The Power of Symbol and Ritual

By Ken Grano, MDiv., CFBPPC-A, BCC


When she arrived at the funeral wearing climbing gear, she was pleasantly surprised at how well she was received by those attending the service.

In her article ‘Death Acceptance Through Ritual,’ author Nancy Reeves recalls speaking with a man who was planning on attending a funeral for someone she met through a hiking club. Apparently, members of the club were avid climbers and she wanted to honor the man who died by wearing climbing gear to his funeral. However, she feared this would be disrespectful to the family. She advised this man to reach out to the family prior to the funeral to get their thoughts on what she was planning.


When she arrived at the funeral wearing climbing gear, she was pleasantly surprised at how well she was received by those attending the service. She reported that people told her how much it meant to them that she wore hiking/climbing attire as this represented the gentleman who died so well. Another way to say that would be to say that the gentleman who had died was re-presented well by the woman wearing the climbing gear.


The power of re-presenting a loved one through symbols is where I would like to draw our attention. In this story the symbols are the climbing rope, shoes, helmet, belays, or whatever was worn to point beyond the symbols themselves to the gentleman being honored.


In his Psychology Today article ‘The Power of Rituals to Heal Grief,’ Dr. David Feldman makes the important point that symbolism gives ordinary, everyday acts or objects their power. He goes on to comment about rituals stating that ‘particular acts, with particular objects will yield particular meanings.’ Walking up to the foot of a mountain in climbing gear means something different than wearing the same climbing gear walking into a funeral.


As this fellow climber came to honor her friend, she added a ritual within the ritual already taking place in the funeral service. Fortunately, it enhanced the funeral ritual and is a reminder that we can create meaningful rituals through symbols that can provide us with comfort. But how do we do this?


Again, Dr. Feldman is helpful:


What would you like the ritual to mean?

For example, you may want to emphasize a memory, a character trait, words of wisdom, or a life transition.


When and where would you like to perform the ritual?

You may want to perform them on important dates (birthdays, anniversaries, etc.). It can also be important to consider the environment that could enhance the ritual (a religious setting/building, the mountains, by the ocean, etc.).


Who will be there?

Perhaps you do not want anyone there. Or maybe it is close friends or family only. There is of course no right or wrong here. It is simply a matter of what will make this the most meaningful.


What will be done?

What kinds of items/objects and actions will be most meaningful? What can you do that will best re-present your loved one or aspects of their life you want to emphasize? What objects do you have of theirs or what items would help you construct the meaningful connection you are looking for?


There is a unique power in ritual in general and in our grief. I hope that you discover meaningful rituals through powerful symbols that bring comfort amidst the pain of your loss.

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