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East Meets West: A Comparative Analysis of the Views of Confucius and Emily Post on Funeral Rituals

Two of the most provocative writers on the rules of social behavior, Confucius and Emily Post, represent the Far Eastern and Western viewpoints, respectively, on social duties and etiquette. Though coming from very different times and places, the ritualistic nature and ultimate objective of both sets of philosophies are very comparable, but several key distinctions arise. The subject of funeral rites is a proper context for a comparison of Confucius and Post; the matter represents very powerful and significant events in respective societies of both authors and makes clear the ultimate objective of their philosophies. Both Confucius and Emily Post emphasize ritual in order to achieve social harmony, but the sets of rites themselves have very different purposes in their individual societies.

The writings of Confucius foster an attitude of unequivocal belief in the importance of “rites” which “encompass[es] all kinds of behavior, both public and private, ranging across such activities as seasonal festivities, table manners, rites of passage, and governmental functions.” 1) Ritual is the glue that holds society together. The important thing, according to Confucius, is not necessarily to understand the meaning or the purpose of a ritual but to adhere to it. In the case of funeral traditions and sacrificial rites, adhering to the appropriate rituals enables one to achieve complete accord — the harmonious objective of the Confucian tradition: “Internally, there is full completion of the self; externally, there is complete accord with the Way.” 2) In essence, these sets of rituals are a clear path to excellence — to harmony of self and society.

The idea of harmony that Confucian ideals strive for are rooted in ancient East Asian religious traditions — interaction with spirits that are “active in every aspect of nature and the human world” 3) and veneration of ancestors. Spirits are believed to require benefaction from their human counterparts through sacrificial rites in order for harmony among all things in nature to be achieved. Confucius claims that through ritual, along with moral virtue, the ideal state of complete accord can be realized. The presence of these traditions in East Asian religions fostered the importance of filial piety — duty to one’s parents and family — and sacrificial offerings, which are considered the most important of the Confucian rites. Confucius espouses ritual sacrifice as a way to continue to act with filial piety even after the death of one’s parents or elders. It also provides a mode to achieve the harmony between nature and the human world that has been historically strived for in East Asian religions.

In contrast to Confucius, Emily Post’s views on etiquette in time of death focus far more on the living — those who have suffered loss of loved ones — than on the dead, or the spirits that are released into the world upon death in ancient Chinese tradition. Instead of focusing on the dead themselves or on the mystical side of death, Post takes influence mostly from the moral system of the Protestant Church, which was very prevalent in her time. Her writings on mourning and funeral rites lack answers to questions about death that Confucius’s writings provide. Proper etiquette here serves mostly as a mode of sympathy and compassion for the bereaved:

“One who is by choice or accident selected to come in contact with those in new affliction should, like a trained nurse, banish all consciousness of self; otherwise he or she will be of no service — and service is the only gift of value that can be offered.” 4)

Those unaffected by the loss are to virtually forget themselves out of sympathy for those affected. Post’s view is that proper etiquette in times of loss exists to bring about respectful and harmonious interaction among social counterparts. She strives to cultivate the outlook that these customary rituals that dictate social behavior work to create the “best society” — a society where proper etiquette dictates one’s place. Ritual is the defining factor for the placement of individuals into a harmonious society. The subject of death and mourning is no different; they are essential facets of society and therefore must be subject to strict ritual to ensure social harmony.

Both authors espouse relatively rigid sets of rituals, often so detailed and intricate that they seem to evade human comprehension. In dealing with death, as in most other aspects of life, the appropriate ritual is often beyond simple understanding. Ritual duties, funeral rites, mourning traditions — these things do not necessarily exist for us to understand. According to Confucius, sacrificial offerings are among the most important of rites; their legitimacy is undisputed, whether or not their meaning is understood by even those who are performing the rituals:

“Someone asked about the meaning of the great Ti sacrifice. The master said, ‘I do not know. Someone who knew how to explain it would find the whole realm in the palm of his hand.’” 5)

Under Confucianism, rituals are not to be questioned; they are simply to be carried out in order to achieve filial piety and to create harmony between the spirits, heaven, and the human world.

