Episode 49: The Language of Shells ~ A Beach Wedding Ritual

Bride and groom on a beach. A large conch shell in foreground.

 

Mother Nature always leaves messages for us. Unfortunately, we don't always know how to read them.

What messages can you find in seashells? The answers are fascinating.

The answers are important if you're having a beach wedding!

 

Couples find walking along the beach romantic. We’ve all seen the photos. The couple holds hands as they stroll barefoot in the sand. Sometimes, they laugh with abandon. Sometimes the gaze intently into each other’s eyes. 

 

Advertisers tap into that emotional atmosphere. They add a colorful sunset or a full moon. All too often the scene winds up looking melodramatic or cheesy. 

 

Comedians jump on the bandwagon. They poke fun at personal ads that claim to want a relationship with someone who also likes to walk along the beach — in other words, a cheap date. 

 

Forget the advertisers and the comedians. I like walking along the beach. I do think it’s romantic. And I’m sure I’m not the only one.


I think there’s a deep-seeded reason people, partnered or single, feel good when they walk along the shore.  Simply put, it’s the fresh start symbolized every time a wave washes over the sand and leaves a clean slate.

Young couple stand kiss while standing on the beach

If you’ve ever played with an old Etch-A-Sketch toy, you know the feeling when you lift the foggy film and whatever you’ve written on the clipboard disappears. At the beach, that clean slate may suggest renewed effort after failure, forgiveness after pain, freedom after constraint, or love after loneliness. Or, what so many struggle with: self-love. Like the Etch-A-Sketch, the clean slate at the beach gives you a second chance. 

 

Symbols

Symbols speak to us in a way that words can’t, because while symbols represent something universal, as do some dream symbols, they also invite us to add our own interpretation. 

 

For example, when we think of forests, we think of old trees, acorns, pinecones, wildlife, moss and mushrooms and medicines waiting to be discovered. We think of fire and destruction, of giant industries and cozy campfires. When I think of forests, I also think of ancestral roots, fairy dwellings, and stories of transformation.  

 

In the same way, crashing waves, a gentle surf, seaweed, sand and seagulls are all universal symbols of the beach. So are shells.

 

I asked a friend for her immediate association with shells. She said wampum, a form of currency created by Native Americans who made beads from shells. Another friend said portable shelter. My son-in-love said the driveway at the Rhode Island home where he grew up. His father was a commercial fisherman. The white driveway was made of crushed shells. My immediate association is of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, depicted at the moment of her ocean birth, standing on a giant clam shell. 

 

Ocean Oracle

Several years ago, I purchased a deck of oracle cards. It’s called “Ocean Oracle: What Seashells Reveal about Our True Nature.” The author is Michelle Hanson.  

 

As with the dozen or so other oracle decks I have, this one came with a book that gives information for each card. It also came with two, double-sided, full color fold-outs grouping 200 shells and a few other ocean inhabitants in one of four categories: their behavior, their interaction with humans, their name and appearance, and finally, by the author’s intuition. Each shell on the fold-out is numbered.  

 

I use an oracle or tarot deck every day as part of my morning ritual. I quiet my mind, take a few grounding breaths, then draw a card to help me work with the energy of the day. You can do that with the Ocean Oracle, too. Or, use the fold-outs, pick ten or twelve shells that you’re drawn to. Write down their numbers. Then look up their corresponding cards, meanings and messages. They might not all resonate to what’s happening in your life, but surely some will. 

 

Pink Conch

When I first looked at the shells grouped by their interaction, I was immediately drawn to the Pink Conch (pronounced “konk”).  If you’ve seen the Disney movie Moana you’ve seen conch shells, home to mollusks, sea snails. These medium and large shells have points at both ends — a sharp spire at the top and a softer, moderately flaring funnel-like point at the bottom. The classic body is a rounded whirl with a thick outer fold called a lip. The conch has also been called a “shell horn” or “shell trumpet.” 

 

Child holds seashell to her earIn some cultures, conchs are used in rituals to call to the spirit world. In the mundane world, the conchs are the shells we hold to our ear believing we can hear the ocean. In reality, the acoustics of the shell simply amplify the blood circulating in our ear. Of course, the pumping of blood is part of our cardio function. As Michelle Hanson puts it, “We are, in effect, listening to our own hearts.”

 

burning sage in abalone shellAbalone

If you’ve ever burned sage, you might have held it in an abalone shell. These are the thick, oval shells with an outer rim of holes the abalone uses to breathe. The shell is lined with an iridescent  mother-of-pearl coating called “sea opal.”  

 

In her book Sea Magic: Connecting with the Ocean’s Energy,  author Sandra Kynes says the energy of abalone attracts abundance. 

 

Red Abalone

There are about 100 species of abalone. For Red Abalone, Michelle Hanson writes that “extracts from abalone have been used medicinally against penicillin-resistant strains of staph, strep, and typhus.” 

 

She points out what those of us in the metaphysical world know; i.e., that sometimes, if we work on an issue at the energetic level, we can keep that issue from manifesting at the physical level. The late Louise Hay wrote about that concept in You Can Heal Your Life, one of many books she wrote on the subject. 

Heart Cockle

My mother was part-Irish. I grew up hearing her sing the popular old folk song, “Molly Malone.” The song was written in the 1800s. It tells the tale of a beautiful young woman, a fishmonger, who wheels her cart through the streets of Dublin selling shellfish.  The song begins: 

In Dublin's fair city

Where the girls are so pretty

I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone

As she wheeled her wheel-barrow

Through streets broad and narrow

Crying, “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!”

 

You can hear multiple renditions of the whole song with a simple search on YouTube. 

 

Cockles are heavily ribbed shells, round or oval, that when viewed from the side look like a heart. Also called “Sailors’ Valentines,” these shells were given as gifts to convey love without words. 

 

Sandra Kynes notes the presence of heart cockles in prehistoric graves in England. That suggests the cockle shell might also have been a symbol for death and rebirth. 

Cowrie

Finally, the Cowrie. In general, cowrie shells have been used as currency for centuries. Most mollusks live inside their shells where they secrete a film that hardens to a smooth surface, keeping the mollusk’s tender body safe. The cowrie, on the other hand, lives on the outside of its shell. That’s why cowrie shells are so smooth. 

 

white cowrie shellsIn old Europe, people thought the opening of the cowrie resembled the reproductive area of a female pig. So they called cowries porcellana, a word that means “little pig.” Michelle Hanson writes that when Marco Polo returned from his trip to China with glazed pottery the likes of which Europeans had never seen, people thought the glaze resembled the surface of their “little pigs.” And so they called the pottery porcelain. 

 

In 1983, I spent several weeks in Italy and saw the ruins of Pompeii and Ercolani, ancient cities destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. I learned that women in the Old World wore jewelry made of cowries to ensure their fertility. 

 

Women in other parts of the world have similar associations with the cowrie. Some believe wearing cowrie shells will ease childbirth. Writing about this particular attribute of the cowrie, Michelle Hanson suggests working with cowrie shells for any birthing process, not only birthing children, but also any creative process. 

 

A Wedding Blend

So, we have the Pink Conch for love, Abalone in general for abundance, and Red Abalone for health, all qualities desired for a long and healthy marriage. Add the Heart Cockle for love as well as the life-affirming cycle of death and rebirth, and the Cowrie for birthing a child or a creative endeavor and you have a nice blend of gifts for a couple beginning their life together. 

 

So how can you use this information about shells in a wedding ritual? Here are two ideas. 



Ritual:  Gifts from the Sea

Listeners to my podcast, Ritual Recipes, know I’ve created multiple versions of what I call the “gifting ritual.” Think of it as basic cookie dough. 

 

I’ve created the gifting ritual around herbs (episode 5), trees (episode 6), butterflies (episode 10), moths, pandas and flours (yes, as in baking) (episode 20), and the famous seven hills of Rome (episode 47). 

 

The concept is simple. Prior to the ceremony, between four and seven guests are pre-selected and instructed in their roles. At a specific point in the ceremony, the Life-Cycle Celebrant introduces the ritual and calls for the special gifts. One by one, the gift bearers come forward and present the couple with a real or symbolic gift explained by the Celebrant. 

 

I encourage you to check out these episodes (5, 10, 20, 47) if you’re looking for a nontraditional and visually interesting way to distinguish your ceremony and as a way to honor special guests.  Your guests will thank you. So will your photographer! 

 

For Gifts from the Sea, the number of presenters is determined by the number of gifts. Again, four to seven is ideal. Here’s what the Celebrant says in the ritual:  

 

I call for ABUNDANCE, gift of the Abalone.

Called the “sea opal,” the iridescent glaze of an Abalone shell suggests a prized treasure. May this gift bring abundance to you and your marriage.   

 

I call for HEALTH, gift of the Red Abalone.

The medicinal qualities of the Red Abalone support the connection of mind-body-spirit. May this gift bring good health to you and your marriage. 

 

I call for LOVE and REBIRTH, gifts of the Heart Cockle.

When friction makes it hard to say “I’m sorry,” draw on the energy of the Heart Cockle and let love speak without words. May this give of love and rebirth bless you and your marriage. 

 

I call for FERTILITY, gift of the Cowrie.

As your family grows, the Cowrie is there to ease the pains of labor and the stress that comes with all kinds of growth. May this gift of fertility bless you and your family.   

 

I call for LOVE, gift of the Pink Conch. 

When you need the wisdom of the generations who came before you, use the Pink Conch, the shell horn, to call on the Ancestors. Then listen to the song in your heart. May this gift of Love bless you and your family. 

 

As each gift is presented, consider having the groom accept the shell and then hand it to his best man who places it in a decorated tray or basket. It’s not a good idea to expect the bride, who may be carrying a sizable bouquet, to try to juggle both flowers and shells.  

 

Prior to the wedding, you’ll need to obtain these shells. There are plenty of sources online. I realize it may feel strange for you to purchase what will later be presented to you in your ceremony. Just remember that a ritual is a visible act performed with invisible intent. Prior to your wedding ceremony, these shells are simply objects. When imbued with the intent of your honored guests, the shells become containers of abundance, health, rebirth, fertility, and love. That’s the power of ritual. 

 

Another option is to identify the honored guests months in advance of the wedding and task them with obtaining the particular shells they will represent in the ceremony. Don’t burden them with research. Give them at least two or three websites to explore. You want them to enjoy the hunt. 

