Death is a breath-taking event even when we imagine that we are prepared. We mourn and grieve and gasp, and we have wakes and funerals, but we quickly forget. We fail to remember, perhaps, because the mortality of ourselves and the others we love is too difficult to imagine, so we banish its memory as soon as possible. The old form of wake has largely disappeared, and has been replaced by mourners making a brief appearance during restricted “visiting hours” at a funeral “home” away from home. This modern ritual allows us to act as if death is not part of the normal stream of life that flows through the place where we live. The sanitized showroom of the funeral home bids us to take a quick voyeuristic look at the dead, pay our “respects” to the living, and sign a book to prove to ourselves and others that we were there. Having done our duty, we return to “normal” as we continue to stoke the fires of the market place.
Funeral services conducted by pastors are usually other-worldly, most often calling upon God to give peace and comfort often without much focus on the life and death of the Mortal who just died. Many memorial services offer a more personal touch, but I believe that both with a memorial service and with the quick glance in the funeral home, not enough time is spent involving ourselves in the alchemy of the occasion.
A ritual like the one depicted in the Oscar (2009) award-winning Japanese film Departures has us pause for a while and gaze at the body of the one we loved. This ceremony gently holds our silent attention while we absorb the shock of the end of life of the Mortal nature of our loved one. It also gives us some moments to weep and to gaze and to absorb the death, as well as to give thanks and say goodbye.
Another ritual that is practiced rarely in these times except in Ireland is the Month’s Mind* mass that is celebrated one month after death. Shakespeare made mention of the ritual in TwoGentlemen of Verona, (Act 1 sc 2) “I see you have a month's mind for them,” and the wealthy in England often used to leave elaborate instructions for the Month’s Mind that would follow their death.
I imagine us re-creating a Month’s Mind Rite that begins on the fourth Friday evening following the death and continues on Saturday until about five o’clock. A facilitator would explain the details of the ceremony to the gathering, and those who have attended a workshop on Love, Loss, and Forgiveness would also be familiar with the design of the ceremony. The Friday evening session would begin with two rounds of the Talking Stick that would be interwoven with a candle-lighting ceremony. The Saturday session would involve two trio exercises and a final round of the Talking Stick.
The first trio exercise would have the theme: “What did his/her life mean to me? Our friendship, connections and disconnections, the loss and much more.” We would have ten minutes to talk to the witness in our trio about our thoughts and memories of the person who died a month before, and ten further minutes to speak “to” that person by way of the witness. All the trios would reconvene in the large group, and there would be a period before lunch for participants to share their experiences.
The exercise after lunch would be inspired by the thought: “How will I spend the rest of my life?” We would have ten minutes to talk about our self with this focus, and then ten minutes for our Soul and Spirit to gaze at ourselves (by way of the witness). For the first five minutes we gaze lovingly at our mortal selves living life, and then for the next five minutes gaze and perhaps touch our self by way of the witness who lies down in front of us as if she were our dead Mortal self. After each member of the trio has completed their experience of witnessing their Mortal life and death, they reconvene in the large group as before for some reflections, and we would end the Month’s Mind Ritual with a final round of the Talking Stick.
I believe that the Month’s Mind Ritual would be an example of how loss may be transformed into loving energy for living. Thornton Wilder ended his book The Bridge of San Luis Rey on this theme with the words: “Soon we shall die, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten.” Unbelievable and unacceptable, and yet life is very short, and all memory of our being will be forgotten in a generation or two, if not earlier. “Oh no!” we cry, “I will never forget you,” but we do. And Wilder concludes: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.” So this ritual celebrates the survival of love, the only meaning, and if our lives are to have meaning, we must pass it on.
Since I first thought of the idea for this ceremony less that a month ago, two important men in my life have died. The first was John Schneider that I first met in Lancing MI and then at a workshop in Ireland and later at his home. Then, a few days ago, a close friend for twenty years, Jan Marissens, died next to his wife Magda while flying back to Belgium from New York. I had no idea that I might be facilitating this ritual in Michigan and Antwerp so soon, but it would be my awe full privilege to do so. I wrote the following for John, and I have now added dear Jan’s name, for they seem like brothers to me:
Good Mourning is also a greeting and an encouragement to we Mortals left behind, urging us to go through this ultimate confusion of being mortal. I imagine Gentle John and Gentle Jan smilingly encouraging us to move on through the chilly darkness, for the love they lived is everlastingly available and palpable to the touch even though their Mortal natures have moved on. Thank you John and thank you Jan for the time and the love you shared with us, and thank you for your love that is now and ever more.
*These “Minding Days” were of great antiquity, and were survivals of the Norse Minne or ceremonial drinking to the dead. The Venerable Bede (672-735) spoke of the day as commemorationes dies.