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Ceremonies Mark Milestones

According to the BBC, 13.6 million people in the UK paused their lives to watch Saturday’s televised funeral service for Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. They were joined by another 7.5 million people globally who watched online. The interest shows not only respect for the Prince, but the importance of ceremony in our lives.

Ceremonies mark milestones and tell the world, from this point forward, things are different. When ceremonies are missing, we lose the sense of accomplishment and closure that they impart. At weddings, ceremonies bring two families together, at commencement, they signify that the graduate has completed a course of study and is prepared to embark on the next phase of life. At funerals, they give us a way to show respect for what the deceased as contributed and provide a structure for saying goodbye. Ceremonies also link us to those people and happenings that have come before us through colors, shapes, flowers, regalia, music, and the spoken word. And so it was Saturday as the world witnessed the Prince’s beautiful, albeit scaled down, socially distanced funeral.

The large response to Prince Philip’s funeral also underscores how important it is for traditional springtime academic ceremonies like awards presentations, retirements, service anniversaries, and commencement to resume despite the pandemic. Like the royal family, we must all find ways to present these important occasions with the dignity they deserve as best we can in light of pandemic precautions. When ceremonies are cancelled or missing like they were during 2020, we lose the sense of closure, of becoming part of the “family” of people who have achieved these things before us, and the sense of the accomplishment that they impart.

The Duke’s funeral was a poignant reflection of his personality and a salute to the things that meant most to him in life including his military career, his passion for nature, and his legacy of service to Queen and country. Price Philip planned much of the occasion and included many powerful symbols, both lighthearted and serious. He designed a customized Land Rover to bear his coffin, reflecting the vehicle’s status as one of his life-long favorites. He selected the music and his favorite passages from scripture. Most notably, his coffin spoke volumes about things of which he was most proud: It was draped with his personal standard and atop it lay his navy cap, officer’s sword, and a wreath from the Queen.

This year, many colleges and universities are returning to holding in-person commencement ceremonies. Most are modified to be Covid compliant by limiting crowd size, eliminating the traditional handshakes between the president, deans, and graduates; requiring masks, and utilizing more and smaller ceremonies. Many will also be livestreamed to accommodate people who cannot attend in person, thus magnifying the impact of the day and enabling many, many more people to share the moment.

In the end, the extra effort required to create the opportunity for graduates to partake in these milestone ceremonies is an investment in a lifetime of pride and loyalty, not only for the graduates, but for the families who helped them accomplish their dreams. Like Prince Philip’s funeral, these beautiful moments filled with symbols and tradition, signal to us all that it is time to move on to the next chapter of life and despite all that has happened in the last 14 months, to do so in a celebratory, positive way.