I believe we can transform the way we view end of life passages. Today. Not next year or a few years from now. As this article points out, in western culture we are making changes both individually and collectively about how we handle death and remembrance. Says Judith Johnson,
“People are choosing memorial services and celebrations in addition to or instead of a traditional funeral. This allows for a more personalized ritual customized to the particular beliefs and sensibilities of the deceased. It also allows for both mourning the loss of a loved one and celebrating the life he or she lived.”
And I add to her observation: people finding opportunity in holding Celebrations of Life as a support ritual for caregivers, family and friends. A celebration may occur prior to a final transition (aka a Living Funeral) or afterward. The motivation here is tapping into a mutual sense of connection – a safe place to pause, remember or celebrate – in whatever belief framework is relevant.
Image via Wikipedia
Often a person will request no funeral, no service, nothing – in their final wishes. Maybe this is due to being a very private person. It is more likely though, his or her request has more to do with having sat through one too many drawn out funeral services where afterlife of the deceased was the focus, not supporting the mourners through storytelling and truly celebrating the life of someone well-loved.
Here is where I see the opportunity for transformation: shifting our focus. Viewing death as a natural part of life and thereby choosing rituals or services that fit our stories, values and belief systems. It takes work, yes. And I’ll keep posting ideas and resources about why it is worthwhile.
By posting entries to this blog, my primary hope is to share and build resources. I will offer meaningful ways of acknowledging living into dying – and ultimately, death – with creative rituals and ceremony.
While reading last night, I came across this passage by Ronald Grimes in his book ‘Deeply into the Bone‘:
Social, economic and political forces only partly account for shifts in death ways. Rites also emerge or decline when a people’s way of imagining a passage changes. How death is imagined in America depends on who is doing the imagining.
Mr. Grimes got me thinking: how we celebrate life and death is truly up to our Great Imaginations! (When we give ourselves the permission, of course.) It is the choice of: an individual; a family; or a collection of friends to put their imaginations to use.
So where is my imagination headed for blogging here this year? I will bring you:
Spring bloom from a grave
- Stories and Interviews ~ from clients I’ve served in Tucson, who charted their own celebrations and reconfigured death rites into what has meaning based on their stories, beliefs and values.
- Resources in North America ~ highlights about people and grassroots organizations providing natural and family centered death care or memorial services and products.
- Inspirations for music and prose ~ expressly for celebrating a life, from artists around the world!
- Simple and real-life ideas ~ for honoring losses of varied kinds, including animal companions. (Sorry – no drippy, lofty language full of grandeur and promises of afterlife!)
Anything else you are interested in on these topics? Please comment and let me know. I look forward to building a conversation!
While I work beside a family or community to co-create a Celebration of Life, it is a delicate time. Yet the sense of joyful remembrance is palpable, too. This week, one family with whom I’m working is particularly inspiring. Their confidential story brought me to post in a universal sense, about the value of holding a Celebration of Life.
The deceased may have departed some time ago; weeks or even months have passed. With the passage of time, the rawness of loss seems less harsh, as compared to a funeral near the time of death. Yet grief may surface unexpectedly, too. It is this upwelling – of painful loss felt in a public space – that I think people may fear. There is a sense of vulnerability that coincides. And so often as a result in our culture, no ceremony is held to acknowledge, let alone truly celebrate the life lived.
So why then, hold a Celebration of Life? Based on my experiences leading, supporting and witnessing families and communities through these events, here is my take:
- Guests mingle in a comfortable place, to help each other carry what is too big to carry alone. Holding a hand, sharing a story, looking into eyes full of tears, offering to help with end-of-life ‘chores’, embracing – within a relaxed or familiar setting – all of these exchanges help to ease the burden of loss. (Likely venues I’ve seen include parks, HOA clubhouses, favorite family restaurants, homes, or boutique resorts that hold meaning somehow.)
- Everyone present has a collective moment to recognize what it meant for the deceased to live. This is inextricably linked to having a ceremony or ritual portion of the Celebration. What I usually suggest is a brief ‘program’ piece during the gathering, where I help people pause and reflect upon the honoree. (It might just involve a standing ovation!) The collective power of those moments tap into something bigger than all of us combined.
- It supports and reminds the mourners that life is full of connection, despite their loss. Yes, it is a fragile or vulnerable time. And yet, there is always one or more stories that yield knowing smiles, nodding heads and even great waterfalls of laughter. The delight in knowing connections live on and might even expand post-death is a great consolation. A great healing.
These are just a few ideas among MANY reasons why holding a Celebration of Life is plain good and worthwhile. Do you have more to contribute? If so, please do!
