Confluence Ceremonies

Marking Your Life's Important Moments

Tag: ceremony

Why I Am a Life-Cycle Celebrant: The Hands That Hold Us

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.

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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 It was as if each family member had withdrawn from all the others, and all of them had passed; and now only David remained.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.

 

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Finding a Future

IMG_4535Together, the couple walked slowly, meanderingly along the beach. They held hands, and the warm September sun touched their skin while the cool coastal  breeze played around them. The golden sand glistened under their feet.

At the same moment, they both saw it: a yellow agate much larger even than a walnut lay at their feet, seemingly plopped there for our couple to happen upon.

At that very moment, they were on a journey: dreaming of what might be possible, if they could but take the next big step.

They had met earlier that year on OK Cupid, and now they couldn’t imagine spending another day apart. Each had been married before, and his two near-adult children and her young daughter were in their hearts as they discussed their future together. So, I imagine, were their failed marriages. Dare they try again?

That is when they came upon the stone in the sand. Its golden glow and infinite depth of color reassured them, and felt like a beacon into their future. This beautiful but  irregularly shaped stone seemed to call to them, answering a question they had posed. Could we find happiness together?

He picked it up and held it in his hand. Hers cupped around his and they quietly wrapped their fingers around the warm rock.

What an amazing stone! Agates are frequently found along the Pacific Northwest coast. There were a few smaller ones back at the cabin on the windowsill over the kitchen sink, little treasures other visitors had found while on their beach walks. Each had its own story. Each was precious.

Now our couple had their own treasure to share.

Later that night, seated at the picnic table on the deck of the cabin, they began to speak in certainties, to envision a future . . . together. Between them on the table glowed their agate.

One year later, the cabin was overflowing with laughter, music, flowers, and the loving presence of family and close friends. The warm September evening provided the perfect backdrop to the wedding ceremony, which took place on the very deck where they had dared to dream and imagine this new chapter of their lives.

As they exchanged ring vows, the rings themselves silently stood witness to their love: their one agate had been carefully made into two stones and set onto silver settings. He placed her ring on her finger; she placed his ring on his, encircling the lifeline to the heart, wrapping each other in the warm glow of hope and renewal, strength and beauty.IMG_3914_2

Very Married

If I get married, I want to be very married.  ~~Audrey Hepburn

My Aunt Janet and Uncle Jay on their wedding day, May 27, 1945.

My Aunt Janet and Uncle Jay on their wedding day, May 27, 1945.

Wow. Today marks my Aunt Janet and Uncle Jay’s 70th Wedding Anniversary. Seventy years! Next month, my husband and I will celebrate our 32nd anniversary, not quite the same milestone and yet still something to honor. So I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to make a marriage last and how anyone achieves “very married” status.

My Celebrancy work brings me into contact with couples who are poised at the beginning of their marriages. Planning a wedding is formative, I realize, in helping couples define for themselves what values they wish to build into this new joint endeavor. Through creating a ceremony together, with its writing of vows and selections of readings, music, and rituals, a couple discovers more about each other and themselves.  Hopefully, this mutual dedication to a common cause will be just the first joint effort in a long, healthy marriage.

Of course, a long marriage isn’t necessarily a good marriage. Some enduring marriages unfortunately seem like old abandoned houses: rotted at the foundations, surrounded by long-dead trees and overgrown gardens, and only upright because a powerful wind hasn’t blown the shambles over, yet. Like a house of cards, one wonders how much longer the thing can stand.

Yes, we all know couples who have stayed married over the years out of “mutual disinterest.” “It’s easier to stay than to go,” they tell us, with a sad, slow shake of the head. These are the neglected marriages.

Just as heart-wrenching is another type of failed marriage, the sudden awakening. These people simply open their eyes one day and think: “I don’t love this person anymore. So why are we still married?” Over long years, they have slowly grown apart until, suddenly, nothing holds them together. Instead of forging bonds to each other, they have, usually through carelessness, been shedding them. For these couples, there is now no reason to stay and every reason to go.

So what is the recipe for a long AND good marriage? Each new marriage cuts its own path, finding its way across obstacles, changing direction when the need to do so arises. Perhaps what contributes most to a successful, loving marriage is that we choose to journey every day with this person, that we commit to this work of marriage-building while never losing sight of the love that brought us together in the first place. Marriages must change and grow as we ourselves do. But they must never lose the spark that first brought two people together.

