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"A Ritual of Blessing for a Home Funeral"
Image Courtesy of Heartslice
Does that word ‘ritual’ set your teeth on edge? I use it deliberately…it’s a word that has gotten a ‘bad name’ in current popular usage—invoking cult activity or arcane irrelevant mumblings. But it’s my opinion that it’s a human instinct to create rituals. We love them and we know, intrinsically, how to use them and what they are for. In western culture we’re often a bit held back in terms of what we think we’re ‘allowed’ to do in a ritual or ceremony. But given a bit of room, I often see beautiful creativity arising out of even the most apparently stolid folks.
Let’s talk about Liminality.
Liminality refers to ‘the space between’, when something or someone is ‘neither here nor there’. A ritual provides liminal space…or perhaps it is better said that it provides space for the liminal to be noticed. And a ritual serves to guide us through a liminal portal delivering us, transformed in some way, to the other side. Think of a wedding-- which originally involved leaving one’s family (this was the original symbolic purpose of being escorted by mother or father to the altar). For the couple, standing before the community in that liminal- “in between”- state, it’s the ritual, then, that guides them through the portal to land safely on the “other side”, in their new life together.
This same kind of transformation can be accomplished when friends or family members take on the sacred task of bathing and dressing the body of someone they love who has died. A ritual for this can be especially helpful whether you have been there and attended the death, or if you are arriving after the fact.
Imagine it like this: Several of you have gathered to honor your dead loved one. You want to bathe and prepare the body, but how? There is some nervousness, certainly there is grief. But you are there, together. One of you lights a candle, then another… and that simple act begins the process.
One of you has brought flowers from a garden…so there are scents of rose, lavender, lilac. Another of you has brought a flute or guitar and begins to gently play music. You gather around the body of your friend, looking deeply, seeing differently. It’s quiet…peaceful in a way that maybe it hasn’t been for some time. One of you has prepared a small table with a basin of warm water, some wash cloths, some towels. One of you scents the water with essential oil, and you , yourself, spontaneously pluck some of the rose petals and float them in the basin. Looking at one another, you all breathe together for a moment …and begin.
Image courtesy of Roger Ericson
After an initial self conscious awkwardness, hands remember how to be tender. Wetting the cloth, you smooth it across the cooling skin, lifting an arm, turning a shoulder. Rinse the cloth and wring it out, hold a hand and bless it. In the stillness you work together, a sacred sense of peacefulness and grace settling over everyone. There are murmurs. Tears shimmer at the edges of eyes or slide down cheeks. Sometimes one of you smiles with a remembrance of something sweet. Some of the flower petals remain here and there on the body and someone begins to offer a blessing where they land. “Bless these feet…that took you so many places….Bless these knees that kept you flexible, Bless this belly that enjoyed many good meals! Bless these hands that held and carried and helped so many. Bless this mouth that spoke with wisdom….” These words just flow out of each one of you…easily, effortlessly…because they make sense, because you knew this person and because these words, they are simply true.
You take the special burial clothing, or a shroud and dress or wrap the body. The ritual has taken on its own life and any sense of shyness or embarrassment is somehow not present. You have entered the liminal space now, and worldly considerations have no meaning or weight here. There is just the grace. You are aware that you are all held in a state of grace. As if from some signal, you find yourselves each with both hands resting on some part of the body of your friend, including the head and the feet, and one of you begins to sing. It’s a song that your friend loved and sang often and you are all comforted by singing it together. Many tears flow, but no one is ashamed. It just feels right.
This is how we can change the way we grieve. This is how we can change the way we come to accept and understand Death. The grief rides along with the deep peace. The caring of the body in this way often brings a profound and settled acceptance. It is from this place that the healing of our loss can begin.
As I write this today I am aware of so many people in Haiti who have no one to do this for them. So many bodies are now in mass graves. What can we do? What I know is that when we offer love, it is always received. It may not be outwardly acknowledged but it never ‘goes to waste’. So I would like to invite you to spend a little bit of time to light a candle and read this passage through once again…maybe with a friend or two…and offer it from your hearts to the ones who have left their bodies so abruptly, and to their families, who long so desperately to be able to care for their dead in a proper and graceful way. I’m doing the same and I thank you from my heart for joining me. Until next time….~Marian
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Newsletter and blog content copyright A Fine Farewell, January 19, 2010