Two of the main principles that guide our work at Mourning Dove Studio are:
1)You can make end-of-life choices that follow the same values that guide your life.
2)Art and creative expression can help honor and grieve our connections and losses.
Rituals can be thought of as existing on a continuum connecting us to the past and to the future. They anchor us in place in the present, within our community. They help identify and affirm who we are. That’s why if prevailing rituals don’t fit, it’s isolating and lonely in the midst of whatever else is going on. We may just turn our back on the whole thing.
Before I had a studio from which to work, I brought my caskets, coffins and shrouds to places such as Green Fairs which showcased environmentally-related projects or ideas. At one such fair, the responsible organizer of the fair kept circling the room so as to be available in case we exhibitors needed anything. The first time she went by, she stopped and looked around my materials, including a casket for people to put their hand to decorating and/or writing down their reactions to these ideas, etc.. Rather dismissively, she told me ‘my uncle doesn’t want anything at all done after he dies. Nothing at all.’ After that, every time she circled round she told me the same thing. I believe my responses focused on it being positive that he had let her know what his wishes were. But the 4th or 5th time that she headed over to my table I felt annoyed, thinking to myself “alright already, I KNOW your uncle”… But this time she said “you know, I think that if my uncle knew that there were these simple, low-cost ways you could do things, he’d be alright with that, and it would make my mother happy. She wants to do what he wants, but she’d also really like to be able to do something.’
For an excellent, well-written overview of both grief and ritual, Robert Neimeyer’s book Lessons of Loss: A Guide to Coping is a good place to look. In addition to concepts and considerations he offers practical ideas for activities that can help us “make meaning”. He writes “grieving is a process of reconstructing a world of meaning that has been challenged by loss” and gives ideas for rituals that can help us with that.
I also like the book Remembering Well by Sarah York for its ideas and examples of possible rituals.
At Mourning Dove Studio we hear such moving stories of ways that people have found to commemorate a loved one after death, both personally and within their community. We have a Tribute Ideas section on our website to share these so they may perhaps generate ideas that are useful to others. Please add your experiences to help others!
If you want help creating a meaningful ritual, you can work with funeral celebrants.
Our coffins can be a way to assist in saying goodbye. Just the old-fashioned coffin shape (tapered at the head and feet) as a connection to the past can be meaningful. In addition, making or decorating a coffin/casket is a whole other type of grieving.
Bereavement researchers Kenneth Doka and Terry Martin introduced the concept that there are 2 types of grieving – intuitive and instrumental. All of us may use a blend of these styles.
Intuitive includes ways of grieving that involve talking or articulating feelings, whereas instrumental grieving is a more hands-on grappling with grief. I don’t know what I would have done without a bereavement support group after my father died, but sometimes I don’t even know what specific aspect I’m thinking about or feeling emotional about until I do something on a non-verbal level.
The Do-It-Yourself movement has been articulating the value of hands-on action. If you want to build your own casket, you can find plans for 6 types of pine boxes. They’re designed by Chuck Lakin, a woodworker who will also provide guidance over the phone (or in person if you’re in Maine).
If you can’t or don’t want to build your own casket, remember that hands-on decorating is powerful, as are visual ways of communication. Hands-on activity is a way of experiencing, understanding, expressing oneself, connecting with others, being known, being comforted and helping to come to terms with the new reality.
This blue casket was painted by a Hungarian-American woman in honor of her heritage, using a design found in a museum in Budapest. (It’s laid out as it might be for a home funeral, although currently it’s being used as a bench in the artist’s home, in which she places things she’d like her daughter.)
This is the coffin of one of the political cartoonists killed by terrorists at the newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Such a powerful response to the terrorists as well as a way of honoring their colleague’s work and their connections through it:
A past president of The Funeral Consumers Alliance reminded me “No New Shoulds” when I told her the things I was thinking about. And that’s right, isn’t it? These are possibilities, useful only if they’re meaningful rather than another task to add that you find stressful in a new way.
Remember, though – we don’t have to be fine artists for art-making to be helpful.
Here’s a photo from funeral director Amy Cunningham:
In closing, this is a quote from an interview with the mother of a 7 year old girl killed in the Sandy Hook, CT school massacre:
The couple then described the moment they saw their daughter’s white coffin at the funeral home. ‘You felt like the floor was falling beneath you,’ Mrs McDonnell said. But the coffin became a canvas when she, Chris, and their surviving son, Jack, took out the Sharpie markers they had brought with them and began drawing all of Grace’s favorite things. ‘By the time we were done,’ Mrs McDonnell said, ‘it was so covered by all the things she loved’ – including ice cream cones, lighthouses, and seagulls. ‘We had peace when we left,’ she said, noting that the coffin was full of colorful drawings and notes from those who knew and loved her best.”
In the next few days:
-consider which types of remembrances you find meaningful for yourself and for anyone else you are planning ahead for. Write them down.
-if you’ve missed filling out any of the previous sections in your guidebook which we’ve already covered, take these next days to complete them.
Step #1 STRUCTURE IT IN
Step #2 find and use a PLANNING GUIDE
Step #3 learn from the FUNERAL CONSUMERS ALLIANCE
Step #4 draw upon INSIGHTS from bereavement research
Step #5 Find RITUALS that resonate with you
Sunday, May 6th – natural burial