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The significance of lying in state

Editor's Note: (Jay Parini, who teaches at Middlebury College, is the author of "The Way of Jesus: Living a Spiritual and Ethical Life." The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.)

(CNN) The caskets of Aretha Franklin and John McCain have become magnets for thousands of mourners and the focus of attention in the press. McCain lies in state officially, while Franklin does so unofficially, by virtue of her admirers. Deep feelings rise in millions of Americans who never knew them personally.

Why do we do this?

The most basic explanation is that we are meaning-making creatures. Life seems random, a pointless series of events that, at some arbitrary point in time, just stop. Death closes its big door.

Jay Parini

But this is profoundly unsatisfying. And untrue, in the sense that we can and do create meaning, often turning to divine as well as secular rituals for assistance. (It's not for nothing that couples who wish to sanctify their feelings toward each other turn to marriage, a sacred rite of the church, now widely secularized but still relevant.)

Burials have long been viewed as necessary rituals in many societies, an essential aspect of human survival. In The New York Times, there is a report on recently discovered burial sites in Kenya. "Roughly 5,300 years ago," writes Karen Weintraub, "a group of ancient sheep herders in East Africa began an extraordinary effort to care for their dead."

The value of ritual preparation of the corpse, preparation of the corpse and proper internment, can be seen in Homer's Iliad, where the omission of burial rites was regarded as nothing less than a sacrilege. Indeed, Priam begs Achilles for the return of his son's dead body in Book XXIV, as the return of the body for proper burial means everything to him and to the people of Troy as well.

Even within the animal kingdom, there is an instinct to return to the body of the recently deceased. In a wonderfully strange video from a couple of years ago, we can actually watch elephants returning to mourn a deceased elephant as they attempt to cope with the death of a family leader.

"Elephants have respect for their dead," says George Wittemyer, who studies animal behavior, "but their interaction with their dead is not something we fully understand." Much the same could be said of the human species. There is so much we do not understand.

For the most part, human beings avoid thinking about death, although mortality is constantly on our minds, if only subconsciously. We know we're finite. And when a member of our species dies, we need rituals to process the meaning of this powerful experience of loss. Religion has for centuries functioned, in part, to help us process these feelings, allowing us to make meaning from the apparent senselessness of death.

As two of our great leaders -- a legend in music and a war hero -- lie in state, we approach their caskets, full of respect, with complex feelings and memories, wondering what their life trajectories meant and how their lives intersected with our own, as with our society at large. Of course, we sense our natural revulsion in the presence of dead things. But we then, however briefly, confront our mortality as well, bowing our heads before the great mystery we all face.