Creating your own death rituals.

ImageYesterday my daughter and I picked flowers from the garden, headed over to the cemetery and had a toast to Mom and Dad, nibbled on some dried fruit and burned incense. It felt right, which is the basic touchstone I have been going by as I navigate through this journey of respecting the dead.

I was raised Catholic but influenced heavily by Dad’s daily smatterings of Confucius wisdom and since I have lingering pains of post dogmatic stress syndrome, it seemed natural to borrow from various sources for this life milestone.

Henry Fersko Weiss introduced me to the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying during his revelatory End of Life Doula Workshop. Reading this book gave me remarkable comfort as I witnessed first Mom and then Dad in various stages of active dying. (I would here quote the helpful passages I lovingly underlined during this process; however, my daughter has stolen my copy and it is now trapped on campus out of my reach.) This book by Sogyal Rinpoche offers an understanding of the traditional Tibetan Book of the Dead. The author makes the point that although death is something we all must go through, we spend little energy, particularly in the western world, seeking to really understand what is happening. Instead we medicate the process, hide it, put it in hospitals, embalm it, bury it, cover it up. I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to keep my eyes and heart open to the process when it came time for my parents to pass, even though at times it was excruciatingly painful, the moments of extreme beauty and peace were worth it. 

So getting back to creating your own death rituals, when it came to Mom’s passing we were struck unexpectedly. I grabbed perfume, honey and my heart and ran to the hospital. With Dad, it was slow and drawn out and the process I witnessed with him was one of life review, through reminiscing, looking at photos, conversations and visits with family, friends and neighbors that helped him to prepare.

For both of them, I followed the suggestion from Rinpoche, and prayed for the seven consecutive weeks following death, on the day and time that death occurred. The essence of my prayer was asking the universe to hold them in the light of lovingkindness, that they see their lives through the truth of that light, and that they be at peace. I also burned incense on the particularly difficult days following after dad died. I imagined and felt, with my entire body, that my grief was floating up to heaven on the wafting, aromatic trails of smoke. The resinous Nag Champa gave me the deepest comfort.


Both Mom and Dad were cremated. After educating my self on exactly what happens during embalming, (bodily fluids are drained and replaced with preservative, internal organs are removed and disposed of, orifices are stitched shut and stuffed if necessary to prevent leakage, skin is cosmetically enhanced, often to a point where the person is unrecognizable) it was an easy decision not to subject the precious body of any loved through this. Well, it was Dad’s decision, really.


Getting back to yesterday and the toast at the cemetery, that, of course, was borrowed from Mexico. I would love to hear of any cultural or family traditions that you practice that bring you comfort to you as you offer respect to the dead.



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About reneetamara

Writing about death, mental illness, spirituality, art and perfume. Because beauty feeds the soul, and love is beyond what we think.

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