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The meaning of a rite of passage in different religions

Rituals are like ballet in that the language they speak is that of dramatic symbolism, or to describe this in different terms, ‘theatricality’ 1 . In many cases costumes are also incorporated as a part of the ritual, as well as music and various other elements which vary as you move over the face of the planet, after an order that nobody seems to have figured out. The differences between rituals and ballet run more fundamental than the similarities of course, ballet is just a handy point of comparison and a form of expression, as are rituals, and rituals are also attempts at preserving traditions- some would be happy to speak of improvized actions as part of ritual too, Bobby Alexander for instance, that ‘ritual defined in the most general and basic terms is a performance, planned or improvised, that effects a transition from everyday life to an alternative context within which the everyday is transformed’2, but nevertheless all rituals are essentially performances with mythical relevance and transformative power. They are a means of telling a story in symbols where sometimes the narrative will be more oblique than in other examples, and sometimes it will be clear where the origins of the actions performed lie, for instance as in Easter passion re-enactments.

Rites of passage, or transition rituals as they are sometimes called3, are one particularly interesting category of ritual. Their purpose is to mark out clear lines at points along personal or social timelines- naming ceremonies, coming of age ceremonies, marriages and funerals are a few examples of transition rituals. They have been studied in great detail by Arnold van Gennep, who identified the three essential stages in this type of ritual, possibly inspired by the transformative life stage of butterflies, the pupation of the larva: there is an initial separation, from one’s former state or location, followed by the middle (‘liminal’- from the same etymological root as ‘limbo’) stage where the object is neither what it was nor what it will soon become- and finally there is the reintegrating stage, of a return to society, somehow transformed. What was once recognized as a boy is now a man, two individuals are now legally and socially one and so forth4.

The defining of certain human social phenomena as ritual for instance, or as anything at all is entirely a matter of convention. People formally or informally agree upon what we call things, e.g. rituals and it is only because we call something a ritual that it is made so. This word is the common element to all of the various things that lie under it, but it is only because we are able to recognize certain other common elements that our logical minds can categorize them all as such. I have found no discoveries thereof as far as my reading has gone but if I may present my personal conviction, I think it is entirely the theatrical aspect, symbolism communicated through a physical display that we recognise as the essential part of these rituals.

There are many methods that humans have used to dispose of their dead and the most popular seems to be inhumation, a practice observed in most human societies globally and since proto-human times up until the present day and it is probably reasonable to suppose that it will continue to be practised beyond our time. And indeed there is no evidence to suggest that any other method was ever practised until roughly 3000 years ago5,6,7. Other methods favoured by our species include but are not limited to cremation, abandonment and necrophagy, in descending order of popularity8. Some societies prefer to preserve, rather than to recycle or destroy their dead9.

Funeral rites will appear differently depending on the afterlife beliefs of the culture they are performed in, or in our modern multicultural world, the beliefs of the individual concerned. Permit me for a little while to describe a few from various places and times. Descriptions of funerals from pre- Christian Europe, ancient Egypt and ancient to contemporary Iran follow, which will be elaborated on further down:

The Vikings were a people who enjoyed a spectacular funeral. For a Viking, death meant moving from one world to another so the function of the funeral rituals was mainly to ensure safe passage into what in our place and time we would probably call ‘Heaven’. It was assumed that life on both sides was roughly similar so whatever was done to the dead, burial in a grave or burial at sea (very neatly combining the practices of inhumation and cremation), they were given plenty of provisions, amusements and items of personal utility to take with them- men were buried with tools of their trade and of war10, as well as various other luxury and recreational items11, 12; women were buried with items relevant to child rearing and housekeeping13. Graves of both sexes have also been found to contain food and containers designed for holding food14, as well as the bones of domestic animals15. Whether these animals were deliberately buried with the humans remains a mystery.

The Ancient Egyptians similarly left little to chance when working to ensure the safety of the deceased, specifically the safety of the deceased’s body until the return of their soul. A human’s soul was believed to take a three thousand year journey after death, after which it would ultimately return to the body it was born into once before, and the idea was for the soul to have a well maintained body to return to, like house-sitting for a friend who has gone on holiday16. As far as anybody knows, corpse preservation seems to have begun with the Egyptians. Another concept originating with the Egyptians and possibly coincidentally with their approximate neighbours in space, time and level of cultural advancement the Mesopotamians, was that of post mortem life, and specifically a life that would be similar to the one lived in this world. So when a Mesopotamian king died he ‘took’ all of his ministers ‘with’ him as he intended to enjoy the same luxury in death that he had grown used to in life17. The concept of judgement was introduced fairly late in the formation of Egyptian cosmogony and mythology18 and brought with it the idea that one had to work for the approval of various bouncer type characters who spend their time scrutinizing the hearts of men and playing guard with defenses heavier than guns19.

The Zoroastrians had an entirely novel approach to the disposal of corpses. Earth and fire would be defiled by the introduction of a human corpse into either so by way of a solution the Iranians began to carry their dead to the top of stone pillars and abandon them, leave them to have their bones picked clean by vultures20. Similar practices have been observed in certain native American, Tibetan and aboriginal Australian societies, among others21, where bodies are left out in trees or on hills to be eaten by birds or carnivorous mammals. The Zoroastrian funeral is two-fold: firstly there is a period of preparing the dying for death, preparing the corpse to be taken to a column where it will be eaten by vultures, then taking the corpse to and leaving it on top of this column; this is followed by a period of praying for the soul of the deceased22. Although both stages seem to be given equal weight in practice, the first stage seems to be more in preparation for rather than a part of the actual ritual.

