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Commonalities and differences in older people’s experience of life passage rituals in Eastern and Western Europe Daniela Koleva, University of Sofia Peter.

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Presentation on theme: "Commonalities and differences in older people’s experience of life passage rituals in Eastern and Western Europe Daniela Koleva, University of Sofia Peter."— Presentation transcript:

1 Commonalities and differences in older people’s experience of life passage rituals in Eastern and Western Europe Daniela Koleva, University of Sofia Peter Coleman, University of Southampton

2 Marking Transitions and Meaning across the Life Course: Older People’s Memories of Religious and Secular Ceremonies in Eastern and Western Europe (RASC) Research project supported by the AHRC/ESRC “Religion & Society” Programme Ageing, Ritual and Social Change (ed. by Peter Coleman, Daniela Koleva, Joanna Bornat) Ashgate, forthcoming end of 2012

3 Approach Interdisciplinary: gerontology, oral history, sociology of religion International: UK, Bulgaria, Romania Comparative by design Complexity of national contexts Several thematic axes: ageing, religiosity, (de)secularisation Religiosity and secular alternatives Object of research constructed in an unusual way

4 Constructing the research object Focus on individuals, not institutions: religiosity and its alternatives Focus on the practices: the central aspect of everyday religiosity are practices (habitus, i.e. unreflected practical dispositions) not beliefs Focus on rites of passage: link of individual life course to the public/social aspects of religious practices Focus on changes – including secular alternatives Older peoples’ perspective – well-being in old age

5 Research questions – gerontology What have been the changes in use of ritual that older people remember and how were they experienced? What are the consequent benefits as well as losses perceived by those who have witnessed the changing trends in ritual? What is the character of alternative secular forms of ritual which have produced as meaningful sense of occasion for life transitions? What is the remaining attraction of religious ritual for those who have little or no explicit religious belief and practice?

6 Methodology 20 men and women from each country Half of them members of dominant churches, half – other denominations and non-believers Age 75+ Urban settings – two sites in each country Oral history: life stories + semi-structured interviews, common guide Interviews transcribed and translated into English Work with each other’s interviews: case studies, typologies (also across countries)

7 Are you religious? (EVS 2008)

8 How important is God? (support in religion)

9 Is a church service important to mark death?

10 Generational commonalities: social normativity Belonging/being useful for others more important than authenticity (being true to oneself) Conformity ‘this is how it’s done’ Solidarity, responsibility for family and friends ‘doing the right thing for…’ Cultural memory and identity ‘that’s who we are’

11 Ethos: conformity valued It seemed the natural thing to do (Viorel, RO) Even when we went to Easter or services, it was because everybody went, I don’t know how to say this… (Florina, RO) Well, I think it’s a common law. (Dinu, RO) Anyway I think we just carried on. And when you wanted to get married you had to belong, you had to join a synagogue. We weren’t religious, I wouldn’t say we were religious. (Barbara, UK) It’s about being decent people (Betty, UK)

12 Morality: solidarity with family and friends There are some things, I don't know. That run in your blood, you know? Everybody in our family was an orthodox, and I will die also an orthodox. (Florina, RO) And especially their parents insisted in keeping these traditions, arguing that it is the right way... (Mirela, RO) They [parents] always observed traditions. In the past people always observed traditions. Always. (Valentina, BG) I knew that, you know, I’d done my duty kind of thing by doing the right thing by her, mmm, yeah (Polly, UK)

13 Identity: cultural memory and belonging I was not a believer. But it was a custom. I mean I cared for respecting these customs. (Florina, RO) This is a tradition. No one can say it’s his or her own. Neither pagans, nor priests. (Diman, BG) I seemed to get the idea that if I wasn’t confirmed I wouldn’t be a fully functioning member of British society. (Polly, UK) I won’t have a civil marriage only, I won’t neglect the traditions of our family and of us as Bulgarians (Andon, BG)

14 Religious Contrasts between Eastern and Western Europe Western Europe shows a pattern of declining Christian affiliation and church attendance. The USA shows a similar pattern although decline began later and from a higher initial level (Putnam & Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, 2010). But Eastern Europe shows a different pattern as a result of secularization and the persecution of religious persons by atheistic communist governments, and the recovery of Christian affiliation and church attendance after 1989,

15 Religion and ageing Religiosity traditionally has been expected to increase with advanced age because of the psychological (security, meaning, belonging in face of decline and death) and social benefits (role in transmitting ritual and beliefs across generations) which it provides Therefore, as religion declines in the West, one might expect the well-being of the older population to be adversely affected, and those belonging to closer religious communities to be advantaged It has been argued that welfare policy for older people should take more note of religion and possible functional alternatives to religion (Howse, Religion and Spirituality in Later Life, 1999, Centre for Policy on Ageing, London).

