A man wandered along the exterior of Buckingham Palace last week, holding flowers and looking slightly baffled. “I don’t know what I’m doing here,” he said to the camera, “but I felt the need to do it.” So did thousands who made their pilgrimage to the palace, or who stood in hourslong lines to say farewell to a royal figure that most had never met.
They talked about paying respects or feelings of grief (all valid). Yet they were performing one of the oldest rituals we have evidence of — the act of engagement connected to something larger than ourselves.
What to do when a world figure dies? There may be a sense of loss, and/or grief (and occasionally relief) even though it may be about a person never met — a revered leader like Nelson Mandela, or one gone too soon, like President JF Kennedy; a musician, a writer, an artist — those who have enriched our lives. Perhaps a pope, or a monarch, distant figures that represent a slice of common memory and history, often described as “tradition”.
The challenge is what to do with that emotion, after texting your besties — and that very act provides the clue. The answer is, and always has been, the human impulse to connect, particularly in moments of transition — those nervy interstices that remind us that nothing is permanent, not even ourselves. Especially not ourselves.
There is ample evidence that prehistoric people, our earlier ancestors, gathered at particular spots to do more than just scrabble out their survival. Beautiful paintings, pecked drawings and engravings, the laborious movement and positioning of stones (some of massive weight), and the creation of ritual rooms and burial centres, as well as filling graves with ornaments and flowers — all these indicate a very long record in honouring those who have died.
Pope John Paul II’s funeral, in Rome on 8 April 2005, was one of the largest public funerals ever held, attended by princes, prelates and presidents. Enormous numbers of visitors poured into the Eternal City, including more than one million pilgrims from Poland, the late pope’s homeland.
Some in the crowd wanted to represent their country or constituency; others were curious, even reverential, tourists who wished to witness a historic event. One did not need to be a Catholic to feel that something significant had happened. One does not have to be a royalist to recognise that the death of a long-reigning queen is a particular marker in history.
Such a missing figure, now dead, is performing in present time perhaps their most significant function of all — that of bringing people together in a form of mutual commonality, recognition of a family grief, something easy to understand; also a sense that there is a glue that binds us together and which, however baffling it may be to describe, may supersede the differences that will always separate us.
The modern Egyptians who lined the banks of the Nile when the boy-king Tutankhamun was ferried from his ancient tomb to Cairo were reconnecting with an era thousands of years before, yet one that still gave them a profound sense of identity.
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The modern world finds it hard to describe these unifying actions, for we live in a post-Enlightenment age which, for reasons of science and politics, found it useful to separate the sacred from the secular. Once, ritual actions had obvious religious significance; we now know that they are much older than any known religion, any existing monarchy or political system.
“Secular” pilgrims often feel no hesitation in saying what they are doing, perhaps because there are fewer rules, and also because modern pilgrimage is a feature of a contemporary world that values doing something personally affirming. Whether visiting Gorée Island in Senegal, or the football cathedrals of Europe, or the Bloomsday Festival to celebrate James Joyce in Dublin, or sanctuaries of wells, dells, trees and gardens; the graves of statesmen, poets and musicians; Mandela’s cell on Robben Island and Elvis Presley’s shrine at Graceland — such visitors will talk unabashedly of the moving effect of their journeys. Hundreds of devotees still converge on Jim Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, to leave graffiti and flowers to his memory.
Human behaviour cannot be carved up into little slices — everything is connected. It makes no logical sense to separate identical or similar ritual actions on the basis of an ideological construct — that’s a modern conceit. Underneath, we have always known that there isn’t a division.
One of the most important pilgrimages for Hindus is that of “Sinking Flowers,” undertaken by (usually male) relatives, to commit their departed’s ashes (referred to as flowers) into the sacred river Ganges. These “flowers” are not lifeless remnants of bones, but souls and will eternally be part of the life-affirming water.
It’s notable that the ashes are called flowers, for beautiful, fragrant blooms have historically represented the cycle of life between birth and death. They were used to purify graves too, to mask odours. But their use is more ancient: the remains of flowers have been found in Neanderthal graves and Egyptian tombs. Romans scattered rose petals at banquets, threw them in the paths of victors, and drank rose oil in their wine. The “Queen of Flowers,” the rose, with its rich, sweet, tender and warm fragrance, is venerated in Christian, Rosicrucian and Sufi traditions and used by people universally as an expression of affection and connection.
Public acts like participating in funerals or the laying of flowers in tribute are the opposite of the dissociative state of meditation: they openly engage with the outer world of significance — and, paradoxically, they are also the connecting bridge to how we encounter the inner world of meaning.
That baffled man at Buckingham Palace may not quite have understood what he was doing when joining others in homage, as did football legend David Beckham, who stood in the long line for 12 hours to see the queen’s coffin, despite being offered a fast track. He wanted to stand with the others. To connect.
All acting on an ancient and valuable impulse that’s been around for as humans have lived on this Earth. DM