I love the spark I see in my aunt and uncle’s wedding picture! They still share this spark today. But surely my aunt and uncle’s love for each other now is nothing like it was in 1945 when they married. How could it be? They have each lived a full life together, and such living changes a person. From their wedding day forward, life meant adjustment. They left their hometown to begin their married life in a new area. They worked hard. They lost a baby. They raised a family. They have both suffered together through major health crises, employment changes, and other challenges. Who would be surprised if their courage flagged at times, if they occasionally lost their shared vision, lost their passion for a life together. But I believe people who maintain the “spark” always find a path back to the road and grasp hands. Together they keep walking in the same direction, regardless of the difficulties.

And there has been sunshine, too, in my aunt’s and uncle’s marriage. Their long lives have thankfully brought them stability, success, and sweet family. They still live together in their own home with the help of their own children and grandchildren. Great-grandchildren, too, are constants of their days. Good neighbors check in and say hello. They practice their faith and are nourished by their spiritual community. Best of all, they enjoy each other’s company. They spend time together. They talk. They share the moments of their lives.

Their 70 years of marriage have changed Aunt Janet and Uncle Jay, but have also brought them closer and made their lives far richer than they might have been without one another’s love. After so many years, they have become very married.

Uncle Jay and Aunt Janet today: still very married!

Uncle Jay and Aunt Janet today: still very married!

 

Losing Sight of the Shore

One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight, for a very long time, of the shore. —Andre’ Gide

 

Recently, three generations of our family attended an opening at a local art gallery.

The exhibit’s title, “The Big Sleep,” is, as you may know, a euphemism for death.

“Conversations on Finality” is the specific focus of this visual conversation created by art, a sort of “death café” for the eye, a mixed-media discussion of the various terminals we face in life. The different works frequently addressed the theme of physical death, but others took us further into this major metaphor of our lives.

One sculpture I can’t forget is a cast bronze by Steve Love. Barely bigger than your laptop and standing approximately 12 inches, “Crossing” depicts a little rowboat, just big enough for a man, a woman, and boatman holding an oar that reaches to the water below. He stands forward in the boat, and looks ahead toward the far shore as he moves the little boat through the water. Behind him sits a naked man to one side of the boat, his arms violently gripping the rail, his body tense, seeming to ask frantically, “How did I get here? How do I get back?” In stark contrast to him, in the aft of the boat sits a naked woman, motionless—she is stilled, her hands in her lap. Her gaze is not into the water or even toward the now-invisible shore she has left forever; instead, she focuses inward. She seems to be thinking: “I am here. This is what is now.”

After gathering my many initial responses, I allowed the critical part of my brain to engage. I began to see more details, like the froth in the small boat’s wake, just little hints of water and wave amazingly cast into the dark metal sculpture. The artist’s careful technique aptly described a boat not hurrying, but moving deliberately, steadily. For, why hurry? Time has no seat on the trip from life to death. This poem beside the sculpture communicates the sculpture’s end-of-life theme:

[For a bronze sculpture titled “Crossing”]

Death is a journey,
A passage.

Across the river Styx to the gates of the underworld,
Over the Jordan of Death to the promised land,
Following in a boat the sun on his journeys in the Upper Waters.
Across the Great Stream!

Our ancestors came out of the sea.
At birth we emerge from the embryonic fluid of the womb,
And into the dark churning waters we depart.

 

~Steve Love

The artist stood nearby, as we are always appreciative of in a gallery opening. Steve Love is familiar to me, as his sculpture “Twisp” was the subject of the art installation ceremony I enacted last summer at the Twisp Ponds site. I knew him to be a man of few words, a refreshing combination of humorous and erudite, and in possession of more than a little insight into life’s big themes.

“Thank you for your woman”—these are the strange words that came out of my mouth—and I motioned toward the sculpture before us. He looked into my eyes for a short moment and then gracefully answered: “You’re very welcome.”

“I can’t figure out why she, of all three figures, affects me the most. She is the least detailed and the still-est.”

“She is stoic . . . and serene,” he answered. “She has accepted what is, and does not fight it.”

That was it. Especially in comparison to the poor fellow at the side of the boat who appeared to be contemplating a panicky jump overboard and a swim back—to where?—she was instead gathering herself for this journey. She was taking stock. She had opened herself to the real, to change, and was now preparing to be transformed. She was quietly becoming.

Yes, the sculpture was about death. But not only that. It was also about how we live.

