I was out walking the other day when a flash of color caught my eye. Stopping, I saw a monarch butterfly lying on the pavement, its wings quivering gently in the breeze. The butterfly was either dead or dying. As the wings continued to shudder, they moved enough for me to see that not all the yellow on that bit of pavement came from the butterfly’s wings. The creature had died on top of a cigarette butt.
Of course, the butterfly could have cared less. There are no wise elderly butterflies who, by their well-timed gasps of horror, can teach the young that it is not Nice to die on top of someone else’s trash. Only a human would consider that sort of things significant.
After all, that’s part of what humanness is about. We find the abstract concept of death horrible in a way that animals don’t. And so we ritualize it. We come up with “appropriate” ways to die. We are disturbed when things happen differently. Butterflies should not die on top of cigarettes.
William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying examines some of these issues. A short synopsis of the novel: the Bundren family transports their wife and mother’s body to another town for burial. Only it’s a long trip. They get started late because the wildest son went off on a trip while his mother was dying. The body stinks. The weather is bad. The father, Anse, is self-righteous in the way only a thoroughly selfish man can be. The only really “good” member of the family, Cash, receives a debilitating injury because his wild brother wouldn’t put the coffin into the wagon according to his instructions. And there’s the reason that they went on the trip in the first place—the mother, Addie, wanted to show her dislike for her husband by requesting to be buried far away, with family members she hardly knew.
The family certainly puts out a lot of effort to follow her request. Their neighbors, however, and those they meet on the road, view the entire episode as ridiculous. The Bundrens have traded one ritual for another. In the end, their trip offers the most comfort to Anse Bundren, the person who—as the story turns out—least deserves it.
It’s easy enough, for Americans in general and some Protestants in particular, to argue against ritual. Rituals, so the story goes, keep people from being authentic and spontaneous. They stifle human expression and attempt to control human emotions. Faulkner’s story, however, shows another side to ritual. Humans are ritual creatures. We cannot be completely authentic and spontaneous. When we reject one ritual for the sake of “real expression,” we end up inventing another. The question isn’t whether the ritual in question is a ritual. The question is, What effect does this ritual have? Does it channel human emotion in healthy ways and guide human behavior in a worthy direction? Or does it damage those who follow it?
We ritualize death—and many other things. In the case of the Bundrens, they traded a healthy, well-tried ritual of death and burial for one of their own making. The new ritual—however “authentic”—justifies Anse’s self-righteousness, leads to Darl’s mental breakdown, and permanently injures Cash.
Ritual is unavoidable. Stupid rituals are optional. Sort of. (But that is a subject for another day.)