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Posts from the ‘Healing Ceremonies’ Category

Why Memorial Rituals?

As I cruised the web doing some research today, I came across the prose included below and must share with you. It is written by Cinder Hypkie and is excerpted from this compelling article. I’m continually exploring the healing nature of rituals for the dying and after death. I treasure this kind of a find! Her poem speaks volumes to what I bear witness to, within only a few tenderly conveyed lines. I agree with her observations.

Yes, we do enter ritual “to respond to the call of the soul” and our fearless response to the call “places us in a realm of experience that we could not enter alone.”


We enter ritual to respond to the call of the soul1:

To heal ourselves,

To pay our tribute

To honor our ancestors,

our fallen warriors,

our soft spoken heroes,

To encircle our children with love and hope for a future,

To stitch our neighborhoods together one honest connection at a time.


As artists and teachers and activists,

As would-be and sometimes wounded healers:

When summoned, we walk alongside, in humility,

Open ourselves to hear deeply,

Enter in to core matters of the heart.2

We tip the soul’s basket onto the table,

Offer possibilities for mutual healing,

bring into being acts of resilience and resistance.


IMG_3198So we build our ofrendas3 of rose petal and rosemary,

Mexican marigold and store-bought mums.

We pour our libations on the earth or the pavement –

From the waters of West Africa to the streets of Baltimore.


We paddle out into an ocean of grief,

Place a sea of flowers at the gate,

We spray the bike white,

Wrap a teddy bear tight around a pole.

Write a name in the sand, or R.I.P. Brotherman

On the wall of the rowhouse next door.

We sing a song they loved, draw a dove on their photo,

We sing and dance and eat and carry on,

Long, long after they are gone.


Art for remembering in a time of forgetting,

Art for asking: What is needed here?

Art for mending a broken heart

Finding our voice, our resolve, a new start.


Hush now, listen, and call their name.

Widen the circle; welcome them in.


Composed from research and interviews with community artists and activists by Cinder Hypki, 2011.
1 Quote by Malidoma Patrice Somé in Ritual: Power, Healing, and Community 1993.
2 Quote by Andrew Boyd, personal communication 2011.
3 Spanish: “altar,” “offering”


Marigolds and Festal Culture

All Soul's Day procession, Tucson AZ, 2008

All Soul’s Day procession, Tucson AZ

Have you heard people mention how the ‘veil is thin’ this time of year? Ever wondered exactly what they mean by this? You’re likely not alone. This is a time of liminality throughout many cultures and belief systems, wherein the veil between the seasons of autumn and winter or between the worlds of the living and dead are very transparent.

We have our well known and candy-obsessed Halloween, when kids trick-or-treat and grown-ups go to costume parties. All this spookiness comes from ancient traditions like Samhaim and All Soul’s Day. Our neighbors in Mexico celebrate Day of the Dead with gusto and mucho marigolds. And this is just the beginning! The end of October and Early November bring us a vast collection of world holidays and celebrations rarely known by folks in our western culture.  It seems our collective death-distancing mentality in the U.S. also distances us from a whole range of opportunities for celebrating, acknowledging and honoring our dead.

Here is one gigantic exception: The All Souls Procession in Tucson, Arizona. This is a one-of-a-kind, community based, collective festal experience founded by Tucson artist Susan Kay Johnson. She began the Procession 23 years ago with a small handful of friends, to honor her Father. Today it has become a collective experience to observe one painful thread we all have in common: loss. This definition helps describe its origins and intentions:

“Festal Culture”  is the expression and fulfillment of core human needs through public celebration, ceremony, and ritual. The All Souls Procession is an event that was created to serve the public need to mourn, reflect, and celebrate the universal experience of Death, through their ancestors, loved ones, and the living.

I’ve been fortunate to live in Tucson for the past eight years and participate in the procession every year. It is always held the weekend after Halloween, to keep it authentically true and not become a big drunken costume fest. In my entire life, I have never experienced anything remotely like it. It is a collective opening, or leaning into, the experience of loss and humility we all share because one day, we will die. Some people come with a reverence and tenderness for a person, an animal or a concept they grieve. People also come to celebrate loved ones long after making the transition from life into death. And always, some people come just to stand in awe of the mystery. I am an Urn Ambassador, acting as a voice of the Urn. Ambassadors help people throughout the procession realize the significance of the Urn and how they may actively put something into it for release to the elements of fire and air.

The Urn Burns (All Souls Procession)

The Urn Burns (All Souls Procession) (Photo credit: cobalt123)

This ‘Prayer Form’ offers a remote way to download, write expressions and send these in electronically for placement into the urn. During the procession, I’ve witnessed people of all ages and beliefs drawing pictures, writing notes, offering photos and tearfully offering cremains or symbolic objects like dog collars and so on, to be placed with reverence into the Urn and burned during the Procession’s Finale.

