Confluence Ceremonies

Marking Your Life's Important Moments

Tag: separation

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.



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 It was as if each family member had withdrawn from all the others, and all of them had passed; and now only David remained.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



So, What Does “Ritual” Really Mean??

Our rituals grow like trees: the branches look little like the roots, but both are interdependent.

Our rituals grow like trees: the branches look little like the roots, but both are interdependent.

Ritual is a cornerstone of celebrancy because it is a vital aspect of human life. We have discovered ancient ceremonial sites replete with figurines and flowers; large fire pits near a burial site marking perhaps a rite of passage into another realm; paint used for decoration of the body in dance or other rituals. Rituals helped early humans ask the big questions about birth, death, connection, grief, and so forth. But in the 21st century, some assert that ritual has become irrelevant. I heartily disagree! Ritual is more prevalent and useful than ever before in our history.

What is ritual? Many of us attach negative connotations to the term, thinking of dusty church services, mindless (or even dangerous!) behaviors, or mental disorders like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) when we think of rituals. Some posit that our “modern” society has distanced itself from the role of ritual as it has moved toward a more secular view of itself.

Yet in our own, private moments, don’t you and I still engage in ritual, adding a sense of the sacred to our days? A cup of coffee savored over a view of the garden gate each morning before going to work is an example of ritual. Offering a gift to a loved one on a special occasion, even wrapping it in special paper, is ritual. Singing “Happy Birthday” to honor someone’s birth date is ritual. Going out with co-workers for a drink after work to say goodbye and good luck to someone who is retiring: that’s ritual. Truly, in all walks of life people still use ritual to express our very human need to mark our personal and professional passages. We still marry and hold funerals, too. We celebrate anniversaries of many kinds. But today, we’re more often creating rituals for ourselves, and not accepting the institutionally composed, traditional rituals. This means that we are adapting ritual in order to better infuse our lives with authenticity and healing. Some religions are even revising their own rituals and ceremonies to remain relevant to spiritual life. Taken together, all these indicators lead me to contend that our rituals are more powerful and vibrant than ever!

So while some rituals we enact are traditions that have been passed down from our family or religious culture, other rituals are “new traditions” we have created to better reflect the truth of our own lives. For example, my family of origin used to gather together on most holidays, congregating at one of our homes to share food, prayer, and ourselves. This was a ritual that my aunts and uncles created when they were just starting out to help them stay connected to each other and to ensure family strength. Ceremonies helped us talk about family history, thereby calling into our midst those who had passed on. I got to know my paternal grandfather solely through the stories of my grandmother and his own children. Their recalled memories, shared over the holiday table, brought Grampa and his values alive for a new generation. And as the cousins played together and the adults conversed, our family values were expressed, taught, reinforced, and tested.

Our holiday gatherings—ceremonies in the flesh—exemplified ritual. As people arrived at the appointed time and place, the doorbell sounded a note that signaled our separation from the everyday world to the special, even sacred world of family and celebration. Each family came in proper attire (casual for 4th of July barbeques, formal for Christmas, Easter, or funerals). We all brought food and drink from our own kitchens, making our offering to the table from which we would all find sustenance, both physical and emotional. At the right time, the hosting family would call everyone together for a prayer of thanksgiving. Then we would eat, each in our correct places (the adult table and the kids’ table). There were rules about how we interacted with each other, who was served first, and who got to lead prayers, who did the dishes and who watched the kids. As we parted, hugs and kisses were freely offered and received; I remember feeling most reluctant to leave our special place to return to the workaday world!

And those good feelings stayed with us for days, our rituals creating a powerful energy that integrated into our regular lives. Next holiday, we would replay and somewhat revise the ceremonial rituals at another relative’s home. Each occasion was a ceremony that followed a general plan: separation, transition, and transformation.

From my family, I learned the rituals that gave meaning to my early life. Then, I moved across the country, became an adult, married, went to college, and had a child. Now in my adult roles as daughter, wife, mother, sister, aunt, and friend, I mourned the “loss” of our family gatherings in my life, and realized I needed to recreate them. Or, maybe, “relocate” them. Life changes. I wanted rituals that held meaning for us now, not for my family back in Ohio circa 1968.

While we kept older rituals that were still meaningful to us, we were living in a different world. As we focused on our families at hand and our immediate communities, our adherence to celebrations of national and religious holidays made room for more personally transformative rites of passage. There were more weddings to attend, as our friends and siblings married. College graduations, baby welcomings, and housewarmings became more frequent. We celebrated birthdays as perhaps the greatest days in the year, partly because my husband’s grandparents and great-grandparents were still living, and we knew life was finite. Also, birthdays became so important to us because those we loved were having children, whose young lives we cherished.

We came to see that our participation in these more personal ceremonies added a richness to our lives; we felt invested in a varied community, in our friends’ and siblings’ families as we witnessed their weddings, celebrated with them the births of their children, and attended funerals for their loved ones. As our elders began to pass, we created funeral ceremonies more true to each one, utilizing rituals that had meaning for them and for us.

In my adult life, I have learned to open up to the authenticity of ceremony through performance of ritual. I have witnessed a wide variety of others’ ceremonies, informed by the participants’ own identities, histories, and values. Vietnamese, Jewish, Secular, New Age, Muslim, Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, gay: so many truths now inform our best rituals. One of my colleagues recently witnessed a Brazilian/East Indian wedding at a Korean Baptist church! In today’s world, no one ceremony can serve for all. And rituals serve best when we can see our own values clearly articulated by them.

Life demonstrates that rituals can be alive, adaptive, and tremendously relevant to our lives and to ourselves. Done well, rituals provide the vital building blocks of ceremony, expressing our own truths, healing our emotions, moving us forward, and creating rich communities of supporters.

In some ways, the rituals of my youth seem too narrow to me now. We never would have understood then how to integrate a gay boyfriend or even bi-racial step-children into our little White Protestant group. But fast-forward, and I believe my family and I have grown to see ourselves and our world more accurately. And more lovingly.

Time moves us forward. And each succeeding generation does, if it is wise, conscientiously adapt rituals to serve its current need for the rites of separation, transition, and transformation. That is the role for ritual in modern society: to authentically honor our passages, to mark as sacred that which truly matters in our lives, and to help us make the changes necessary to continue on our journeys.