Samhain: Putting the joy back into funerals – Dying, Death and ‘Passing On’

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Yesterday I had the privilege of conducting an extremely special and dare I say ‘exquisite’ funeral.

With Samhain rapidly approaching , it feels so right to be honouring the dead;  I sense that everyone who attended yesterday shared the view we might all do this a lot better than the standard conveyor belt system allows.

A couple of weeks ago I had a call from an old friend to say their father was close to death and could I maybe pop over with a view to working through the funeral arrangements.   At the time I was away helping on a Rites of Passage weekend for teenage boys. Unfortunaly by the time I returned, he had passed on.

I visited the day after the death, with him in his bed, where they had lovingly laid him out and dressed him after passing.

My friend and her brother, with the help of a hospice care worker who had cared for the deceased, unusually did this themselves at home.

It is such a privilege to be be in the presence of a dead person:  Yet our society has done its level best to keep the departed as hiddden and out of sight as possible.

It was fascinating to see how the face had taken a waxen apperance, beauty still in the peace of stillness. The breath of life having moved on from the now empty vessel of the body which had carried it for approaching 90 years.

It was touching to see the bed still positioned so he could have a view out of the window, enabling him while alive to watch his beloved birds at the feeding station – where he particularly enjoyed the sight of woodpeckers and nuthatches.

I was struck by how personal and much more meaningful the whole dying, death and ‘passing on’ process was for the family.  A ‘do it yourself’ funeral such as this, can be so rewarding and assist the grieving process.  It does however require some ‘thought and support’ ; help is needed from extended family and from the wider community.

For instance, a friend’s large van was used to transport the cardboard coffin from where it had been in cold storage  (this was pretty much the only involvement of the undertakers).  while four friends completed the team of six pall bearers, for carrying the coffin from the van to the grave.

The funeral itself was at a green burial site – totally in keeping with the deceased’s wishes to be simply returned back to the earth in an unmarked grave in a meadow.  In life they had been a keen gardener; their son having expressed the view that his father’s vegetable plots were “possibly the best composted beds in the Western World”. He referred to all he grew as being his “green children”.  

 We worked together to produce a ceremony that fully reflected and honoured the deceased: Incorporating tributes from friends and relatives as well as ‘the story of their life’ from his son , alongside ‘the story of his dying’ from his daughter.  There was  music  and laughter too,  alongside the tears of grief.

All this took place outside- blessed as we were by the Autumn sunshine and unseasonal warmth. 

About forty of us shared this final journey.  Unconstrained by artificial time limits as normally apply in more conventional funeral settings, we were able to fully pay tribute to the man. It was spacious, reverent and honouring, allowing for stillness and periods of silence too. A true blessing for all who were lucky enough to be present as well as a blessing for the departed. 

As the coffin was lowered into the grave I spoke these words:

“May your eyes mingle with the Sun

May your breath be merged with the Winds

May the waters of your being mingle with the Rivers and Oceans

May your body become one with the Earth”

 

Then everyone put a blessing of their own into a sprig of yew – cut from a magnificent berried yew tree in the garden of the the departed  – and dropped it into the grave as a farewell gift.  

We acknowledged the yew as the tree of death and of eternal life – since it has the potential capacity to regenerate ‘in situ’ for generation after generation.   Thus was a being of the earth returned to the earth. The composting gardener becoming compost himself.  

This is the style and manner of funeral which most appeals to me and which I most enjoy being involved in and conducting.  I look forward to the day when these type of send offs, are more the norm rather than the exception. 

Unanimously – no matter what age, background or belief system – everyone present agreed: “This is how I’d like to be remembered; this is how funerals should be”   

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