Reinventing the rituals
"When death knocks on your door," says celebrant Sarah Kerr, "there's a whole lot of stuff that needs to be done. But then there's this other part, that's relational and emotional and spiritual. What does it mean, spiritually, for people who have no tradition? They want it to be held in a sacred way, but how? What's the thing that you reach to that's bigger?"
Now that is a very good question. Kerr's answer was to become a "death midwife," using low-key and intimate rituals, loosely adapted from indigenous traditions, to guide families before, during and after a death. "Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, 'I need a death midwife,'" she observes dryly. "They don't know what they need. They often can't articulate it. But it doesn't matter how much you've expected the death, when it happens people are dumbstruck. They need someone to tell them what to do."
Having received a doctorate focused on rites of initiation, Kerr offers the families who retain her a choreography to follow. "Death is an initiation," she says, "and like any initiation process we need a container. We go into a liminal space, but we can't hold that space for ourselves.
In Jewish tradition, sitting shiva is carving out a space that says, 'This is different, and you're not expected to be normal.'"
Between one and three months before someone dies, Kerr enters the picture and utters the word "dying," which is often the first time that the family has felt permission to hear or say that word.
What do they say next? "Nobody knows how to say 'Oh my God, I love you, you've been a good friend.' Instead, they have small talk." She offers them a story instead. "When we approach death, we find ourselves on the shore of a river," she invites them to imagine. "There's a beach, and there are footprints on the sand. Those are our ancestors. They've gone across the river. We must help the dying person cross. We build a canoe out of our love, which is propelled by our grief. The paddles are shaped like tears. We launch the canoe."
At the moment of death, she will lead a family through a ceremony. "We stand in a circle. Each person names an ancestor. You pull in all the dead. (This also reminds people that they've been through this before, that this is a much bigger process.) Each person will take a turn washing the hands or feet with lavender essential oil. Sometimes there is prayer, or song. Then I take my drum and bang it as if it were a receding canoe: boom, boom, boom, getting fainter."
Says Kerr: "I'm carving a new path. There's no map." She adapts the rituals to suit the family, and stays with them as they prepare for a funeral, mindful of how to mend the tattered rawness of the grieving. Without ritual, we fall into bickering over logistics or succumb to alienating silences. Siblings fight. Tiny details spark storms of emotion. "You walk into a hospital room, and there's this pool of circulating grief, eddying around," she says. "The ceremony takes that grief and gives it a direction. Now it's used in honour of the person who has just died."
Kerr and her fellow death midwives—a growing number—have seen what happens when people try to minimize ritual: no fuss, keep it simple. "People say, 'Oh, we're not going to have a funeral, we'll have a party.' So they do, and everyone stands around with a cocktail. But that's misguided. We think, if the funeral is quick and shallow, then our grief will be quick and shallow. It doesn't work that way."
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2016 issue with the headline, "Fade To Black," p. 74-78.
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