 

Of course, if your honored guests like to travel, they may want to scavenge along some of the world’s most famous beaches for gathering shells — Sanibel Island in Florida, Ocracoke Island in North Carolina, Calvert Cliffs in Maryland, Seashell Beach in Texas, Jeffreys Bay in South Africa, and Shipwreck Beach in Hawaii, to name a few. 

 

At the end of this ritual, Gifts from the Sea, the couple has a collection of shells they can arrange on a fireplace mantle or a holiday dinner table. They can use them on their wedding anniversaries, handing the individual shells to each other in memory of their wedding ceremony.



Ritual: Shells and the Sand Ceremony

Here’s another idea. You’ve probably seen the sand ceremony performed at a wedding. The couple pours sand in various colors or from various places into a glass container. They seal the creation in some fashion and it becomes an artistic memento of their rite of passage. 

 

wedding sand ceremonyNow, imagine a glass container large enough to hold all the shells I talked about in the Gifts from the Sea ritual. As each honored guest presents a shell to the bride or groom, she or he positions it in the glass container. Of course, that means that if the bride is carrying a bouquet, she needs to pass it to one of her attendants before the ritual begins. (I suggest passing the bouquet for this version of the ritual since positioning the shells might be important to both spouses.)

 

At this point, the couple performs the sand ceremony in the traditional way, pouring their sand on top of the shells. Obviously, they don’t fill the container with sand because that would cover the shells and the whole idea is for shells and the gifts they represent, to be visible.  

 

The traditional sand ceremony is a unity ritual. Starting it with Gifts from the Sea suggests that the honored guests are adding their love and support for the unity of the couple and their families. 

 

Salt, Protection, and a Grandmother’s Touch

Astrologically, the world of ocean, sea and sand is associated with Cancer, the sign ruled by the Moon. The Moon represents, among other things, our maternal lineage and what makes us feel safe and secure. 

 

woman with grandmotherWith this in mind, if your grandmothers are present at your wedding, invite them to come forward now. When they get to the altar, each picks up a small bowl, the kind you might keep on your nightstand to hold a pair of earrings. Each bowl holds about a teaspoon of salt. You can have the same salt in each bowl, or get creative and use Himalayan pink salt, Himalayan black salt, Hawaiian red salt, and crystals of white rock salt. 

 

Your Life-Cycle Celebrant says a few words about how salt has been used since ancient times to protect and preserve. Then, one at a time, each grandmother adds a pinch of salt to the shells and sand in the glass container. If you are using a variety of salt, your Celebrant can add a few words about that, too. For instance: 

  • Pink Himalayan salt to protect the heart and preserve love
  • Black Himalayan salt to protect the home and preserve love
  • Hawaiian red salt to protect the passion of marriage and preserve love
  • White rock salt to honor the Ancestors and preserve love

 

If you are printing programs for your ceremony, here’s language you can use:  

 

Unity Ritual Part 1: Gifts from the Sea 

Honored guests [list their names] speak the language of the sea as they present five distinctive shells.

 

Unity Ritual Part 2: Sand Ceremony 

[Names of couple] perform a traditional sand ceremony symbolizing the unity of their two families.

 

Unity Ritual Part 3: Blessing of the Grandmothers 

[Names of grandmothers] We know how fortunate we are to have our grandmothers with us today. Using four varieties of salt, the mineral known to preserve and protect, each will bless the marriage.

 

Speaking as a grandmother, I want to live long enough to attend my grandson’s wedding. Whether your grandmother has ever said so, I’m sure she feels the same. 

 

When I visualize this part of the ritual, I picture a scene from a Disney movie with fairy godmothers gathered around to bestow their blessings on the newlyweds. If you do decide to include your grandmothers in this ritual, be sure to hire a videographer! 

 

If you do include this part of the ritual, you can give little salt shakers as wedding favors. Or, use little containers of salt in each variety, labeled with the corresponding blessing.  

 

As you plan your beach wedding, align yourself with the magic of nature, especially the watery realms. And honor the clean slate offered by Mother Nature. 

 

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Episode 48 – Renewing Your Wedding Vows

A senior couple sits in a park. He offers her a diamond ring.

Would you marry him again?

Renewing your wedding vows can be a powerful ceremony. You’ll remember the happiest times of your marriage. You’ll remember the most painful times, too.  

 

In the beginning, you date someone you can talk to for hours, someone who listens to you for hours, someone who sees the world the same way you do, someone who can finish your sentences, someone who thinks you’re perfect in every way. You think you’ve found your soul mate. With the vision of Happily Ever After, you get married. Time passes. Tension weaves its way into the fairy tale. Ouch! There’s a thorn on that rose!  Not everything is unfolding the way you thought it would. 

 

Wake up! Marriage is not one long date. At some point, often in the second year of the marriage, you realize how exquisitely your authentic selves fit together. Or, friction, once an occasional intruder, takes a firm hold. 

 

The average length of a first marriage that ends in divorce is a little over seven years. In that time, you’ve each been evaluating the marriage. You see certain traits in the other person that you couldn’t see — wouldn't see — before. Now, you ask yourself: Can I do more, be more, with this person? 

 

If the answer is yes, you do something that your friends and family recognize as evidence of your commitment to stay together:  It could be something obviously connected to your marriage, like an anniversary party. Most often, the evidence focuses on just the two of you. You buy a home or renovate. You have a child. You start a business. In one way or another, you invest something of yourselves in having a future together. 

If the answer is no, you cannot do more, be more, with this person, you separate, emotionally at first and then, all too often, legally. 

 

So it says a lot when a couple chooses to renew their wedding vows!  

 

In a previous article and podcast episode, I shared a wedding ritual I created called The Seven Hills of Rome. I talked about how this gifting ritual could be used for birthdays and retirement parties. That same ritual, appropriately tweaked, can also be used in renewing wedding vows, or any vow you make to yourself.  

 

If you’re planning your own vow renewal ceremony, this article (and podcast episode 48) will prompt you to think about the gifts your marriage has already given you and encourage you to think about what you can give to each other going forward. 

 

If you’re a Life-Cycle Celebrant helping a couple plan their vow renewal ceremony, this article will help you shape the ceremony with sensitivity, honoring both the gravitas and the joy of two people still in love. 

 

If you haven’t read the previous article or listened to podcast episode 47,  here’s a quick recap. The Seven Hills ritual involved seven pre-determined guests at the wedding. Prior to the start of the ceremony, I gave each of the seven guests a stone on which was a word representing a desirable quality in a marriage — a gift. Think of:  Passion, Friendship, Fertility, Abundance. 

 

At a certain point in the ceremony, I talked about how the couple fell in love in Rome and shared their first kiss in the ancient Garden of Oranges. Then I invited the seven guests to come up, one at a time, and present the couple with the stone.  To tie the ritual to Rome, I did some research and associated each of the words with some aspect of the one of the seven hills Rome was built on. The associations were subjective. For instance, I said the Aventine, the hill with the Garden of Oranges, represented the gift of love because that’s where my couple shared their first kiss. I could have associated the Aventine with health because of all the vitamin C in the oranges. 

 

You do something similar for a vow renewal. Use the location where the vow renewal takes place, or the location of the wedding. Better yet, use both — especially if there’s contrast between the two. For example: 

  • An elopement at City Hall and a vow renewal at 5-star resort 

The gifts: Expediency and Success

 

  • A formal church wedding and a Las Vegas drive-through vow renewal, complete with an Elvis impersonator 

The gifts: Tradition and Unconventionalism 

 

  • A hastily planned wedding at the bedside of a dying parent and a vow renewal on the beach 

The gifts: Compassion and Nature 

 

  • A small backyard wedding and a vow renewal on a television reality show 

The gifts: Family and Fame

Expectations vs. Reality 

The location of the wedding and/or vow renewal provides the scaffolding for the ritual. The depth comes from who these two people are and the experiences they shared. A wedding celebrates a couple’s future. Sure in their love for each other, they imagine how life will unfold.  A vow renewal celebrates a couple’s history. That includes what they expected when they got married and what they actually experienced. Look for the gifts. For instance: 

 

  • Maybe the couple expected to put down roots and become part of a community, only to wind up moving every few years. Tie that experience with the gift of Adventure. 

 

  • Maybe the couple expected to have one child and wound up with triplets. Tie that experience with the gift of Fertility. 

 

  • Maybe the couple expected a modest lifestyle and won a huge lottery. Tie that experience with the gift of Good Fortune.   

The Struggles: Infertility, Bankruptcy, Infidelity

Anyone who has been married for any length of time knows that marriage has its struggles. When appropriate, saying something about those struggles in the ceremony can add the gravitas that makes a vow renewal deeply meaningful. Look to classic wedding vows for inspiration. For example: 

  • “For richer, for poorer” — Maybe the couple anticipated financial security from their disciplined savings only to be bankrupt by a crash in the stock market.

 

  • “In sickness and in health” — Maybe the couple planned to travel the world footloose and fancy free, only to be anchored in place by a serious illness.

 

  • “In good times and in bad” — Maybe the couple assumed marriage meant happily ever after, only to realize that even in fairy tales family members turn on each other, or fall prey to addiction, or lose a child.

   

  • “To forsake all others” — Maybe one or both spouses broke their vows of fidelity. With time, counseling, and forgiveness, they want to recommit. That’s a sensitive situation, especially if children are involved. 

 

Many of the struggles a couple faces are obvious to family and friends. When that’s the case, no mention of the struggle could make the vow renewal feel hollow. Whatever the challenge, if you’re the couple, you decide whether or not to mention it in the ceremony.

If you’re a Life-Cycle Celebrant creating a vow renewal ceremony for your clients and they want to acknowledge a particular struggle, do so with compassion. If that struggle is infidelity, consider using language about their hearts needing to separate in order to grow. Say something about how a broken bone is extra strong in the place where it mends. Be sensitive, especially if children are involved.   

 

The Test of Time

There’s an inherent optimism in wedding vows, whether the couple uses traditional vows or writes their own..Each spouse wants to bring his or her best self to the marriage and rightfully assumes the other spouse feels the same. But at that point in the relationship, the vows have yet to be tested. Time will take care of that.    

