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Deeply into the Bone Re-Inventing Rites of Passage

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Introduction Rough Passages, Reinvented Rites Within a few months of one another, four different women asked me if I knew of any rites they could use to celebrate menopause; an actor from Los Angeles requested some examples of birth and naming ceremonies; three students asked if I could recommend a reliable, cross-cultural book on weddings; and four film companies asked for advice on documenting rites of passage.

Not long after finding myself in this thicket of inquiries, a neighbor asked if we could talk about how her family might prepare to initiate their toddler when he reached adolescence. Having read about teenage neo-Nazis in the newspapers, she wanted to spice up his life with celebrative occasions that would make racist rallies and ceremonial hazing less attractive. Today's teenagers, she felt, are without moorings or elders capable of transmitting enduring human values to the young. I admitted that, like her, I was concerned about my children's transition into adulthood: If wise elders don't initiate adolescents, won't adolescents initiate themselves? But who, I mused, will train us uninitiated adults in the art of initiating?

Within a few months, a man who identified himself as an employee of a state legislature said he was involved in a project to introduce rites of passage in that state's public schools; was I interested in consulting on the project? I had to ponder: Would I want public school teachers initiating my scho ol-age children? Did I have confidence that schools could do a better job than churches, synagogues, or temples have done?

Then an inquiry came from the president of a group that assists the terminally ill in ending their own lives. He said he was beset with requests for help in constructing appropriate rites for such an occasion. Some people, he remarked, considered the taking of their own lives a sacred act, but they could find no resources in traditional Christian or Jewish books of worship. Would I assist in constructing such a rite?

On another occasion a group called to ask if I knew of rites that might be adaptable for North American Buddhist children. There are, they complained, few ritual resources in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition that might be used for birth or early childhood celebrations.

Finally, one of my own brothers surprised me with an e-mail message. Had I written my own funeral--he knew I sometimes assigned such tasks to poor, unsuspecting students-and if so, could he read it? Writing his will had set Darrell to contemplating things he could no longer avoid.

What fuels this surge of interest in ritual and this anxiety over passages? Perhaps synagogues, temples, and churches have been slow to revise existing rites and create compelling new ones. Perhaps people sense the need for bodily and collective ways of making meaning. Perhaps we desire personal control of crucial moments such as birth and death, coming of age, and marrying. Perhaps religious authorities and commercial entrepreneurs such as funeral directors and wedding consultants do not know what is best for us.

Whatever the reason, the past two decades have witnessed a resurgence of interest in the construction of rites of passage. The aim of inventing or constructing rites is bold, some might say arrogant. But without constant reinvention, we court disorientation. Without rites that engage our imaginations, communities, and bodies, we lose touch with the rhythms of the human life course, just as we become temporally disoriented without seasonal and commemorative rites that recreate our connections to the natural world and the course of human history.

The question I try to answer in this book is often put to me like this: "I am planning a wedding (or some other rite of passage), but I'm not happy with the traditional ceremonies offered by mainstream religious institutions. Can you give me some ideas about what's done in other cultures or at least suggest some readings that would help?"

The professor's inclination is to deliver a minilecture: "You can't make sense of rites outside their cultural and historical milieu, and, therefore, you shouldn't go around scissoring out parts of a rite for your own private use. Rites belong in their home cultures." Even though I do believe that rites depend on context for meaning, most of us will never live in cultures other than our own. We glean what we can from books, films, and stories, all of which select, summarize, and distort. One danger is that rites encountered in such media will seem like plums for the taking, but cross-cultural learning about ritual does not have to take the form of crass imitation or wholesale importation of other people's rites.

Even though I sometimes deliver the professorial minilecture on understanding rites in their context and insist on studying practices that we cannot translate into action in our own society, I also take practical inquiries seriously. The question, then, is not whether but how inquirers can enrich their own ritual sensibility by attending to rites from places and times other than their own.

