In the Battleground Community Center, more than a thousand origami cranes hung in long streamers from the high ceilings. Candles flickered on the mantle above the stone fireplace, and the long slow hum of a large bronze Tibetan singing bowl filled the room. A crowd of hundreds, standing room only, waited in silence for the bell’s resonant song to fall quiet.
I looked down at the pamphlet in my hand. At the very bottom, a quote from Basho read, “When the temple bells stop, the sound keeps coming out in the flowers.” Through the north-facing windows of the community center’s great hall, I watched straggling autumn leaves fall to the ground. The leaden sky warned of a hard winter ahead; it would be months before there were flowers to do any singing.
As the bell’s intonation waned, a group of women approached and encircled a small, low-lying altar near the fireplace. With guidance from each of seven women in turn, the gathered crowd stood and, many with outstretched hands, collectively enacted the ritual of “calling the seven directions.” Starting with the East, and turning in unison to face each direction as it was called — East, South, West, North, the Heavens, the Earth, the Spirit at Center — one woman at a time made ancient incantations requesting the protection, guidance, wisdom and blessings of humanity’s ancestors, wisdom-teachers, animal and spirit guides, and properties of the corresponding Seasons and Elements.
In the chorus of “Aho!” called out by those gathered at the conclusion of each direction, I understood immediately: The flowers were still singing.
We had come, individually and collectively, to pay our respects to a woman who had been, for many, the temple bell.
Jayna “Warm Nest” Geiber, age 62, died this past October in the unexpected and rapid fashion that is so typical of pancreatic cancer. A disciple of Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn and ordained into his Order of Inter-Being as a lay monk herself, Jayna was considered by many to be a bodhisattva devoted to the path of Enlightenment for all beings, an ardent lover of Mother Earth and perhaps one of the Pacific Northwest’s most dedicated peace activists. In service to all, she walked her talk.
A small but telling example: About six weeks before she died, still unaware of the cancer that would soon end her life, Jayna led a group of peace activists in a public sitting meditation, finding her seat in the middle — in the middle! — of a protest between the warring factions of fascists and antifa who have repeatedly scuttled in over the past year in Portland and across the river in Vancouver, Washington. This was one of many such sit-ins she participated in or organized, her goal to hold a ground for peace during these turbulent times in American political society.
Jayna was also a master of ritual, something I witnessed first-hand during my participation in nearly a decade of sweat lodge ceremonies she lead with a consistent energy and style. In addition to her studies and devotion to Buddhism, she was deeply schooled in the beliefs and practices of various indigenous peoples of the Americas and incorporated aspects of these traditions seamlessly into her ceremonies.
She called this integration the “Braided Way,” a interfaith approach that demonstrated profound reverence for the planet, for environmental stewardship and Earth-based spiritual practices. What might wear on many people as cultural appropriation was for Jayna an authentic and holistic representation of her personal wisdom and beliefs, as well as the genuine welcome she extended to people on all spiritual paths.
It made sense, then, that many of these rituals should appear during her own Celebration of Life service. And as the ceremony unfolded one sorrowful Saturday a few weeks after she died, it was as if all attending were getting one final Master Class in ritual, a lesson in how to acknowledge Death and honor Life in simultaneous orchestration.
In my experience, it is a rare accomplishment.
Over the years, many friends, family members and clients have voiced disappointment with end-of-life events — be it a ritual, a party, a casual gathering. The complaints run the gamut: from feeling that a funeral was so structured as to be exclusionary to all but a select few mourners, to those in which a lack of structure resulted in hurt feelings. As one client lamented, “Everyone showed up and ate the pizza, but no one talked at all about the reason we were there.”
More often than not, I hear people in their 40s and younger express concern that they “simply don’t know what to do.” For some, the prospect of organizing a gathering to honor a deceased loved one is terrifying, enough that one married friend described it as “worse than putting on your own wedding, which at least you might have dreamed about as a kid.”
As society becomes more secular — perhaps especially in places like Portland, which is among the least religious in the nation and also has a high influx of newcomers who might lack strong social support networks — people are experiencing a loss of ritual, a loss of clear direction and structure, for many life events. Although, as my friend pointed out, many people know what they want in a wedding, funerals and memorials tend to take a back seat when it comes to dreaming up a good ritual. Few like to think about it.
Fortunately, a new profession is forming, on the more secular side of things, to help families navigate end-of-life concerns and plan meaningful services or celebrations in honor of deceased loved ones. Portland’s Holly Pruett is a great example of this. As a certified Life-Cycle Celebrant, she has worked publicly here, through the development of conferences and monthly movie nights at a local cinema, to engage community discussion about death & dying. She also helps families design and carry out end-of-life rituals. So there are options out there if you don’t know what to do and you’re looking for help.