 

A vow renewal acknowledges that the couple has faced those tests. Whether they renew their vows after ten years, or twenty-five, or fifty, the ceremony celebrates the growth of both people as individuals and as a couple. While the traditional wedding vows point to the common challenges in all marriages, every couple’s story is unique.  That’s why I encourage couples having a vow renewal to write their own vows. 

 

If that’s you, what do you say?  Whether or not you’re creating your own vow renewal ceremony, or you’re working with a Life-Cycle Celebrant, dig deep into what challenged you as individuals and as a couple. That’s where you’ll find the inspiration you need. 

Sources of Challenge, Friction and Growth

Of the many areas you can explore, here are a few of the big sources of friction. These same items can help build a strong foundation, too. For now, look at the list, think about how these items echo the classic vows of  “…for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, in good times and bad…” 

  

  • Money
  • Children
  • Health 
  • In-laws 
  • Physical home
  • Gender Roles 
  • Time 
  • Education
  • Spirituality 
  • Politics
  • Abandoned dreams
  • Shattered dreams 

 

Inspired by these areas of possible friction, let what you’ve learned about each other — what you admire and appreciate about each other —  inspire your vows. Here are four examples of how you could phrase renewed vows. Note that the examples focus on behavior, not promises to feel a certain way. 

  1. “Standing by your side all these years, I know how hard you work to help our family.  With gratitude, I’ll always be mindful of your devotion to our family’s comfort.”  Instead of “comfort,” you can substitute health or security, or safety, or whatever is appropriate for you.

 

  1. “In the many years we’ve been married, you’ve shown me the true meaning of  support.  With gratitude, I’ll always show you the same.”  Instead of “support,” you can substitute acceptance, respect, generosity, sacrifice, resilience, or whatever is appropriate for you.

 

  1. “Over the years we’ve been together, we’ve learned to encourage  without reservation, to communicate without illusion, and to love without condition. I’m grateful for the years we’ve had and look forward to many more to come.”  

 

  1. “The deepest joy of my life comes from raising our children. With pride, I’m eager to support our future grandchildren, knowing we’ll do that together, too.” 

The Ritual 

If reading this article makes you want to renew your wedding vows, or, if you are, like me, a Life-Cycle Celebrant who creates such ceremonies for your clients, here are two vow renewal rituals to consider.  


  •  Adapt The Seven Hills of Rome Wedding Ritual

Check out the recap of the Seven Hills of Rome ritual I referred to earlier. Decide on the number of special guests you want to participate. I recommend anywhere between three and seven. Fewer than three and you lack the repetition that creates the richness of this ritual. More than seven and you risk the energy dissipating.  

 

In the original wedding ritual, I had the special guests present stones. You don’t have to use stones carved with words. You can use a Sharpie and write the words on an 18-inch piece of grosgrain ribbon. (Satin ribbon will bleed.)  Tie the ribbons to a wreath, or to wine glasses or beer steins or coffee mugs. Or, have the presenting guests each place a flower in a vase primed with assorted greens. Or, have each guest present a gourmet cupcake with a word written in frosting. 

  • The Growing Flame

In the metaphysical world, fire is the element of desire, will power, inspiration, the goal that’s worth serious sweat equity. We often use words related to fire to describe the intensity of a romantic relationship:  instant sparks, flames of passion, embers of desire. With those associations in mind, I created a ritual called “The Growing Flame” for couples renewing their vows. The overall theme is that whatever kindled their initial attraction has continued to grow over the years. That makes this ritual particularly effective for couples who have been married at least ten years. 

 

To illustrate the ritual, imagine that the couple has four grown children and that friends and other members of the family are present for the ceremony. Have a table set up with a framed wedding photo of the couple. Make sure the table is large enough to hold other items. 

 

If the couple used a unity candle in their wedding ceremony, have that on the table, too. They can begin the ceremony by relighting that candle. 

 

Before the ceremony begins, designate four friends who knew the couple when they got married, and who, ideally, attended the wedding. One at a time, each of these friends brings up a tealight safely held in a votive glass. The tealights or the votive holders should be four different colors. As the four friends present the votives and place them on the outer edge of the table, they state an admirable quality the couple was known for at the time of the wedding. For example: 

 

Blue tealight:  “When you got married, everyone knew you as the couple whose door was always open.” 

 

Red tealight:  “When you got married, everyone knew you as the couple with the crazy sense of adventure.” 

 

Green tealight:  “When you got married, everyone knew you as the couple with a genuine love of nature.” 

 

Yellow tealight:  “When you got married, everyone knew you as the couple who rescued animals.”   

 

At this point, the Life-Cycle Celebrant, or whoever is conducting the ceremony, says a few words about how, over the years, if an admirable trait  is nurtured with love, it will not only grow but will also be mirrored by others. 

 

Now the couple’s four grown children come up, each with a blue, red, green, or yellow candle. These candles are big, thick pillars. Each child presents a candle, places it on the table, behind the corresponding tealight, and says something that echoes the earlier sentiment, this time from the perspective of the grown child. For example:   

Blue pillar:  “Because you got married, we grew up knowing we could always bring friends to our house. You taught us how to create a hospitable home.” 

 

Red pillar:  “Because you got married, we grew up unafraid of life and the adventures it offers. You opened our eyes to a wild and wonderful world.” 

 

Green pillar:  “Because you got married, we grew up determined to help protect our environment. You helped us help Mother Earth.” 

 

Yellow pillar:  “Because you got married, we grew up knowing there’s something we can do to relieve the suffering of the less fortunate. By your example, you showed us how to speak for those who have no voice.”

 

The Life-Cycle Celebrant says a few words about the beauty and lasting value of the legacy the couple has created, as evidenced by their grown children. 

 

As for timing, it’s right after this ritual, The Growing Flame, or the adaptation of The Seven Hills of Rome, that the couple should renew their vows. 

The Vow You Make to Yourself

I hope these ideas have inspired you to look at your own committed relationships, including the relationship you have with yourself. 

 

Do a little ritual with a tealight in a votive when you start that new book, or exercise routine, or graduate program, or cooking class. When you’ve reached your goal, repeat the ritual, this time with a large, pillar candle. Use a toothpick and carve your name into the sides of the pillar candle. Then light the flame and reflect on your journey. Bask in the glow…and let yourself be inspired for your next adventure.   

 

Posted in Ceremony Ideas, Life in General, Ritual Recipes Podcast, Rituals, Wedding Vows, Weddings | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Episode 47: The 7 Hills of Rome ~ A gifting ritual for weddings and living a magical life

Young couple make a "love" sign in Rome

Did you fall in love in Paris? Or Podunk?  How can a big city or a small town inspire a wedding ritual? What else can you do with this gifting ritual? 

 

The ancient city of Rome was built on seven hills. One of my couples, Thomas and Raffaele, shared their first kiss in a famous garden on one of those hills. I drew on the magic of that moment and that place to create their wedding ceremony and a particular wedding ritual. Let me give you some context.

In November of 2017, Raffaele and Thomas got married at the elegant and historic Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. I was their officiant. 

When I work with a couple, I look for little details that will help me shape their love story and create a unique ritual for their ceremony. 

This love story started when Raffaele, who lived in Connecticut, had to go to Rome on business. He mentioned the upcoming trip to a group on Facebook and asked if anyone knew someone in Rome who would be willing to show him the sights for the few days he’d be there. Thomas responded. He lived in Rome and would be happy to give Raffaele a tour. 

Though Raffaele’s family was from Italy, he, himself, had never been there before. Now, he got to see the legendary Seven Hills through Thomas’s eyes. In doing so, each man realized they shared interests, values, and visions of the future. And, though neither ever expected it to happen, they also shared another kind of attraction.   

It was on the third day that Thomas said he wanted to share his favorite place, a truly magical garden. Where some of Rome’s seven hills had gained fame for being home to the richest, or the most powerful, or the biggest, or the one with the strongest fortress, the Aventine was home to the ancient Garden of Oranges. It did prove to be a magical place for it was in that garden that the two men shared their first kiss. 

All too soon, it was time for Raffaele to fly back to the States. Learning how to navigate a long-distance relationship was next for the couple. It wasn’t easy but they managed. Love is a great motivator.

On one particular trip, Thomas came to Connecticut to help Raffaele with his business and to meet his family. It was on that trip that they bought wedding rings. For someday. 

It would be over a year before “someday” arrived. When it did, both men knew it was time. They set a date, November 12, three weeks away. Yes, three weeks!  Fortunately, the Connecticut wedding season winds down at the end of October. So, the men  didn’t have the usual challenges of finding a first class venue, photographer, and other professionals they wanted.

In designing their ceremony, I wanted to highlight the Garden of Oranges. Not only was it the place where they shared their first kiss, it was also the name of a new perfume. You see Raffaele Ruberto is the internationally known “beauty biologist,” famed for his highly successful line of skincare products. The perfume was his latest creation. At the rehearsal, I learned that the guests would all receive a bottle of the perfume — Giardino degli Aranci — in a special box commemorating the wedding.  

Drawing on the ancient magic of the garden, I wove three rituals into the ceremony. 

The Oathing Stone

Orange blossom painted on a stone

 

When Thomas and Raffaelle made their vows, they did so on an oathing stone hand-painted with orange blossoms by my friend and artist, Carol Chaput. First, Thomas held the pale gray riverstone, about the size of a large egg, in his opened palm. Raffaele placed his right hand on top of the stone and made his vows. Then Raffaele held the stone for Thomas. 

The concept of oathing stones goes back centuries. We hear it when people make a statement and say, “I swear on my mother’s grave.”  In the ancient world, it was an accepted truth that the spirits of those who had died were now in the Underworld and from that realm the dead the ancestors would guide and protect the living. 

That connection between the worlds was sacred.  In cultures that buried their dead, people would lovingly tend the graves of their ancestors. They would go to the grave to pray. They would leave flowers. They might leave a stone, or plant a tree. They might have a picnic. They might fence off a particularly nice section of land so that all their ancestors would be together. If all that sounds like something we do today, you’re right. 

The Underworld was, literally, under the ground. People believed that a stone or piece of a tree that came from the ground where the person was buried held an energetic connection to the dead. If you made a vow while holding that stone or piece of wood, then broke that vow, you would no longer have the protection of your ancestors. You put your life at risk. Literally. 

