Recently I worked with the family of a woman who had lived in South Vancouver virtually her entire life. Known as Grandma, she died just shy of her 91st birthday. Her’s was a long life, a life well lived, and though deeply mourning the family wanted to create a special memorial. Like many of the families I have the immense privilege to work with as a Celebrant in my ceremonial practice, they wanted a heart based Celebration of Life but weren’t quite sure how to make it happen. Here’s what we did:
I interviewed the daughter to get a sense of Dorothy. Who she was, what she stood for, her life story, the people she loved, what she liked and disliked. Also to learn a little about what the family members were experiencing. This latter piece helped us figure out who wanted to and who might be able to speak at the memorial service.
The family wanted to write and speak the eulogy. They felt a deep longing to do this and felt it would be a meaningful way to work with their grief. I agreed and gave them tips on what some of the content might be. The grandchildren also wanted to go through family photos and create a video portrait of their beloved grandma, complete with music. (It was incredible!)
My role was to write everything else in the ceremony and also to give suggestions for format and readings. Though we had just a few days, everyone worked together and the end result was that every detail was truly resonate with Dorothy’s personality. Even the flowers chosen for the memorial service were the kind she liked to grow in her garden!
The day of, I arrived early to help the family set up and welcome their guests. When everyone was settled, I rose to speak. I try to speak my words in such a way that creates a container for the emotions present in the room. To create a safe place where family and friends can mourn but also to smile and laugh through their tears. All emotions at a memorial are natural… I don’t believe there is a ‘correct’ way to be. I talked of the mysterious cycle of life and death, of which Grandma was well aware… having been an avid gardener.
I also named grief and spoke to the responsibility of community to support a family whose loved one has died. Death leaves a void that can never be filled, but the support of others not just the day of the ceremony, but in the weeks and months ahead is so helpful to the healing process.
It was a wonderful magical experience because it was so REAL and HONEST. To be with a family at such an important time in their lives is an honour. We don’t have many collective experiences these days… a memorial ceremony, when well done, where the family is part of the creation, can be very powerful.
The beautiful camellias in the photo above were from the tree in Dorothy’s garden. I arrived home to find these, along with a card from the family on my doorstep. Included was a package of Dorothy’s famous thumbprint cookies, lovingly made by her daughter from what is now the family recipe. It will soon be mine too! I plan to make some this weekend.
Many thanks to Robin Naiman for her always mindful hosting of Mountain View Cemetery’s Celebration Hall and Courtyard. It is a beautiful space. The best in Vancouver, I think, for a memorial or funeral service. And certainly the most appropriate for a Celebration of Life!!!