16 But does religiosity increase in later life? Difficult to investigate because of cohort and selective mortality effects Best evidence from the ’35- year Longitudinal Study of Generations’ (Bengtson et al, Univ. of Southern California). Shows large degree of stability over time, but from lower starting points for successive generations. G1 b slight increase in very late in life; G2 b & G3 b slight decrease from mid to late life; G4 b decline in 20s, rise in 30s. Data from the UK is generally consistent with this picture although decline began historically earlier (Coleman, Belief and Ageing: Spiritual Pathways in Later Life, 2011)

17 Effective transmission of religion: Eastern Europe The main factor in the survival of religion is its effective transmission. Early socialisation appears to be very important to continuing practice. The oldest cohorts in Eastern Europe, those socialised before the communist repression of the post-war years, are a strongly religious generation, more so than in most of Western Europe. Strong family influences, including especially from grandparents. In our study those in Bulgaria and Romania, especially those aged over 85 years at interview were more religious, both in belief and practice, than their UK counterparts. They had maintained their religion despite persecution, often marrying and baptising their children in secret at home.

18 The oldest old in Bulgaria and Romania: during difficulties “I didn’t lose my faith in God! Not for one ….Not for one moment. And when they came to my window at night – because they knew that worked ….from another I knew they went and harassed women – I said, ‘God, if that’s all I deserve, Your will be done!’ I waited in the kitchen ….. Shaking from head to toe ….” (Teodora, RO, 86 years) “I do have faith in God and also in the Holy Mother ….. It has never happened to me to pray and not get what I prayed for, there are some things nobody would imagine you could do something like that and lo and behold I have thought the thought and God has helped me. There used to be days without money and no sooner had I thought …..” (Ecaterina, RO, 85 years)

19 The oldest old in Bulgaria and Romania: being old with God “Sometimes it’s cold, I say, ‘Dear Lord, when will the bus come?’ And in a minute it comes. He helps me, it’s again God that helps me. Thank you Lord! I’m on the bus! Besides, every morning I wake up, I believe it’s the first day of the rest of my life, it’s the first day, the next day …. my life that belongs to God” (Andon, BG, 87 years) “I know that nothing happens without the will of God, and if God let this happen, then we shall bear it ” At night, lying in bed with his wife both frail and feeling their physical powerless, praying : “May Your gaze descend upon us, O most pure and eternally virgin Mother Mary ……” (Aurelian, RO, 96 years)

20 Dimana, 91 years old, Bulgaria Early socialisation: “We’d been brought up to fear God…. Family (of husband) was even better…. My mother-in-law lived for God only …. Hand in hand, the two of us, we’d go to church……” During communism: “When my husband died, they invited me to the Cathedral. The years were such that men were afraid to serve in church. So they even asked me to help at the altar … In communist times baptisms weren’t allowed but I have about 70 godchildren because I worked in the cathedral. Whoever secretly came to be baptized ……” Life: “Every morning when I get up, the first thing I do is to cross myself in front of the icon, I wash and I say …’Dear Lord, you first, I follow’ …Now that I can’t see so well and I can’t hear, ‘Dear Lord, send me guidance’ ’’ Death: “I’ve prepared everything. The incense, the candles, the basil, a bunch of flowers. Everything has to be ready, so the children don’t worry.”

21 Conclusions and hypotheses for further investigation On most indicators Eastern Europeans appear to practise religious rituals more than Westerners. This practice appears to have been more effectively transmitted across generations, even in the period of persecution, and to continue to have strong emotional valence across the life-span. Religious transmission is more effective when it is based in family centred ritual from an early age with its resulting associations of secure attachment and bonding. Ritual is also more influential (than didactic teaching) because it expresses transcendent mystery. Engagement in physical acts of ritual continues to confirm faith into late old age. The development of expertise in ritual practice leads to greater ownership and thus to some measure of independence from ministers of religion, and thus protection from the effect of disillusionment with their weaknesses.


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