a decade to reflect on the immediate crippling numbness that
overtook me in those hazy early days, and after meeting people
who bravely handled this task on their own, I know that being
more directly involved would almost certainly have allowed
the reality of that loss to set in more effectively and allowed
me some final intimacy with my daughter. I will forever regret
having missed that chance to lovingly tend to her one last time.
Maria Grayson-Metaxas is one individual who considered
the importance of ritual and worked it into her final wishes.
Four years ago, when Grayson-Metaxas was in the final days
of her struggle with cancer, she designed her own multi-faith
mourning ritual. I learned about her through one of her friends,
Leslye Robbins, a local psychotherapist. Grayson-Metaxas
was inspired by what she had learned from a rabbi friend and
requested the friend lead a small group of her loved ones in performing the Jewish ritual bathing of her body. An avid surfer,
she requested that she be laid out on her surfboard. Her friends
bathed and tended to her as they chanted and sang. When they
were finished and with her body wrapped, they blanketed her
with flowers from each of their gardens.
Robbins was one of the friends who participated in the
bathing. “I’d never touched a dead body before and I was
fearful. A friend clipped the nails of Maria’s left hand. As I
watched I thought of my own small children and cutting their
nails. I was able to then pick up her right hand and begin clip-
ping. Once engaged in the process I felt an exquisite closeness
with Maria that made it easier for me to say good-bye. I did not
want to stop touching her,” Robbins says. “It remains one of
the singular most powerful expressions of simultaneous love
and sorrow in my life. The intimacy and privilege of being in
that moment with the other women who held her so dear was
one I will never forget and a compassionate and clear way for
us to begin to absorb the loss of our dear friend.”
Each culture and faith has a way of paying tribute to the
departed, specific steps taken at intervals for up to a year and
beyond. Some are performed by and for the intimates of the
deceased and others are community based. All serve the pur-
pose of focus on and respect for the process of bereavement.
They shepherd in the grief.
This year at Burning Man I found myself in the midst of
a procession led by the actress Susan Sarandon to deposit
some of Timothy Leary’s ashes inside artist Mike Garlington’s
temple called Totem of Confessions. It seemed fitting that the
godfather of the LSD movement would have some of his ashes
laid to final rest accompanied by a swarm of naked revelers
on acid. Kazoos and fiddlers accompanied the march. Once
we were inside, the ashes were set in an alcove and the make-
shift attendees broke into an a cappella version of “Amazing
Grace” followed by “Silent Night,” then random folk songs.
An unclothed man in the thrall of LSD stood directing people
outside the temple, and many shared Leary memories from
personal encounters and public accounts. To this serendipi-
tous participant, the roll-your-own tribute seemed entirely
fitting for both Leary and his devotees.
As for the viewing of a body of a loved one who has passed,
most faiths do not include anyone but the most intimate family
members in this custom. Christians and Catholics host a wake
prior to the clergy-led funeral service where visitors can pay
their respects. Music, alcohol and a generally elevated mood are
expected, as these events are intended to celebrate the deceased.
Protestants have a memorial service with eulogies offered along
with songs, prayers and readings from standard scriptures. For
some Chinese, a hybrid of Taoist, Buddhist and Christian traditions informs the viewing service. Those attending, in addition
to offering condolences, are expected to contribute money.
The mourning family at a Chinese wake wail at a volume that
increases with each donation. The larger the contribution, the
greater the wailing. The cultural variations on public volume and
intensity of expressions of grief surprised me. Raised in a stoic
Yankee household, I found the thought of wailing for any reason
inconceivable, and yet for some it is a given and is likely cathartic:
the full-body tension release that follows a physical act such as
wailing probably promotes some degree of relief.
In Jewish households, for seven days following the funeral,
mourners sit on or low to the ground in a contemplative state
(shiva). One is expected to reflect on one’s own grief and
the meaning of the deceased’s life during this time. Native
Americans also gather in a circle on the ground for a period of
days after a ceremonial burial. Traditionally Muslims, Jews
and Buddhists cover mirrors in the household; the varying
reasons include a concern the soul will see its reflection and
be confused as to which direction it should travel.
Grief Is Personal
Expressions of grief vary widely, in individuals and in cultures.
Upon receiving the news a loved one has passed, a Jewish person
may tear at his clothes and openly weep or even wail. In many
Native American tribes wailing is also encouraged. In Buddhism,
however, such overt expressions of sorrow are thought to hold the
soul back from making its full journey to the “far shore.”
When the shadow of death inevitably darkens our doorway, if we are without the rituals
designed to ease us into our grief we are handicapped at a time when we most need to be guided.