Cover image for Remembering well : rituals for celebrating life and mourning death
Remembering well : rituals for celebrating life and mourning death
York, Sarah, 1943-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
San Francisco : Jossey-Bass, [2000]

Physical Description:
xxii, 216 pages ; 19 cm
Giving sorrow words : families and funerals -- In loving memory : composing a service -- Inviting holy space : prayers and meditations, candles and poetry -- Decisions : thinking when you are least able to think -- Soul sketch : creating a memorial portrait -- All deaths are not equal : the many faces of death -- Family ties and family lies : when your family is alienated -- Earth, air, fire, water : committal ceremonies -- The seasons of grief : rituals through the first year and beyond.
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BV199.M4 Y67 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Remembering Well offers family members, clergy, funeral professionals, and hospice workers ways to plan services and rituals that honor the spirit of the deceased and are faithful to that person's values and beliefs, while also respecting the needs and wishes of those who will attAnd the services. It is an essential resource for anyone who yearns to put death in a spiritual context but is unsure how to do so-including both those who have broken with tradition and those who wish to give new meaning to the time-honored rituals of their faith.

The real-life stories, examples, and practical guidelines in this book address a wide array of important issues, including the difficult decisions that survivors must make quickly when a death occurs-and the sensitive topic of family alienation, where possibilities for healing, forgiveness, and hope are explored. The invaluable insights offered here will help those who grieve to prepare mind and spirit for life's final rites of passage.

Author Notes

SARAH YORK As a Unitarian Universalist Minister (MDiv, Harvard Divinity School), Sarah York has been involved in planning many funerals and memorial services. She has served three diverse congregations in the past eighteen years and currently resides near Asheville, North Carolina.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

No one dies opportunely, nor are the bereaved, no matter how much a death is anticipated, ever truly prepared. Thus memorial services are usually created at a time of stress and loss. When religion provides safe harbor, it is possible to simply defer to tradition. But increasingly, families want something more than a canned service with a minister mouthing conventional reassurances. They want something that expresses the uniqueness of the deceased. In addition, a large number of Americans find no comfort in traditional religion. For them, a standard religious service is deeply inappropriate. York offers sage advice for both types of mourner. A Unitarian Universalist minister, she addresses life's ending in a direct and moving way. Emphasizing that memorial services are a necessary part of the grieving process, she leads the reader through questions both practical, such as whether to inter or scatter ashes, and emotional, such as how to acknowledge violence and anger. Dozens of stories of individual rituals serve as inspiring examples of how a uniquely fitting memorial--one that will bond and sustain those left behind--may be crafted. --Patricia Monaghan

Publisher's Weekly Review

This book is a treasure for religious leaders and ordinary people who face the challenges of grief and mourning. Without offering pat answers, religious dogma or platitudes of any kind, the author, a Unitarian-Universalist minister who has served congregations for 18 years, provides heartfelt stories and wise words to guide the reader through the many kinds of issues that surface when a loved one has died. She speaks eloquently of the need to give authentic expression to grief and offers practical guidelines for planning a memorial service that involves the mourners and suits the unique context and person whose life is being remembered. Her chapter on the difficulty of making decisions in the face of death equips the reader to help others make hard choices when they feel most overwhelmed and vulnerable. Her discussion of "family ties and family lies" is refreshingly realistic, yet compassionate. York also reminds readers to acknowledge the need for rituals for the first year and beyond, rather than submitting to our culture's pressure to quickly return to life as usual. She provides a broad spectrum of resources, including poetry, suggestions for ritual and wisdom from various religious traditions. This valuable guide will prove particularly helpful for those who do not identify with any one religious tradition, yet are looking for a spiritually vital way of coping with their grief. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One Giving Sorrow Words Families and Funerals I frequently speak with people who say they do not want any services held when they die. One woman in her nineties told me just after attending a service for a friend, "That was really a nice service, Sarah, but I'm not going to have one of those when I die."     I smiled as I replied, "Eunice, you won't be in a position to have much to say about that."     I went on to tell her that her family would need it and so would many of us in the congregation, and we would want to hold a service. She and I have both affectionately retold the story of this conversation--she to reaffirm her initial desire in spite of what others do, and I to make the point that the ritual is not for her but for those who love her, will miss her, and must go on living without her.     