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pre-death ceremonies

Another powerful transition where a ceremony can be healing and deeply moving is the time prior to a person’s death when the death is known to be imminent. The opportunity to honour this stage in a person’s life and give thanks and gratitude for their presence is a valuable gift to all involved.

No matter how challenging it may seem at first, a ritual or ceremony can be very uplifting to those who have only a short time left to live. It can be a gathering of the whole clan and include the speeches of gratitude usually reserved for a funeral or it can be an intimate ceremony with just two or more people.

Tony, 72, from Byron Bay, NSW called his pre death celebration an ‘awakening’. He organized his ‘awakening’ after being diagnosed with an inoperable cancer. He organized five speakers, a soul band and dancers and had a fabulous time at his own ‘wake’.

I like this term ‘awakening’ for a pre death ceremony - awakening to our last major passage in life, one that we will all experience. My focus in this article will be on the smaller more intimate ceremonies where a celebrant is present. The ceremonies do not have to be formal or long, and yet taking the time to create a sacred ceremonial space can open hearts and bring peace to those present.

As with all occasions where a celebrant is engaged the ceremony is crafted on the needs, beliefs and ideas of the person or family and the ideas and experience of the celebrant. The length and type of ceremony held will also be dependent upon the strength and energy of the person it is for.  I hope the following ideas will open the way for beautiful ceremonies at this special time in our lives.

stephanie

In my book, Inspiring Funerals and Memorial Ceremonies, I share the story of Stephanie, who was terminally ill. She wanted me to conduct a meeting with her grown children to discuss the funeral ceremony that would be held after her death and incorporate at this same time a ceremony of thanksgiving.  When her family gathered we lit a candle and I asked everyone to take a moment to be quiet and to reflect upon being together.  Stephanie then acknowledged what she appreciated about her family who were present and read a personalized letter to each of her children. She had forewarned them about what was going to happen at this meeting as she wanted them to be prepared.

Creating the space and openness to discuss life, death and the letting go of everything, including ‘unfinished business’, can be empowering and liberating.

Stephanie chose to explore and plan with me, as her celebrant and friend, what would unfold at this intimate ceremony. We had a small ritual each time we met to discuss her plans of having fresh flowers and a photograph of her family on the table. We lit a candle and took a few moments of silence before we started.

nadine’s candle ceremony

Nadine was keen to have a candle ceremony by her bedside. People settled quietly into her room and one by one, spoke words of gratitude, a reading or quote and then lit a special candle. There were tears, there was laughter, there was deep gratitude and there was also a sense of strength and courage present along with sensitivity and fragility of the moment. The ritual was relatively short as she tired easily yet it was very powerful and touching to all present.

A ceremony could be a silent gathering where people are invited to meditate or pray together. There could be a special focus such as a call for healing, for peace or for acceptance. People can be asked to bring a photograph, quote, reading or object that is special to them at this time. These can be shared with the group. If there is to be spontaneous talking then you may wish to utilise a talking stick or a small stone, whereby whoever is holding this will be the one who can speak and others must listen and give their full attention. The stick can be placed back in the centre and then whoever feels moved to speak next can pick it up and begin.

Be clear on the time that people have to speak so that everyone can share and the gathering doesn’t get drawn out. It is our role as the celebrant to be the timekeeper. Watch for the energy of the group and in particular, the person for whom the ceremony is being held. There may be a need to take a break and resume at another time if the person gets too tired.

shelley’s oak tree

Shelley, who had been diagnosed with a few months to live, wanted to have a gathering with her family in nature and plant an oak tree together. Her children arrived earlier at the property to prepare the site. At the ceremony they placed the letters of love and gratitude that they had written into the prepared hole and planted an oak tree. The ceremony acknowledged the symbolism of the planting and the future of the tree.

80th birthday celebration

Expressing and sharing heartfelt love and gratitude need not wait for the funeral service. One friend told me that after speaking to me about pre death celebrations she decided to hold a small ceremony at her mother’s 80th birthday. Her mother had been very unassuming during her life and was a little embarrassed yet overjoyed at the ceremony her daughter organized. The ceremony included the reading of letters that people wrote and the telling of stories. Her mother died not long after and my friend was very happy that her mum had received such a precious gift of acknowledgement and appreciation while still living.

These are just some ideas for creating a sacred pre-death ceremony. I hope that you are able to build on these ceremonies and look forward to hearing your ideas and feedback.

Wendy Haynes Signature


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