The Art of Ritual

By Alicia Anstead

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"The eloquent testimonials last week of several outstanding writers and close family members were what you might expect at a public memorial service for the crime novelist Robert B. Parker who died in January. But when his son Daniel, an actor, stepped onto the dais with a pianist, the crowd froze with anticipation. Before he began, Daniel said only a few words – that the two things his father loved best, past family and work, were baseball and singing. And Daniel Parker didn’t need to say more because the story he told through the poignant father-and-son up-at-bat song “What You’d Call a Dream” and the last stanza of “Danny Boy” said it all.

My guess is that we don’t typically think of ourselves as creative producers at funerals or even weddings because their formats are often dictated by religious traditions or social conventions. But, as many cultures know, performance can lift some of the solemnity of ritual and allow us to experience life’s most commanding transitions in a joyful and piercing way through the storytelling embedded in art.

Earlier this month, I attended the funeral of my cousin who was a dancer with Joffrey Ballet Company and, later, a sheep farmer on an island. (And yes, that means she had the most graceful way of raking hay.) Jackie was a woman of the arts and a woman of nature. Farmers and artists alike attended her memorial service in a scruffy seaside park. A trio of trombone and strings accompanied the local community choir for several songs, and a couple of us spoke about her life. But no moment resonated more with who she was than when a 13-year-old dancer stepped forward on that grassy stage and perfomed to the old Shaker tune “Lord of the Dance.”

Performance can tell the story of a life in a symbolic way, one that can tap deeply into our individual memories and collective unconscious. Where ever people gather – funerals, weddings – there is the possibility for transformative storytelling. When we find ways to include art and artists in our ceremonies, we find a direct connection to our shared humanity. But don’t take my word for it. “All the world’s a stage,” said Shakespeare, “And all the men and women merely players.”"

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