greta. And Greta was filled and fattened. And Greta became Great Greta.
Evidently, in her greatness, Greta waddled too slowly across the street in front of the home and was killed by a car. It happened while the kids were at school; and when they came home and found her, a tsunami of sadness washed over the community. These kids had already experienced so much horror, abuse and loss you might think they would be hardened to it. But, instead, they went into deep mourning and something magical began to stir.
Since my (then) wife and I were the owners of Greta, a group of the kids came up to our cottage and asked if they could bury the dog. We happily agreed. I offered to help; but they said they could do it on their own. Which they did. With no adult supervision at all. And the result looked like something National Geographic video archives.
As we watched from our porch, the boys got shovels and began to dig. The girls collected flowers and rocks and a pillowcase/burial shroud. As if this were a long-standing, familiar tradition, they gathered around the hole. Girls knelt on one side of the grave and sobbed. Wailed and moaned, rocking back and forth as the boys stood, shovels in hand around the other side. They lowered Greta’s body into the earth, filled it in and began to place stones around the grave. Then, still weeping, they cleared a path from the sidewalk to the grave, lining it with stones and flowers. Then, several of them sat down by the grave and kept vigil until dinner was called.
As a minister, I have officiated at many, many rituals for the dead. Never have I seen a ceremony flow more naturally, more beautifully, more elegantly than the ritual for Greta. All done by broken kids with few healthy family traditions and no theological training. The ritual was primal. Gurgling up from deep within ancient wells somewhere inside those kids – something that they knew how to do without knowing that they knew.
My guess is that we each have cavernous wells like that inside us. My guess is we all know how to do far more than we know. Whatever our religious or non-religious leanings, we each have an innate sense of the profound worth of ritual. We somehow know that there’s far more going on in birth, pubescence, marriage and death than we can ever imagine. And, perhaps we sense that the only way to approach these life-changing moments is with ritual. Perhaps, our ritual legacy is one of the best ways we have to remind ourselves of life’s inherent holiness.