In handcrafting an End of Life ceremony, I offer to create a process and a product that is itself therapeutic for my clients. This is true for every ceremony I enact; not only end of life ceremonies. At the very least, I can help others see the loving hands that hold them. And that is no small thing.
And occasionally, it is a Celebrant’s work within her or his own family that offers flashes of the potential of our ceremonies to enhance all our lives.
My 76-year old father-in-law (my husband’s step father) emailed me from Oregon a few days before he and my mother-in-law’s annual visit to our home in North Central Washington: “I’d like to have you help me dispose of my brother Reuben’s ashes while we are there. Just a simple ceremony will do.” He offered some basic biographical information on his brother, but not much. I replied, “Yes, of course. Let’s talk when you are here and I’m sure we can create a ceremony you will be happy with.” Was I promising too much?
Like many of us, Reuben’s relationship to David was estranged at best, and his sudden passing had caused David much grief.
David and Reuben were 4 years apart, and the family had broken up when the younger Reuben was still in elementary school. Complicating matters was that Reuben seemed “slow,” but in those days, no definitive diagnosis was sought. He did graduate from high school, and worked for 40 years in a nursing home kitchen, but the family never was close: Reuben seldom saw his brother or their mother during his adult life. And their father had died years before, long after the parents’ divorce. It was as if each family member had withdrawn from all the others, and all of them had passed; and now only David remained. When his mother died, David traveled to California to settle her estate and bring her ashes home with him to Oregon, where he later held a private committal ceremony: just himself and her ashes on the beach. This time, he asked me for help.
David had visited his brother only occasionally over the years, more out of a sense of responsibility than friendship. From time to time David would send him money, but came to feel Reuben was losing control of his affairs. So recently, David had visited him to begin the process of more directly managing Reuben’s financial and medical needs.
But just six months into this process, Reuben’s landlady called: he had been found dead in his apartment, perhaps more than a week after he passed from an apparent heart attack. His body had been removed by the authorities and immediately cremated.
David and his wife, my husband’s mother Janet, now traveled to California again, this time to settle Reuben’s affairs as well as they could. In sorting through his things, spending hours in his apartment, they came to know him better. Yes, he was “simple,” but he also enjoyed, as suggested by the books lying around, photography and traveling, or at least reading about these topics. Finally, when they had settled Reuben’s affairs, they placed the box containing his ashes in the trunk of their car and returned home.
David had kept the box in his closet at home for over a year. But now he was ready to see to the duty of creating a ceremony to honor his brother’s memory. Just as he had done twenty years before, when he dutifully committed his mother’s ashes near his home in Oregon, David, now the single surviving member of his family, would see to his own brother’s proper burial. He had heard about other end-of-life ceremonies I had created and enacted, and was hopeful that I could help him create a satisfying committal of ashes to honor his brother’s life.
As we settled into my living room to consider Reuben’s life, it became clear that, while he was grieving, David did not feel any loving connection to his brother. Theirs had been an unstable and abusive home from which he fled, eventually joining the Navy, marrying, having two sons, divorcing, and rebuilding his life. He had met my husband’s mother just before my husband and I married, and since the mid-1980s, together they had created a much more satisfying life, rich with authentic relationships and a solid foundation of humanistic values. It was those values that propelled David to see to his mother’s and brother’s committals. And he trusted me to be able to help him complete this final one with honesty and integrity.
I began our work composing Reuben’s ceremony by clearing the decks for an in-depth conversation. Of course, Reuben’s story was tied into the family story, and I took notes quickly as David shared that story with me. His Canadian parents’ estrangement after the birth of his younger brother; his mother’s desperation to get to the U.S. with her two sons and find work so she could file for divorce; their disappointed return to Toronto after her failure to get a U.S. green card or a divorce; their homelessness and hunger; her disappearance after leaving them on their father’s front steps; her second attempt to build a life with her two young sons in the U.S.; David’s own graduation from high school; and his lack of affection for anyone in his family. Reuben’s story and David’s relationship to him was all coming back, and through tears, David’s own story, too, became evident. Here was a man of almost 80 years who, for most of those full years, had not felt a close family tie to his family of origin. Yet he had cared for them the best he could.
After a couple of hours of sharing, we took a break, and later that day sat down again to consider the particular organization of Reuben’s committal of ashes ceremony. I took time to describe to my father-in-law the concept of a Celebrant ceremony with its separation, transition, and incorporation; the need for the ceremony to authentically reflect his feelings around his brother’s life and death; and of allowing the concept of intention to drive the overall plan of the ceremony. Intention, authenticity, and meaningful organization. These were all ideas David welcomed. He named his intention: to dispose of Reuben’s ashes in a respectful and honest way while expressing his deep gratitude to his chosen family for their love and support.
Once he had articulated the intention, we came up with a Ceremony Outline built around David’s selection of a riverside ceremony spot near our home, located on property we own, where we could legally hold the ceremony and David could scatter Reuben’s ashes in a swift but fairly shallow river. As a central ritual of the ceremony, David wanted to scatter the ashes alone at the river’s edge while we waited for him at the ceremony site, symbolizing the responsibility he felt to carry out this last act for his brother and family, and highlighting his return to the sacred space kept for him by his current family. We agreed to revise as needed once we reached the ceremony site.
When we arrived at the river, David chose the exact ceremony spot and our orientation in relation to the shore. I prepared our space and, when David indicated he was ready, I opened the ceremony with a single chime. In welcome, I spoke of our intention to commit Reuben’s ashes. I shared the more general biographical facts of Reuben’s life and then David gave the short eulogy. He directed his words first to Reuben, speaking to his memory, telling him he did love him. David admitted he didn’t think he would miss his brother, saying he had spent a lifetime missing him already. After expressing his grief and regret in a shaky voice, David turned to the river with the box of Reuben’s ashes in his backpack, and grabbed his walking stick. He set out purposefully toward the shore, but after a few steps he stopped, feeling unstable on his feet. My husband moved forward and offered an arm, and together they traversed the uneven cobbles toward the water. Meanwhile, I held the ceremony space, noting David’s humanist values and his humane care for his family of origin, as evidenced by his respectful treatment of them in death.
In just a few minutes, the two men, step-father and step-son, returned to the ceremony space and we welcomed David’s “homecoming.”
“Your family acknowledges your return, David, and welcomes you back among us, we who love you.”
Then we held silence for a long moment, followed by a single closing chime.
Lastly, in perhaps an uncommon use of the unity ritual placed after the completion of the ceremony, David asked us —my husband, his mother, our son, and myself—to join him in a red wine ritual, subtly acknowledging his family’s Jewish heritage. He opened the bottle, poured wine into each small glass, handed each of us a glass, and offered, “To You, My Family. Thank You for Being Here for Me.” We all drank a sip of wine, and then recorked the bottle. It was now time to go.
And we, David’s family, were ready to see him through no matter what may come. More so, we were more prepared than before to see each other through, holding each other closer than ever. My mother-in-law saw through loving eyes her aging husband, and she felt her own life more keenly; our 25 year old son saw not only his grandparents’ advancing age but his parents’ too, I know. One day, I realize, our son will be the only surviving witness able to relay the story of David’s riverside tribute to his brother. Just as the river moves on, so do our lives.
The ceremony that committed Reuben’s ashes to the universe also more clearly committed us to each other, walking us back to life, annealing our connections to one another, helping us feel the loving hands that hold us.