Second Season Episode 21: The Importance of Symbols and Rituals in End of Life Care

The truth is, our lives are made up of little moments of meaning. Just as an example- every morning when I wake up, I brush my teeth, go the gym, shower, eat breakfast and go to work…

From our morning routines to our good-luck charms, we wrap ourselves in a world we construct to feel a degree of control; but beyond the basic utility of certain practices, we furnish these things with enjoyable gildings to make them feel personal.

The same is true of the inter-personal world – we shape and personalize practices to make them feel as if they are ours, from the celebration of birthdays to the spectacle of weddings and to the observance of the passing of another life, we take occasions that bear no practical relevance to our day-to-day lives and show that they mean something. It is out of these shared expressions that culture emerges, and from culture, community.

In this world we make, there are three distinctive elements of culture.

These are;

  1. Rituals
  2. Symbols and
  3. Myths.

Each may be related to the other – in fact, it is almost essential for culture to endure that the three exist.

The Role of Symbols in End of Life Care

Symbols are objects that take on a deeper meaning for the person grasping them. Every symbol points beyond itself to a reality for which it stands.

Symbols can be both corporate and private, easily recognized but contextualized in the individual experience.

Rituals in End of Life Care

Symbols are often (though not always) tangible, representational, and passive; rituals, on the other hand, are active, responsive, and collective. Rituals, for the sake of this study, are a collection of actions.

A ritual is a stereotyped sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place, and designed to influence preternatural entities or forces on behalf of the actors’ goals and interests.

Rituals may be seasonal, hallowing a culturally defined moment of change in the climatic cycle or the inauguration of an activity such as planting, harvesting, or moving from winter to summer pasture; or they may be contingent, held in response to an individual or collective crisis.

Symbols are often used in rituals. Consider a commonplace, mundane example. The simple action of planting a tree has a routine—prepare the soil, dig the hole, place the tree, cover with soil, water, etc. This may not seem like much of a ritual, but when that planting is done in memory of someone who has died within a community that celebrates the life that has gone before, and the individuals participate in the planting, this simple act becomes a ritual, a ritual of remembrance.

Rituals are active and may be rooted in tradition or they are active, built on the simple action and then assigned metaphorical significance.

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