Turn back time and imagine living in a village. Everyone knows everyone else. One of your neighbors commits a crime. When he is accused, he swears on the graves of his ancestors that he didn’t do the deed. Eventually, the truth is revealed and everyone knows the neighbor lied. Far worse than lying, he broke a vow to his ancestors. For that, punishment could mean death. More often, it meant being banished from the village. How could he ever be trusted? 

That gravitas is inherent in an oathing stone. Of course, today most people don’t live in small villages. Many don’t even live in the area where they were born. So getting a stone or piece of wood from a tree on the land of their ancestors isn’t feasible. I offer hand-painted stones on my Etsy shop. Of course, you can use any stone, as long as it has meaning to you. 

Handfasting

Handfasting cord in orange, green, and whiteFor Raffaele and Thomas, I followed the vows with a meaningful, and a bit humorous, handfasting. I made their cord in green, orange, and white to echo the colors of the Garden of Oranges. I made it nine feet long because 3×3 is the formula for magic. Plus, with a long cord, they can add a knot as part of each anniversary.  

 

The Seven Hills of Rome

Earlier in the ceremony, before the vows and the handfasting, I had arranged for seven particular guests to present the couple with seven stones, each carved with an inspiring word. 

To make the ritual truly personal, I associated each stone with one of the Seven Hills of Rome. At a special point in the ceremony, I called for the gift of each hill. 

The guest came up and held the stone while I read what it represented. Then the guest gave the stone to one of the grooms who placed it on a little altar I had created. What follows is a slightly revised version of the language I used for Thomas and Rafaelle. Here’s how it might sound if you used it in a ritual:  

For as long as couples have gotten married, friends and family have given gifts to support the marriage. Couples today might receive anything from bitcoin to gym memberships. In  much earlier times, wedding gifts symbolized qualities desired in a marriage — fidelity, health, prosperity. Harkening back to those days and in honor of the Seven Hills of Rome, the ancient city where our couple fell in love, I invite seven guests to join me and bestow a wedding gift written in stone. 

1. I call for the Palatine.  /  The Palatine is known as the Beverly Hills of ancient Rome. Home of the Colosseum, the Palatine is the traditional site associated with the founding of the city. From the Palatine comes the gift of ABUNDANCE. 

2.  I call for the Capitoline.  / The Capitoline is considered by many to be the most important of the Hills. Its physical features create a natural fortress. Both the citadel and the Temple of Jupiter, “The Great Benefic,” can be found here. From the Capitoline comes the gift of PROTECTION. 

3. I call for the Esqualine.  / The Esqualine is the largest of the hills. Now a fashionable residential district, it is also home to the temple of Minerva. Like her Greek counterpart, Athena, Minerva is the goddess of wisdom, art, justice, and commerce. From the Esqualine comes the gift of UNDERSTANDING. 

4. I call for the Quirinal.  / The Quirinal is home to the temple of Mars and boasts the best quality of air in the city. From the Quirinal comes the gift of HEALTH. 

5. I call for the Viminal. /  The Viminal is the smallest of the hills and holds one of the world’s greatest collections of Greco-Roman art. From the Viminal comes the gift of BEAUTY. 

6. I call for the Caelian.  / The Caelian is home to an outdoor opera and to ancient thermal baths that can accommodate 10,000 at a time. From the Caelian comes the gift of COMMUNITY. 

7. Finally, I call for the Aventino.  / The Aventino is home of the temples to Diana and Ceres, and home of the ancient  Giardino degli Aranci, the Garden of Oranges. From the Aventino, comes the gift of LOVE.  

 

This ritual turned out even better than I had anticipated. Many of the guests had flown in from Rome to be at the wedding. From the comments they shared with me, I know they appreciated having their home honored in the ceremony. 

The pairing of each hill with a particular quality came from my imagination. I associated the Aventino with love because, well, that’s where Raffaele and Thomas shared their first kiss. If not for that kiss, I would associate the Aventino with health because of all that vitamin C in the Garden of Oranges. Instead of beauty, I might associate the Viminal with culture because of the art collections. Because Jupiter’s temple is on the Capitoline, I might associate that hill with good fortune. 

Other Occasions

Although I created The Seven Hills of Rome for a wedding, the ritual can be adapted for other occasions: 

  • A birthday celebration for someone who once took the trip of a lifetime to Rome 
  • A retirement party for someone who is eager to travel 
  • A student who is leaving home to study abroad

The theme of the ritual is gifting. The scaffolding is the city. 

You can use that concept to create rituals for any city or small town. Ask yourself: 

  • What is its history? 
  • What are its landmarks? 
  • What is it known for?
  • Who are its people?

Just as someone might associate New York City with museums and the gift of culture… or Broadway and the gift of entertainment, someone else might associate the Big Apple with restaurants and the gift of hospitality, or fashion and the gift of creativity, or history and the gift of a legacy, or immigration and the gift of opportunity, or neighborhoods and the gift of community. Your familiarity with a place will help you make your own associations. 

In the same spirit, I think of the little town of Timber Lake, South Dakota, where my dad grew up.  I was born and raised in Tidewater, Virginia. At least every other summer, my mom and dad and two younger sisters spent several weeks in Timber Lake. Technically, we spent our time at “the home place,” about ten miles outside of town. Six of those miles were paved. The rest were ruts in a dirt road. 

When I think of those summers, I think of nature and the gift of wonder. I think of an immense sky and the gift of perspective. I think of farming and the gift of food. I think of hard work and the gift of self-reliance, of windmills and the gift of change, of harvest and the gift of prosperity, of neighbors and the gift of support, of family and the gift of love. I think of the Lakota, the First People, and the gifts of legacy and spirit. 

Other Props

In re-imagining The Seven Hills of Rome ritual, you can use something other than stones to hold the gifts: 

  • Begin with a large vase half full of assorted greenery. Each gift is presented with a flower that the gift-bearer adds to the vase.
  • Begin with a large pot of chicken or vegetable stock. Each gift is presented with a bowl of chopped vegetables that the gift-bearer adds to the soup. 
  • Begin with an empty tool box. Each gift is presented with a hammer or screwdriver or other tool that the gift-bearer adds to the box. 

General Locations

You can also The Seven Hills of Rome ritual around a general location, such as the mountains, or the woods, or the beach. You can check out episode 6 for a ritual called “Gifts from the Trees.” Here’s an example from that ritual: 

FRIENDSHIP is the gift of the WHITE BIRCHStudy a grove of white birch and you’ll see they’re joined at the roots. That image suggests communication, good allies, like-minded people who are devoted through friendship.  


An Exercise in Gratitude

Even if you aren’t looking for a unique ritual for a wedding or birthday or retirement, it’s good to be reminded of the gifts we have, right in front of us. 

Take a look at the world right outside your door. Do you have: 

  • trees and their gift of memories 
  • a mailbox and the gift of communication 
  • a gas station and the gift of energy 
  • a dumpster and the gift of letting go 
  • a highway and the gift of adventure 
  • a crossroad and the gift of choice 
  • wildflowers and the gift of beauty 
  • running water and the gift of serenity  
  • a grocery store and the gift of nourishment 
  • a school and the gift of knowledge 

Whether you live in a big city or a small town, being able to see the invisible gifts all around you will help you live a magical life. 

What gifts wait right outside your door? 

 

Posted in Ceremony Ideas, Life in General, Oathing Stones, Rituals, Wedding Vows, Weddings | Leave a comment

Is Your Child Leaving Home?

Young woman stands by a stone wall, holding an opened map of an old city

As loving parents, we do things to show our children that there’s no place like home. They still grow up and leave. For the child, that milestone opens the door to freedom. For the parent, that milestone empties the nest. This calls for a ritual.  

Imagine that you’re a parent and your child is leaving home for college, or for a job, a physical adventure, or a journey of the heart. You’ve equipped your son or daughter with all the necessities of a well-appointed dorm room. You’ve packed favorite snacks. You’ve supplied for-emergencies-only cash and you’ve dispensed sage advice. You’re excited to see your child on the verge of a grand adventure. This is a milestone in your young adult’s life and in your own. Yet the grand idea feels empty. What’s missing?  A ritual. 

In case the whole concept of ritual is new to you, let me say two things:  

  1. The way I see it, ritual is a visible act performed with invisible intent. 
  2. If you’ve ever made a wish and blown out the candles on a birthday cake, you’ve performed a ritual. It can be that simple. 

 

There are different kinds of rituals. Some, like weddings and funerals and having children, are rites of passage. They mark unmistakable before and after points in our lives. 

 

Some rituals are designed to support through times of traumatic change or loss. Examples include going through a divorce, or getting out of prison, or losing a home in a natural disaster.  

Some rituals celebrate the change of seasons. Those rituals align us with the cycles of nature, and connect us with the spirit of our ancestors. 

If you ever questioned the importance of rituals, think about what the 2020 high school graduates missed last year because of the Covid-19 pandemic:  no class trip, no prom, no graduation ceremony, no graduation parties. My grandson, Logan, and hundreds of thousands of fellow seniors across the world, missed all that. 

His summer job was canceled. He was to be a manager at a large boy scout camp, having attended every summer since he was a cub scout. Last year, he achieved  the rank of eagle scout. The ceremony was canceled.  As a college freshman, he looked forward to meeting new people on campus. Instead, he stayed at home and is taking classes online. This last year hasn’t been easy on him. Or on any of the other 2020 grads.  

Here it is, April of 2021. My daughter just told me that the court of honor to bestow the rank of eagle scout on Logan and two other young men will be held next month. A real, in-person ceremony. Yes, attendance will be somewhat limited and masks still required. That’s okay. By then, everyone in my family will have had both vaccines and will have passed the waiting window for the vaccine’s magic to take effect. 

 

Spring is a time when energy speeds up. No surprise, after a year of Covid confinement, our grandson is eager to get out into the world. One of these days, he’ll leave home and build his own nest. That will be a big event.  As a society, we don’t have rituals for that. Oh sure, we have parties. But we don’t have rituals. I want to change that. 

 

Here are a few ideas.  

 

Memories and Mashed Potatoes

 

I call this first one “Memories and Mashed Potatoes.”  As rituals go, this is a support ritual. It’s for the child leaving home and for the parents and siblings left behind. 