In Emily Post's opinion, the actions to be taken in the case of death are viewed in a similar light. Despite the seeming inappropriateness of emphasizing etiquette and ritual in dealing with death, they are in fact quite befitting of the occasion. As with Confucius, understanding the rituals of funerals and mourning is not as important as unequivocally adhering to them in social practice:

“The last place in the world where we would look for comfort at such a time is in the seeming artificiality of etiquette; yet it is in the moment of deepest sorrow that etiquette performs its most vital and real service.” 6)

Customary traditions and rituals should be emphasized undisputedly in order to foster Post’s “best society.” However, in contrast to Confucius, who emphasizes filial piety as part of the path to society becoming harmonious with nature, Post’s idea of proper etiquette puts much emphasis on the treatment of the bereaved and teachings of sympathy towards them. She promotes these rites as a shield for the bereaved during their time of distress.

Both authors agree in that proper etiquette regarding death is intended to create a harmonious society, but where Confucius seeks harmony among the living and dead, Post seeks harmony only among the living; etiquette in her view exists more out respect and sympathy for the living than for the dead:

“It is the time-worn servitor, Etiquette, who draws the shades, who muffles the bell, who keeps the house quiet, who hushes voices and footsteps and sudden noises; who stands between well-meaning and importunate outsiders and the retirement of the bereaved.” 7)

Confucius shows funeral rites not only to be social responsibilities but also as modes for bringing about harmony within both nature and society. Post, in contrast, views them as less based in spirituality and more in social duty. This principle difference is most likely a product of the differing societies that these ideals were realized in.

When comparing Confucius’ and Emily Post’s views on social ritual, it is important to note the cultural differences that underlie their respective beliefs. Historically, East Asian religious beliefs have differed remarkably from those of Western cultures. A main polarizing factor is the veneration of ancestors in East Asia, which cultivated the idea of filial duty in Confucian writings. This aspect of Chinese culture ties in with another characteristic foreign to Emily Post’s native British culture — the belief that spirits require their descendents to provide for them in order to foster personal and social harmony: “In life, they care for them; in death, they mourn them; when mourning is over, they sacrifice to them.” 8) Sacrificial rites became the emphasis of Confucian funeral tradition while social morals became the emphasis of Post’s etiquette, which was developed in the context of Britain’s monotheistic, predominantly Protestant culture.

Post’s views appear to be based mostly in the moral tradition of the Church. Thus, while Confucian literature emphasizes filial piety — which was fostered by the ancient Chinese practice of veneration of ancestors — Emily Post’s work applies Christian teachings to unify and harmonize society. Her view of etiquette, because funeral ceremonies do not concern God, rarely pertains to mystical beliefs or practices; proper etiquette is based in the Protestant moral tradition and the virtues of the Church and is scarcely indicative of more than that. Despite this cultural gap, the ritualistic nature espoused by both authors is quite similar, as is the intent — to bring about social harmony in a proper, virtuous society.

In a nutshell, Confucianism and the proper etiquette of Emily Post are surprisingly similar systematic approaches to controlling social behavior. Both have an ultimate objective of bringing about harmony amongst the social counterparts and paths that are built easily from systematic ritual. The roots and mystical nature behind the rituals of each respective culture is where the only drastic difference lies; both societies (East Asian and Western) historically have operated more or less within these systemic controls of social behavior, which signifies that a ritualistic nature of society is quite possibly an aspect of social development present in many cultures around the world. Confucius and Emily Post may just happen to be two of the authors that historically captured the essence of ritual in order to use it as a function to produce harmonious societies.

1) , 8) Gary E. Kessler, Eastern Ways of Being Religious (California: Mayfield, 2000), page 175-177.
2) Gary E. Kessler, Eastern Ways of Being Religious (California: Mayfield, 2000), page 176.
3) Michael Molloy, Experiencing the World’s Religions, 4th Ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999), page 217.
4) , 6) , 7) Emily Post, “Funerals,” Etiquette in society, in business, in politics and at home (New York: Bartleby.com, 1999), Chapter 24.
5) Deborah Sommer, ed., Chinese Religion: An Anthology of Sources (UK: Oxford University Press, 1995), page 43-48.

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