October and November bring, for a number of our spiritual and cultural traditions, rituals to remember the dead. Not all of our relationships are with the living alone. Our ancestors shape us. Our loved ones live on in us. They shape our present and our future – for better and for worse.
A consumer culture that places highest value on earners and spenders doesn’t make much room for the dead. But religious traditions do, and I’ve learned a lot from older expressions of Christianity as well as the powerful rituals of Judaism, Hinduism, and indigenous spiritualties of the Americas, Europe and Asia. (I personally know much less about spiritual traditions of the Southern Hemisphere or Pacific Island cultures.)
More than anything, these rituals make room for our grief. The give it a place to be or a posture that supports its movement through our bodies and our lives. They give grief a dress to wear or a seat where it can sit and wail.
For a season, I did a lot of death, officiating 68 funerals in 5 1/2 years. During that time, I found comfort in several powerful old Christian traditions I did not know in childhood: the baptismal “pall,” the lighting of the Christ candle, and the graveside blessing.
In funeral services back in Ohio, we often draped the casket with a baptismal pall. It looked like a big white sheet, with some pretty embroidery, including a cross. This pall was a remnant of baptismal garments, those white robes or new clothes Christians traditionally wore at baptism, when they received a new identity as “little Christ” (Christian). It’s a reminder that the deceased’s final identity is Beloved Child of God.
The Christ Candle is the candle traditionally lit at the end of the Easter Vigil. “The New Light” that insists death does not get the last word. That we’ve been united with Holy Love, and love wins.
A graveside blessing is a Christian affirmation in the Resurrection, that death does not end our story, that in whatever way our time-space-spiritual-continuum allows, we will be raised with Christ to live always and eternally with God. It’s also an acknowledgement that we are made of stuff – dust – and allows us to bless that dust as we return to it and it rejoins planetary matter.
But all of these rituals are a way of saying: This person was, and they mattered. They mattered to God and they mattered to us.
I like the way Over the Rhine, one of my favorite bands, puts it on their recent album Love and Revelation, in the song “Given Road”:
There’s a wall on the corner
of Given Road
It’s long and it’s curved
and stone and old.
Keeps out the sun,
keeps in the cold,
And I just miss the one
that loved me.
I miss the weight of you
and the pain we used to move through
till the clouds of our afflictions
would break and clear
I miss what I’m forgetting
I try not to, but I’m letting go
of every shred
that held you here.
I miss someone.
We know by now that sadness isn’t the only way grief expresses itself. Sometimes, it comes out in anger and rage. Sometimes, in wry laughter. (“Gallows Humor”) If you are bearing what feels like an extra measure of grief while the leaves turn and let go this year, I hope you will make some room for it to be, a dress it can wear, a comfortable seat where it can sit and wail what it needs.
Grief can be sneaky. Sometimes it hides behind the couch. Waiting, it seems, until just the moment we finally feel like we’ve got it together, before jumping out and whacking us across the face.
Of all the promises made this time of year, the most important is probably this:
You are not alone.
P.S. If you are needing support bearing some grief this season, please don’t hesitate to reach out. You may also find support in either a WinterSpring grief group or a book that could help make some containers for the grief. I highly recommend 1) Praying Our Goodbyes, by the poet Joyce Rupp (from an inclusive Catholic perspective, with questions for reflection, integration and discussion closing each chapter, and many prayers for different kinds of loss) and 2) Dessert First: Preparing for Death by Savoring Life by J. Dana Trent (especially helpful if death is weighing heavy on you lately; funny, timely, practical). 3) More than one Over the Rhine album bears well the weight of grief and loss and love. Give your grief a gift by buying her The Long Surrender, Blood Oranges in the Snow, or Love and Revelation.