 

No surprise, from weddings and funerals to Sunday dinners at grandma’s house, food has long been a staple of family gatherings. For me, Sunday dinners meant pot roast and mashed potatoes. As a kid, I sculpted the potatoes to make a lake for my mother’s homemade gravy. As a teen cook, I cursed the lumps I could never conquer. As an adult, I experimented with chicken stock, heavy cream, light cream,  cream cheese, sour cream, roasted garlic, and shaved parmesan to improve the classic add-ins of milk and butter. Some efforts were more successful than others. In time, I realized there’s a reason mashed potato bars became a popular feature at wedding receptions. Comfort food, like mashed potatoes, pair with events designed to make memories. Let the power of nostalgia seasoned with food work for you. 

During the week before your child leaves home, serve his or her favorite meal. It can be a dish you make yourself, or something from a favorite restaurant or even take-out. The key ingredients are not in the food; they’re in the memories. While everyone is eating, make a point to talk about the food and the future. 

“The next time you eat eggplant parmesan, you’ll be in Italy!  When that day comes, what will you remember about the eggplant parm we’re having tonight?”  If there are siblings, encourage them to share a favorite memory made with the one leaving home. 

If the meal is homemade, give your child the recipe. My daughter emails her favorite recipes to me all the time. I print them out and add them to a three-ring binder I keep in the kitchen. When she comes to visit, she often cooks. She could open her phone for the recipe but she prefers to use my binder. She says the 14-point type is easier to read. 

I think the real reason she uses my binder, or any of the cookbooks in my little library, is that whenever I follow a recipe, I make a note in the margin.  

I might write that I substituted an ingredient or had to increase the baking time. Most of my notes, however, are like diary entries: 

Crispy Cobbler:  

1999 Sept 29 / Dick [husband] home from 6-month hike on Appalachian Trail. He has mixed feelings.  I’m trying to understand.

2010 Nov 25 / Up early with Tim [son-in-love] to prep the turkey. Such fun to cook with him.

2016 May 27 / Bad news from Dick’s neurologist. It’s Altzheimer’s.

2020 Dec 6 / Logan [grandson] here for 10 days. Helped me set up the Christmas tree. Can’t manage it by myself anymore.

When you give your child the binder, add notes to the recipes. Think of your notes as sourdough starter.   

Crispy Cobbler:  “Perfect dessert to console or celebrate.”

Shortcut Chili: “Go easy on the hot sauce. Don’t give your friends indigestion.”

Chicken Soup: “Be sure to make a wish every time you taste-test!” 

You’re nurturing a new level of parent-child relationship with this binder whether or not your child ever cooks. 

 

The Enchanted Map

When Logan was about five years old, we made a treasure map from a brown, grocery story bag.  We tore the edges to give it a rustic feel, then pressed wet tea bags all over it to make it look old. His artistic talents were evident even then, so he drew a map. It had a castle, a magic forest, assorted monsters, and a treasure. We rolled up the map like a scroll and tied it with a ribbon. 

That evening, we went to the wooded area near my home and played a game we called Magic Castle. We wore costumes I had made and placed battery operated tea lights at the base of the magical trees and hid a genuine treasure chest. Then he opened the map and our search began. Yes, we knew where everything was. That didn’t matter. We used our imaginations. He had an adventure. I made memories. 

As it turned out, he made memories, too. He’ll be 19 next week. Not long ago he came to visit and said he wished all kids could play Magic Castle like we did when he was young. (Yes, my heart melted.) 

Don’t worry if you don’t have a map your child made as a young squire, a space traveler, a pirate, or a princess. You can invest in the oracle deck, “The Enchanted Map,” by Collette Baron Reed. There are 54 cards. The images are intriguing. One is of a white, heart-faced barn owl holding a make-a-wish dandelion puff while sitting on top of an egg that sits on top of a Grecian column in a field filled with fluffy dandelions.  

 

In the accompanying guidebook, each card begins with a sentence or two that condenses the wisdom of the card. Then the book goes deeper. It  asks thoughtful questions about the people, places, conditions, and challenges we meet on our journeys, both the physical and metaphorical. 

 

For example, the owl with the dandelion is on the card “Intention.” The message in the guidebook is about the power of having clear intentions and sending those intentions into the world, allowing  synchronicity to do its magic. That’s an excellent card for a child about to leave the nest. It’s perfect for the child’s parents, too. 

Other cards are equally evocative. The Bone Collector is my favorite. It’s another card that can apply to the child or the parent. 

Picture a slender old woman with twinkling eyes and a bright smile. She wears a long, earth-colored, Bohemian style dress.  A cloud of white smoke gathers around her nearly bald head. She’s sitting on the ground, in the center of a circle formed of stones. On her left is a clock, on her right is a rabbit. In her hands, she holds a peacock feather. The sun is setting on the desert background. Animal skeletons hang behind her like pendant lights. 

From the guidebook, we learn that the Bone Collector was there at your childhood wounding. The intensity of that wounding varies, of course. But we’ve all experienced some kind of limitation or disappointment as a child. According to the message, that’s when we lost some part of ourselves. All these years, the Bone Collector has kept safe what was stolen from you in that wounding. The challenge is for you to see yourself in a new way. She’s there for you, right now, as you reclaim your power. 

 

When you or your child leaves home, it’s good to be reminded of the power of your intentions. It’s good to be encouraged to claim back your power. 

 

 

Create a Ritual with the Enchanted Map Cards 

 

Here’s a simple ritual for how to use the cards in a ritual with friends and family.  This ritual would work well for a child leaving home for a career, the call of the wild, like backpacking across Europe, or an adventure of the heart. 

Each guest selects a card, sight unseen. At an appropriate moment, the guests take turns reading the corresponding condensed messages from the guidebook and giving the cards to the guest of honor. The guests are encouraged to add a personal wish. 

Give your child a container that can hold all the cards. Encourage him or her to pull one of the cards each morning as part of a daily ritual. If your son or daughter doesn’t have a spiritual practice, this ritual is a safe and simple way to begin one. 

Ritual:  Super-Hero Map

Remember the map I made with my grandson? Make one for your child. If you don’t want to use a grocery store bag, get a piece of butcher’s paper, newsprint, or packing paper. 

Let’s assume your son or daughter is going off to college. On the paper, sketch a road with starting and ending points. One point is your home address; the other is the name of the college. 

Let the guests mark on the map something the new freshman might encounter along the 4-year journey. For instance: small dorm room / great roommate / join thespian group / join sports team / join debate club / join band / party / learn you really do need to sleep / tough exams / repeat course / meet someone…special

 

Have each person also write along the edges of the map some super-hero quality the student possesses:  Smart / Confident / Creative / Resourceful / Popular / Honest / Compassionate. Have the guests write their own names on the map, too. 

Remember that intent is what makes an activity a ritul. When the guests have presented their cards and written their messages on the map, roll up the paper and tie it with a string.  Pass it among all the guests. Encourage each person to hold the map while saying, “Remember your way home” or something similar. 

When the map has been anointed with the good will of the guests, present the map. Make sure your child knows how well-equipped he or she is for the journey ahead.   

 

If you’re a sibling of the one leaving home… give your departing brother or sister something that represents you. That could be a photo, especially a photo of the two of you. It could be a stuffed animal, or a bandana, or a stone on which you’ve written your name. 

What if you’re the parent of the one leaving home?  My sister and I talked about this a few days ago. I told her that when my daughter left home I cried. Whenever she’d come to visit and it came time to leave, I kissed her and waved good-bye, then closed the door and cried. That was the routine for three years. I’m not exaggerating. 

My sister reminded me that back then, there were no cell phones, no Facebook or Facetime, no Zoom or Skype or WhatsAp. Long distance phone calls were charged by the minute. It was easy for an average $20 monthly phone bill to wind up in the hundreds of dollars. 

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways parents and children can stay connected these days. That can lessen the anxiety of having a child leave home. Still, the empty nest needs to be acknowledged — with a ritual.  

Ritual:  The Fledgling

The idea for this ritual is to create a symbolic nest to represent your child’s new home, wherever that might be. 

You can find a hand-crafted nest in a craft store. Line it with dried moss. You can find that at craft stores, too. Or, line it with strips of an old piece of clothing, or fabric in your child’s favorite color. 

Keep a pen and a pad of notepaper near the nest. Whenever you feel sad, tear off a slip of paper. Write your child a few words of encouragement, or a wish, or an affirmation. For instance, you might write: 

  • You have a lot of wisdom to offer.  Share your voice.   
  • Someone needs your smile. 
  • Go ahead. Try something new. 
  • Find your open door. 

Fold up your message and put it in the nest. Later, you can give the nest to your child, complete with notes. You might even add a Hershey Kiss or two or ten to the nest. 

In the end, when you take concrete action to affirm your love as a parent and to support your child’s new venture, you create a ritual. Though the pain of missing your child doesn’t disappear, it does become easier to bear. 

Posted in Cultural Traditions, Friendship, Home, Life in General, Rituals | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Episode 45 – Hawk & Falcon Medicine for the Spirit

Peregrine Falcon

 

Does the story of the noble hero on a quest to find the feminine grail stir something inside you? If so, the hawk calls you. Does it cry “Beware!” or “Be aware”?  

 Are you drawn to the Egyptian falcon-headed god Horus and stories about the soul leaving the body when a person dies? If so, the falcon calls.   

 The falcon is the consummate hunter. Known for its speed and precision, it can catch its prey mid-air. The falcon teaches us how to make progress by blending speed and focus. The falcon also helps us send energy to a dying person, so the transition will be easy. 

 THE HAWK

Hawk sitting in tree.

The hawk’s medicine is inward and deep. Where did you come from? Where are your roots? Who are your ancestors? The hawk wants you to see your life from a broad perspective. 

 The hawk wants you to let go of unnecessary baggage, the kind that is heaped on us when we’re children. Even the most well-meaning parents do it. Because they, too, are carrying baggage.  

 When the hawk comes into your life, the invitation isn’t to your family. It’s to you. The hawk wants you to recognize the significance of the events in your life — including past lives.

Did you give to someone, help someone, teach someone, inspire someone? Was that how you were treated? 

 Did you take from someone, ignore someone, criticize someone, cheat someone, hurt someone? Was that how you were treated? 

 It takes courage to look at ourselves, at our family stories, with the keen eyes of a hawk and fortify the honorable qualities and remove the vermin. 

 Working with hawk medicine awakens the vision we have inside us, the one about who we really are, what we really want to do with our lives. 