Trying to explain this event to someone who hasn’t attended is nearly impossible. This is why as a Life-Cycle Celebrant© and avid believer in the power of healing through collective experiences during ritual and ceremony, I tirelessly call attention toward it! What is possible to sense, whether consciously or subconsciously during the Procession, is the feeling of liminal space I mentioned earlier. Being between worlds. Being vulnerable and open to complete mystery. This space is powerful beyond words. Here’s a peek into it from last year:

And here is a new peek from this year’s event:

All Souls Procession 2012 – teaser from Willow Tale Pictures on Vimeo.

Mourning a Pet’s Departure

We have a great blessing of living with and loving animal companions. They often live in our homes, if not right outside. They even sleep on our beds with us at night. I wake up sometimes, with my kitty purring right up against my neck, as if to say “everything is perfect: right here, right now.” And she comforts me beyond whatever meaning those words hold. Simple assurance. What a gift!


Happy dog! (Photo credit: davidyuweb)

So, for many of us, animals feel like family members. Or even closer than family members. When I work with people leading up to an animal’s death or just afterward, I hear them express real physical and emotional pain about losing such a strong connection and physical presence. It is a bond that is not easily described or conveyed. I support people ( in person locally, or by phone or Skype from long distances) with rituals to help ease loss. These are highly sensitive and confidential situations; understandably so.

A couple of recent blog posts have given me new insight into why mourning a pet’s departure is so tough. I’m including an excerpt from this one in the Washington Post, because it so tangibly illustrates the pattern I see (with dogs, horses or cats):

Researchers have long known that the animal-human bond is strong: A 1988 study in the Journal of Mental Health Counseling asked a group of dog owners to place symbols for their family members and pets in a circle representing each dog owner’s life. (The distance between the subject and the other symbols corresponds to the relative, real-life closeness of those relationships.) The subjects tended to put the dog closer than the average family member, and about as close as the closest family member; in 38 percent of the cases, the dog was closest of all.

And this post, about a beautiful therapy dog named Lily, moved me to tears. Dr. Tornambe’s words caused me to reflect upon the loss of my own three greyhounds. Each who died so differently: suddenly, painfully and of plain old age. He wrote about Lily’s death, “I can’t begin to describe the sorrow and grief that I am feeling right now.” And oh, how I do relate. He offers some psychologists’s recommendations for pet loss, among which is: “Rituals help healing. Have a memorial service or funeral to honor your pet and allow you to work toward closure.” And as a Life-Cycle Celebrant who believes wholeheartedly in the power of ritual, I agree. Yet I’d change the last part of the sentence from ‘work toward closure’ to ‘find the openings’. Because this act honors their essence: it is what animals help us do. They help us see openings into what is possible within ourselves and the world.

Here are a few points I can add to both of these articles about mourning a pet’s death, both from my own personal experience and witnessing others:

  • Be congruent. Through your thoughts, feelings, speech and actions. Speak your heart and your thoughts to your animal companion with honesty. Then act upon those, however you see it can be healing. Either while leading up to euthanasia or after a sudden death, speak aloud whatever is in your heart. This is a kind of ritual in of itself, having to do with profound release.
  • Offer gratitude. Whether grieving a horse who has carried you on countless trail rides, or a dog who has been a colossal couch potato — be present to express thankfulness to this being.
  • Bless yourself and your companion. I believe we all have the power to bless. We can do this with simple oil to the forehead, nose or paws for a furry one and then the same oil to our own forehead, chest or pulse points. During grief and mourning, something this simple can be very soothing and focus thoughts during tough emotions, if even for a brief time.
  • Find symbols. These are tangible objects to remind you of your companion and the spirit of your relationship carried forward after death. Keep these nearer during the hardest working stages of grief and then gradually let the symbols rest or even let them go, as you find the physical pain of separation lessens.

It is such a great privilege to live with and learn from animals, isn’t it? I’d offer how this privilege and ALL of the attendant joys outweigh the sorrows. As always though, in time.

Finding Beauty in Impermanence

I must admit, this winter’s Beauty themed edition of Parabola Magazine has inspired me more than usual! (I love Parabola like some folks looooove their dark chocolate . . . oh, you know who you are!)

So much so, it catalyzed a theme for a Winter Solstice mini-retreat here in Tucson on December 19th. I am co-creating the sessions with Jenny Kendall of Desert Horse Yoga and my horse, Bianca. We will have more details soon.

Why is this concept of finding beauty in impermanence so big to me?

Reasons will surely unfold over time. Here is what I have noticed since reading my Beauty edition:

Mother Nature is a most pure expression of it. Everyday when I walk out my back gate, the desert is different somehow. Something changes, always. This morning for example: I was practicing yoga facing my big southern windows, before dawn. The sun was just beginning to peek over the mountains. A pale sherbet hue was cast over my little courtyard and the natural desert beyond. I went into a low lunge, holding anjali mudra at my heart chakra. I had a soft outward gaze, with enough seeing to notice motion beyond my ocotillo fence: one coyote, another three, then one more and finally three more. A pack of eight shiny healthy coyotes, trotting along. Fleeting and oh so beautiful in the dawn’s light!

sonoran desert life

Image by Observing Life via Flickr

We are usually fickle about it, yet maybe we can change. Some versions of impermanence, we do view as beautiful. And then some things, we just do not.  As “This Ruined House” (a Winter 2010 Parabola article) by Joyce Kornblatt points out: we adore cherry blossoms, despite their very brief appearance in the springtime. Their symbolism in Japan even represents the fleeting nature of life. It is rare though, when a homeowner’s association in the desert lets a fallen saguaro decay in a ‘landscaped area’, despite how many homes it creates for other creatures and how beautiful the bare ribs become.