But if you are inclined to go it alone, to plan a memorial service, celebration or other ritual marking the end of someone’s life, or your own, Jayna’s service offered both insight and examples of how to create an inclusive environment and integrate dissimilar practices and rituals into a cohesive ceremony.
Although the specifics may be particular to Jayna’s life, much can be gleaned from the structure and design of the service that are useful considerations in any DIY memorial:
First and foremost, PLAN AHEAD.
One of the easiest ways to develop a ceremony that accurately reflects the person whose death is being mourned, or whose life is being celebrated, is to have conversations ahead of time. There’s no need to wait until someone’s ill; in fact, it’s better if you don’t. Despite the weight of superstition, people don’t die earlier or faster just because they talk about it. So talk about it.
Back in 2012, during a series of workshop-style classes Jayna taught on integrative spiritual practices, a friend who attended the classes recalled recently, “She asked everyone to think about what you want your own service to be like: Where do you want it? Who would attend? What music would you like? Are there readings you want read?” Though my friend admits with a chuckle, “I don’t know if I even did the assignment beyond just thinking about it,” she recalls that Jayna took the opportunity to pen the outline of her own memorial service and used it as an example in the class. This ended up being the service we attended in Battleground.
Give the event structure.
A well-defined series of activities, spelled out for attendees from beginning to end, can set expectations and provide guidance to all involved in how and when to participate. By far, the worst memorials I’ve attended, or which have been described to me, seem to share a commonality: No one established or upheld a pre-defined structure for the event. I’ve seen friends leave gatherings in tears, not from grieving the deceased, but in anger over the inability of others to ford their way through an unstructured event, feeling disappointed that discussion so easily strayed from — or never got even started on — a focus on the deceased. It doesn’t have to be this way. Give most people an outline of a ceremony, a few readings or lyrics to songs that will be sung, and a majority will respect the plan.
Jayna’s ceremony left no details in question. Upon entrance, attendees received a small pamphlet which, along with some photos and information about Jayna’s life, provided a clear, detailed program indicating the order of events, when family members would speak, when representatives of various community groups would speak and what stories and poems were being read. It also indicated ways people could individually participate, such as writing a memory of Jayna onto prayer flags.
Include aspects of “performance.”
The act of gathering to acknowledge the death of a person is only the beginning. If you want a ceremony or ritual where it feels something was actually done to acknowledge and honor the person being mourned, it helps to include elements in which those gathered can participate or otherwise experience the ceremony as a special time set aside from the usual and mundane. This can take many forms. From walking in a formal funeral cortege to dancing in the jazzy processions of a New Orleans Second Line, from tossing dirt upon the casket at a traditional graveside service to actually shoveling dirt and piling rocks at a natural burial site, profound rituals give participants something to do.
From beginning to end, Jayna’s ceremony was more elaborate than many. Prior to entering the hall, mourners lined up to be smudged with the smoke of sacred herbs. This cleansing activity, familiar to anyone who’s done ceremonies with Jayna over the years, marks the transition from the mundane world into the sacred, not unlike Catholics dipping their fingers in holy water upon entering a church. By opening the ceremony with the ritual calling in of the seven directions, participants were once again engaged as a group in a well-established practice from Jayna’s spiritual tradition. Later, mourners were invited to participate, in a more individual way, in an “End of Suffering” meditation recorded years ago by Thich Nhat Hahn. And as is common in many ceremonies, select people were invited to speak on behalf of the family and on behalf of the community groups with which Jayna was involved. When the ceremony concluded, all attending were encouraged to join in a potluck, yet another interactive, regularly recurring part of Jayna’s traditional practice. She liked to break bread; it does indeed bring people closer together.
Create an atmosphere with permission.
Though it is trendy these days to call death-related rites of passage “celebrations of life,” which sound like a fun party, many grieving people attend because they offer an opportunity to share and see their sadness reflected in others, a way to make the disappearance of a loved one a little more “real,” a chance to mourn collectively. Whether called funerals, memorials, celebrations, rituals, the effect is often that mourners gather, remember, recall — and often emote. In our emotion-repressing culture, people may struggle around the latter, and even in the therapy room, I hear far too many apologies for the act of crying.
So it was a refreshing challenge to some of those repressive norms when the officiant at Jayna’s service, Larry Ward, reminded attendees that such rituals “are designed to evoke powerful feelings” and specifically offered permission to emote during the service.
Incorporate elements that “make sense.”
Funerals are for the mourners too, not merely for the deceased. When a service can honor and respect the traditions and views of both, it has a greater chance of meeting the purpose for this particular rite of passage: the healthy acknowledgment and acceptance that a specific person’s life has now terminated in death. It helps to be flexible, to recognize that not all attending will share the same spiritual belief systems or hold identical views on the meaning of death. And it also helps to care about that fact enough to create a welcoming and honest ceremony.
