How to be Creative in Celebrations of Life

His name was Harold and he had two daughters, Doris and Jean. Doris lived here in Vermont, Jean lived far away. Harold had come to Vermont for a visit with Doris and passed away in his sleep peacefully one night while here in the Green Mountain State. To keep with his only known wishes for burial, Doris and Jean had his body cremated.

When the time came to pick out an urn, Doris and Jean looked over everything the funeral home had to offer but they could not bring themselves to buy any of the urns. None of them “felt” right to them.

The sisters left the funeral home and went for a walk down the main street of Brandon, Vermont, hoping for inspiration. They stopped to look at the display in the windows of the local hardware store. They reminisced about how their Dad loved to work in his woodshop, making furniture, fixing things around the house – he was rarely without his carpenter tool bag after he retired. Right then inspiration struck them: they would put their father’s ashes (sealed in several small plastic bags) into a Craftsman tool bag for burial! Problem solved. Harold traveled back to his home and into his grave in a brand new Craftsman tool bag in honor of his passion for woodworking.

Is this an unusual story? Not at all, especially in my line of work. I am an elder law and estate planning attorney, with some probate litigation mixed into my practice. I work with a number of clients and their families to plan for death, and the illness and incapacity that normally precede death. This role of mine means I’m usually the one facilitating the family conversation about death and the disposition of remains, and writing out instructions for the last ritual we have available to help those of us left behind: a funeral or a gathering of friends to commemorate the life of the one who has passed on.

My observation is that as people lose connection with organized religion, the ritual to honor a passing life seems to be lost to them. Even those clients who are connected with a church or a mosque or a temple may have children who are no longer practicing the religious beliefs they were raised with, so their children may struggle to find meaning in a formal religious ritual at the end of their parent’s life.

Added to this mix are the critical advances in health care extending all our lives and it is possible for many younger people to make it into their 20’s or 30’s, even 50’s, without losing a close loved one or ever attending a wake, sitting Shiva, or attending a burial or funeral.

Because we are, as a culture, so disconnected from death as part of the life process, I have experience with some families so deep in pain at the passing of a loved one that they refuse to plan a funeral or celebration of life because they feel that they could not cope with a public gathering of any kind. At these times, I suggest to those who are grieving that the ritual of a funeral, the burial of the body, or a celebration of life is done in order to let the community, be it a religious community, friends or family, give comfort to those who are grieving and help to experience the passing in healing way. A ritual at the end of a life is not just a final goodbye to the one we loved; it is a time of comfort and support.  Whether it is calling hours at a funeral home, sitting shiva, hosting an Irish wake, or a gathering after the religious ceremony where food and talk are shared, all these rituals have a common goal – to come together to grieve the loss of a loved one and to offer and receive support and love in and among the family and friends left behind.

When prompted, most people have very distinct ideas on what they would like their funeral or celebration of their life to be in form and substance. The forms of ritual run the gamut from full and strict adherence to religious practices and the active involvement of a spiritual leader, to informal gatherings of friends and family members at a home for reflecting and sharing memories. Some people know exactly what readings and songs they want sung at their memorial service, while others choose to leave all choices to their family members or friends.

Planning for some form of ritual to mark the end of your life is not only about what you want, but also about what you do not want done in honoring your life. In burying my own Dad, he had specific requests that I fought hard to have honored. He wanted his urn at the church to be set next to an American flag in a triangular glass display box along with a picture of him in his Navy dress uniform. He wanted Anchors Away played slowly and softly by his favorite trumpet player, Sue Green, as his recessional at the end of the Catholic funeral Mass. He did not want a military honor guard, neither did he want Taps played or the gun salute he was entitled to, as he felt it would be too hard on our family members to see and hear. My Dad knew that the presentation of the flag to my Mom was going to be hard enough on her and us “kids” – we were all adults by then but still “children” in experiencing the loss of our Dad.

So the point of all this discussion about creative celebrations of life, funeral, or burial rituals is this: if you want the University of Wisconsin fight song sung at your last ritual of life, as did my dear friend Robert, then you better write it down as an instruction and hand it out to those likely to survive you. If you want a full religious form of funeral and/or burial, let your spiritual leader and close family and friends know now; do not assume your children or close friends know what to do. If these options do not appeal to you, then find someone to talk to, either a funeral director, your lawyer, or your best friend, and have a discussion regarding your wishes for the disposal of your remains and any last ritual you would like to use to commemorate your life after your death.

If you can’t talk about your funeral plans with anyone, then simply write a note describing what you want, tell someone where that note is, and leave it somewhere it will be easily found after your passing – like in your safe deposit box, or a drawer in your desk at home in an enveloped marked FUNERAL PLAN.

Some of my clients say that they do not care what happens to their bodies after they die, that they do not care about a formal ritual or religious service. I suggest to these clients that defining their funeral or celebration of life is one of their last ways of offering comfort to their loved ones, and it is their chance to say goodbye in a meaningful way to their family and community of friends. Our last ritual of funeral, burial, or gathering has its own importance to those we leave behind well beyond the form or substance of any given ritual chosen.

Just as we dispose of the cherished personal items we have accumulated over the years, the jewelry, the teacups, the artwork, the watch handed down through the generations of men, the favorite children’s book you read every night to your kids when they were 4, it is important to those we love to make choices or leave basic guidelines for a final ritual regarding disposition of our human remains. It is how we say we loved you well, one last time, to those we leave behind.


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