For me, out of this fickleness arises an opportunity. I love these questions Kornblatt asks: “So what might happen if we stepped more fully beyond the bounds of conventional aesthetics?” . . . What if we lived with a wilderness mind, in which change is the only constant, and the process of decay is recognized as beautiful?” In my ever so humble opinion, I think we would have a gentler, less judgmental outlook on ourselves, not to mention the whole life and death continuum.

We acknowledge impermanence during ceremonies. Mostly, when I assist and serve clients at Sweetgrass, they are acknowledging change. Change in status: leaving their family of origin to marry another. Change in home: mourning the loss of a home and/or taking up a new residence and claiming new space. Change in family: birthing or adopting a new baby. Change in health: facing an illness or recovering from one. Change in physical presence: acknowledging the loss of a loved one, whether an animal companion or human beloved. When we create rituals and ceremonies, we create beautiful space and time that recognizes the impermanent nature of life and honors how change is our constant companion.

In so doing, we hopefully create inspiring and loving impressions in our individual and collective hearts and minds. And as I write, of course I am wondering: how do you find beauty in impermanence?

A Tucson Home Funeral

The week of November 8, 2010, I served a family while caring for their elegant mother in their home – after she peacefully transitioned in her sleep. They had intensively and sensitively cared for her the past few years, so a home funeral was a very natural extension of their efforts. How they entered the work of caring for her body at home with pure stamina, gentle awareness and the tenderest kind of courage simply leaves me speechless.

As I left their home after a nearly twelve hour day of supporting their work, neighbors began visiting. The day had included an array of decisions and tending to legal details, communication, physical care and paperwork. By evening, gifts of food, flowers, wine, poetry and photos came pouring in. I paused for a bit outside, to witness expressions of both laughter and tears. I saw children, young adults and elderly all standing together to support the family. They were helping each other carry what was too big to carry alone in that moment: be it grief, relief or sadness. And all the while, the deceased was naturally lying in grace for people to sit with, too. It was poignant and oh, so very real.

This story from the New York Times yesterday, conveys many of the reasons why I feel the practice of home funerals is re-emerging. Increasingly, people want to hold celebrations for life passages at home: weddings, anniversaries, or even memorials. According to this article, 80% want to carry out the sacred act of dying at home, too.

The scenes I witnessed while serving the family I’ve described here, all illustrate the power of honest and open dialogue about caring for our own at home. What are your wishes about your final days? Do they involve being at home? Are you conveying these ideas to your loved ones? Opening ourselves to this dialogue is one of the kindest gifts we can give each other, in my humble opinion.

Handpainted message on a casket

Losing a dear friend

At the very core of grieving is the act of letting go.

It may be one of the biggest challenges we have. I am convinced that ritual and ceremony help us face this bittersweet challenge. To convey this idea here, I may reflect upon relevant stories from around the world. When clients permit me, I will share their powerful stories. Today, I will share a very personal story with you.

The morning of September 16th, my Tiny Girl died. She was a long-lived greyhound at 12+ years old. It is unsurprising that when I wrote my first blog entry in 2009, I mentioned her and posted our picture together. She and I ‘were a team’ as one friend often says. We met each new day together for the past 10+ years. She facilitated countless life learnings for me. She licked tears off of my face when I cried, purred like a cat when we cuddled, shared my yoga mat with me and made me guffaw with her goofy games. She holds a very tender place in my heart as a dear friend. Letting her go seemed impossible.

This is tough to write, yet vital for me to share with you. What we did after her death has helped me grieve in a healthy way and begin letting go.

We kept her body at home for the afternoon. I surrounded her with bunches of dried sage and other native plants, candles, and incense. Friends (she had a big fan club!) came to visit and say good-bye. They noticed how peaceful she looked after seeing her during recent physical struggles. My partner Brian and a close friend dug her grave in our yard. At sunset, Brian played the cello as I sat with Tiny’s body to let the day sink in a bit. I felt exhausted. Friends came over for a humble burial ceremony. We blessed Tiny’s grave in a way only she would appreciate and shared some stories about her life. I cried big bitter tears. And then, together, we covered her shell with fresh earth and flowers.

Taking these steps helped me deeply in the process of letting her go. I created a remembrance upon her grave, with a candle that remained lit for five days and nights after her burial. Whenever I miss her, I go sit there in thanks for her presence in my life and for the blessings of good friends who help me along this journey. Here is a glimpse of Tiny’s grave the morning after her burial:

morning after her burial

Tiny's grave the morning after her burial.

I hope this story inspires you. Our animal companions are such dear friends, yes? After they die, giving thoughtful time and loving energy to our grieving processes for them is extremely important. Ultimately, it will help us open up to the ache of losing them and then summon the courage to let them go.