The truth is, hard change is a part of life. We need to mark important but sometimes painful passages in order to be able to, like the woman in the boat, consent to let go of the shore. Like her, we need to stop and contemplate the leaving behind in order to grasp the importance of the journey itself. This release begins the necessary transformation from was to is. Release prepares us for what will be.

As I stood in the gallery with my husband, his aging mother, and our adult son contemplating this wise artwork, I saw its relevance to how we live. In its commemoration of the journey that transformation is, this work depicts our own choice: we can try as hard as we can to resist change, or we can accept it.

Celebrancy helps us to discover new lands, because it creates ceremonies that hold sacred a vital and creative space for pause, allowing for acceptance, assessment, and contemplation before we set off toward whatever awaits off shore.IMG_1872

Ceremony and Our Inner Healer

“I had lines inside me, a string of guiding lights . . . .I had been damaged, and a very important part of me had been destroyed—that was my reality, the facts of my life. But on the other side of the facts was who I could be, how I could feel. And as long as I had words for that, images for that, stories for that, then I wasn’t lost.” (Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?)

       Photo by Thelma Achamire

Photo by Thelma Achamire

Are we ever truly lost? Humans may well have a natural predisposition toward emotional balance. Whether we think of it as “a string of guiding lights,” a hardwired equipoise, or the internal divine, our default setting is always engaged in one task: to return to a healthy state. We can see evidence of this natural state of self-care in our desire to sleep when we are stressed, in our good feelings after talking it out with a good friend, and in our dreaming life. But often, our conscious mind overrides this reflexive mode. It replays old tapes, increases anxiety (“do something!!”), and wears us down. We binge, we distract, we erupt, we self-destruct. We sabotage this innate ability to heal ourselves.

But always, there is “the other side of the facts.” If we remember to honor this amazing skill we all are inheritors of, we allow our hearts and minds to move toward emotional health. That inner healer innately knows who we are and who we can be, as Jeanette Winterson describes it in the excerpt above. What that means is that anytime we wish to, we can accept the call to restore our own well-being!

Ritual and ceremony offer one way to answer that call to health: they create a safe and rich environment outside of our daily lives, they honestly express our authentic emotional state, they help transform the moment into a concrete truth, setting us on a path toward authentic emotional growth. A well-focused memorial ceremony is a good example of this. Meaningful rituals within a service can move us onward in our suffering, in our relationship to the deceased, and in our own healing. We can share memories of all kinds with those in attendance, we can read a poem we’ve written for the deceased, we can listen to their favorite song or ask a family elder to recall the deceased’s birth. Through such rituals, we reconnect to our inner healer. We find, as we leave the ceremonial space, that we feel better, more integrated, less at sea. Through ritual and ceremony, we have rediscovered our natural ability to heal ourselves.

A ceremony’s power to heal derives not only from ritual, but from its very creation of community, cohering individuals witnessing the ceremony into an affiliated group, one of the healthiest biological structures there is. This community 1) reflects our own emotional state, 2) joins us in our expression of grief, joy, hope, 3) identifies more strongly with us because of the sharing that takes place in the ceremony, 4) brings its own creative energies and unique experience to bear on our own situation, and 5) begins to heal and transform along with us.

Ceremonies can also transform guests in very personal ways, as they act as witnesses to those more central to the ceremony. This may have happened to you. Watching the event unfold, you become a participant through your ability to identify with the mourners. In sharing this ceremony, you come to understand more deeply the value of love, care, truth, connection, compassion, and humor in your daily life. A focused ceremony actually invigorates a community of supporters, as all the natural energy of healing is restored to each member, who then focuses that healing energy on the central participants of the ceremony. Ceremony, then, reconnects us to our natural desire to affiliate with others through enhancing our connection to our inner healer.

I’ve seen deeply estranged families begin the process of authentic reconnection as a direct result of their participation in ceremony. This happens in weddings, funerals, divorce ceremonies, baby welcomings, and more. The energy created by ritual takes us out of the everyday thinking and responses, opening us up to possibility, healing, and our own power to transform. Ceremony reconnects us to that “string of guiding lights” that leads to our own inner healer, pointing to who we are and who we can become.

Our minds are powerfully focused on taking care of ourselves. We have only to attune our conscious self to our natural impulses. Ceremony and ritual help us unlearn our conscious responses to emotional stress and start to process our reality in a way that allows us to gather our energy and take the next step forward. Those lines within us—lifelines and anchor chains accessed through the benefits of ceremony–lead to our own inner healer. There he sits and waits, there she gathers her tools, ready to restore our own selves. Ready to restore the gift of being and becoming.