Since most of us have little choice but to imagine the rites of others, and since some of us have no rites to call our own, the words imagining and inventing appear repeatedly in this book.1 Inventing has a more practical ring, while imagining sounds more spontaneous. When it comes to ritual, inventing is perhaps the more primary notion, since we cannot invent without imagining, but we can imagine without turning what we imagine into an invention. When we invent, we give teeth to what we imagine. Ritual, like art, is a child of imagination, but the ritual imagination requires an invention, a constantly renewed structure, on the basis of which a bodily and communal enactment is possible. Unlike some other forms of creativity, imagining ritually cannot transpire merely "in the head" but is necessarily embodied and social. Furthermore, the imaginative is not the opposite of the real. Rather, imagining is a way of transforming and renewing the real.

We sometimes think of imagining as the act of originating, as coming up with firsts, not poor duplicates. But neither imagining nor inventing is a creation out of nothing. Even if our desire is to create new rites of passage, we do so with the materials at hand, with the stuff of our cultures and traditions. Even if we radically dismember this stuff, we are still dependent upon it. Rites, unlike wheels, survive precisely by being reinvented and reimagined; there is no other option.

Reimagining ritual can be threatening to religious institutions, since, conventionally understood, imagination is about the made up, whereas religion is supposed to be about the given. Although I treat ritual traditions with respect, I challenge them--sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly--by setting an imagined ritual alongside an actual rite. By reimagining, I dance into the abyss that comfortably separates the spiritual from the social scientific, the personal from the scholarly, and the narrative from the analytical.

Although I write on ritual and teach about religion, I am often at a loss to provide quick answers to the questions people ask. Ritual studies scholars are seldom up to the task of advising people on questions of practice; answers to theoretical questions come more readily. Although I have been conducting research on ritual for over twenty-five years, it still seems pretentious to claim expertise on such an ancient and globally varied phenomenon as the rite of passage. Who can hope to become an expert on rites of passage in North America, let alone the world? My only option is to enter the fray, struggling along with others to find more insightful ways of comprehending the great human transitions and reinventing meaningful ways of ritualizing them. I mean to challenge the all-too-comfortable segregation of those who practice ritual from those who think about it.

Deeply into the Bone is about the power of rites, both traditional and invented, to facilitate or obstruct difficult passages in the course of a human life. Not every passage is a rite of passage.2 We undergo passages, but we enact rites. Life passages are rough, fraught with spiritual potholes, even mortal dangers. Some passages we know are coming; others happen upon us. Birth, coming of age, marriage, and death are widely anticipated as precarious moments requiring rites for their successful negotiation. But there are other treacherous occasions less regularly handled by ritual means: the start of school, abortion, a serious illness, divorce, job loss, rape, menopause, and retirement. More often than not, these events, especially when they arrive unanticipated, are undergone without benefit of ritual.

Even a single rite of passage can divide a person's life into "before" and "after." An entire system of such rites organizes a life into stages. Some cultures litter the human life course with numerous rites, cairns to keep pilgrims on course; others hardly blaze the trail at all. These ceremonial occasions inscribe images into the memories of participants, and they etch values into the cornerstones of social institutions. Effective rites depend on inheriting, discovering, or inventing value-laden images that are driven deeply, by repeated practice and performance, into the marrow. The images proffered by ineffective rites remain skin-deep.

Passages can be negotiated without the benefit of rites, but in their absence, there is a greater risk of speeding through the dangerous intersections of the human life course. Having skipped over a major passage without being devastated by a major upset, we may prematurely congratulate ourselves on passing through unscathed. In the long haul, however, people often regret their failure to contemplate a birth, celebrate a marriage, mark the arrival of maturity, or enter into the throes of a death. The primary work of a rite of passage is to ensure that we attend to such events fully, which is to say, spiritually, psychologically, and socially. Unattended, a major life passage can become a yawning abyss, draining off psychic energy, engendering social confusion, and twisting the course of the life that follows it. Unattended passages become spiritual sinkholes around which hungry ghosts, those greedy personifications of unfinished business, hover.

The notion of a rite of passage depends on three key ideas: the human life course, the phases of passage, and the experience of ritual transformation. Life-cycle theorists suggest that human lives follow a relatively uniform path. A life proceeds according to a scenario, a stock plot, with enough flexibility to allow for improvisation. The path of human development is intersected by a series of turning points that divide it into predictable phases. Each turning point is both a crisis and an opportunity.