Eunice says that she just doesn't want anyone to make a fuss over her, and she means it. I believe that most people who choose to avoid ritual, however, do so for one of two reasons. Either they do not want to deal with the emotions that are evoked by death, or they cannot conceive of such a ritual apart from a traditional religious context that is not relevant for them. In some cases, they may be very private individuals who have never liked the idea of having people talk about them "behind their back."     Whatever the reasons, they are not sufficient. No exceptions. No matter what the circumstances of a life or a death, there is no reason not to mark the occasion of death with at least a simple private ceremony . Thus it is that I always counsel families to consider, with love, other ways to respect the intent of those who have requested "no services." Then we work to create a ceremony that will honor the person who died while giving the family an opportunity to celebrate a life and mourn a death.     "Give sorrow words," Shakespeare admonished. But how do you begin to think about planning for a ritual if you have no religious tradition or perhaps even a distaste for ritual in general? If you are alienated from your faith tradition, how do you draw what is still meaningful from it and include it in a personalized ritual? How do you create an appropriate context to "give sorrow words"? The thought of taking on such a task is daunting enough. Add to that the fact that many deaths occur suddenly and without warning, requiring that some of the arrangements be made within a matter of days.     The fear of taking on the responsibility for a ritual of death may be the greatest of all obstacles to be overcome. The best way to overcome the fear, however, is to do it, finding others who will help. Your confidence comes as you realize that others have done this and you can, too. In Chapter Two, I will offer suggestions for involving friends or professionals in your planning.     Although I am writing after nearly two decades of planning and conducting memorial services and funerals, I can remember well when I did this for the very first time. I was a second-year student in divinity school, working as an intern in a local congregation. The minister who was my supervisor and mentor was on vacation. We had not yet had the opportunity for training in this matter of planning a memorial.     Death, however, has no regard for clergy vacation schedules. Ruth Codier had completed eighty years of living and died at home without warning. It was her daughter, Ruth Resch, who called, shaken by her mother's sudden death. Having arrived from out of town, she was planning to go to the funeral home to make arrangements.     I felt entirely inadequate. I wanted to tell her to call someone else--like a "real" minister. But I was being asked to stand in for Ruth's beloved minister. If I really wanted to pursue this calling, I would have to face up to doing a death ritual on my own for the first: time. To add to my discomfort, Ruth had been a somewhat crusty woman, and I had not gotten to know her well.     I offered to accompany Ruth's daughter to the funeral home, and she accepted gratefully. I had no idea how important an offer that would turn out to be.     In accordance with both her mother's wishes and her own preference, Ruth's daughter requested that her mother's body be cremated. But I could tell she had some uncertainty about the decision.     In the presence of the funeral director, I asked her if she wished to see the body first. Yes, she did. The funeral official explained that without cosmetic preparations, Ruth did not look so good, and the daughter might want to reconsider. Her daughter just needed to see the reality of her mother's death, not "prettied up," and to say goodbye to the physical body of her mother. Reluctantly, the funeral director complied and asked for a few moments to make Ruth more presentable. As it turned out, Ruth did not look bad. She just looked dead, and that was part of what her daughter needed to take in. Her mother was gone. She would not have another conversation with the woman. She would not see her mother again--ever.     I was asked to plan a simple service for interring the ashes at the cemetery. (A memorial service would be held when Ruth's minister returned.) Ruth's daughter, a psychotherapist, and her granddaughter Rachel, met with me to plan. They knew they wanted to participate in the ceremony and to offer opportunities for others as well. After a series of long-distance calls, we pulled together what they wanted, drawing from their memories of Ruth's wishes.     At the service, we walked slowly from the cars to a cemetery site where we were shaded from the summer sun by a beautiful fir tree. I offered a brief introduction, then Ruth's daughter greeted those who gathered. Ruth's granddaughter read a selection about the meaning of death (a reading that Ruth had requested), Ruth's son read a selection from his Episcopalian liturgy, and I followed their readings with a brief spoken meditation. Before pouring her mother's ashes in the ground, Ruth's daughter read a poem her mother had written, titled "To Morning": When I go out my door I breathe the air And know the freshness and the newness there. Behind are left the endless small concerns The petty matters that consume and burn. My morning speaks and sparkles When I go out my door. One fine gay day my morning does not wait for me to leave my airless room. But trim and debonair he makes an entrance. I do not rack and rage against the dark. My morning walks with me When I go out my door.     