I’m reminded of the words of the late playwright Florida Scott Maxwell. She was born in 1883 and lived into her nineties. She said, “You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done, which may take some time, you are fierce with reality.”

 Fierce. That’s a good word to associate with hawk medicine. As parents, hawks practice tough love, or so it seems. Once their young can fly, the parents stop feeding them and send them on their way.  Then again, maybe that’s not tough love. Maybe it’s the way hawk parents express confidence in their offspring. 

 Maybe a sense of confidence is what gives birds of prey their fearless quality. That fearlessness makes them the ideal companions for shamans who travel to the realm of the dead to obtain cures, to learn the wisdom of animals,  to honor those animals, and make alliances. 

 In The Druid Animal Oracle authors Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm write about how Druid shamans would enlist the aid of a spirit-ally to venture into other realms. Different birds offered different gifts, different tools. The swan brought grace; the raven initiation. When it came to the hawk, the gifts were nobility and stature, dignity and pride.

We see those qualities in the legend of King Arthur. The Knights Gawain (the Hawk of May) and Galahad (the Hawk of Summer), each one a masculine solar figure, go in search of the feminine Holy Grail. On their quest for healing, completion, and illumination, each in his own way asks: Who am I? Why am I here? 

 We ask those same questions. Even as the hawk soars upward toward the sun, a metaphorical image of our quest, we know on some level that the answers we seek lie within. 

Just as hunters valued the hawk for its ability to see, circle, and hover over its prey, Druids valued the hawk for its ability to see what needed to be cleansed from a person’s spirit. It’s in that cleansing that we can claim who we are, and that we can become, as Florida Scott-Maxwell said, “fierce with reality.” 

 That kind of inward cleansing is something you must do by yourself. The relationship is one-on-one. Birds of prey don’t fly in flocks like geese or gather on the beach for a flash mob dance the way pink flamingos do.  

 In her book Bird Signs author G.G. Carbone writes, “If you have just met someone, take your time and get to know the person through observation. Hawks mate for life, so once you decide to commit to someone, the lifelong journey begins.” She suggests that to align with the energy of Hawk, take time to observe the little things in life. 

 My friend Carol Chaput is a fine artist who draws, among other things, owls and hawks. She’s also a poet with a passion for the natural world. Years ago, I asked if she could teach me to think like a poet. In response, she taught me to keep what she calls “the quarry.” Each day, she lists ten things she has observed. The hunt isn’t for pretty language, or even full sentences. The task is to train the eye to observe. 

 I kept my own quarry for several months, until I buried the book with the rest, residue, and remainder of so many other creative endeavors. I came across the book yesterday. Here are four items on my list for a day in January 2014: 

  • The ticking clock on the wall
  • A picnic table and two benches, all one piece, a deterrent to thieves
  • A discarded plastic dump truck
  • An endless stream of error messages scolding from the monitor

At the time, I was too close to events to see a pattern. I wasn’t looking for one. Now, seven years later, I can see that when I made those observations I was still processing a professional loss I had suffered more than two years earlier. 

 Seeing a pattern was not the purpose of keeping a list. And yet, there it was — the emotional vermin I needed to remove. Seeing the pattern made it easy to break the pattern. 

 In these last seven years, I’ve acquired three of Carol’s original works. Two drawings are of solitary owls. One is of three baby hawks. How interesting, how encouraging, to think that the Owl and the Hawk have been with me all this time. 

G.G. Carbone offers another lesson from the Hawk. Stop circling. Take action. In her words, “Maybe you have remained on the sidelines too long. With Hawk as your ally, you can experience life more actively.” 

 That idea of being an active participant in life is explored by the late Ted Andrews in his book, Animal-Speak. Focusing on the red-tailed hawk, Andrews draws a parallel between the red of the tail feathers and the kundalini, that spiritual energy coiled at the base of the spine, that, when aroused, moves up through the chakras, breaking through energy blocks, often at a time when a person is discovering her soul purpose. 

Andrews says that if the hawk has become your totem and your kundalini has been activated, “It can also reflect that your childhood visions are becoming empowered and fulfilled.” 

 He talks about how hawks are often attacked by smaller birds and cautions that with the hawk as your totem, you are likely to be attacked by people who won’t understand your creative energy. “They may attack your ability to soar.” 

 Should that happen to you, know that the red-tailed hawk can bite off the head of a snake, even a poisonous snake.   That’s because the hawk’s legs have scales that protect it from snake bites. Of course, as Andrews points out, if the red-tailed hawk has come into your life, you, too, have the ability to bite off someone’s head. Proceed with caution. 

 THE FALCON 

Like eagles and owls, falcons are found all over the world. In her book Animal Magick, author D. J. Conway tells us that here in North America, what we call a duck hawk would be the peregrine falcon in old European falconry terms. In similar fashion, our pigeon hawk would be the merlin, and our sparrow hawk, the kestrel. 

 The word “falconry” refers to the practice of hunting with the use of a trained bird of prey. Records show falconry being practiced as early as 680 BCE in China. 

 Training a falcon required a great deal of time and patience. A falcon would be taken from its nest as a baby then trained to be comfortable with humans. 

 In the 9th century, falconry reached England. It became a popular sport of European upper class and a status symbol of sorts with the clergy. On the Richard III Society website, Shawn E. Carroll writes that the nuns of some religious orders were rarely seen without their falcons on their wrists. (I attended twelve years of Catholic school and was taught by two different orders of nuns. I can’t picture any of them sporting a falcon on her wrist. Times change.)

 A trained falcon gave a significant advantage to hunters. In her book, The Shaman’s Guide to Power Animals, author Lori Morrison notes that in 14th century England, the punishment for destroying falcon eggs was a year in prison. A poacher who took a falcon from the wild could have his eyes plucked out as punishment. 

 Eventually, falconry became common. The local blacksmith might have a falcon. The baker, too. And the dressmaker, the shoemaker. In the same way today’s dog owners say something about themselves based on the size or breed of dogs they have, centuries ago men and women made statements about themselves based on size and type of falcon they carried. Ah, but not everyone was equal. The peregrine and the gyrfalcons, the “long-winged” birds, were reserved for the nobility. 

Falcon-headed Egyptian god Horus

The falcon played a key role in the mythology of ancient Egypt. That’s where we find the god Horus the Younger, son of Osiris and Isis. Horus is often shown as a man with the head of a falcon. Sometimes, he’s shown with two heads, representing the union of upper Egypt and lower Egypt. 

 The name Horus means “he who is above.”  Horus was thought of as the protector of whoever was the current  pharaoh. In fact, a pharaoh would be called “the living Horus.”

 Horus had a jealous uncle whose name was Seth. (Think of Simba and Scar in The Lion King.) The two often fought. In one battle, Seth ripped out Horus’s left eye. Destroying someone’s eye would be horrific under any circumstances. For Horus, there was more to the story. 

 Horus’s eyes looked like the eyes of a falcon. Of far greater significance was that his right eye was the masculine, mathematical Sun; the left eye the feminine, intuitive Moon. 

 As the legend goes, it was when Seth ripped out Horus’s left eye, the Moon eye, that the phases of the moon began. Fortunately, the god Thoth (a version of the Roman god Mercury, the Greek god Hermes), was able to restore Horus’s eye. In the same way, a new moon is reborn every month. 

 Even today we see the famous Egyptian image known as “The Eye of Horus.” The symbol represents the right eye, the masculine, logical, math-minded eye. Healers of the day would use mathematical proportions in the Eye of Horus to determine how much of certain ingredients were needed to effect a cure, a prescription of sorts.   

 The Eye of Horus was also known as the Eye of Ra, the Sun God. Sailors would paint the symbol on their ships for the Sun God’s protection. 

 The mythology around Horus focuses on healing, protection, and restoration. Those qualities are all part of what we call falcon medicine. 

 Falcons are found in Greek mythology, too. That’s where we find the goddess Circe, a sorceress, daughter of the sun god Helios. When she was born, instead of having the expected soft, melodious voice, she sounded like a squawking bird. Her name, Circe, means hawk or she-falcon.  

 In Norse mythology, the goddess Freya wore a cape of falcon feathers. The cape made it possible for her to astral travel, to see beyond the limits of the physical world.

 The whole idea of seeing beyond your limits is a key theme of falcon medicine as used in this safe and simple ritual: 

 RITUAL:  The Big Picture

To begin, if you resonate with the energy of the falcon, be sure you rest in a place with a panoramic view. Yes, travel is still restricted because of the pandemic, but don’t let that stop you. Watch a nature show on television, a show that has a lot of panoramic views. Pause on an image you like. Embrace the vastness before you. 

  • Do you feel free, that you can do anything you want?
  • Do you feel lifted, as though you’re in the air, the realm of thoughts and ideas? 
  • Do you feel focused, that you know what you really want? 
  • Do you feel brave, ready to face whatever stands in your way? 
  • Do you feel ready to take the plunge and go for what you want? 

Feeling free, lifted, focused, brave, and ready — those are the gifts the falcon offers. 

RITUAL: Tiger Eye

When you feel unfocused, flustered, like you need to defrag, get a piece of tiger eye. The stone is a mineral, a member of the quartz family. It’s relatively inexpensive and easy to find. In her book The Shaman’s Guide to Power Animals, author Lori Morrison, says tiger eye is the mineral associated with the falcon. With the eye being important to the magic and myth around the falcon, I understand the link. 

 Tiger eye is brown and gold. Think of the warm, golden sun, vitality itself, pouring onto the dark, fertile earth. The sun penetrates. The earth receives. Equilibrium. Hold that thought as you hold that stone. Feel it warm the palm of your hand.

 Remember that ritual is a visible act performed with invisible intent. Close your fingers around the stone. That’s your visible action. Your invisible intent is to embrace the vitality and equilibrium from the stone, and in doing so, let yourself feel free, lifted, focused, brave, and ready. 

 Finally, if you know 

  • Someone who needs to see something clearly…
  • Someone who is ready to let go of old baggage… 
  • Someone who has been on the sidelines of life too long…

Tell that person about the medicine of the hawk and falcon. She’ll thank you for it. 

 

Zita Christian is a writer, ritualist, Life-Cycle Celebrant, and unabashed woo-woo woman. She hosts and produces Ritual Recipes, the podcast that helps spiritually-minded people create safe and simple rituals to give real meaning to seasonal cycles and life events. Write to her at: zita@ritualrecipes.net 






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Episode 44: Owl Medicine for the Spirit

Imagine an owl. Did you feel a sense of apprehension or foreboding? No surprise. Owls have long been associated with death.