Rites used for negotiating these turns proceed through three phases: separation from the community, transition into an especially formative time and space, and reincorporation back into the community. The effect of ritual passage is to transform both the individuals who undergo them and the communities that design and perpetuate them. Rites of passage change single people into mates, children into adults, childless individuals into parents, living people into ancestors. Rites of passage are stylized and condensed actions intended to acknowledge or effect a transformation. A transformation is not just any sort of change but a momentous metamorphosis, a moment after which one is never again the same.

Classical rites-of-passage theory, first formulated by Arnold van Gennep, invokes spatial metaphors to explain how rites work. According to this theory, a rite of passage is like a domestic threshold or a frontier between two nations. Such places are "neither here nor there" but rather "betwixt and between." Just as a person moving from outside to inside a living room is met with ritualized gestures (handshaking, greeting, or hugging), so one who crosses a national boundary is subjected to passport checking and customs, the required ceremonial gestures. Since the threshold zone is a no-man's-land, it is dangerous, full of symbolic meaning, and guarded. A rite of passage is a set of symbol-laden actions by means of which one passes through a dangerous zone, negotiating it safely and memorably.

Ritual knowledge is rendered unforgettable only if it makes serious demands on individuals and communities, only if it is etched deeply into the marrow of soul and society.3 A rite of passage is more than a mere moment in which participants get carried away emotionally, only to be returned to their original condition afterward. Witnessing a moving play, attending weekly worship, or experiencing an orgasm can transport us into reverie, but a few days later our commitment needs rekindling. Ritual practices such as daily meditation and weekly worship are responses to recurring needs. These rites move but do not transform.4 By contrast, when effective rites of passage are enacted, they carry us from here to there in such a way that we are unable to return to square one. To enact any kind of rite is to perform, but to enact a rite of passage is also to transform.

Effective ritual knowledge lodges in the bone, in its very marrow. This metaphor first struck me with force while in a discussion with an archaeologist. He was explaining how certain values and social practices can be inferred from ancient bone matter. An archaeologist candeduce from bone composition that the men of a particular society consumed more protein than the women. On the basis of bone size and shape, it may also be evident that in some cultures women habitually carried heavier loads than men. Certain social practices are literally inscribed in the bones. Even though we imagine bone as private, and deeply interior to the individual body, it is also socially formed.

Of course ritual is not really a something that dwells in a literal somewhere. Rites are choreographed actions; they exist in the moments of their enactment and then disappear. When effective, their traces remain--in the heart, in the memory, in the mind, in texts, in photographs, in descriptions, in social values, and in the marrow, the source of our lifeblood.

To speak of meaning as if it resides in the marrow is, of course, to speak ideally, about the way a rite of passage should work. As a matter of fact, rites can run shallow or become decadent. We should honor the corpses of dead rites. We can learn much by studying rites that are no longer practiced, especially if we understand why they died.

Rites do not always do what they ought to do. As a result, readers may know as many bad examples of passage as good ones. Rites can not only fail to achieve what they purport to do, they can also become a means of oppression, so we cannot afford to view them through a fuzzy, romanticized lens. If rites drive meaning to the marrow, then the criticism of rites must cut to the bone.

Deeply into the Bone is not a how-to book with step-by-step instructions on how to prepare for an impending birth or assemble a hasty funeral. I have little faith in such books. Like sex manuals, they may satisfy the curious, but the behavior they inspire is wooden. Techniques without understanding, like changed performances without changed attitudes, are more damaging than they are helpful. So my aim is to affect attitudes about ritual. This book articulates a vision and pursues an argument; it is not a value-free compilation of facts. I press readers to be both more imaginative and more critical of rites. By juggling personal accounts, local descriptions, persistent themes, and big questions, I try to lure readers into conversation: Is this how you and yours experience passage? If not, then how?

I walk the thin line that divides popular from academic writing. I take popular writing about ritual more seriously than most scholarly writers do, but I also attend to scholarly writings more seriously than do most popular writers. Popular writing can make ritual seem more wonderfully promising, more completely understood, and more immediately transparent than it really is. Scholarly writing can make ritual seem opaque or boring. I want to avoid both pitfalls by providing a thoughtful, constructive discussion.

