Monday, December 17, 2018
In this time of pandemic, of social distancing and national lockdowns, it’s easy to think of ritual as something slightly flippant that has no time or place
in these difficult practical times. I think the opposite. I live in part of an ancient house in Totnes, one in which people will have sheltered from various plagues for centuries. I try to connect with them through my daily rituals in an attempt to include and honour the lives lived in these rooms, as well as the lives and struggles of my blood ancestors.
I have a wooden chest carved for my grandmother I use as an altar. On that I have a plain white candle, and a white enamel mug filled with clean water, surrounded with photographs and mementos of my parents and grandparents.
Being older than most parents, mine experienced the most dramatic and violent parts of the 20th century first hand. Their lives were not easy. Every evening I light the candle, and refresh the water, a simple ritual taken from Haitian Voodoo, to connect with them and remember that hardship is a part of human life and always will be. It feels comforting to remember that this experience we are all living through would be familiar to the occupants of this house three hundred years ago. And the restrictions around Coronavirus have made my job of undertaking more complicated than it was, but we have found ways to weave ritual into the circumstance.
Even washing your hands can become a moment for reflection and self love. Our priority is keeping us and the families we help safe, so we try to meet people outdoors if possible, but if we are meeting people indoors, we make sure that before we come in with our masks on, we stand well back and show them our faces, not just our eyes.
These things are so important, now that we are unable to physically hug people, something that was the simple heart of what we really do. And taking things outside works for funeral ceremonies as well. Crematoriums are cheerless places at the best of times, and now with chairs two metres apart, and numbers seriously restricted, we encourage people to have the ceremony somewhere outside. The elemental truths of the weather always brings something special to a ceremony. Never have natural burial grounds or own land burials felt so appropriate.
I recently conducted the funeral for a much loved man who lived on a boat in the pirate utopia of Millbrook, outside on the quay.
We kept to within the permitted numbers, everyone was socially distanced, but we lit a fire in front of his coffin and the smoke scudded off across the water and we laughed and cried and spoke of his life. Then I took him on my own to the crematorium.
So don’t think that these lean and bitter days is the time to discard ritual. We need to stay connected even as we are apart, and reaching back into the past, while holding steady for the future has always been the work of ritual. Keep safe and strong and imaginative.
This will pass.