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What can schools learn from funerals?

It may seem a strange place to start, but the impact Covid-19 has had on how we manage the passing of our loved ones, highlighting the important role funerals play, offers valuable insights for schools. Learning why we mark big life transitions with rituals and ceremonies helps us consider how best to reintegrate into school life as we emerge from a huge transitional period together. 

This inquiry emerged from a recent conversation with one of our mentors and advisors Dr. David Blumenkrantz, as we explored the future of education. Since the 70’s David has invited schools, as a thought experiment, to ponder the role that funerals play in society. David has over 50 years’ experience in the world of educational psychology, youth and community development, community organising and ‘rites of passage’. 

This period of prolonged social distancing is, for many of us, the first time we’ve had to confront death without the possibility of having a funeral. The thought experiment has become a reality. It’s also the first time we’ve had to support youth into adult life without many of the usual supportive events that mark that important transition – graduation ceremonies, exams, results day, leaving home, first job….

Before Covid-19 it wouldn’t have occurred to ask the question ‘How do you grieve for your loved ones when funerals aren’t an option?’ Many have likely asked it this last year. The enquiry helps us appreciate just how important a role funerals play in helping us to process our collective grief.

Without a funeral and bereft of social encounters it hasn’t been possible to mark these emotional moments of transition in the same way. Families and friends can’t gather to make sense of their loss by offering home visits, sharing stories, giving and receiving hugs and the many other ways we connect to process our grief together. Our psyche finds it hard to relate to and process death in the best of times. Perhaps this is made even more difficult within a culture addicted to youthfulness and prolonging life. In any case, funerals provide a ritual where we have to intentionally confront reality and embrace difficult emotions we might otherwise try to avoid. Without this and with significantly reduced social interaction, we are more likely to remain in the denial stage of grief for longer, feel alone with our emotions, and struggle to move towards a place of acceptance and integration of the new reality.

In the early days of the pandemic funerals weren’t allowed, with Zoom funerals perhaps the only option. At the time of writing (March ‘21) funerals and meeting with one other person outdoors are the only exceptions to the national lockdown restrictions on social gatherings. Could there be more proof of our innate desire for ritual forms to help us honour and make sense of important life transitions? It seems these rites of passage trump even the strictest of government mandates!

There’s historical evidence of rituals and ceremonies of transition surrounding birth, coming of age, weddings and funerals dating back over many millennia. By way of example, in excavations of ancient burial sites over 30,000 years old, evidence of offerings and ceremonial gifts are often found in close proximity to the corpse. The ceremonial events have since been called “rites of passage”, a term originally coined by Arnold Van Gennep in his seminal anthropological research in the 20th century. 

So, what can schools learn from all this?

Perhaps some of the most important markers of transition are those that occur when an adolescent is transitioning into adulthood. During these events of transition, the young would be helped to make sense of the change that was occurring, what it meant to be ‘adult’ what was going ot be expected of them and importantly allowing them to name to their community what they wanted for themselves. In this way, there’s an intentional space created for children to enquire into and discover how to live in ways that contributed to their community and nourished their lives, the lives of others and everything on the planet.

These rites of passage were essentially our first form of education and youth development. Equally important, they were designed to renew and strengthen the bonds of the community, necessary for adaptation and survival. Rites of passage were essential for youth and community development. In the absence of these rites, youth would yearn for them and seek them out, creating them, many times in ways that compromise their health, like drinking, drug use, gangs and pregnancy. Frequently these youth-initiated rites of passage would also jeopardise the health and security of the community. 

In the absence of these coming of age transitional events there is a serious potential for unethical behaviours to form that focus on the self-indulgent Me rather than the collective We. This self-indulgent ME oriented behaviour then impacts the environment, financial institutions, social justice, equality, it results in governments that don’t serve the people and prioritise commerce over caring, institutions that foster and sustain systemic oppression, racism, incivility and individual despair and disconnection, which impacts the individual, their family, community, culture, nature and the entire planet…. 

Does this sound like the world we live in?

School and University graduations have been widely cited as rites of passage. Since the lockdown students across the globe have been finding creative ways to fulfill their innate yearning and desire to engage in this traditional rite of passage. Amongst them we can sense a feeling of being ‘stuck in limbo’. Their need for a clear ending to move on to the next stage is obvious, as 18-year-old Charlie Davis highlights in her article for the Metro last year.

Finally, look at the recent emergence of graduation events, ceremonies and rituals that have been televised, such as this one the other night on The One Show and these examples in the US. In effect these highlight the collective understanding of the importance of high school graduation as a coming of age rite of passage. 

When the entire planet is threatened by destructive forces, it is individuals with a deep connection and orientation towards the collective that becomes essential. There is no better example of that than with what we face today, where the need for care and connection has entirely drowned out commerce. Re-embracing rites of passage can help us to also remember and celebrate the better parts of our human nature.

For many young people, this period has been a time of darkness, uncertainty and fear. Whilst facing the difficulty that this brings, perhaps one of the most restorative and uplifting activities a school could focus their attention on is in providing students with opportunities to publicly recognise and celebrate the huge transitions they are going through? With another summer of disruption to exams, young people will need alternative ways of affirming a new sense of self – perhaps as ‘school leaver, 6th former, college student…’ Imagine leaving school without a proper goodbye? Some children don’t have to.

If you are interested in helping young people in your school or local community transition healthily into adulthood through rites of passage then get in touch! We’d love to chat.


Dr. Blumenkrantz holds a B.A. in psychology from the State University of New York at Buffalo, a Ed.M. in educational psychology from Boston College, and a Ph.D. in Community Psychology & Social Policy from the Union Institute. For further information on Dr. Blumenkrantz’s published works, see here.

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