My aim is less to convey information about rites of passage in the world's religions and cultures than it is to instigate a conversation in which readers can fruitfully reflect on their own experiences of passage. My goal is to glimpse the variety of ritual practices from such an angle that readers will pause, remember, and reimagine practices that have become staid. If this reimagining precipitates renewed energy and will for actual ritual enactment, all the better.

This book cuts across cultures and religions, and although it addresses Western, especially North American, readers, it privileges no one religion or culture. Often it considers rites that spring up between converging or conflicting traditions. Climatologists were eager to have close-ups of Saturn and Jupiter not only to study those two planets but also to comprehend more fully the earth's climate by using comparative data. We study things distant to understand better things close to home.

Because rites of passage appear around the world and concern deeply human transitions, it is easy to lapse into universal claims: "When there is a death, you should grieve"; "Everyone rejoices at a birth"; "Weddings are dramatizations of love." Universalism allows us to glibly assert that rites everywhere mean the same thing. Reductions to the lowest common denominator are an invitation to stereotyping and pilfering. The point in examining other people's rites is not to steal or even borrow them but to evoke more fruitful thinking about our own.

Seeing the damage done by universalism, scholars sometimes become cautious, restricting their attention to the particulars of a specific region, language, culture, or religious tradition. Localism, the study of the local to the exclusion of the rest of the world, implies that we cannot speak of rites of passage in general but only of specific rites: a Sephardic Jewish wedding between a specific bride and groom in a specific place on a specific day, for example. Rites of passage, after all, happen on specific dates in actual places. Rites do not happen in general but rather among discrete human beings. Rites of passage are ways of embodying meaning, and bodies are doggedly local, rooted in the entangled mess of events we like to call history or society. But the doggedly local focus is too restrictive if it renders cross-cultural or interreligious conversation impossible. If we cannot speak across the barriers of culture and tradition about realities as basic as birth and death, the lack of communication will surely destroy us. I prefer a middle course that tries to respect differences while searching for connections and continuities.

Even though comparative, or cross-cultural, methods are imperfect, we can best make sense of our own ritual dilemmas by setting them alongside those of others--people who, like ourselves, struggle to birth and die, wed and age, with a touch of grace and wisdom. A major risk in taking a global, synthetic approach is that of ripping rites out of context and falsifying them. As a hedge against this temptation, I sometimes hollow out a space in which to pursue a religion, culture, or era in greater detail than a survey would allow. I dwell on a tradition or practice in greater time depth and broader social context. Even so, readers should be warned that no single religion, culture, personality, or historical period can be fully treated in so small a space as this book.

Deeply into the Bone combines narrative with interpretation and evaluation. Each chapter includes stories told by individuals, descriptions of practices from around the world, histories of selected ritual traditions, and reflections that probe taken-for-granted assumptions about ritual. In most cases I consider rites that are either troubled or reinvented.

A commonly held view is that myths explain rites and that rites act out myths. In fact, myths usually complicate rather than explain, and few rites dramatize mythic plots. Some rites do, in fact, act out a myth, but others merely allude to a myth, and still others have no accompanying myths whatsoever. In this book I do not approach ritual by way of ritual myths but by calling upon passage narratives, accounts told by individuals who narrate their experiences of passage. There is no pretense of universality in these stories. They are idiosyncratic, selected not as representatives of specific traditions, much less of all of humanity, but as engaging stories. They reveal the disappointments and joys of ritual with less artifice and more candor than either myths or how-to and theoretical literature.

Most scholars do not pay much attention to personal narratives about ritual experience. Passage narratives are not easy to find, since the telling and recording of them is a recent and largely Western phenomenon. In addition, some theorists consider an individual's intentions, stories, and experiences irrelevant to ritual.5 The intentions of a rite, they suggest, are stipulated, prescribed by others, so personal intentions do not matter. This presumed separation of personal intention from ritual performance, such theorists claim, is what makes ritual distinctive. If personal intentions do not matter, then neither do first-person stories about ritual experience.