Then Ruth's daughter knelt with the cremated remains of her mother and said, Truly you were as you were ... for each of us here. ... Gutsy lady, rare independent spirit, Uncommonly capable of growth Demanding in friendship, but you gave equally to your friends. You had courage. Deep convictions. And you went much farther out on a limb in acting on your convictions than most of us. You were like a great vintage wine: the bite was harsh in the beginning, Your aging grew better and better, Your spirit kept growing fuller, and it was many faceted, Your bouquet was finally a big and full-bodied one, for us. I will say for each person here that you modeled something very deeply important for each of us ... no doubt honed quite individually for each one. As your daughter, I finally feel unabashedly privileged to have had you as my mother. You have crossed the line exactly as you wanted to: gracefully and tactfully. You done it, ole girl! I grieve for you and I am happy for you. You have triumphed. Bless you. So it is time now for it to be my privilege to give your body into this earth.     Ruth's daughter poured the ashes directly into the open fertile earth in silence. Then Rachel held a clay vessel over the ashes. It contained earth from Ruth's birthplace (brought by Ruth only weeks before), some stones, and other symbolic objects. She broke it onto the ashes and said, "The vessel is broken." Ruth's daughter continued, saying, "Ashes to ashes, my dear, and dust to dust."     I invited friends and family to place flowers into the earth and to help cover the ashes with dirt. The daughter planted a lovely geranium from her mother's garden over them. As she did so, I spoke the following words: When Ruth spoke of death and of her own death, she said, "I have a kind of `knowing' that life has continuity; an essence that isn't destroyable." She imaged this knowing in the continuity of nature, saying she would return in the flowers. This flowering plant from Ruth's garden affirms her knowing and ours.     I invited those gathered to exchange a silent greeting of support to one another--a reminder that we do not grieve alone--then offered some closing comments: Ruth has gone out her door into the morning, crossing the threshold peacefully, courageously, and triumphantly. As we move from this place of burial, we too cross a threshold. We move in sadness for our loss, but we carry with us Ruth's own triumph and an awareness that her greatest concerns were for the continuity of life: recycling resources, striving for world peace, preserving the natural world for future generations. It was characteristic of Ruth to say, when she completed something, "Well, now, that's all settled. Let's move on." We might well imagine that in her own gentle gruffness she speaks to us now, saying, "Carry on. Carry on." We go out our door into the day. Let us walk into the day with knowledge of the night, and into night with knowledge of the dawn.     I had never conducted such a ceremony, and initially I felt entirely inadequate for the task, but together with Ruth's daughter and granddaughter, I facilitated a service that was powerful and meaningful. That's because we worked together. Most important, they created their own fitting ritual for this act of loving leave-taking.     I learned from them, too. I would not have thought to fill a vessel with earth from Ruth's birthplace and break it over the ashes. That was their contribution to ritual--a poignant and powerful gesture. Likewise the gesture of silent greeting and touching--a very moving and meditative interaction--was their idea.     Because this family took an active role in creating the rituals for this ceremony, it helped each of them through this initial transition and the first stages of grief. It was grief expressed, not grief suppressed.     The next opportunity for me to perform a memorial service was during my final year of divinity school. A young couple had tried for several years to have a second child, and had grieved through four miscarriages. Finally, Christine had carried a child to term. When she went to the hospital to give birth, the nursery had been decorated, the clothing purchased, the house made ready. The baby, however, whose heart was beating only minutes before birth, was born dead. She never took her first breath.     The parents, devastated by this cruel death, were not sure what they wanted to do. Here was a fully developed human being who never had a chance to live. Would they give her a name? Would they go through the ritual of a funeral?     I asked them to describe their loss to me. As they spoke, it was very clear that they had indeed lost a child and would give her a service of burial. They chose also to give her the name she had been called while she grew to term--Rebecca.     I met them at the funeral home and members of their families joined us, along with a few close friends. We followed the hearse to the cemetery, where Neil and his brother carried the small closed casket to the burial site. Just seeing the diminutive box that held the infant's tiny body moved me to tears.     As we gathered around the freshly dug grave overlooking a flowing river, I spoke: We have come here this afternoon to this place to commit the body of Neil and Christine's infant child Rebecca to the earth. This child did not have the opportunity to breathe, to laugh, or to cry. She was, however, nurtured through these months of fetal life, and with her Neil and Christine have nurtured their hopes for their life with her. We grieve for the life she did not have. We grieve for the life that Neil and Christine will not have with her. Taking a handful of dirt and dropping it on the casket, I said, We commit Rebecca's body to the earth, and with her a rosebud. The parents placed the rosebud on the casket, then I said, Although this life may not bloom, may the budding of possibility bring new life out of death. I then offered the following prayer: We come before you, Spirit of life and death, in wonder, in humility, in anger, and in hope. Daily we are touched by the rhythms of life and death, yet now we are out of rhythm, for birth and death have seized upon the same moment. In sadness for the hopes that are lost, we ask for new hope. While grieving for this child's lost life, we ask for renewal and new life. Still asking why this death occurred, we seek understanding and peace. With gratitude for the strength and love that Christine and Neil have for each other and that ( names of family present ) have shared with them, we ask for continued strength and love. Amen. The closing benediction was simple and traditional: The peace that passes understanding-- the peace of the Spirit which the world can neither give nor take away-- be among us and abide in our hearts, now and always. Amen.     