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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Episode 39: Funeral Rituals for the Death of a Marriage

Rocky Road ritual with rose quartz and black stones

Most couples don’t get married expecting to get divorced. But when a marriage is dissolved, can ritual help the couple move on? 

As a Life-Cycle Celebrant, I believe rituals can help the couple navigate one of the most stressful events in a person’s life: divorce. 

You won’t find any legal advice here. Nor will you find professional counseling. Instead, you’ll find two rituals: 

  1.  Rocky Road — This is a marriage maintenance ritual. I created it to help couples avoid the inevitable potholes that, unless repaired, can create a chasm,  destroy the bridge, and lead to divorce. I’ll also tell you how one woman used the ritual to help her through a painful divorce. 
  1.  Untying the Knot — When the rocky road goes off the cliff and the couple decides to go their separate ways, this ritual is designed to help them discover the gifts in their relationship, no matter how brief or long the marriage lasted.  
Close up of a breaking rope on white

As a Life-Cycle Celebrant, I’ve officiated more than 150 weddings. There’s a moment in every ceremony, even the smallest of elopements, when the couple stands in front of me, hold hands, and listen as I ask the question. You know the one. It includes the words:  “…to honor and to respect, to love and to cherish, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, as long as you both shall live?”   

 

As my couples listen to those words, I imagine how hopeful they feel about the future. Sometimes, they get choked up. Sometimes, they giggle. Sometimes, a lip quivers or a tear falls. Sometimes, they eagerly say, “I do!” before I’ve completed the question. So, it’s sad when the marriage is dissolved. It means the dream died. 

 

Or does it? 

 

As heretical as this might sound, I don’t believe that all marriages are meant to last. 

Continue reading

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Gifts from the Ancestors: A Ritual for Samhain

Samhain ritual

This ritual was initially designed to be performed with a group. At the end of the ritual, I suggest ways it can be adapted as a virtual ritual.  

Prepare in advance:

Each person who plans to attend is told in advance to bring a photo of a deceased loved one and a stone the person considers special. 

If no photo is available, write the name of the loved one on a piece of paper. 

If the name of the ancestor isn’t known, write the qualities the ancestor might have possessed. It is not necessary to know your family tree. This ritual is to connect you with the spirit of your ancestors. What you don’t know, you can imagine.  Continue reading

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Episode 38 – Funerals for Pets

Old man talking to his dog while cat resting in his lap

 

The love people have for their pets can be seen on the calendar, from National Love Your Pet Day in February, to National Pet Day in September, to World Animal Day in October. So, what do we do when a beloved pet dies? How do we celebrate the life that gave unconditional love? 

 

STATS ON PET OWNERS

Every other year, the National Pet Owners Survey provides valuable information for pet owners and supporting industries. 

The 2020-2021 survey gathered approximately 15,000 responses, and covered dogs, cats, birds, small animals, reptiles, freshwater fish, saltwater fish, and horses and, for the first time, chickens. 

Here are a few of their findings: 

  • About 67 percent of households in the U.S. have at least one pet.
  • More than 63 million American households own at least one dog. 
  • More than 42 million American households own at least one cat. 
  • There are 94 million cats and 89 million dogs in American households. I’m guessing that’s because more households are likely to have multiple cats than multiple dogs,
  • As for the most abundant household pet… Can you guess?  Fish. The National Pet Owners Survey says there are nearly 160 million of them in glass bowls and tanks across the country.
  • And here’s the last statistic I want to share, again, from The National Pet Owners 2019 survey:  Americans spent more than $75 billion on their pets in 2019. That number includes food, supplies, medicines, veterinary care, live animal purchases and grooming and boarding. 

It’s clear. The love owners have for their pets is real.  And that’s what makes the death of a pet so hard. 

Continue reading

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Episode 37: Croning – A Ritual for a Woman of a Certain Age

 

Proud Crone

She's a woman of “a certain age.”  Our culture thinks those words are better than saying “she’s old.” Well, I am a woman of a certain age. I am certain of who I am,  certain of what I want, and certain of what I have to offer. I’m 72 and I’m a crone. I claimed that title in a ritual called croning. 

Last month, I spoke to the Women’s Mystical Collective in Austin, Texas — via Zoom.  One of the organizers, K, had found my website and podcast through an Internet search. She asked if I would speak to the group about rituals. 

It wasn’t until the night of my presentation that I learned that K’s Internet search was born of personal frustration.  She was looking for a ritual that honored one of the most dramatic changes in a woman’s life. Because of posts I had written about the triple Goddess known as Maiden, Mother, Crone, Google directed her to me.  

In the course of a lifetime, humans undergo various rites of passage. Some are dictated by culture or religion. Among them, a bar or bat mitzvah, a quinceanera, a confirmation. Some rites of passage are universal, such as  a wedding or the birth of a child. Each of those events involves at least one other person. In most cases, all of the events involve giving gifts. The giving of gifts is one of the ways society recognizes the significance of these events.

A croning ritual is different. 

For one thing, a woman can perform her own croning ritual, all by herself. Still, as with any rite of passage, it’s good to have family and friends  witness the transformation.  Continue reading

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