Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Death as a Rite of Passage

I talked about how some unexplainable Mysteries serve another purpose in the piece I posted February 23, 2011. Death is no exception. Just as we need shadow to define the light, we need death to give purpose to our lives. Before the advent of funeral homes, when someone died, the family came together to decide how to pay homage to the body. They worked the body and touched the death. They had to face the destruction of the person they had loved. I believe that in the working of it, they were able to process through much of their grief. It’s hard not to face death when there is no one else to make it for away for you.

When my Grandfather died, in the hospital, they were kind enough to tell us to take as much time as we needed. But besides sitting beside the body, there was nothing we could do or were allowed to do. The queerest thing to me was walking out of that room and leaving his body behind for someone unknown to me to wheel away and take to the morgue.

I know the route he took, knowing that hospital well from my days as a candy striper. I knew that he would sit in the freezer until someone from the funeral home picked him up- which was to be our first stop the next morning. And he would sit in their freezer until someone I also don’t know embalmed him and prepared him for the viewings. In my own grief, I didn’t want strange hands to clean him and dress him. I wanted them to be hands that loved him, that would wipe down his sacred body with the memory of his arms as arms that held children and grandchildren.

Our world is so far removed from this that even the notion of caring for my own dead often makes people wonder if I’m crazy or into self-punishment. My answer is that sometimes life is hard and gives us trials we feel will break us. I know that I am strong enough to face death and I could have cared for him in death the way he cared for me in life.

The issues I had facing death in the past were related directly to the cold sterilization of it. As children we were removed from the ritual of it. And from our outside view, once the funeral was over, the fancy clothes came off and everyone was supposed to move on as if the funeral marked the end of the grieving period. One day people were in our lives and the next day they weren’t. That’s what death was to me as a child.

When a person died, neighbor families who had laid their own loved ones to rest would help the family in need lay out their dead and attend to the burial. It just happened that some families saw more death and were the family who always came to aid the grieving. At some point, these families stepped up and offered to take care of these details for their neighbors and community, setting up for the family and cleaning up afterwards. This kindness evolved as populations grew and the families built a second parlor to maintain for funeral use only. These were the first funeral parlors. Every step a good intention, every step separating the grieving further from the death.

It’s something to think about. How can we work towards reconnecting with death in a healthy way? Think about the funerals you have attended. What parts of them did you appreciate? What about them felt wrong for you? Take those thoughts and put them together to what might be the ideal funeral for you, if the intention is to honor the deceased and move you through the grieving process. Then take those thoughts and share them with your family and friends. Open a dialogue about death. One easy trick to facing something you fear is to speak its name out loud, and often.

It’s important to understand that the way the body is disposed of is about the personal wishes and religious beliefs of the deceased. This is where we honor the knowledge that this person walked the earth with us. Whether we agree or not, and within the limits of the law, we follow their wishes out of respect for the presence they were in our lives and hearts. Anything that happens beyond that is for those left behind.

This is where we have an opportunity to decide what would help us most in our grieving process- and it should be about the family of the deceased more than the community-at-large.  If what is most important for you is the gathering of loved ones or people who knew the deceased, consider putting up photos of them and use the time to share stories about the deceased and allow people to cry if they need, in a safe space.

Crying has such a negative slant in our society, messy body fluids and sounds that are hard to hear. How many times have you heard someone apologize for crying when they should be crying? Stifling tears that want to fall stills movement through grief and often holds us back from moving on. The stereotype that tears are weapons is something we hold over each other and it’s cruel. Crying is natural and cleanses the awful feeling of grief from our muscles and organs.

Death reminds us of our mortality. It also reminds us that we are alive. It makes the springing of seedlings through damp soil all the more beautiful, and it transforms the sound of babies laughing into music. Take time to grieve in the darkness of death but balance it by surrounding yourself, your friends and loved ones, with the light, energy and breath of life around you.

Spring bulbs awaken after the decay from winter's frost.


  1. Do you know how much I love reading what you write? You write with such a calm, that it makes me feel calmer just reading it. You have the most lovely perspective, things I would never think of. I'm blessed to know you for as long as I have. Thank you for sharing this with us. xoxo

  2. Thank you, Elizabeth. It's definately an acquired point of view and one of the reasons I started this blog. There was a time in my life that I didn't think I was capable of finding peace and a sense of centeredness, but I did. I want to share that. I love how long you've known me ;-)

    And mom, I love you too.


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