Maybe you conjured a Halloween scene with an owl and a full moon. Or, did you picture Harry Potter’s snowy white owl, Hedwig? Associations and beliefs about owls are contradictory. That’s because the owl is the symbol for death, age, wisdom, and magic. 

The magic and mythology of owls can be used to create rituals. I have a few ideas to share with you.   

Like the eagle, the owl is a bird of prey. It feeds on the flesh of other animals. Unlike the eagle, a bird associated with the Sun, the owl is nocturnal and associated with the Moon. 

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Episode 43: EAGLE MEDICINE FOR THE SPIRIT

 

Imagine an eagle. Did you picture a majestic symbol of patriotism? Or, a sacred Native American totem? Or a giant nest perched in the top of a tree or on the edge of a cliff? 

 

Did your mind conjure an image of the huge bird soaring into the sky then diving with laser focus into a river, coming up clutching a salmon in its talons? 

Maybe you pictured the two ancient Druids who shape-shifted into eagles and now guard the tomb of King Arthur in the mountains of Snowdonia in Wales.  

From the powerful to the sacred, the high-flying to the laser-focused, from the steady to the shape-shifter, the eagle commands respect and creates wonder all over the world. 

This article is the first in a series about how birds of prey can inspire rituals for a variety of situations: funerals  and memorials, projects that require focus or the ability to see the big picture, and life events that require courage.  Continue reading

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Episode 42: Rituals for Podcasters

Interviewing a guest? Call on parrot energy.

In the metaphysical world where everything is made of fire, earth, air, and water, air is the realm of thoughts and ideas. Breath is an expression of air. Many cultures believe that breath and spirit are the same thing. Voice is an expression of air, too. How can podcasters use these concepts to create their best work? Through ritual. 

The association of sound with creativity is as old as time. The creation myths of many cultures tell the story about how sound created the world. In Australia, the Goddess Barnumbirr rose in the sky before dawn and sang the land and all its creatures into being. In Ancient Egypt, the God Thoth created the world with his voice. The Pueblo Native Americans tell the story of the spider who spun her web as she sang the world into being. 

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Episode 41 – Rituals for Writers

To a writer, the blank screen or a blank piece of paper can be exciting or daunting. A blinking cursor can be a beacon to our calling or a signal of danger ahead. Writers create for the masses but do so in isolation. 

It’s November. To a fiction writer, November signals the internet-based creative writing project called National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo. Participants set a goal of writing a 50,000 word manuscript during November. Just a draft — a rough draft. The point is to produce, not polish. Claiming victory is on an honor system.  

To gear up for NaNoWriMo, writers might research, outline the plot, create character sketches. They might also stock up on M&Ms, or carrot sticks, or wine. If you want to know more about this annual challenge, go to nanowrimo.org

Years ago, whenever I started a new writing project, I bought purple pens.  I also got a new hairstyle. I didn’t realize I did that until one day I showed my hairdresser a picture of a style I wanted to try and she said, “Oh, you must be starting a new book.”  I was.  

You might first create a vision board for the plot of your book, or select music to play while you write. My friend Sharon Schulze writes to the soundtrack of The Last of the Mohicans. You might buy a new candle, or hike a new trail, or make a good-luck-meal of black beans and rice. These various activities all have a common intent: to enable the writer to create a good story.  

THE BLACK DEATH AND THE PRINTING PRESS

Writers want to be read. The reading audience would be small if every copy of every book still had to be scrawled by hand on sheepskin or bark, or bone, or banana leaves. Fortunately, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. That was in 1440. The world changed. With books suddenly available to the masses, people were motivated  to learn how to read. Knowledge spread in a way it never had before. 

Keep in mind that just a hundred years before the printing press was invented, the pandemic known as the Black Death had decimated Europe. That was 1347. At the time, people belonged to one of four classes: 

  • The nobility — These were the people with titles and money who ruled over everyone else. 
  • The warriors — These were the people with swords and horses who fought for and were paid by the nobility. 
  • The church — These were the priests who prayed for the eternal salvation of others, especially the nobility who supported the churches.  
  • The peasants — These were the people who worked the land, grew the food, and raised all the animals for the nobility, the church, and the warriors. Illiteracy was common among the peasants.    
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Episode 40 – Home Funerals

 

Widow mourns in cemetery

When the time comes, which do you want: a funeral home or a home funeral? Burial or cremation? Fancy casket or cardboard box?  Ashes in an urn or scattered someplace special?  Who have you told about what you want? No one? I’m not surprised. Death hasn’t been a popular topic of conversation — until now. That’s because of an emerging “death positive” movement. 

 

Our first exposure to death usually comes in childhood. As a kid, I remember driving from Virginia to Pennsylvania several times a year to visit with my grandparents, Nana Mom and Pappy. 

 

They lived in a big house on a hill in Altoona. Cousins from Ohio and Washington DC would all come at the same time. We would gather on the enclosed front porch. It was long and narrow with lots of windows and a cracked linoleum floor. It also had a red swing big enough to hold 3 or 4 of us at the same time. There were kid-sized chairs, a kid-sized desk filled with crayons and the pretty fronts of old Christmas cards, a deck of playing cards, and a ceramic wall-vase filled with flowers my grandmother made with wire and crepe paper. She once told me she didn’t use the porch. I told her I didn't understand why she'd have a room she didn't use. She said it  was for the grandchildren. 

When the cousins gathered, we filled the porch with laughter and silly songs. Just off the porch, inside the main part of the house, was the living room. On the right side of the room was a couch, several chairs, and a small table for the wooden radio. After Pappy went blind, he spent his days sitting there listening to music and news. He smoked a pipe that made the room smell like vanilla. There were windows on that side of the room. 

I always assumed the left side of the room was the dining room. It had a long table decorated with a lace runner and a glass vase. But we never ate there. There weren’t any chairs. There weren’t any windows, either. I don’t remember details about the wallpaper except that it was dark. The whole room was dark. Gloomy. Creepy. To get from the porch to the kitchen where the adults always gathered, you had to walk past the creepy room. I always hurried.  

One day, I decided that at nine years old, it was time I faced my fears. 

In addition to the long table, there was a china cabinet and a buffet — more evidence that this was a dining room. On the top of the buffet was a lace doily and a large bowl and pitcher. 

I waited until my cousins were all on the porch, the adults all in the backyard garden. I slowly pulled open the top drawer of the buffet. I had a feeling it wasn’t filled with Christmas cards. I was right. 

Inside were long, white taper candles, unused. There was a white tablecloth, or maybe it was a sheet, plain, pressed and folded. There was a pile of white napkins, though they looked more like ordinary wash cloths. There was a brand new cake of Sweetheart soap. Everyone knew Nana Mom loved the oval white soap with the lacy design around the edge. There was a string of rosaries — big dark beads, smooth and shiny, with a silver crucifix. There was another crucifix, too, a big one. It was the kind that had a hidden compartment on the back. I released the latch. Inside was a small candle, a book of matches, a tiny glass bottle. I quickly closed the compartment. 

I had always been a good catechism student. I knew what I had stumbled upon. If I had any doubts, they disappeared when I saw the thin, paper booklet, about 5 x 7. On the cover was a picture of Jesus. He was holding a sheet and it looked like he was changing a bed. The booklet was titled Death Can Be Joyous: The Sacrament of Extreme Unction.  

I had found the items used for the Last Anointing, the sacrament given by a priest to people when they were near death. But why were these items in Nana Mom’s dining room? 

I went to the back yard where she, my mother, and my aunt were bent over picking vegetables. As though I would be doing my grandparents a big favor, I announced that I had begun cleaning and rearranging that gloomy dining room. Nana Mom bolted upright, the green bell peppers in her apron falling to the ground. 

I knew how Nana Mom looked when she was angry. I had seen it plenty of times when my Uncle Bud came home drunk. No, the look on her face wasn’t anger. She was upset in a different way. I heard my mother say something to my grandmother and heard my grandmother say, “No. I’ll talk to her.” 

My grandmother took me inside, through the pantry, past the wringer washing machine, through the kitchen,  right up to the edge of the gloomy room.  She looked relieved to see that nothing had been disturbed.  

She put her arm around my shoulders and said, “This is where we care for our dead.” 

I stared straight ahead. “On the table?” 

“Yes,” she said, and I felt her hand tremble. 

She explained how she and my aunts or women from the church would cover the table with several sheets, fill the pitcher with water, pour it into the bowl, soak the white cloths, and wash the body. They’d dress the body and wait for the priest. He would administer the last rites. 

Over the course of another day or two, friends and family would come to pay their respects. Someone would sit with the body, all through the night. People would say prayers and tell stories. They’d always bring food to share. Yes, people cried. They laughed, too. 

I said it sounded like a party. She said it was, in a different way. I had more questions, but a stillness had settled on Nana Mom and I got the feeling she didn’t want to talk any more. 

I forgot all about the dark parlor until six or seven years later when my mom died. We lived in Virginia. Our house didn’t have a parlor. So my mom’s body wound up at a funeral home. I had never been inside one before. Nothing about the place or the service felt like a celebration. 

After the Virginia funeral, my mom’s body was put on a train and taken to her childhood home in Pennsylvania. Not to Nana Mom’s parlor, to another funeral home. In a span of a few days, I’d been inside two funeral homes. They were both dark, tip-toe quiet, sad places. In both, a priest said some generic prayers, and assured us that my mother was in a better place. Better? Better than being with me and my sisters? My BS-detector went off. 

We left the Pennsylvania funeral home and drove in a long procession out of town and up in the mountains to a little cemetery in a village where Nana Mom had grown up. My sisters and I held hands and watched the casket as it was lowered into the ground. Right after our mother died, I’d been instructed to pick out an outfit for her to wear. I remember wondering for just a second if I should get her pocketbook, too, and then realizing how foolish that was. The concept, the customs, the finality of death — it was all so new, so confusing, so unfair. 

THE EMERGING DEATH POSITIVE MOVEMENT

That was July of 1963. Fast-forward to now, October of 2020. Not only have I been to a lot of funerals, I’ve just completed a certification course in funerals taught by the Celebrant Foundation & Institute, the same organization that taught me the history and structure of rituals in general, and wedding rituals in particular. 

