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Marileen Steyn in conversation with Lynn Gibson | Death, where is your ritual?

Dr Lynn Gibson argues for an emphasis on the open, compassionate and comforting presence of those involved in providing care after death. Marileen Steyn investigates.

“I did it my way!” These famous lyrics by Frank Sinatra have become the parting words at many funerals, celebrating the unique traits and will of the individual who has passed. When considering the way in which funerals are held as of late, it may seem like more and more people are choosing to do funerals their way.

The choices can be overwhelming. Do you prefer a cremation or a burial (not to mention the other lesser-known options)? Will the ashes be scattered? If so, then where? If not, where do you want the ashes to be stored? Will there be a service? Which rituals do you wish to include in the service? Who will do what? The list goes on. Amidst these many decisions, there is one choice that seems to be gaining popularity in certain cultures: doing nothing noteworthy at all. It is exactly here where dr Lynn Gibson’s academic interest lies.


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In 2016, Gibson graduated from Stellenbosch University with a dissertation entitled The deritualisation of death: toward a practical theology of caregiving for the bereaved. Gibson virtually stumbled across Stellenbosch University in a Google search for departments of Practical Theology. Practical Theology is a sub-discipline of Theology that is concerned with the movement between practice, theory and practice. In the words of Gibson, it “starts with a real problem in the world and it seeks to see what we can bring to the table to address that.”

The “real problem” that Gibson, being deeply involved in death care and pastoral care in his community, wanted to address had to do with people’s ritual response to death. In the United States of America (where he is from) as well as in other parts of the world, practitioners in the funeral and cemetery services as well as in pastoral care noticed what they termed the deritualisation of death. “It is this that when someone experiences death in their family, there is an increasing number of people who don’t turn to the rituals of old and instead, they’re doing nothing at all.”

Part of the challenge is secularisation and people’s unwillingness to identify with rituals associated with a specific religion. Oftentimes these are the only options presented to the aggrieved and in such cases people often choose to rather do nothing than to be confined by a limited number of options. In these instances, there emerges what Gibson describes as an interesting interplay between universal constructs of grief (how human beings deal with loss), and the specific cultural and social expressions of this grief. It is in this interplay where Gibson finds the “fun”. He laughs at the unsuitability of the word, but then explains: “There are lots of opportunities for ritualisation – that would be creating new ritual forms and there are different ways to do that.”

Choosing not to ritualise death is unique to our time and dr Lynn Gibson was (and is) concerned about the potential distress this will cause in people’s own processes of grieving.

Choosing not to ritualise death is unique to our time and Gibson was (and is) concerned about the potential distress this will cause in their own processes of grieving. He speaks about the “hunch” and fear that the absence of rituals following death could lead to the emergence of significant distress. Despite his concerns about the demutualisation of death, Gibson finds great encouragement in the research that shows that 90% of people who go through the death of a loved one will be “okay”. “People are surprisingly resilient,” he says. Yet, through his research and work he is looking for ways in which the death care community can help people have a better experience amidst their loss.

Gibson argues for a paradigm of comforting presence, meaning that those involved in after-death care will “not approach the situation with these fixed ideas of what everyone must do but was rather open and more dynamic and fluid about it to create more meaningful ritualisation, more meaningful caregiving, more meaningful bereavement care just by having a different approach to the situation.”

Part of Gibson’s plea is that those involved in guiding others through grief would let go of fixed theories such as that of Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief in order to be more open to a dynamic approach to grief care based on a theology of compassion. He asks that the bereaved will be met where they are and that people will embark together on constructing ritual forms that will work for the individual or group.


 “We can never find a time when there are human beings and not find ritualisation. They always existed. So even the question itself of what impact would deritualisation have on us … we don’t have anything to go back on. So we’re kind of in an unprecedented age in that sense.” These are the times of uncertainty and risk, but also the times filled with potential for creativity and new ways of being with people in troubling times.

Marileen Steyn is a PhD candidate at the Stellenbosch University.

  • This article is presented in joint cooperation and with the support of the Task Team for Theological Research (Western Cape).

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