Yet I believe that there is no good reason to exclude ritual narratives, especially when participants themselves tell autobiographical stories as a way of making sense of a rite.6 It would be poor scholarship to overlook such data. Since people tell personal stories about passages, their accounts constitute a legitimate part of the meaning of the rites. Stories about passage are not mere reminiscences. Sometimes the telling and retelling become extensions of the rite itself, stretching it from the original performance in the past until it touches and transforms the present. On the one hand, narratives can render rites even more meaningful than they were in the actual moment of their performance. On the other, they can downplay a rite's original significance. A nephew's story may enhance the meaning of a favorite uncle's funeral, making it more real in the telling than it was in the acting. A divorcée, in talking with her new boyfriend, may downplay the significance of her wedding ceremony. Although the nephew's story amplifies the rite's importance and the divorcée's story diminishes it, both extend the meaning and effect of the rite beyond its brief, original enactment.

Births and initiations, like weddings and funerals, are moments of truth, but they are also moments of pretense, occasions upon which people put on their best faces. Scrubbed or painted faces can mask disagreements and power plays. Rites of passage can be rife with face-saving, posturing, and empty decorum. Things are supposed to go smoothly--no birth defects, no stained wedding garments, no arguments at funerals--but, as anyone involved with the planning of these occasions knows, there is always something going on behind the scenes. Someone is jealous of another's position in the limelight; Dad really wanted a boy; the brothers are fighting over the parental estate; a secret infidelity in an upstairs bedroom mars a "perfect" wedding. The weddings that open both The Godfather and Deer Hunter, with the violence and abuse lurking in the backgrounds of the performances, are apt illustrations of this point. Rites of passage can seem perfectly magical--but only if you keep your eyes and ears trained on what transpires center stage. Backstage, there often seethes a morass of spiritual stress and social conflict.

One redeeming feature of troubled births, dubious initiations, and awkward weddings is that they make compelling stories. Almost everyone can spin a yarn about a sullied wedding or a dreary funeral, not just because there is no such thing as a perfect wedding or a flawless funeral but also because birthing, aging, marrying, and dying lure out all the skeletons that respectable families keep stashed in their closets. Abstract descriptions of rites are desiccated. Because they lack trouble, they also lack life. Passage becomes interesting when the pageantry of ceremonial display is transparent to the human social drama that runs behind its screen.

In Nice Families Don't, Robert Munch, author of many fine children's books, stages the appearance of an ugly, green fart just when a "nice" family most wants it believed that the air in their house is clean and clear. The kids know--and tell--the truth. The truth is that nice families do blow the cover of decorum, even on sacred occasions. They fight at funerals, trivialize their adolescents' coming of age, compete at weddings, and secretly regret births. Even in nice families--especially in nice families--crude, embarrassing, and even tragic shadows lurk behind the squeaky-clean faces that most rites of passage call for.

Because life passages can be threatening, they beg for humor. In the county where I live, farm people do not use the phrase "rites of passage"; rather, they joke about "hatching, matching, and dispatching." They know that the most troubling occasions are also the most human and in need of levity.

To some ears, ritual creativity or invention sound like oxymoron, like "a green thought," for instance. From this point of view rites are traditional and conventional, not created or invented. It is true that creativity, and its partner, imagination, do come with some heavy baggage. These words can sound romantic and individualistic. To call people creative or imaginative is to render them godlike or childlike. But imagination is not the purview of geniuses or creativity the work of individuals disconnected from their histories and societies.

Rites are not givens; they are hand-me-downs, quilts we continue to patch. Whether we call this activity ritual creativity, ritual invention, ritualizing, ritual making, or ritual revision does not matter as much as recognizing that rites change, that they are also flowing processes, not just rigid structures or momentary events.

In my own fieldwork, I encounter two models for ritual creativity. One I call the ritual plumber's model. Something is broken--it won't flush--so you fix it. The birthday party worked last time--the kids loved the cake and candles--so don't fix it. The plumber's model of ritual creativity is practical and free of high-flown expectations. Ritual plumbers are not enamored of the rhetoric of art. They feel more comfortable with the notion of inventiveness than with the boastful-sounding idea of creativity. Someone needs a divorce rite? Well, you sit down with a couple and find out what needs doing. Then you build, borrow, or buy some scaffolding that will contain the process, and you string cord across it from here to there. You hang it with a few buckets capped with spill-proof lids, and there you have it-a crude but perfectly workable tool that will do the work of splitting up the couple forever.7

The other model is that of the ritual "diviner."8 Circumspection and allusion are of the essence to this model. Yes, you want results, but you know that too conscious a fixation on them will get you the opposite--some contrived, self-conscious piece of bad poetry. So you wait, attend, contemplate, watch, see what emerges. You follow impulses like a scout sniffing the wind. You watch for a raised eyebrow, a hesitation, a sneeze that has the ring of a song. Attuned, you snatch it deftly and edit it minimally. Your aim is to find, "to divine," the right tone, which, when struck, will cause the thing (this moribund marriage we are using as an example) simply to shatter like glass or explode into dust that the breezes can carry to the four corners of the world.

