My friend Brighde and I are teaching a class for crones in training, that is Pagan women who have reached or are near to their 57th birthday. That's the age in my tradition at which we officially mark a woman's entering the final third of her life.
For this coming session, the focus is on death and dying. One of the assignments is for everyone to read The Pagan Book of Living and Dying: Practical Rituals, Prayers, Blessings Meditations for Crossing Over, edited by Starhawk and my friend Macha NightMare. It's an excellent book, and is now used as a reference in college classes and seminaries everywhere, regardless of denominational orientation.
We crones priestess death. It's one of our jobs. When we reach this age, it's a responsibility from which we can no longer shirk. Many, if not most of us, have had to deal with the deaths of our parents or other senior relatives by this time in our lives. Part of being a crone is having the wisdom to listen, to be present, and to reject all that is unnecessarily commercial, crass or inappropriate with relation to our deaths or those of our loved ones.
I hit the big trifecta before I was 55, having to deal with the deaths of a parent, a spouse and a child. Each time I had to plan the funeral, and, each time I found it easier to resist the pressures of the funeral directors to do expensive silly things because ``they are expected.'' I remember shrieking at the mortician when my mom died, who accused us of not caring about her because we wanted to bury her in the least expensive casket he had.
When my son was killed in a mountaineering accident, we ran into the same drill. This was my nature-loving, backpacking, mountain-climbing son, and his father and I knew that only a plain wooden box would do. The mortician dragged his feet and finally took us to the upstairs room and showed us the perfectly fine plain pine box, saying ``but surely you don't want this. This is what the Jews use.'' Well, actually it was what we wanted, and the fact the Jews use these was just fine with us.
My husband died in 1997 after a long long long struggle with AIDS and its attendant dementia. He was in a great deal of denial about the fact that he would die, and only faced up to this reality when we started planning his memorial. I did spend money for his memorial, but not for a bronze casket or a cemetery plot.
Instead, the money was spent on the celebration he wanted and helped plan. We hired the Equestrian Meadow site in Tilden Park, where he and I had hiked every single weekend as long as he was able. I spent money on a New Orleans jazz band and an Irish bagpiper, and a wild salmon flown down from the Pacific Northwest, and the fabric for his panel I sewed for the AIDS quilt. I went to the hardware store and bought PVC pipe to use for flagpoles for the Irish and American flags he wanted at the memorial, and for a standard so his quilt panel could be carried like a banner in the procession. I bought earthquake wax so the $19.95 ceramic urn I bought from the Discount Casket Store -- yes, there really is such a thing -- could be attached to a platform to be carried in the procession.
I also blew more than $20 on the bottle of Jameson's Irish Whiskey he wanted poured out over his ashes, when we laid them in the park. And I spent money at Kinko's, making memorial cards with a photo of him in his wedding suit, hoisting a glass of Champagne. As he wished, Yeats' poem ``The Lake Isle of Innisfree'' was printed on the card.
This, it seemed to me, was the way to make a good funeral. And when my son died, rather than spring for a costly floral casket spray, my sister and my kids cut greens in the ravine behind my father's house on Mercer Island, and spent an afternoon making a green arrangement that sat on top of the plain wooden box.
My Norwegian immigrant father died this past April, and there we were again, trying to figure out how do hold a celebration that honored his memory and yet did not descend into the commercial sphere.
We held his memorial in June, in Woodland Park, in Seattle, not far from the zoo. Several cousins reminded me that it was a tradition among Dad and his sibs to have a floral wheel at each of their funerals. As each of them died, one more spoke was removed from the wheel.
There was no way I was going to order something like this from the florist. So instead, my youngest daughter and I spent the day before the memorial racing from hardware store to office supply store, getting together things like chicken wire, PVC pipe, nuts and bolts, and bungee cords.
We asked everyone who came to the memorial to bring greens and flowers from their gardens. Then, while we were listening to some of Dad's favorite cowboy songs -- ``The Streets of Laredo'' and ``Strawberry Roan'' -- we had people come up one by one and place their flowers in the wreath. By the time they were through, the wreath was, in my opinion, gorgeous, with flowers of all kinds and ferns, evergreens and even a few things the little kids picked in the park.
We made the memorial cards, and gave family members CDs of photos of Dad we scanned into the computer. As my father's descendents have gone in various diverse directions as far as religion is concerned, the memorial was mainly secular, although my eldest daughter read the 23rd Psalm and we did give everyone the text for the ``Navy Hymn'' in the memorial program. (Dad served in the U.S. Navy during World War II). People shared some memories, and then we had a catered picnic. That's what we spent the money on: good food for family and friends, park rental, chicken wire, that ubiquitous PVC pipe, and blank CDs. The pipe was for the Norwegian and American flags, and the chicken wire was the base for the wreath. Having the memorial in the park meant the little kids could run around, and the great-grands from various families could get reacquainted. And the parents could relax because they didn't have to police kids behavior.
Here's one shot of the wreath, and another of one of Dad's great-grands standing in front.
And here's my eldest reading the psalm, and, in the second photo, some of Dad's grands getting reacquainted. Funerals are always great chances to spend with family members one sees rarely.
Dad was one week shy of his 89th birthday when he died, and he had been in failing health for a long long time. So there was no sense that his death was sudden or a horrible shock to anyone. If anything, the memorial was a celebration that his last few very very difficult years were over.
I hope this is the last funeral/memorial I'll have to plan anytime soon. One of the assignments Brighde and I gave the crones in training was to plan their own funerals. My wish is that they too will discover this is something they can do their way, and not have their family members succumb to the blandishments of the funeral industry.
funeral memorial death dying crone Pagan Paganism coffin casket park Seattle Norwegian+American immigrant family celebration noncommercial Irish AIDS quilt AIDS+quilt Tilden+Park Berkeley California