End of life rituals are important, but they are also a mystery to many. In this series, I’ll share the art and science of funerals, memorials, etc. to help lay persons planning for their own, or their loved ones, and professionals seeking to guide them.
What We Need to Know About End of Life Rituals Part I: The Why?
There are plenty of things you would NOT want me to do—your taxes, for instance, or even the minimal chemistry involved in helping your child with her 4th grade science project—but one thing I will confess to being very good at is performing funerals. I literally have a list of persons who have claimed me in their wills, naming me to their loved ones as the only person allowed to bury them when the time comes.
It’s a bit of an odd claim to fame but, since it comes from those who’ve been to services I’ve conducted and have been so deeply touched by the experience that they want it shared with their friends and family, I accept it as tremendous honor. That they would trust those they love, when they are hurting the most, to the words and actions I use when conducting a ritual is humbling, and I do not take it lightly.
I teach others to lead rituals as part of the trainings I perform, and I’ll share some of those tips in the posts in this series. I’ll also be sharing suggestions for lay persons considering their own or their loved ones’ services, such as guidance for selecting an officiant and a space, choosing the content and tone of the service, navigating family dynamics (that don’t just magically go away during a crisis but often amplify), and much more.
In the lines that follow here, however, I want to make the case for the importance of ritual.
We use ritual all the time. “Hello” and “goodbye” are some of the ways we mark the transitions of beginnings and endings to conversations and other interactions. We celebrate birthdays and anniversaries to honor persons and relationships. We mark other rites of passage like graduations, marriages, births, retirements, etc. as a way of remembering and giving thanks for what was and preparing to look ahead to what is yet to come.
Being the youngest of my family, I only knew my grandparents in their later years, not long before their deaths, so I only knew one facet of them. I learned so much about my grandmother at her funeral from the stories of those who knew her at different stages of her life, and who knew her as something other than my grandmother. Some 25 years later, I still remember them, and they are dear to me.
She was an educator, earning her Master of Education in Northeast Texas in the late 1920’s, no small feat for a female. Grandmother started the first kindergarten in the small town where I was raised and taught elementary children for some 4 decades. I heard stories from those who knew her as friend, devoted member of civic organizations, beloved childhood teacher, massive fundraiser for cancer research, member of a faith community who mentored and encouraged young clergy, and so much more. It soothed me then, and does so now, to know these things about her.
Rituals do even more. They give our Westernized stiff upper lip a socially acceptable excuse to cry publicly without shame…well, actually there’s still plenty of shame around tears of grief, but we are less likely to get funny looks for doing the ugly cry at a funeral than we would at the groundbreaking for a shopping center.
We still fall into the trap of trying to rush each other’s grief by making people feel better or encouraging them to lean on their faith or find meaning in other ways with clichés and theologizing and platitudes. I’ve written a 7-part series through Hospice Times about our discomfort with grief that leads us to speak such well-intended but misguided words to ourselves and each other, so I won’t belabor the point here.
Suffice it to say that we need the time and space of rituals to give us room to grieve collectively and receive support without being shamed, squelched, or hurried up in any way. Grief experts have been rightly critical of the shift to celebrations of life at the time of death since we must not skip over ours, or others’, grief.
By contrast, most people state they do not want everyone crying over their coffin when they die and don’t want a somber event in their honor—they want a party! I believe the two are not mutually exclusive, and will speak to the way to balance these two needs in a later post as well.
We need to gather, give and receive support, share stories, give ourselves and each other permission to share our emotions, look back on what was and re-story a new relationship with the one who is no longer there. How we go about doing that is both an art and a science.
In the weeks that come, I’ll do my best to share what I know and explain what I do in a way that will support lay persons and professionals alike, starting with next week’s post about planning ahead. I hope it’s helpful.
For what it’s worth.
Rev. Carla Cheatham, MA, MDiv, PhD, TRT has served hospices as a chaplain and bereavement coordinator. She’s the Section Leader for the Spiritual Caregivers Section of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization and an adjunct professor at the Seminary of the Southwest. Through her Carla Cheatham Consulting Group, Carla provides training and consulting for professional caregivers nationwide. She is the author of Hospice Whispers: Stories of Life and its companion volume, Sharing Our Stories: A Hospice Whispers Grief Support Workbook. Her next book, On Showing Up with Suffering: Others’ and Our Own, is set to publish in 2017.