Contemporary developments in the ritual landscape by Herman de Roos, Utrecht, Netherlands

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This essay is a continuation of ‘The need for new myths, rites, symbols and authentic spirituality’, an essay which was posted on Again, symbolic, ritual and mythical impoverishment

According to psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton and his fellow worker Eric Olson, the possibility of mass destruction and the absurd death of millions in the past century have made, that death can no longer be handled by our culture and the individuals that live in it. Environmental pollution, illnesses like cancer and aids and the contemporary economic crisis further contributed to the emergence of a symbolic gap. This means that our ability to symbolically interpret these experiences did not keep pace with historical changes.

Founder of the scientific discipline ‘Ritual studies’, Ronald Grimes, adds to this the lack of ‘rites of passage’, which is an urgent global problem. Young people are unable to participate in society in a creative manner because societal structures no longer consider it their responsibility to intentionally establish the necessary marks of passing from one age-related social role to another. The result is that society has no clear expectation of how people should participate in these roles and therefore individuals do not know what is required by society and how they need to act in it.

Due to this is the loss of the original fertility rite which celebrated the birth of all things. In this rite spoke a strong sense of the interconnectedness of all things. Women participated in a special way because for their ability to give birth. As a result man grew jealous and they decided to make there own rites in which they could give boys a second birth, the birth into manhood. In this way initiation rites came into existence. The procedures of these initiation rites were kept secret. One of these secrets is the fact that man’s power is a fiction, a cultural invention, a ritual construction. Eventually, male-dominated initiation supplanted female inspired fertility celebration as the model of tribal rite. No longer was there a single, holistic ceremony. Today we mourn this loss. Ever since that day, we have been longing for an all-inclusive ‘rite of rites’.

Because of the absent of rites the passage, especially initiating rites, adolescents do not learn how to become responsible adults and how to participate in social life. Parents loose their role as tutors and educators. These roles are taken over by so called peers. This can be random persons but also youths from the same group of age. The outcome of this is the replacing of conscious and controlled rites by unconscious and uncontrolled rites which are often very violent.

When youths are starting to ritualize by themselves, without guidance of responsible and competent adults, rites emerge that have no connection whatsoever with myths that give meaning to live and existence. Joseph Campbell speaks of a demythologized world. The results of these developments can be found in the newspapers. We find articles about vandalism and violence of young people who can not handle living in a ‘civilized’ (my quotations) society. Cause of this is the absence of rites with which these adolescents become responsible members of the tribe or society. In the Netherlands this becomes visible in the emergence of a new and apparently popular form of ritualization amongst youths, that is called ‘comazuipen’, youths drink alcohol to a point they fall into a coma!

Detail of these findings is, that it is an explanation for the contemporary economic crisis as well. We can read and hear everywhere that this crisis is caused by managers who only thought about themselves and the companies they were working for. They did not feel any responsibility for the society and environment they were part of.

Rituals, rites, ritualization and ritualizing

Because of the diffuse situation in our culture at the moment, Ronald Grimes distincts between rituals, rites, ritualization and ritualizing. ‘ Ritual’ refers to the idea; ‘rite, to the action designated by it. A ‘ritual’ is general and abstract; a ‘rite’ is concrete and particular. Therefore Grimes speaks of ‘rites’ and not of ‘rituals’. For that reason in this essay I have followed the scheme of Grimes and used the word rite where I would otherwise have used the word ritual. Further ‘Rites’ are differentiated from ordinary interaction. They are typically concentrated, focused, and named: Christian baptism, Jewish Bar-Mitzvah, Muslim Ramadan, and so on.

The term ‘ Ritualization,’ denotes biological, psychological, or social processes not generally recognized as a rite but that can be seen as such. Love-making, housekeeping, giving birth, footnoting, and TV-watching which are among the activities that scholars have treated as rites, are considered as examples of ‘ritualization’ in the scheme of Grimes. Ritualization also is largely preconscious or unconscious. Since there are no culture-wide rites of passage in North American society, most men undergo initiation without benefit of rites. Instead, they experience ritualization, usually in unconscious—sometimes in excruciating—ways. They go to war, visit prostitutes, play chicken, and obtain driver’s licenses. A few try to invent rites of passage. Such efforts at ritual creativity constitute ‘ ritualizing’, the deliberate attempt to incubate ritual activity. The “-izing” suffix signals ritual processes that are less differentiated than rites, but more deliberate than ritualization.

