Since the death of Queen Elizabeth II on Sept. 8, the power of ritual has been front and center. It’s been moving to witness, and even some people who are skeptical of the monarchy – including Americans – have reacted strongly. Why?
For sociologists like me, the answer has to do with the fundamentals of how human communities persist. For any group, death is an existential threat. All of us are invested in other people and their places in our communities and social order. When leaders die, we need to find a way to go on without them.
Emile Durkheim – a founding figure in sociology and anthropology – famously pointed out that rituals have the power to produce emotions, remind us of our obligations and ties to one another, and make intangibles tangible, including in unexpected ways. Think of the people who cry at weddings, surprising even themselves.
Durkheim theorized that society was not a physical entity but a powerful idea. For this reason, members must find a way to make this abstraction real: to invest it with weight and feeling. Otherwise, our natural hedonism threatens to overwhelm the collective good and weaken society.
One important way that we make ideas real is by creating powerful symbols – crowns, flags at half-staff, the wearing of black clothing – and incorporating these into public rituals. The collective aspect of rituals is key to their power. And one of the oldest symbols is, of course, the physical body as a stand-in for the body politic: Though the queen lacked political power, she was a symbol of the British people.
Once deceased, her son, King Charles III, immediately replaced her. Though it might seem surprising that people in crowds outside Buckingham Palace would immediately proclaim, “God save the King,” doing so for them is an expression of continuity.
Durkheim was preoccupied with maintaining an orderly, tolerant society despite internal conflict and divisions over religion, class, ethnicity and politics. Though one might not agree with his emphasis on order, it’s hard to argue with his assessment of the power of ritual. In fact, resistance also requires it.
Colonial empires such as Britain’s were built in part on ritual and expropriation, but counter-ritual has often been used as a means of protesting the status quo around the world. Witness the martyrdom of Steve Biko, an icon of the anti-apartheid movement; or the hymns sung for courage in Black churches before civil rights marches.
After the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the inauguration of Joe Biden on Jan. 20 became more important than it had been before for upholding democracy and the peaceful transfer of power as core American values.
When we imbue rituals with meaning, we mark as “sacred” the times and spaces in which we collectively take note of what binds us together during difficult times, challenging transitions and moments of reflection or levity, from holidays to coming-of-age ceremonies and marriages.
When a death occurs, rituals give us something to do when we most need it: They offer comfort, help channel complex emotions and provide a sense of belonging at a time when absence is palpable and frightening.
In the coming weeks, as we mark the queen’s death and the elaborate transition to the reign of Charles, let’s reflect on the power of ritual to explain ourselves to one another, unite us and help us heal. In doing so, we’ll acknowledge that the United Kingdom is not the only society that needs to be reassured of what it shares in times of loss and division.
Americans do, too, because acting together strengthens the communities and values that matter to us.
Wendy Nelson Espeland is a professor of sociology at Northwestern University.
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