The plumber's model and the diviner's model can be used to describe groups as well. Ritual plumbers are, for instance, a committee commissioned to revise a liturgy. They count the cost of making changes, and they develop tools for doing specific jobs. They consult their manuals about procedures they may have forgotten. They vote on changes. The majority rules. Thus it is that the prayer book or oral tradition or ritual text is different now than it was a decade ago.

When a group of ritual diviners meets, it has to await revelation, the moving of the spirit. Perhaps this revelation comes directly from some holy source, is mediated in trance, or is read from cast bones. However the divined rite arrives, something about the process is not completely subject to the control exercised by those who invent new rites or fix up old ones. For ritual diviners, emergent ritual is not "made," much less "made up," so diviners are circumspect, shy about the notion of inventing or revising rites.

Someone has to mop the floor after a wedding, just as someone has to climb the mountain or descend to the depths. Without both maintenance and mystery, the celebration cannot go on. These two processes can be linked to social roles-beadle and prophet, religious bureaucrat and charismatic leader--but they are also kinds of ritual work. Of course, I am speaking like a ritual plumber now: Ritual "works" or is "work." But ritual diviners know that the divine appears in ordinary guise--as a plumber or village idiot or beggar or thunder across a mountaintop. Without a serious commitment to both the nuts and bolts of ritual, and without a devotion to the mysterious breath of its life, rites of passage flounder.

To answer the most basic question, Why enact rites at all? ritual plumbers and ritual diviners have no choice but to collaborate in formulating a response: "Ritual is one of the oldest forms of human activity we know. It may have been the original multimedia performance--an archaic, unifying activity. It not only integrated storytelling, dance, and performance, but it also provided the matrix out of which other cultural activities such as art, medicine, and education gradually emerged, differentiating themselves from one another."

Today ritual helps integrate and attune life on an increasingly globalized planet. There is a growing suspicion that the so-called Western way of life has reached a precipice. In a few hundred short years it has done untold damage to the planet and to indigenous peoples. Extraordinarily long-lived cultures such as the Hopi and the !Kung have an enduring commitment to ritual. Ritual is their way of attuning themselves to one another and to the land; ritual is their means of maintaining a sustainable culture. "Their" ritual practices may, in the long run, be more practical than "our" practicality. Psychologists and anthropologists are suggesting that the "spiritual technology" of ritual has survival value for the human species as well as beneficial ecological consequences.9 If we do not birth and die ritually, we will do so technologically, inscribing technocratic values in our very bones. Technology without ritual (or worse, technology as ritual) easily degenerates into knowledge without respect. And knowledge without respect is a formula for planetary annihilation. It matters greatly not only that we birth and die but how we birth and die.


1. More on the topic of ritual invention can be found in Grimes, "Reinventing Ritual." 2. It is unnecessarily confusing to speak of every passage, birth and divorce, for instance, as a rite of passage, as does Ambert in Divorce in Canada, 130. 3. By soul I mean the self at its very root, the self in its most complete sense.

4. The distinction between transformation and transportation is made by Schechner, Essays in Performance Theory.

5. See, for example, Humphrey and Laidlaw, Archetypal Actions of Ritual, 95-100.

6. Two other scholars construct a story-ritual connection similar to the one I am presenting here; see Anderson and Foley, Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals. 7. An example of ritualizing on the plumber's model is that of Welfare State International. See Court and Kershaw, Engineers of the Imagination.

8. An example of ritualizing on mystical model is that of Jerzy Grotowski. See Wolford and Schechner, The Grotowski Sourcebook.

9. Rappaport, Ecology, Meaning, and Religion; d'Aquili and Laughlin, "Neurobiology of Myth and Ritual"