For our purposes the distinction between rite and ritualizing is the most important to remember. For example we can think that we are performing a rite while in fact we are performing the act of ritualizing. Rites are performed within a defined and structured context while ritualizing misses this context. Rites concern traditional ritual acting performed by ritual experts who stand within a certain tradition. For example the religious rites from a church. Ritualizing does not concern a certain traditional rite performed by experts, it concerns a process in which new symbols and meanings can come to existence.

This difference is also important because it makes us conscious of a capability that lies hidden in ritual behaviour. When we are ritualizing without a preliminary and meaningful context or, in the words of Joseph Campbell, a meaningful myth our actions lose the ability to connect us with the transcendent.

Perhaps it is a sign that in the area where humans reach the limits of do-ability and control, namely death, we see a change in our interest for rites. In the Netherlands for example we see a clear revival in the interest for funeral rites.

Changing interest towards rites around death

In the sixties of the nineteenth century the church in the Netherlands lost its monopoly on rites. A lot of people were dissatisfied with their religion and turned their back on it. They left the church and with that they lost the rites connected with it. However, this did not mean people were no longer religious or did not long for rites anymore. They started to look for religious and spiritual answers in other than Christian religions. Here they also found new rites to perform. Nowadays it is very common to find a Buddhist altar in the houses of Dutch friends you might visit.

Nowadays we can also notice a renewed interest concerning death, especially towards funeral rites. The new rites all carry the characteristics of contemporary culture and are, as it is, representations of it. They can show the strength as well as the weaknesses of a culture. For that matter authentic rites form an important part of the cultural inheritance of a nation. In Western society these are rites that are not aimed at ‘having’, power, commerce, possession, assets, competition, achievement and consumption, but on ‘being’, the search for those tings which are really meaningful in live. In this time we can think of rites concerned with sustainability and a balanced nature or the striving for a green environment.

It seems, at this moment, the ritual impoverishment solves itself especially in rites around death. This was being confirmed during a symposium which was held the 25th of March 2009 at the Radboud University in Nijmegen. Several speakers reacted at the contemporary interest for funeral rites, the changing perspectives and the changing role of undertakers in that.

Did people formerly try to let go of the deceased during their process of mourning, nowadays people try to maintain their bond with the dead person. This has consequences for the rites involved. In stead of ritually getting rid of personal objects, people are now saving these objects. Another trend that can be noticed is the house altar. Somewhere in the house people arrange a special location in order to memorize the deceased. The question can be asked if we are not observing a new form of worshipping ancestors here. Even when people are no longer visiting churches, they still believe in something after death. By releasing pigeons or balloons during funerals, a connection with another reality is suggested, even if these thoughts are not spoken out loud.

Another development that can be noticed is, that modern funerals are being turned into an event or happening. Undertakers are operating in a relatively stable market which is nearly insensitive for economic ups and downs. With a turnover of nearly 700 million Euros a year, an amount which is only steadily rising, it is a very interesting market that undertakers are busy trying to lay their hands on. They are doing this by offering customized funerals. Everybody can get a personal funeral, especially designed according to their own wishes. In the next paragraph we will see how the developments, outlined here, are taking form in the Netherlands.

An overview of new rites around death

The secularization in the Netherlands has attributed to the need of adapting funeral rites. Even despite the exodus of the churches, people still feel the need for rites. The call for new rites is strongest with important transition moments that occur in live, especially with births and death. Rites around death for that reason offer a good angle to research new notions of religiosity.

New traditions that come into existence in this area form a vanguard of what Ronald Grimes calls the reinvention of death rites. The role of pastors and priests is waning. People are tuning the funeral rites with the undertakers or their insurance. They also want to play a more prominent role where it concerns the burying of close family or friends. It is the development of the forbidden dead towards a creative dead, the last victory of life.

Large and small companies try to respond to these developments by offering customized funerals. Words like unique, original and personal are frequently heard in this context nowadays. In the new rites the emphasis lies on the biography of the deceased. Especially his or her productive life – family life and career – are aspects that have to be celebrated with speeches and personal symbols.

