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The Song of Death, the Hymn of Life

At present, the world is confronted with an unprecedented situation due to the global spread of COVID-19. People are forced to face death, being affected by the demise of their loved ones, watching helplessly the course of their disease, or being infected themselves without knowing the possible outcome. It is a time of heightened anxiety and permanent stress, impacting people’s mental health to no less degree than their physical conditions. In addition to it, the requirement of the isolation and prohibition of any forms of socialization contribute to this problem. Many types of social activity are under restriction; one of them is a funeral ceremony. Therefore, a difficult situation further deteriorates and increases people’s frustration. In these circumstances, referring to the tradition may suggest the aids for withstanding the case and provide the idea for social implementations that may be helpful. In this paper, the ritual Gisaro performed by the Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea will be examined and related to the present context. After that, a suggestion for possible implementations in social life, particularly in the funeral ritual, will be provided.

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People’s daily life, in its routine or extraordinary events, implies performing some types of habitual activities, either social or individual. Such repeated activity is defined as ritual, an entity within the symbolic system constructed by humans. The accepted definition of a symbol is “meaning,” or “standing for something else,” and the ability of people to construct symbols is considered the basic feature of humankind that makes it different from the animal world. Moreover, the ability to perform the rituals turns, ultimately, to necessity; however, now, with the disturbance of the routine, it becomes impossible.

One of the essential rituals, especially meaningful now, with an increasing number of people’s deaths, is a funeral ceremony. Due to the strict requirement of self-isolation, it cannot be performed in its usual form, requiring certain modifications. Mostly these modifications relate to the prohibition of joining the ceremony by a large number of family members and friends of the demised, as well as reducing the time of the performance. Obviously, the absence of the possibility of expressing grief makes people more frustrated. In these circumstances, some measures should be taken; nevertheless, they would not violate the existing restrictions.

The possible source of the idea may be found in the traditional culture, particularly in the tribal customs maintaining in the different parts of the world. In his work, The sorrow of the lonely and the burning of the dancers, an anthropologist Edward Schieffelin describes the ritual Gisaro, performed by Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea. The ceremony is usually held during the time of heightened social anxiety, such as at the time of the epidemic of measles and influenza that caused a large population decrease in the 1960s. Also, performing Gisaro was the answer of the tribes to European appearance in the area that caused fear and stress of local people; the ceremony, in turn, used to help them overcome their fear.

The Gisaro ritual is performed throughout the night, when the number of volunteers dance and sing, one after one. The songs are usually about the dead people of the community, and the main aim of the performed is to cause an extreme level of grief in the audience, especially in the relatives and friends of the demised. If the performers are successful in it, some spectators may become overwhelmed to such a degree that they grab the fire torch and forcefully jam the burning end into the dancer. The latter, however, expects it; moreover, the entire ceremony is considered successful if many people mourned and tried to burn the dancers being affected by their emotions. Nobody interprets it as a violent act, and, at the end of the ceremony, the affected members express their gratitude to the dancers. Thus, the ceremony aims to cause an effect, close to that called in ancient Greece catharsis, a purifying and restorative effect of strong emotions.

The described ritual may lead to certain thoughts and suggestions related to the present situation. As demonstrated, it is an art that is the core of the ritual, and the reason for its healing effect. Although in the West, religion and customs require different types of actions, it might be suggested that an element of the mentioned custom would be applied in a different context as well. For example, a funeral ceremony held by a Catholic church contains Holy Scriptures reading and prayers, as well as involves music, such as organ playing. Therefore, the elements of art are already present there, although they are impersonal, unemotional. In addition to it, a possible suggestion may be to implement the performance of some musical piece that has special significance and importance for the relatives, or for the demised one during his or her life. This small ritual within the ceremony may be called “The song of death, the hymn of life,” referring to the central idea of Christianity, the idea of uniting with God for the eternal life. This song could be interpreted as a guard that protects the soul in the after-death world and helps it to attain peace.

To conclude, it must be argued that, in the present situation, people affected by panic and anxiety should have some support to overcome the difficulties. One of the ways to provide such mental assistance may be implementing new elements in the existing rituals. The possible source of the ideas could be found in diverse traditions of the world, such as Kaluli culture of Papua New Guinea. At the time, when the reason is affected by fear and helplessness, the emotions could be the power that helps people to withstand the challenges.

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