Have you ever considered how big a role rituals play in our lives?
Our lives are filled with rituals. From your morning cup of coffee to your evening walk or meditation to the big moments of our lives – graduations, weddings, baby showers, and, of course, deaths.
Rituals are important because they help us cope with change and navigate transitions. To let go of what was and step into a new chapter of our lives (or, in the case of your evening meditation, to let go of the day’s stress and step into a calmer space for sleep. Remember the bedtime rituals we had as kids? They work for adults too ;).
Rituals are familiar, and comforting and help us feel a bit more in control. And when our rituals are witnessed by others we experience shared understanding and a sense of community.
COVID disrupted all our shared rituals but none more so than funerals. At a time when so many were dying, we couldn’t gather to mark the end of a cherished life, offer each other support, share a compassionate hug, or swap memories that keep our loved ones alive in the retelling of their stories.
We did the best we could with contained numbers and Zoom services. We relied on our social bubbles or delayed the service in hopes of lifted restrictions. And even though we missed the comfort of death rituals, our grief was ever-present.
As the world returns to “normal”, I think we have a wonderful opportunity to do things differently – to figure out what we loved about these rituals (like gathering together or sharing stories) and leave behind the bits that we didn’t love (perhaps walking by an open casket or the traditional “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” speech).
Even if you were able to attend a funeral, it might still feel unresolved for a number of reasons. You were numb or still in shock. You didn’t identify with the religious or ceremonial aspects or it didn’t seem to match their life (i.e. They were vibrant and hilarious and the funeral was somber and serious). For all these reasons and more, a funeral doesn’t always bring a sense of closure.
So let’s get creative with the rituals in our lives and make something personal and meaningful. And we can think ahead to the type of death rituals we want for ourselves. What’s important is that we need to DO something when we’re grieving – taking action helps us heal.
Death Rituals Around the World
One of the best ways to start is to look at the variety of ways that death is met around the world. It can give us permission to break away from “the way it’s always been done”. There’s definitely going to be heaps of music at mine, in fact, I’ve been curating my “funeral playlist” for years.
A Lakota funeral is a two-day event. Sometimes, the deceased person’s possessions are given away because generosity is a core value. They often spread the ashes in high places so they will be closer to the Spirits. They may create a “soul bundle” that contains a locket of the deceased’s hair, purified with sweetgrass smoke and wrapped in buckskin. The “keeper of the soul” vows to live a harmonious life until the soul can be released – usually a year.
Funerals are a major event in Ghanaian life. They’re usually a blend of Christian rituals and different tribal traditions. They can be expensive, elaborate affairs that last up to a week. Music is an essential part of the funeral with tribal drums and live musicians or large speakers blasting music through the neighbourhood. Mourners often wear red and black or the favourite colour of the deceased. There’s dancing and food and most importantly, the family is surrounded and supported by the community. In recent years, there’s also been a trend toward elaborate and whimsical coffins which you can check out here. They’re seriously quite amazing (one is an Air Canada plane!).
You can also see the echoes of West African traditions in the New Orleans Second Line funerals (aka Jazz Funeral) where music and dancing are essential and the whole neighbourhood comes out to join in the funeral procession.
In Mexico, they celebrate Dia de los Muertos which many of us are familiar with thanks to movies like Coco. The Day of the Dead can be traced back more than 3000 years to the Aztecs. Mexicans make a colourful offrenda (altar) in honour of the deceased and friends and family gather to swap stories, share food, play music, and make sure they prevent a second death (when you are forgotten by the living).
In Bali, cremation is considered a sacred duty because the fire releases the soul so it’s free to inhabit a new body. It begins by washing and purifying the physical body. Then there are prayers to call the soul of the deceased (which has been wandering around since death) to the cremation. After the cremation ceremony, which can be quite elaborate depending on the wealth and caste of the deceased, there are more prayers to purify the soul and these prayers are done over twelve days.
In our youth-obsessed Western culture death has become medicalized. Doctors declare the time of death, the body is placed in the morgue and taken care of by the funeral home. We are removed from the process of caring for the dead and it becomes something we don’t talk about. But maybe that’s not how it has to be.
Did you know you can honour your loved one by bathing and dressing their bodies at home? Although this practice is done by funeral homes it can be quite a beautiful ritual to do with your own family (a body can be kept at home, with ice packs underneath them, for 3 – 5 days). You can have a complete home funeral if you’d like giving you more time to share stories and say good-bye. Or you could try a living funeral…
A Living Funeral
A living funeral can be a great alternative to the traditional church service or graveside gathering. It has the beautiful benefit of surrounding the dying person with love and community. As Morrie said in “Tuesdays With Morrie” by Mitch Albom, “What a waste; all those people saying all those wonderful things, and I’ll never get to hear any of it.”
Whether death is imminent due to age or illness or the person has chosen MAID, a living funeral can celebrate their life while they’re still here.
A living funeral has so much space to be creative. It can be formal and fancy (limo, red carpet, ballroom) or casual and cozy (park, playlist, potluck) – it’s up to the honoree.
It often includes familiar aspects of a funeral like a eulogy, religious readings (or poems, passages from books), a program, a slide show or picture display, space for people to share their memories, and a reception. Or it can be completely creative like this one.
The common denominator in all of these death rituals is community. We heal in community. Gathering together. Supporting one another through loss and grief. Celebrating a life that touched many. Creating rituals that bring us together to mark the big changes in our lives.
And, as we gather in a post-pandemic world, what those rituals look like are completely up to you.