Considering cremations, surviving relatives are allowed to take the ashes home after which they can keep it or scatter it on a place of their own choice. It is here that we see several new developments. The ashes are being taken and scattered from a boat, a driving motorbike, a plane or a balloon. It is also possible to put the ashes into a small balloon which can be released into the air. When it reaches a certain height it will burst because of the pressure after which the ashes are being spread in the air. Almost the same result is being reached when the ashes are shot into the sky with the help of a rocket.

People can also scatter the ashes at special places. This can be done in a ritualized manner, for example by using the ashes for creating a heart or writing a name on the grass. After this rite the place can be marked which leads to new forms of monuments, like for example a seat with memory image. Scattering ashes is connected with a notion of freedom, because the ashes are located in an open space not bounded by a grave or urn. For that reason many surviving relatives ‘release’ the ashes in nature instead of saving it in an urn.

Because of the special bond with the deceased, ashes are considered an intimate substance, not meant for outsiders to be confronted with. For that reason ashes can be made unrecognizable before it is being released into nature, for example by mixing it with earth. Scattering is considered as part of the private domain. For that reason it is being performed within a small inner circle of relatives and sometimes friends. This opens a lot of freedom and opportunity for personal expression related to the past life of the deceased. When ashes are being incorporated into mourning jewellery this also happens in a way that the ashes are no longer recognizable.

People that deal with death because of their profession or people that are mourning need to express their feelings and thoughts. A good way of doing this is painting. Besides the therapeutic value of the act of painting, the paintings itself offer lots of new and valuable symbols and the subjects painted can also become the basis for new rites.

Something that completely fits with contemporary time is the internet. Here we can find many collective memorial sites. Often these sites are the result of a weblog in which surviving relatives, especially the parents of little children that passed away, report on what they have experienced. In the repeated messages they find an opportunity to organize feelings and reflect on these. Being able to tell their story in this way can be seen as a strategy to give meaning to their experiences. The internet in this way gets the function of outlet and reflection. In the reaction of other people one can also find comfort. Especially peers can understand certain situations, for example a long period of grief, and offer support at times when others have left long ago.

Internet also offers the opportunity to surviving relatives, of taking control of their own lives again. The freedom to design websites according to their own wishes gives them a feeling of getting more grip on their lives. Together, texts and images can make an impressive document. Such sites are proving that the dead person really existed. This especially counts for stillborn babies and children who died early of age. Images of ultrasound scans, obituaries, funeral texts, blankets, bracelets and even patches, together with stories, all give form to the existence and identity of the deceased. The more these websites grow the more they develop from a memory space into a memorial.

Websites like this have a therapeutic function because they offer comfort and help giving meaning to experiences. Besides that they are a source of inspiration and individual expression. The last point can play a role on collective sites where deceased become part of a larger body. Especially here the surviving relatives keep the need for individuality. This fits the common trend in modern funeral culture where the unique personality of the deceased is being emphasized. Collective sites also have a connecting function because they bring together fellow sufferers. Performing similar operations on the same site provide a feeling of sense and togetherness. Again, this offers comfort and relief. The collective character of the site shows that the dying of a child is no exception but a social event which asks for attention.

The designing and making of the websites can be considered as a ‘rite de passage’. The same counts for visiting these sites. Besides that the making of and visiting these sites can be seen as confirmation rites. In these rites parents compensate on a symbolic level for the life that was not lived by their children. Through the memory sites the life of deceased children continues, as evidenced by the words and images on the internet.

By the continuity and the infinity that is attributed to websites, these sites are associated with timelessness and eternity. The presumed infinity of time and space reflects the hope of people to transcend their own finiteness and that of loved ones. The alleged licentiousness and sustainability are then directly linked to notions of spirituality. The way how visitors leave messages for the deceased children, in the form of a request, make one think of a request to a higher power, like in a prayer.

Another new phenomenon in the Netherlands is the establishment of roadside monuments. These monuments are often compared with altars or a place of pilgrimage. The use of these words express the special meaning of these places. At the site of roadside monuments people often experience feelings of anger and grief. At this place one is confronted with the fatal accident where the victim lost his or her life. And perhaps contradictory. It also is the last place where the involved person was still alive. Deer similar monuments serve as points of communication with the victims or surviving relatives. This happens by leaving messages and objects at the monuments.

