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Integrity and Religious Institutions: Wesley Carr (Part 2 of 3: The Needs of the Larger Society)

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Edward R. Shapiro, MD, Distinguished Faculty in the Erikson Institute for Education and Research, continues an exploration of Wesley Carr and the integrity of religious institutions. 

Edward R. Shapiro, MD, Distinguished Faculty in the Austen Riggs Center’s Erikson Institute, explores Wesley Carr and an institution’s primary task. The second major area for religious ritual is in the service of public events, particularly those involving death. For example, in the national service in London managed by religious leaders after the Falklands victory in 1982, the service needed to attend in a more complex way than the simplistic victory that was expressed by political leaders. Conflicting feelings of rage, grief, jubilation, horror, and vindictiveness divided the country. Within the public ritualized celebration, religious spokespeople could offer a more complex, linking interpretation that allowed for the integration of disparate groups. In their identification with this linking interpretation, individuals could regress and shift out of their highly differentiated, often narcissistically invested, and conflicting positions into a more unified identification with a complex society. In another example, with the same task but in a very different setting, Wesley’s design for the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales incorporated history, diverse culture, and contemporary symbols that transcended national, religious, and cultural boundaries allowing millions of people around the world to join. 

I’d like to quote here an excerpt from Wesley’s draft description of Diana’s funeral to give more texture to these ideas.

There is nothing more profound and individual than death, and there is no death more public and institutional that that of a family member of the symbolic head of the nation and the mother of the future king. In 1997 Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed in a car accident in France. The funeral in Westminster Abbey was the Dean’s responsibility. The event demonstrated the way an institution can function on a dynamic level on behalf of society. The funeral of Diana would be an opportunity for public symbolism. But of what kind?

Diana represented hope, youth, beauty and the next generation, not only in terms of her wished for role as the mother of the future king but also as a representative herself of the younger generation. This had particular significance for a monarchy whose leader had not changed since 1952. For 45 years, there had been no collective public grieving. Diana gave birth to the future king, toured the world and displayed a wide interest in issues ranging from fashion to schools in impoverished neighborhoods to bombs and mines. With her subsequent marital difficulties, she evoked connections to the next generation and the marital disarray and generational sexual dilemmas that are worldwide. 

Diana’s death was both public and shocking. Chased by paparazzi and fleeing them in a car with her Arab lover, her car crashed in a tunnel. The Queen decided that the funeral would be held in Westminster Abbey, a place traditionally reserved for coronations and state funerals. The service brought together tradition with innovation. As with the Princess’ life, we altered the form to include a wide range of music from Verdi to contemporary. We included her favorite performer (Elton John) singing and playing the piano – and an emotional personal reflection from Diana’s brother. 

The event was televised worldwide and billions across the globe watched. People wrote about their experiences. Numbers of books of condolences were left at St. James and Kensington Palaces. Letters and messages were sent to the Abbey, arriving every day for almost five months. Almost without exception, they began by thanking us and picking up one aspect of the service. They then told a story, usually of a personal bereavement that they had not previously been able to tell anyone. These accounts went back not just a few months, but for some as many as twenty years. It was as if unresolved grief had remained dormant in their lives until this peculiarly public writing became possible. The narratives followed a pattern: effusive thanks for the service, and an account of an incident in life that the service had reminded them of, followed by gratitude that they now could live with their grief for the first time. What was happening? 

In an extraordinary way, Diana’s death brought together personal and civic loss. Thousands stood in line for hours in front of St. James’ palace and the Mall to get their chance to write. People were in a profound dependence: for many Diana had obviously represented hope – not just for themselves, but for the monarchy -- and they were at a profound loss without her. The monarchy was handling institutional loss for and on behalf of millions.

The extraordinary worldwide manifestation of dependency caught people unprepared. Modern society is supposedly individualistic, materialistic and largely not religious. At best people regard religion as a private affair. As the then press Secretary to the Prime Minister famously put it, “We don’t do God!” The emotional reactions, signs of genuine sorrow and use of religious institutions by millions of people who knew the princess only from the media were unexpected. And the grieving took large amounts of time from people’s lives. People mingled grief for Diana with mourning for their own family and friends. Millions of people used this public role – with all of its irrationalities and impulsiveness – to stand for aspects of their own lives in ways that surprised them. Religious symbols and rituals were surprisingly and powerfully engaging the participation of many.

After Diana’s death, a million bouquets of flowers were placed in London alone. Thousands burned candles, a typical religious symbol. My colleagues and I talked with people outside the Abbey for days. We found ourselves in touch with people highly dependent and at a loss. But they had moved together in some sort of collective role in relation to the institutions of society, to a state of profound self-awareness: they seemed to know what they were doing, and they felt determined.

Check back next Friday for Part 3: Becoming a Member.  

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