I have too many examples of ceremonies that instead created cognitive dissonance and heartache. I’ve attended Catholic funerals for avowed atheists, and seen friends and lovers prevented from participating because the “next-of-kin” in charge refused to recognize key elements of their relative’s life. The result of this can be a sense of isolation, disappointment, invalidation, invisibility. Hardly the elements of ritual from which people might otherwise draw healing.
Part of the great beauty of Jayna’s ceremony was how its “braided way” interfaith aspects made space for all who attended, as well as how accurately it represented her lived reality. From the drumming and bell-ringing that heralded the start of the ceremony to the pot luck feast at its end, from the Buddhist chants to an ancient Hebrew prayer, from the eulogies of her family and friends to the story of “Jayna’s Journey” written largely by her own hand during that same 2012 workshop in which she crafted this service, the entirety of the ceremony reflected a coherent, congruent, inclusive representation of the person at its focus. And there was still room for people to have their own beliefs.
Even under the monicker “celebration of life,” people are gathering because someone has died. With cremation an increasingly popular means of managing the physical remains of loved one, the once-common wakes and visitations in which mourners might view the deceased before burial have seen a sharp decline, and the death of a person has increasingly become an abstract affair. We don’t encounter the reality of death and are left instead with the sense that a person has vanished, never to return.
In my personal and professional experience, barring traumatic damage to the body, seeing a deceased loved one advances the grieving process in a way that vanishings do not. I won’t assert a statistical significance here that I can’t prove, but in my own life, it has been better to see with my own eyes that someone is gone than to merely hear about it. So I vote for reconsidering the practice of visitation, of home funerals prior to cremation, of not giving in to the current cultural aversion to death.
On this note, Jayna’s ceremony involved something I’d not previously seen at an American memorial. Set aside, at an outdoor altar lit by candlelight, attendees could view a large portrait of Jayna “in repose,” a photo taken sometime between her death and her cremation. Her head and shoulders were swaddled in colorful natural fabrics, around which were strewn flower petals. Hands resting near her heart, one held a lily, a traditional flower of mourning. Though it may sound ghoulish to some, it was a lovely photo, and I was touched that the family made this image available to the community. Seeing it allowed me to know, in that seeing-is-believing way, that Jayna was indeed gone. Incense was made available for burning to anyone who visited the altar, creating yet one more option for those who wished to participate in Jayna’s send-off.
Last, but not least: Eat.
Every good ritual includes a bite to eat, and it’s a common practice to bring on the food at the end. This serves two purposes: It prioritizes the more structured aspects of ceremony, in which the reasons for the gathering are voiced and honored; and it creates an opportunity for individual mourners to talk and reminisce among themselves afterward, during a more gentle, unstructured transition from the sacred space of ceremony back into the mundane, daily world.
Potluck or catered, barbecue or petit fours, it matters not what you eat so much as that the opportunity to gather and chat over food is there. Jayna knew this well: She ended all our sweat lodge ceremonies with a potluck, to give us time to visit with one another, share our stories from the mysterious realm of the sweat lodge if we wished, and to reorient to the regular world before hopping in our cars and driving home. Her memorial service was no different, except in the sheer scale of feasting that occurs when hundreds of people bring food to share with one another.
There’s obviously more to crafting a meaningful end-of-life ritual, but these basic principles — making plans ahead of time, providing a clear structure that includes ways to participate, offering permission to emote, making the ritual meaningful in part by making it welcoming and honest, being real about the reason you’re there, and breaking bread together — represent a starting point on the path to an idiosyncratic end-of-life ritual that can bring people together in the spirit of remembering and mourning. Books and internet articles, as well as professional guides and spiritual leaders, will have no shortage of suggestions on how you can fill in the blanks.
When I arrived in Battleground to attend Jayna’s service, I believed I had no idea what to expect. But from the moment I stood in line to be smudged at the entrance, I started seeing the tell-tale signs of Jayna’s familiar ceremonial mastery at work. As the rituals unfolded, carried on by those who knew and loved her, it also became clear how her spiritual teachings and her environmental stewardship — so evident in a life she lead by example — would persist and eventually take on new meanings, new shape as lived out by her family, friends, students and the many other lives she touched, including my own.
After the service, I felt as if for the first time, I had an understanding of how full a life Jayna had actually lived, how broad and sincere had been her work on this planet, in this lifetime. A bodhisattva is one who is committed to returning, lifetime after lifetime, to plant the seeds of Enlightenment for others. In this lifetime, as the 300 or so people attending her service clearly indicated, Jayna spread those seeds far and wide. Even though her temple bell has stopped ringing, as the Basho quote says, she planted fields upon fields of flowers that will keep singing.