This ritual offered Christine and Neil an opportunity to grieve a deep loss that was not adequately acknowledged by many of their friends or associates. Some people had even tried to console them by saying how fortunate they were that they already had one child. But the ritual was an acknowledgment of their loss. This infant daughter who never breathed in this world grew through nine months of development, her heart beating with hope and promise.     Two times during the first months of my ministry I was asked to prepare a memorial, and each presented unique challenges. In both cases, the individuals died in their mid-forties. I had the added challenge of dealing with both memorials on the same day. Their juxtaposition provided an interesting contrast.     It is said that form follows function. In the case of ritual, form follows the personality, values, and life meanings of the person who is being remembered.     In one case, I conducted a graveside service for a man whose forty-five years of life had been devoted primarily to his professional life. He was quite a success in business, but by his own admission; he had given little of himself to relationships. He demanded of others what he demanded of himself--excellence in all things. He was a man of intelligence, integrity, and courage. The tone for his sparsely attended service was cool, dignified, and respectfully loving, which was appropriate for this man who made his mark on Madison Avenue and worked himself into an early grave. No one in the family wanted to participate, and his wife did not want to invite anyone to speak, so I offered some scripture and prayer and made brief comments about the man's life. I left with the feeling that we had performed the obligatory ritual, but much had been left unsaid. I suspect that the atmosphere of controlled emotion and careful speech reflected the tone of the relationships he had had in life.     Later the same day, hundreds of people poured into our little sanctuary to celebrate the life of a brilliant playwright and poet who had touched their lives with her wit, her passion, her depth, and her humor. The service, like her life, was charged with emotion, with love, with earthy humor, and with creative expression. I opened the service with these words: Good afternoon, friends. On this chilly winter day, this space is made sacred with the warm spirit of love and caring. For we, the friends and family of Jane Chambers, have gathered to celebrate Jane's life, to hold her up in human memory and divine mystery, to mourn our loss and to say goodbye. We've come here first to remember Jane--to remember her at her times of passionate and unrelenting strength and power as well as her times of deep and full depression or dependence; to remember her both as a free and untamed spirit and as a creative home-builder and nester; to remember her as she was at the front of the movement for women's rights, taking the blows for others, and as she was in her more vulnerable moments, relying on others to care for her. We have come to remember. We have come also to mourn--to mourn in the silent spaces she once filled with her expansive laughter; to mourn in the empty places she once filled with her commanding presence; to mourn for the loss of love growing into tomorrow, deepening and maturing more through years of joy and conflict; to mourn for the words she might have spoken or written. Our tears of sadness for the loss of life, full and blossoming and beautiful, mingle with tears of sadness for the loss of possibilities yet to be met. We are here to mourn. We are also here to grow through an ending into a beginning, to let go of Jane and, with memories gathered for the journey, gain strength for moving through the days ahead without her. Jane wouldn't like that, of course--us going on without her. She wanted too, too much to be with us. She had more love to give, more causes to win, more plays to write, more living to do. She said as much in her play Kudzu , through old Ginger, who was "getting fixed to die." Ginger had this to say about dying: "Now don't you start in talking to me about salvation and letting Jesus take me to heaven, because I ain't ready to go yet." Jane wasn't ready to go yet, and we weren't ready to let her go, but she has left us, and we pause here today to celebrate her life, to mourn her death, to let go of her, and to gain strength for meeting tomorrow.     I then invited the congregation to join in singing what Jane had called "that awful blackbird song" ("Morning Has Broken"), noting that Jane sometimes loved what she hated and hated what she loved.     With Jane's own words inviting affectionate laughter from the beginning, the remainder of the service was a celebration of Jane's life. Several of her friends and family offered tributes in music and poetry as well as personal testimony to ways she had enriched their lives. The service was followed by a traditional procession to the cemetery for burial.     The first ritual I performed for Jane, however, was not her funeral. Beth, Jane's life partner of fourteen years, called me on the morning of her death, and I went over to the house. Beth and a friend were there, and I asked if they would like to offer some words of blessing for Jane before her body was removed.     