A celebration of life or memorial service can be the starting place for initiating the re-membering process. While elements of ritual are essentials so is tapping into creativity. There are many ways to re-member, honor, celebrate and hold space for a grieving family as they say goodbye to their loved one.
Introduction to re-membering
In the role of certified funeral celebrant, I find myself opening re-membering conversations about the one who has died. Drug or alcohol abuse, addiction, long term illness and the slow decline of dementia can leave family members feeling estranged from their loved one long before death. As a result, sometimes family members have lost touch with who their loved one was before.
Memories have been clouded over by the immediate struggle. The person’s larger identity – things that were meaningful to or about their loved one – have disappeared in the midst of the hard things leading up to the day I meet with them.
It is in this conversation where we collaborate on creating the service to honor their loved one that I practice elements of re-membering conversations. I get to ask deeper questions about who the person was before. Before they began using drugs. Before their life was caught in the turmoil of their own addiction. Before memory was lost to dementia. Before illness became the entire focus of their and their loved one’s lives.
In those moments families begin to teach me about their loved one’s life. Questions I ask inspire deeper memories. Together we uncover pieces of the past. Families tell stories about their love one. And I get to ask questions that enable a different look at the narrative of that individual’s life. I can help people recall that their loved one didn’t set out to be an addict. Or that they aren’t defined by their illness.
What re-membering might look like
Early on in my work as a celebrant a family shared that their loved one had “burned lots of bridges” through a spiraling addiction. When they came to meet with me, they didn’t know how they could celebrate his life because of all the harm he’d done in his relationships. And yet, in our conversation it became clear that he was a talented mechanic. From an early age he’d been passionate about automobiles.
At one time, he’d even collected the sounds of engines he worked on using a cassette tape player. He was particularly excited about working on Can-Am race cars. Cars that are no longer made. That cassette tape was long gone, but I knew I could find the sounds of that engine online. After our family meeting, I found the sounds of Can-Am race cars and burned a cd with the engine revving. Rather than music as a closing, the service closed with the sounds of that race car engine. Ironically, it sounded as if he was racing away; riding off into the sunset in a car he had worked on.
Another family shared their father’s love of baking apple pies. It was something he had done before he lost his cognitive abilities. We spoke of those pies and of sharing pie after the service was over. The family decided to bake fresh pies the day of the service – they were still warm when they arrived. And they filled the room with the scent of fresh-baked apple pie. Together we cut those pies after the service and the family shared how healing it was to bake them before gathering to remember their father and grandfather.
The service and beyond…
I often find that these re-membering conversations inspire unexpected creativity on the part of the family. Granddaughters visit Pinterest and make something that then invites everyone to participate in re-membering through additional storytelling during the visitation. Friends bring the gift of small packets of sunflower seeds that become a take-away after the service. Bowls of treats or tokens that reflect the person’s favorite activity become linking objects that all visitors can take with them when they leave. Art making comes into play when families choose to bring things to the church or funeral home that engage more people in being part of the moment of this family’s story. And, I’ve learned that some of these same creative moments carry forward in how the family moves into their loss – showing up later at lake cottages, holiday gatherings or on the birthday of their loved one.
Today’s memorial services, celebrations of life and funerals have more room for the inclusion of art making, creativity, re-membering conversations and dynamic elements of narrative and ritual that can support the beginning of the grief process for families of all shapes and sizes.
About the author
Deb Brandt is a Certified Funeral Celebrant as well as a Creative Grief Studio Certified Grief Practitioner. For the past 4 years she has blended these certifications to support families as they begin saying goodbye to their loved one. Learn more about Deb on her site GrowingBeyondGrief.com.