The stubborn power of ancient symbols…

After our tragedies, we grieve. And although our world is now largely post-religious, we still grieve using religious symbols – ancient stage-props, really. We lay bunches of flowers at certain places that seem relevant. We gather in groups and hold burning candles.

It would mystify a visitor from another planet to see these purely symbolic, culturally determined behaviors – behaviors that have no innate benefit; they cannot bring the dead back to life. Why flowers? Why candles? How could we explain?

We do know that flowers and candles have long been used as emblems of death, sacrifice and regeneration. How they developed these associations is hard to say for certain. There may have been a time when flowers adorned the dead not symbolically but in an earnest attempt – by the logic of sympathetic magic – to facilitate rebirth, in some other world or form. Candles are said to derive from the fires of sacrifice, so that they represent a convenient spiritual currency, a way of paying – on the dead’s behalf, if we are grieving – for a more comfortable afterlife, without the mess and expense of an actual animal (or human) slaughter.

But why, in the modern world, are we still so comforted by these symbols? Is it that their primitive, spurious logic still keeps a grip on us?

Or are we drawn by their implicit defiance of the culture of modernity – the culture that erodes traditional values, disconnects us from each other, addicts our children to violent immersive video games, sells us large-magazine assault-type weapons, and thereby gives us tragedies like Newtown?

Or does the comfort that we take from our ancient mode of grieving come not even from the grieving per se, but from that restoration of a sense of community and shared values that our grief rituals enable – for a few days anyway, until we disperse again, and somewhere incubate the next senseless tragedy.