A Natural Place: Discovering Sacred Ceremony in the Wake of Death
The first time I found myself holding space before a huge gathering of a recently bereaved community I was 21 years old.
My best friend, Katherine, had just died from complications of an aggressive brain tumor. Aware of her own mortality as she lay dying at the tender age of 20, she had invited a few close friends to help her plan what she was calling her "going away party."
In all honesty, she asked too much of us, “the girls.” We were in the prime of our vital youths and we had already been forced to come face to face with the reality of ravaging illness and now the death of one of our own.
But she was determined to show each of us how much we meant to her by giving us a part to play. It's the only time I've ever seen eight young "women" (we were girls, really) attempt to lift a casket from a hearse, trying to fulfill the last wish of our friend. But between all of us, we couldn't lift it– we could barely lift our own bodies to walk that day– and we had to receive help from the driver and a few other men who stepped in at the last moment to remedy the tragic situation.
With the help of a friend, I had worked into the nights to create the program for the funeral with the permission of Katherine's family– both the order of events and the actual layout of the pamphlet– but the most important job Katherine had asked of me was to sing. Our friendship had begun and blossomed over our mutual love of music and she was adamant that I should sing two songs at her service. She chose one song and I chose the other. One would open the ceremony and one would close it. This wasn't necessarily intentional but, in the end, it would illuminate a natural affinity I had for holding that space.
The morning of the funeral, I stepped to the front of the church to play. Every pew was packed with a sea of faces all the way to the standing folks in the back, looking my way with anticipation. I realized that my voice would be the very first that this grieving community would hear and whatever I brought into this space would set the tone for the whole ceremony. As my eyes looked around, connecting with faces here and there, I understood the real lived experience of this moment– the lives of real people who had been impacted by Katherine's life and death. Instead of diving right into the music, I spoke some impromptu words of welcome. I acknowledged Katherine's family, her friends, her large community, and our shared situation. I felt incredibly grounded and at ease, even though I had never stood up to speak at a funeral before– much less for a dear friend. It was an invocation– a beginning to a meaningful ceremony. At the end of the service I got up to sing the final song. Again I spoke, this time words of gratitude and closure before singing.
As I reflected on the experience later, I discovered one of the most simple and profound realizations about the nature of ceremony that I've had to this day. That is, a ceremony– like those that humans had been creating since time immemorial– has a distinct beginning, middle, and end– the beginning and end circle back to each other and form the container for everything else to be held inside of. Moreover, I realized that I had actually been creating ceremonies and sacred spaces since childhood– I just didn't usually have an audience when I did. In particular, I had a regular practice I did as a child that involved creating an altar using a cardboard box covered by a special blanket my great grandmother had crocheted for me. Then I would sit or kneel by my altar and pray. Something about creating a sacred space seemed like an intuitive way to invite a deeper sense of connection and peace.
In the over two decades since that Katherine’s funeral, I have been fortunate to share words, music, support, and creative process at weddings, memorials, and all kinds of celebrations. My own life has offered me many opportunities to be touched profoundly and personally by the human experience of grief and to witness and hold meaningful celebrations. Through the changing tides, I continue to call on practices of mindful presence, sacred space, heart-centered listening, clear and open communication, and the power of deep connection.
To Katherine, my Pisces sister, and her family, I extend my gratitude for offering me an opportunity to step into such a beautiful, tender space of loss and grief, and into my own courageous heart.