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Seeing Opportunities for Transformation

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.

Hip hip horray! Artists celebrating at Skagen ...

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.

Celebrating Life & Death in 2012

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!

Why hold a Celebration of Life?

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!

A surfer memorial service, Huntington Beach Pi...

Surfers hold a Celebration of Life in Southern California ~ Image via Wikipedia

Celebrating life via Day of the Dead

La Catrina – In Mexican folk culture, the Catr...

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.

Tips for choosing Music

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.

Picture Author - DJ1 from Naperville, USA License

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!

“Live Your Life”

Somehow today, this poetry reading by Mary Oliver just stopped me in my tracks. Her poem is “Mornings at Blackwater”. I am always tracking down resources for readings to include in my heart-crafted ceremonies. I love a gem like this one. Give yourself the gift of taking a moment and watching it/listening to her read:

“So come to the pond,

or the river of your imagination,

or the harbor of your longing,

and put your lips to the world,

And live your life.”

"The river of life : Vertorama"

Singing at the Threshold

I first heard Threshold Choir members sing in person a few years ago. I immediately felt called to join. Choir members sing softly in small groups at the bedside of people who are living and dying. I have CDs like ‘Tenderly Rain’ and listen to the songs often, finding great comfort in them. I also offer the songs to clients with whom I work, in memorial or home funeral settings.

I finally found my way to our Tucson choir earlier this month. Wahoo! What an energetic bunch of creative women. After only a couple of rehearsals, I am overjoyed to sing with them. If you are not familiar with this group, here is an introductory video that gives you a chance to listen.

If you check out the video, you’ll meet Kate Munger, the founder and lead director of Threshold Choir. She is an amazing beam of creative light. I love how she says:

“there is no audition process to join the choir. All I ask is that you ‘feel the shiver’ when you hear our work. That seems to be enough.”

And truly, that is what happened to me, along with tears of joy. 🙂

Last night during our choir practice, I thought so frequently of the people in Japan who mourn and face unknowable losses. As they come to terms with the devastation following the quake and tsunami, I wish them peace somehow. As many of us do right now, I grieve from afar. From way across the Pacific – after we sang through the evening – the aching grief I feel was somewhat soothed. The uplifting powers of music continually amaze me. Especially it seems, during the most emotionally fragile times of loss.

If you are reading this and feel curious about a Threshold chapter in your area, you can look here. The organization is growing by the moment. New chapters may have formed that are not listed. I believe nationwide, there are thousands of women lifting their voices in song for people at the threshold.

Please comment below, if you are reading this in Tucson and interested in joining or in having our choir members sing for a person you love. We will connect.

What is a Life-Cycle Celebrant®?

When people ‘get’ what I do as a Celebrant, they realllllly get it. Readily. Eyes brighten and tense shoulders drop. Not only do they get it, they dig it. People I serve at Sweetgrass are relieved to know they have a choice for ceremony guidance that is beyond the ordinary. I love to see their relief and excitement about what is possible!

Sometimes I see furrowed brows for a few moments. That is okay. Once in awhile folks truly hear what I do – only by asking what I don’t do. “So you’re not ______? Or ______?” “No,” I patiently say. It takes awhile until we reach their ‘aha’ moment.

After a recent flurry of these defining conversations, I am moved to post more here. I’ll describe what a Life-Cycle Celebrant® is and is not, plus tell some stories to give historical perspective.

Most notably, we are part of a world-wide movement that is more than 3,000 people strong. We create and lead custom ceremonies for individuals, communities and organizations that transcend the ordinary. We hold ceremonial space for occasions from ‘womb to tomb’. We come with no judgments. We base our work on the stories, beliefs and values of people we serve.

A composed satellite photograph of North Ameri...

Celebrancy gains momentum as a movement in North America ~ Image via Wikipedia

Here is the thumbnail version of the movement: Civil Celebrancy began in Australia, during the early 1970s. It was initiated by the government, offering people flexibility for holding meaningful ceremonies. Civil Celebrants in Australia ‘marry or bury’ people in settings outside of the church or government registry offices, while still upholding the Laws of the Commonwealth. Today, the majority of weddings and funerals in Australia are composed and led by Civil Celebrants.

Now leap from AU in the 70’s to the U.S. in 2001. A core group of women in New York and New Jersey witnessed a yawning chasm in our culture, days after September 11th. They saw, felt and heard community yearnings for ritual or ceremonial ways to acknowledge heaving losses. They saw how people not associated with a church or government body needed to gather and make meaning somehow. So, they enacted multi-generational, multi-faith or non-faith, inclusive and relevant ceremonies.  For example, they led memorials at train stations in NJ. Such locations were silent reminders of loss, where cars parked by people who would never return sat eerily empty.

After experiencing these post 9/11 scenarios, this core group began investigating the work of our Civil Celebrant friends in Australia. They gleaned lessons from the Aussies and brought pieces of the model to North America. Through a true labor of love and enlightenment, they founded the Celebrant Foundation & Institute in 2001: where I was certified as a Life-Cycle Celebrant® and where I currently teach Funeral Celebrancy. The Institute offers specific training in the art of co-creating rituals and ceremonies for all of life’s milestones. Upon successful completion, students are certified to provide the utmost professionalism and quality services, and agree to perform those under a Code of Ethics.

And well, if it helps to round out this explanation by saying what I am not (yet some other Life-Cycle Celebrants may well be!), then I offer this brief list. I am not celibate. I am not an attorney or event planner; a judge, county clerk, funeral director, counselor, chaplain, pastor or life coach. (Cue to unfurrow the brow.) 😉

As a full-time practicing Celebrant, I am a highly attuned ceremonial guide. I meet you where you are in your life experience. I work with you and/or your animal companions. I help you celebrate and acknowledge new life, love and loss – in a way that feels real for you.

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