As these three examples have probably made clear, the purpose of funerals goes beyond the merely practical. There is evidence that inhumation has been performed since Proto-human times, which is a remarkable thing. Burial is a deliberate act and the reason why there have been more fossils of bones belonging to Neanderthal skeletons than of any other kind of ancestor to our species is because Neanderthals buried their dead rather than letting the Earth gradually swallow their bones and as far as we know Neanderthal graves are the first graves the planet has ever known23. On top of burying their dead, there seems to be evidence of some kind of ceremony attached to the burial. Pollen, evidence of the presence of flowers, has been found in Neanderthal graves, and where the position of the body can be made out it is clear that there are two specific prescribed positions dead Neanderthals have been buried in, either flat on their back or curled into a foetal position.

It is not clear how far Neanderthal ideas about any kind of afterlife went. It would appear that religion is not an essential criterion where grave burials and funeral rites connected with them are concerned, which may sound like an oxymoron. There may never have been any ritual associated with the burials, the only thing that is certain is that Neanderthals were buried in graves, and this could simply have been a survival measure. But then again elephants and some of the higher modern primates other than humans demonstrate grief at the loss of a loved one24 and we assume that Neanderthals must have been more intelligent than elephants and gorilla because they wore clothes, so it is not unreasonable to suppose that everything found in Neanderthal graves that looks as if it was deliberately placed, probably was.

One theme which is common to all three of the above examples is the separate-yet-also-connectedness of the body and the soul. The additional ideas which are built on top of this infrastructure differ between the cultures, which is why there is so little similarity in the treatment of the dead between the three examples. In the ancient Egyptian religion, the dead are buried with personal belongings they will find useful in the afterlife, which if they are to use them, they must return to their bodies so it is understandable why so much importance was placed on the proven methods of corpse preservation. When a Viking was buried with his belongings it was probably understood that he would be eaten by worms, and to assume that the Vikings thought otherwise would be an insult. No effort was made to preserve the bodies of Vikings at death so clearly the material form of a man was not considered essential to what that man was.

The protocol for treatment of a recently deceased body in the Zoroastrian religion on the other hand is designed to ensure the rapid and complete destruction of the body and therefore that the entire process be as hygienic as it can be. This quite clearly means that the soul must have nothing to do with the body after death. Zoroastrian funerals appear to be two-fold, i.e. they appear to actually be two successive funerals, or a funeral preceded by a cleansing ritual, and this derives from the Zoroastrian belief in dualities, here specifically pertaining to the duality of man. Actually it is closer to a butterfly that has very recently broken out of its pupa shell- the shell may be discarded, it has done what it had to and has no further use. Compare this with present-day British funerals where the portion of the funeral that is to deal with the body of the dead and the portion that is to do with the soul are performed at the same time.

Van Gennep’s model of transition rituals will have to be stretched slightly before it can be applied to funerals but it basically fits, or funerals are not transition rituals at all. In the first stage of transition rituals according to this particular model, the object is set apart from society somehow, and there is no more definite way for something to be set apart from the rest of society, which almost by definition must be living, than for it to be dead. The liminal stage of moving between states of being must correspond to the funeral itself, which means the final reintegrating stage must be to do with the soul in some way, as the only way corpses have ever been reintegrated into society is for them to have been stuffed and kept in a glass case, and even in these few instances these corpses are only as much a part of society as circus mutants. This is what happens when somebody attempts to consider funerals or any ritual at all on the surface level alone.

But if we were to look at rituals from a spiritual point of view we would see that there is really no difficulty in fitting then around van Gennep’s model. As a matter of fact it probably works perfectly.


1. Grainger 1974: 45
2. Alexander 1997: 139, quoted in Bowie 2006: 140
3. Bowie 2006: 138
4. Van Gennep in Hicks 2002: 130-132
5. http://www.deathonline.net/disposal/cremation/index.cfm
6. Davidson 1949: 71
7. Modi 1928
8. Quigley 1996: 214
9. http://www.ispub.com/journal/the_internet_journal_of_alternative_medicine/volume_7_number_2_21/article/trends-in-the-development-of-embalming- methods.html
10. http://www.lore-and-saga.co.uk/html/viking_burials.html
11. http://www.thaindian.com/newsportal/india-news/vikings-believed-that-their-dead-played-board-games-on-their-way-to-the-afterlife_10065998.html
12. http://www.journallive.co.uk/north-east-news/todays-news/tm_objectid=14613304&method=full&siteid=50081&headline=experts-stunned-as-viking-graves-found- name_page.html
13. http://www.journallive.co.uk/north-east-news/todays-news/tm_objectid=14613304&method=full&siteid=50081&headline=experts-stunned-as-viking-graves-found- name_page.html
14. Lee 2007: 72-86
15. Lee 2007: 61:69
16. http://www.ispub.com/journal/the_internet_journal_of_alternative_medicine/volume_7_number_2_21/article/trends-in-the-development-of-embalming- methods.html
17. Brandon 1967: 49
18. Brandon 1967: 16
19. Brandon 1967: 47-48
20. http://www.avesta.org/ritual/funeral.htm
21. Quigley 1996: 223
22. http://www.avesta.org/ritual/funeral.htm
23. http://humanorigins.si.edu/ha/neand.htm
24. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/travel/destinations/africa/article1271944.ece



Fiona Bowie, The Anthropology of Religion, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006)
S. G. F. Brandon, The Judgment of the Dead, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1967)
Arnold van Gennep, ‘Ritual’, in Ritual and Belief: Readings in the Anthropology of Religion (second edition), ed. by David Hicks. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002)
Christina Lee, Feasting the Dead, (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2007)
Christine Quigley, The Corpse: A History, (Jefferson: McFarland & Company Ltd., 1996)


Daniel Sutherland Davidson, ‘Disposal of the Dead in Western Australia’, in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society vol. 93 no. 1 (1949) pp. 71ff