Surfers hold a Celebration of Life in Southern California ~ Image via Wikipedia
Image via Wikipedia ~ La Catrina ~ She is often a symbol of Day of the Dead festivities.
Here it is – October already – and our minds naturally turn to celebrations of harvest, Yom Kippur, Halloween, or Thanksgiving. For me, it all starts with baking loaves of pumpkin mesquite bread!
I’m adding one of my favorite holidays to the autumnal mix: Dia de los Muertos. For those of you who may already be enthusiasts or who are just now learning about this holiday, I’m excited to share ideas and resources with you.
Since I practice funeral celebrancy in the southwest and live in Tucson, I pay a lot of attention to rites, rituals and celebrations about death. I am fortunate beyond belief to live near the rich traditions of Mexico, where celebrating the Day of the Dead is central to many family and community traditions. In Tucson, we experience the holiday to various degrees.
For example, this exhibit at Tohono Chul Park is currently running until November 6, 2011. I just visited with a group last week and it is WONDERFUL. If you visit the gallery main page, I encourage you to watch the brief video. In it, I love love love how Curator Ben Johnson says:
Dia de los Muertos is a holiday of remembrance, but it is not one full of sorrow . . . it is very much about celebrating life and offering thanks to those whom we have loved.
The end date of Tohono Chul’s exhibit is also the day of the famous All Souls Procession here in Tucson. Through a series of festal culture events the culminate in the procession, we celebrate our ancestors and those we love who have departed. (I am really honored to be volunteering as an urn attendant in this year’s procession!)
If you are curious and would like to learn more, the following links provide LOTS of background about the key ingredients for celebrating life by observing this holiday:
- Altar building ~ creating a doorway where the lands of living and dead can symbolically meet.
- Food offerings and candlelight vigils ~ at the altars and in the cemeteries within a community.
- Candy skulls ~ Calaveras made from sugar mostly – or chocolate sometimes – decorate the altars and are loved by children especially.
- Flowers ~ garlands of marigolds and other specialty flowers of gold and orange become beautiful decorations for altars and cemeteries.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, really! Let me know how you’ve experienced Day of the Dead . . . and if you’ve noticed yourself celebrating life in the midst of doing so.
I’m fresh from a head-to-toe goose bump experience that compels me to write. It happened at the Celebration of Life I led last weekend. And it had to do with musical performance.
Bagpiper ~ Image via Wikipedia
We’ve all heard the tune Amazing Grace countless times, right? Maybe via someone singing or bagpipes playing. (Always better than a recording!) I even sang it once for a family at a graveside committal. It was the first time the song’s meaning reallly sunk into me. It is a beautiful tune with compelling lyrics, despite being mildly omnipresent at memorials.
Back to my goose bump experience, though. Have you ever heard Amazing Grace played on the accordion? By a man, eyes closed, with a stance so grounded he looks to be summoning the Divine right up from the earth through his very feet? And then the Divine comes literally flowing out of his instrument directly into people’s hearts?
Well, there it is. That is what I witnessed. Unreal. With his utterly transcendent musical talent, he reached into people’s hearts with so much grace, the notes felt sacred. Tears were flowing. I swear, the vibrations of every note he played sent healing waves of release into every fiber of our beings. The feeling in the room was surreal. The deceased’s son and daughter jumped to their feet with applause saying, “thank you, thank you!”.
What an exquisite musical choice, made entirely by the family!
This experience along with others, leads me to offering a few tips for musical choices during any celebration, whether focused on new life, love or even loss. Here is what I observe that makes a difference:
- Family connection to the musician(s). When the family or friends surrounding the honorees really know the musician or musical group, the selection and performance is guided by shared values. Given expectations are spelled out clearly, this makes the music more relevant and full of meaning for everyone attending.
- Personal history with the music and lyrics. Even if the music is recorded, if the song transports you to a memorable time, it has powerful resonance. It may transport a couple during their wedding to that moment they first met. It may remind a mourning family of when the deceased shone in life. The more shared the history, the more poignant hearing the music becomes.
- Placing the music at a pivotal point in the ceremony. This may take some stepping back to consider the emotional arc of the whole ceremony. For example, with this accordion performance I’m gushing about: it occurred right after I delivered tough words to hear. Honest words about the nature of the death we were present to grieve. The music kindled a space for emotional expression that was needed, right then, and not a moment later.
As I write, I am so thankful for having these experiences and sharing my observations with you. This is wondrous work families do when they celebrate their loved one’s lives. I am humbled to support families as a ceremonial guide. And as this post attests, I am energized by walking beside them!