Rituals about grief, mourning… and the Dutch school exam


Friday afternoon in a big Dutch city: a quiet corner near a busy road. People had gathered for a very special reason: to collectively commemorate their missing dear ones.

They sat calmly while silently listening to a psychologist explaining all facets of grief related to coping with the sudden absence of a dear relative or friend. They later unveiled a sober monument made of four vertical large pieces of stone, representing the four cardinal directions, and topped by a flat stone featuring the common gesture for 'time-out', a necessity in their grieving process. By all means an impressive sight.

Grief is, roughly speaking, synonymous with mourning over the death of someone, but can here also apply for missing persons (although there is still sometimes a slight hope the missing one(s) will reappear). Both grief and mourning are expressed in physical, cognitive, behavioral, religious, social, spiritual, or philosophical dimensions (think for example of the Portuguese/ Brazilian saudade).

As the psychologist pointed out, customs vary between cultures (wearing black clothes at funerals is common in many cultures, but white can also be the proper dress code, for example in India or China), and although many core behaviors will remain constant, some will evolve over time, changing for example from an individual to a more group-oriented process. Recent events in the Netherlands and elsewhere have shown a shift from a traditionally personal and small scale grieving process to public and large scale mourning celebrations.

Let me finish with a happier note: the ritual about the final school exam in the Netherlands to proudly and publically show someone in the house has passed! Indeed, while walking through residential areas these days, you can wonder at the sight of the Dutch national flags and the school bags hanging outside the houses.

Although it now seems to have become a tradition, this use of the national flag for individual purposes is only tolerated and not legal. It started in the 1960s when first the schools hung the flag to congratulate their successful pupils, and it was later taken over by the proud parents and their happy kids adding the (worn-out) school bag to the pole. Nowadays schools also provide their pupils with their own school flags.

This joyful development can be seen in the same trend as for other rituals (as described above): making from something purely personal a public, widely shared celebration. And incidentally, as far as I know, this country is the only one in the world where the national flag is used for such a personal event. Typically Dutch? 'Moet kunnen', as Herman Pleij would say!

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