With roadside monuments people can express the harsh and unacceptable nature of the event. Victims were too young to die and to vulnerable to die in such a hard way. Surviving relatives are able to accept the death of these youngsters when they are able to express themselves by means of roadside monuments.

Like roadside monuments that are being established spontaneously after accidents there are also mourning monuments that are being established spontaneously. This happened after some political murders, or attempts to that, which recently took place in the Netherlands. Such monuments proved to be a successful way to propagate collective values. Media coverage played an important role in that. These monuments often were the first step in creating national memories in efforts of society to process a traumatic event.

Media coverage and propagating collective values also play an important role when people organize a silent march. When death seems unreasonable and early, the greater the grief and the more difficult the grieving process becomes. The world has to be informed about this injustice and the silent march seems to be the most effective ritual instrument in achieving this. In the silent march participants feel united in national alliance against bluntness and lack of norms in society. The feelings about this are symbolically expressed in the march. During moments of emotional crisis such rites have a binding effect on a national level. They can also offer a contribution to solving problems like violence and insecurity and at the same time feelings of anger and powerlessness can be ventilated.

One other characteristic of contemporary rites is their democratic structure. Rites start with the question ‘what do you want’. One can get a funeral as one likes it, on demand. A person who creatively jumped on this development is Sandra Schouten. She uses food to memorize deceased ones. She calls it ‘a memory in seven heavenly appetizers’. On her website you can find more information about this.

The ritual landscape has become much more multiform. Also proof of this is the rise of the professional supervisor of ritual in the Netherlands. Ritual supervisors have filled up the gap of ritual impoverishment with secular rites, rites with a religious component and Christian rites at the edge of the church. Supervisors of rites are the competitors of pastors and priests. For those who are interested it is possible to be trained as a supervisor of ritual. From of 2002 this training is being facilitated by ‘Het Moment’ in Amersfoort, the Netherlands.

Sustainability and ancient rites in a new look

Besides new rites around death, in the Netherlands we also perceive a revival of ancient pagan rites. This happens at annual festivals like the Castlefest in the Keukenhof in Lisse. This festival is primarily presented as a lifestyle festival, but in the description on the Internet can be read that it is also intended as a feast in honour of the Sun. The Celts honoured the sun as the God Lugh. This God taught people how to grow grain and he warms the earth, so that the grain grows and matures and people can eat. The ancient Celtic harvest festival, Lughnasadh, was dedicated to Lugh. Until today, every year around the beginning of August, modern pagans and Celts celebrate this feast. This also happens at the Castlefest.

In 2010 amongst others a hand fasting, a marriage according to pagan tradition, and the burning of a wicker man could be attended. The burning of a wicker man originally was an ancient Celtic custom whereby people were sacrificed in a massive rack, built from willow branches. At the Castlefest one had build an enormous phoenix. People could leave offerings like flowers and notes in it. During the second evening of the festival the doll was burned ritually.

At the Castlefest one does not only find a revival of ancient Celtic customs. One can also find pagan and neo-pagan movements like those of the Wicca’s and Druids. These movements also find a spot on the festival for performing their rites. It is not the only festival as well, that takes place for this purpose. In spring one can visit the Elffantasy which is being held in the castle gardens of Haarzuilens and in autumn there is the Elffantasy in Arcen. Finally the midwinter festival is being celebrated in various places throughout the country in December. The numbers of visitors, which can run up to tens of thousands of people, show the popularity of these kind of festivals.

At such gatherings one can view the rise of a new or, perhaps more, the revival of an old consciousness. It certainly are places were one is trying to make new contemporary myths and rites. Myths and rites in which people no longer are opposed to nature but consider themselves as part of it. Here, nature is not presented as something that is corrupt and should be subjected to man, but as something that in itself is a manifestation of the divine. Here people are working at something, which Joseph Campbell calls the complete identification with planet earth. It may be clear that sustainability is a major item and plays an important role in these rites.

As I feel it, at these festivals we can witness authentic forms of spirituality which appeals to people and which can launch the shift in our minds that is necessary to get conscious again of our relation with the world around us and our depending on it. It appeals because this spirituality is authentic and honest. Because of that people will listen to the message that is being spread. Together with the new myths, rituals and symbols that are being cultivated at these festivals, perhaps a transforming of society lies ahead.