One of the most surprising and encouraging things I learned was that there is a death-positive movement being shared across the country. The movement can take different forms. Here are four:  

  1. Death Cafes: These are informal gatherings where people share cake, tea, and conversation about death in order to make the most of their finite lives. 
  2. Death Doulas: These are people who are trained to provide non-medical and non-judgmental support to those who are dying. 
  3. Speaking Grief:  In their own words, Speaking Grief is  “a public media initiative aimed at creating a more grief-aware society by validating the experience of grievers and helping to guide those who wish to support them.” 
  4. Home Funerals: If you go to the website: homefuneralalliance.org, you’ll find a Quick Guide to Home Funerals by State. It was written by Josh Clocum of the Funeral Consumers Alliance and Lee Webster from the National Home Funeral Alliance. Here’s the first sentence: “Keeping or bringing a loved one home after death is legal in every state for bathing, dressing, private viewing, and ceremony as the family chooses.” 

The laws governing what happens after that vary by state. For instance, some states have a limit on how long you can keep the body at your house, with or without preservation. 

Some states require a licensed funeral director to remove the body from your house. 

Some states have a mandatory waiting period before a body can be cremated. 

There are practical realities to be considered, too. For instance, here in New England the ground can freeze for months, making winter burials impossible. And, just because a family can legally bring a body home for a certain number of days, that doesn’t mean every family would want to. 

I know we live in a busy world. Funeral homes often schedule a two-hour wake the day before the burial. It gives people time to sign a guest book, look at photos of the deceased, stand in line to offer condolences to the family, even view the deceased if there is an open casket. People can be on their way in twenty to forty minutes. Is it efficient? I guess. Is it meaningful? I’m not convinced. But when you don’t know you have options, you settle. 

I think of the two- and three-day funerals my grandparents held in their parlor. I picture neighbors, friends and family filling the house for days — cooking, cleaning, and comforting the family. I imagine friends telling stories about the deceased — funny stories, sad stories, stories told in colorful language and punctuated with cups of black coffee and shots of brown whiskey.  

Instinct tells me that the grieving process is best supported when loved ones are given a safe space and plenty of time to feel the gamut of emotions and say good-bye. 

A simple coffin with flowers and a candle

If it falls to you to make funeral arrangements for someone, here are two things you might want to know:  

  1. Embalming the body is not always required. Check your state’s laws. 
  2. You don’t have to purchase a fancy casket. You can purchase, or make, a plain wooden box. In some states, you can use a cardboard box. Again, check your state’s laws.  

If you do use a plain box for the casket, you can decorate it. Do so at the wake. Have the guests, especially the children, paint flowers, write words. Use stickers. Use Sharpies. Use glitter.

THE RITUAL: The Memory Box

As I record this episode, the Covid19 virus has killed more than 200,000 people here in the United States. Many of them died in hospitals and nursing homes without the comfort of family. 

Because the virus is so contagious, funerals are being bypassed in favor of a memorial service to be held at some future date. In the meantime, there might be a brief graveside service for immediate family only, or a simple ceremony with the cremated ashes. 

The force of the virus, the inability to say good-bye, the pain of losing a loved one, and the absence of the funerary rituals we’re used to — they shatter us, and leave us in shock. 

That’s when ritual can help.  Will it take away the pain? Make everything better? No. Anyone who has lost a loved one knows that. 

What ritual can do is acknowledge the pain in a way that gives form to those first, tenuous steps toward healing. That’s how the journey to wholeness begins, no matter how much time passes before those first steps are taken. 

Because of the pandemic, I created a ritual I call The Memory Box. I think it would be helpful for anyone who has lost a loved one at any time, and particularly helpful for children. 

Young child holding a candle

Many years ago, I interviewed John Carmon from the Carmon Community Funeral Homes and Mary Keane, founder of Mary’s Place, a Center for Grieving Children and Families in Windsor, Connecticut. Mary was an oncology nurse-clinician. She noticed that, “All too often, children are the forgotten grievers.” As a funeral director, John Carmon had seen it, too. Working together, they made Mary’s Place a reality. 

During the interview, Mary talked about the importance of giving grieving children a way to express their feelings and how the arts can help. 

As I record this episode, Halloween is right around the corner. There are many places online where you can buy a small, wooden box in the shape of a coffin. I’m talking about little boxes, about six inches long, not quite two inches high. These boxes are unfinished, the kind used in craft projects. They sell for around $5 each. Of course, you can use any box, even a little cardboard box. 

In ancient Greece and Rome, people would create what's called a “wind tomb.” This pile of earth shaped like the belly of a pregnant woman served as the grave of a loved one whose body was lost at sea or in a war or natural disaster. I talked about that in podcast episode 33, “A Gathering of Ancestors.” The wind tomb gave the grieving family something to focus on as they connected with the spirit of their lost loved one. 

The Memory Box does the same thing. The concept is simple. 

  1. Paint the box or miniature coffin. Decorate it with flowers, trees, hearts, stars. Write messages. Add stickers. Glue on crystals. Or keep it plain. Whatever you don, don’t rush this step. Your actions will help you focus on your loss. And while that will likely be painful, it can also be healing.    
  2. Put something inside the coffin or box to represent the loved one who has died. That might be a thumbnail photo, or a small shell, an acorn, a dried rosebud, a ribbon, a pocket knife. Write a letter or draw a picture. Fold it up and put it in the coffin. Help a child make two matching stretchy bracelets, one to put into the coffin and one to wear. 
  3. Bury the coffin in the backyard and mark the space with a special stone or statue or plant. Or, place the coffin in a special place in your home where you can see it. My mom died 57 years ago. To this day, I talk to her picture. Having something on which to focus helps me remember. 
  4. If you’re keeping the little coffin or box in your home you can place it inside a larger box. Craft stores have lots of them. They’re made of heavy cardboard. They come in different colors, patterns, and sizes. At birthdays and holidays, encourage children to add a letter or a drawing to the box. 

If you have the honor of helping a family who has lost a loved one, keep The Memory Box ritual in mind. It can be an activity the family does in the days and weeks after the service.  

If you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, please consider this ritual. Sometimes a ritual as simple as this one can have a profound effect. In the meantime, may the day come soon when your first thought about your loved one won’t be painful.   

Death Cafes

Imagine six or seven adults of varying ages gathered in a library, or bookstore, or someone’s living room (pre-Covid). They’re sipping tea, eating cake, and talking about where they want to be when they die. The facilitator asks what music you want at your funeral. Or how you want to be remembered? Or simply, what made you decide to join us? 

There is no formal organization to a Death Cafe, no speakers, no agenda. It’s a discussion group, not a support group, not a counseling session. It’s not a place for people to sell things, or promote services. In fact, the questions I mentioned are typical of what the facilitator might ask only if the conversation lags. It doesn’t usually lag. Quite the contrary. Given the opportunity, people have a lot to say about death. Being able to talk about death makes people more aware that we don’t live forever…and if we aren’t really LIVING, it’s time to change that. 

For a lot more information, including a quick start guide so you can host your own Death Cafe, go to the website: deathcafe.com 

Death Doulas

When death is imminent, you might find it comforting to know about Death Doulas. These are people who help the dying plan their last days. A Death Doula’s support might be emotional, spiritual, or physical, or any combination of all three. 

For instance, a death doula might help a dying person see the value of the life he or she led. Or might help with unfinished business. A death doula might use music, or guided visualization to ease the dying person’s transition from this world to whatever lies beyond. Doulas help the families, too, both during and after the death of their loved one. 

The International End of Life Doula Association (INELDA) is a nonprofit organization. Their model of care shaped the first hospice doula program in the United States. You can find information, ideas, and inspiration on their website: inelda.org  

For a fascinating exploration of death, I recommend the book Death’s Summer Coat: What the History of Death and Dying Teaches Us About Life and Living. It’s by Brandy Schillace. The book came out in 2015. At the time, death wasn’t on my radar the way it is now. The Covid pandemic has changed the focus for many of us. 

The author looks at cultures all over the world and talks about their rituals around death. She talks about what drove those of us in the western world to sanitize death. And she points out that, with people living longer than they ever did, talking about our mortality has become more and more taboo. Friends, we need to change that.   

How?  Here are 3 ideas:  

  1.  Read obituaries. I had to do that for my course on funerals. What an eye-opener!  Obituaries today go far beyond name, age, date of death, survived by, info for calling hours and funeral, and where to send flowers and/or on-line condolences.  Today’s obituaries tell stories, sometimes from the point of the view of the deceased. As I read some of them, I thought, good, that person really lived. May it be so for all of us. 
  2. Write your own obituary. I had to do that for my course on funerals, too. Writing it made me uncomfortable, to put it mildly. You don’t need to show your obituary to anyone. You can write it and delete it. Or, save it in a file that can be accessed after you die. Looking at your life can give you a sense of peace. Or, it can motivate change. 
  3. Start a conversation about death with someone your own age or older.  An easy way to do that is to tell the person you listened to a podcast about death and it’s got you thinking about what you want for your own funeral. If you find it hard to get the conversation started, send the person a link to this article and/or the podcast episode. Ask the person to listen because you need to talk about what’s in the episode with someone you trust. 

In case you’re wondering, Nana Mom lived one month shy of her 101st birthday. By that time, she was living with a niece. 

I don’t know who owns the big house on the hill now. It has probably been renovated to achieve an open concept. That’s what I see on all the remodeling television shows.  Who knows? Perhaps with the growing death-positive movement and the increased interest in home funerals, people will want parlors again.  

 

Mentioned in this post: 

The Celebrant Foundation & Institute  <http://celebrantinstitute.org

Death Cafe <http://deathcafe.com

The International End of Life Doula Association (INELDA) <http://inelda.org

Speaking Grief  <http://speakinggrief.org

National Home Funeral Alliance <http://homefuneralalliance.org

(This is where you’ll find the Quick Guide to Home Funerals by State written by Josh Clocum of the Funeral Consumers Alliance and Lee Webster from the National Home Funeral Alliance.)

Mary’s Place  <http://marysplacect.org

Carmon Community Funeral Homes  <http://carmonfuneralhome.com

Death’s Summer Coat: What the History of Death and Dying Teaches Us About Life and Living by Brandy Schillace

 

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