March 13, 2013 Blog No Comments

I
t’s been a strangely profound week. Two friends died within days of each other while we also celebrated several birthdays, one of them my own. My birthday plans took me to New Orleans, a city known for finding ways to celebrate everything. While I had thoughts on this before I left – how do you wrap your mind around these polarities – they are now filtered through the lens of this outgoing city.

Rituals to Honor Life and Death

The unspoken question has been, how do you make these rites of passage meaningful? Some interesting things have transpired. What’s occurred shows me what I thought, but would never have articulated before now. These two events, at either end of the continuum, have a lot of similarity. They are both about honoring the person. How it’s done and the intention you put into it is what determines the quality of the experience.
So, what makes meaningful rituals?

MAKE IT PERSONAL: Please, please, whatever you do, don’t go through motions. You know what I mean. I’m talking about the horrible singing wait staff thing at a restaurant or the dry, canned funeral speech that has nothing to do with the person. It’s painful to witness someone not being honored. In the first, the subject is usually so embarrassed they want to crawl under the table. In the second, an impersonal funeral is enough to make you want to weep or walk out in protest. I’ve witnessed both too many times. Please don’t insult someone you care about with banality. Make it personal. How can you do that?

THINK IT/SAY IT/WRITE IT/DO IT: We aren’t zombies, so let’s quit acting like we are and put some life into the content! Think about the person – really spend some time. Meditate, pray, get quiet, find your truth. Then make a statement that comes from the heart. Make it real. Make it relevant. Say what you really think. Write notes that have some content, don’t just sign your name to that Hallmark glop. Make toasts with love and sincerity; make wishes that really have some specificity. Journal, write, create something meaningful.

Both friends who died were experts in this. They were intelligent, thoughtful, artistic people whose gifts touched us deeply because of their capacity to get personal. We can honor them by carrying it on.

Birthdays are the perfect chance to get real and personal. I am so grateful to Lee for knowing how to honor me in this way. I love good food and music – how perfect to celebrate in New Orleans! His gifts are the same; they are always perfect for me. So give it some thought – make it personal. And let everyone in on it – tell people. Everyone loves a reason to feel good. Let strangers celebrate with you. Spread the joy.

FIRE CEREMONIES: OK, we all do the birthday candle thing. It’s fun. It’s a small fire ceremony. But there is so much more we can do. Any kind of ritualized burning makes an event more profound. Wishes and prayers spoken around a fire get transported by the smoke. Write down your wishes/prayers and burn them, even a private ceremony gives you a lasting memory.

We burned a dead Christmas tree for John. We started with a few twigs with prayers being sent up in smoke. And then thought – he deserves something much bigger – the whole tree. It was spectacular and a much more satisfying send off.

MUSIC: The custom of using marching bands in New Orleans to lead the way for celebrations of life and death is perfect. It sets the tone; it brings people together and gets people moving around a theme. OK, we can’t all do that where we live. But we can have music that is personal and appropriate for birthdays and funerals.

My life now revolves around music, thanks to Lee. But it didn’t used to be that way. It was my love of music that got me started hosting birthday parties with bands. And that is how I met Lee – he was the band at one of my parties! Music is now central to all our celebrations.

Music for a funeral should be the same – a personal reflection and celebration of the person. I am sure we will be making a strong musical statement for our friends. Whatever that means to you is fine. Just insist that it’s not the canned funeral home recordings. Please.

This was a hard post to write, as I personally moved from joy to sadness over the last few days. Writing about these seemingly opposite events as extensions of the same thing isn’t a new perspective, it is actually the law of polarity in action. What I have added is the quality of engagement. If there is anything I’ve expressed that speaks to you, I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me here on fb or at my email, cpmilligan@live.com.

Written by Connie Milligan, LCSW
If there is anything I’ve expressed that speaks to you, I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me at my email, connie [at] conniemilligan [dot] com