I do not remember what any of us said. I opened by saying that we gathered this last time at Jane's bedside to say good-bye and offer blessings for her spirit. The friend chose a reading from the Psalms. I suspect that I offered a prayer of gratitude that Jane, who had suffered deeply for several months of illness, was free of suffering and had been surrounded by love as she died in her own home amid family and friends. I suspect that Beth offered loving words of good-bye. What we said was not so important as making a space for an invitation to holy mystery in these awkward and painful moments before her body was taken from that bed where she had spent most of her final year of life.     We then went into another room as the professionals did their job. It made sense not to watch as the person who had been a beloved companion in life became a body being loaded onto a gurney.     In Resource One, there is a discussion of the use of ritual for family or friends who want to come together in a similar way before a body is removed from a home or a hospital room, along with suggestions for rituals such as washing or dressing a body for burial or cremation. Again, the level of participation is up to the family. It is easy for any family to gather in silence for a few moments, perhaps holding hands or touching the body together. Words are not necessary for a gesture to have meaning. It is also nonthreatening to have someone read a poem or a verse. Rituals involving more direct participation with a body or with cremated remains require a level of comfort that may be right for some members of a family and not for others.     What is important is to find the appropriate level of comfort and participate according to what feels right. Too often participation of family members is minimal. Opportunities for ritual that will help them grieve are missed. It is just easier to leave it up to the professionals--undertakers, ministers, health care workers--to take care of everything.     Most of what I know about how to create a memorial ritual I learned when I was thrown into the waters of that first year of ministry. When I suggest here that a person doesn't have to be a minister to do this, I am saying that this is the heart of life; it is where we all live. This is our spiritual work--to mark our losses and celebrate our love. It is not the work of funeral directors and ministers--it is the work of families and friends. We who are the professionals are there to assist them with their work. It is to people like Ruth's daughter and Jane's friends and family that I offer gratitude, because they have known that I am just there to help them do what they have to do.     Through the years, I have learned from many more families. Some of the rituals we devised grew quite naturally out of the rich soil of memory. Eleven grandchildren gathered at one memorial, and while the oldest grandchild read a poem and shared some memories, the other ten all lit candles. Another family provided flowers at the door of the sanctuary and invited everyone who entered to take a flower and put it in a large basket in the front, thus creating a community bouquet. At the end of the service, each person was invited to take a flower from the bouquet.     For a woman who had been devoted to world peace, the space was decorated with international flags.     For a man who died of AIDS, a beautifully crafted panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt was on display. Candles were lit in memory of others who had died of AIDS.     For a woman who had been a poet, a booklet of her poetry was put together and offered to friends and family who came to the service.     For a woman who found meaning in Native American traditions, the service began with an invocation to the four directions and ended with a Native American benediction.     Form follows function. If we want to celebrate a life, the possibilities are endless.     Music, of course is a universal medium for ritual. Too many people neglect to participate in this aspect of a memorial and let a funeral home select music for them. My experience is that funeral directors will work with families to give them what they want. There is no reason for not taking an active role and selecting music that contributes to the mood and meaning of the service. Bach may be perfect for one person, the Grateful Dead for another.     Yes, this is the family's work. If a person thinks to leave behind some requests and instructions, that makes the family's work easier. A member of one congregation, for example, asked for several selections of Beatles music to be played at her service. She had written a poem to her family that she wanted me to read. She left the rest up to us.     If a person doesn't indicate any particular wishes, however, that makes the family's work more meaningful. It invites family members to talk about what they need to do and what is right. It invites them to participate--to give sorrow words and music and gesture.     As they participate, they remember.     As they remember, they grieve.     As they grieve, they love. Copyright © 2000 Sarah York. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

1 Giving Sorrow Words: Families and Funerals
2 In Loving Memory: Composing a Service
3 Inviting Holy Space: Prayers and Meditations, Candles and Poetry
4 Decisions: Thinking When You Are Least Able to Think
5 Soul Sketch: Creating a Memorial Portrait
6 All Deaths Are Not Equal: The Many Faces of Death
7 Family Ties and Family Lies: When Your Family Is Alienated
8 Earth, Air, Fire, Water: Committal Ceremonies
9 The Seasons of Grief: Rituals
Through the First Year and Beyond
Resource 1 Between Death and Committal: Blessing and Preparing a Body
Resource 2 Five Services Created by Families and Friends
Resource 3 Readings, Prayers, and Blessings
Recommended Reading and Resources
The Author