Final thoughts

When we speak about new rites we have to consider that rites are part of our daily life. They belong to that like eating and drinking. For that reason Ronald Grimes likes to speak about cultivating rites. He feels this is a much richer metaphor as inventing or constructing new rites. People invent mobile telephones and computers, they construct bridges and office buildings but they cultivate the soil.

The image of cultivation conjures olfactory responses and tactile images like dark earth, seeds, manuring and spoud up weeds. Cultivating rites reminds us that this act does not concern mechanical activities. Rites cannot be incubated by using manuals or attending workshops. Rites, even of the made-up variety, requires waiting, rites emerge.

Research shows that people who use rites are mentally healthier. Outsiders may not understand a rite but for the participants it turns out to be beneficial. It seems one has to participate in a rite. It can not be explained precisely what happens during a rite. Their secret lies in the minds and hearts of people.


In the western world we are dealing with symbolic, ritual and mythical impoverishment. This impoverishment seems to solve itself in a revival of the interest for symbols, myths and rites concerning funerals and also in the revival of ancient pagan customs and rites.

* * * * * * *


Joseph Campbell en Bill Moyers, Mythen & bewustzijn. De kracht van de mythologische verbeelding. (Houten, 1990)

Robert Jay Lifton en Eric Olson, Leven en sterven. (Bilthoven, 1974)

Ronald, L. Grimes, Deeply into the bone. Re-inventing rites of passage. (University of California, 2000)

Ronald L. Grimes, Marrying & burying. Rites of passage in a man’s life. 2nd edition. (Waterloo, Canada, 2007)

Claire Hamilton en Steve Eddy, De Kelten. Erfgoed van een eeuwenoude cultuur. (Libero, 2008)

Herman de Roos, Diep onder onze huid. Hoe rituelen ons leven kunnen transformeren. (Amersfoort, 2010)

Eric Venbrux, Sophie Bolt en Meike Heessels (red.), Rituele creativiteit. Actuele veranderingen in de uitvaart- en rouwcultuur in Nederland. (Zoetermeer, 2008)


Robert Jay Lifton en Eric Olson, Leven en sterven. (Bilthoven, 1974) p. 13
2 Ronald, L. Grimes, Deeply into the bone. Re-inventing rites of passage. (University of California, 2000)
p. 91-93
3 Joseph Campbell en Bill Moyers, Mythen & bewustzijn. De kracht van de mythologische verbeelding. (Houten,
1990) p. 22 – 23
4 Ronald L. Grimes, Marrying & burying. Rites of passage in a man’s life. 2nd edition. (Waterloo, Canada, 2007)
p. 13 – 14
5 Thomas Quartier, ‘Voorbij de dood. Rituele stervensbegeleiding in het ziekenhuis.’ In: Eric Venbrux, Sophie
Bolt en Meike Heessels (red.), Rituele creativiteit. Actuele veranderingen in de uitvaart- en rouwcultuur in
Nederland. (Zoetermeer, 2008) p. 62
6 Grimes, Marrying & burying. p. 6

Herman de Roos biography

Herman de Roos was born on August 19th, 1959. After his study at the Academy of arts in Amsterdam he found a career as a coördinator of logistic operations and as a planner. Although this career was experienced as informative, dynamic and exciting, he did not feel that this was his final destination. For that reason later in life he accepted the challenge to follow his heart again. One of the first steps on this path was going to university and attend the study of interreligious spirituality of which he received a masters degree in the year 2008. The core of this study was the question of meaning and how this question was answered from the view of several different religions.

During an internship at the oncology department for children, at the Radboud Hospital in Nijmegen, he learned how penetrating that question sometimes can be. During his study he also got acquainted with subjects like ritual studies, religious counselling and religious coaching. All of them very interesting subjects which Herman thought to combine in his choice for the profession of ritual supervisor. From additional value was the fact that in this new profession he also found back again some creative aspects through which his education at the Academy of Arts found a place as well. In his spare time Herman has written books like ‘Spiritualiteit en zingeving. Een zoektocht naar de oorzaak en het waarom van menselijk lijden.’ en ‘Diep onder onze huid. Hoe rituelen ons leven kunnen transformeren.’

Connections –

Herman de Roos
herman.deroos at
Utrecht, Netherlands

About [ open myth source ]

The [open myth source] project gathers conversations, symbols, songs, visual art and stories. Building a house for Myth in the Sustainability Age.
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