The Power of Ceremony

I have written, some, of the differences between my grandmother’s funeral – the impact and influence it has had on me – and my grandfather’s funeral – how redemptive it was for me. The reason my grandfather’s funeral was so powerful for me, and for my family, was not just the act of telling stories in each other’s presence, acknowledging our shared family history, how it has impacted us, and opening the conversation through the eulogy for other members of my family to share their stories of my grandfather after hearing the eulogy, but also because we used ceremony and ritual to say with our bodies the things our words could not convey. Doug Manning, the founder of the InSight Institute, wrote in The Funeral, “When words fail, ceremony takes over.”

I will admit that I did not have a close relationship with my grandfather; that is one reason I could officiate his funeral. But that distant relationship does not mean that I did not feel the loss of my ancestor. If it were not for him, I would not exist, and neither would my mother, her siblings, my cousins. The world was completely changed, at least in a small piece of it in rural North Louisiana, because of his presence.

And, yet, here I am, in writing this, trying to explain with words what my family used ceremony (and the movements of our bodies, using symbols) to say. So, I’ll conclude with a script of the candle-lighting ceremony that we had before we went to the graveside. (Names shortened.)

 

Celebrant: Before we leave for the graveside service, I’d like to gather in prayer and light a candle for [my grandfather]

The candle (a pillar candle inscribed, “In Memory” with my grandfather’s name) you see lit is in memory of Paw, and each of his offspring carries him with us in our genes and our memories, our actions and our words.

S., the first born, will light the first candle from her father. (She takes a taper, lights it from the pillar candle, and carries the lit taper in its holder to her seat.)

We light the next cande for M. (Celebrant lights the next taper from the pillar, leaves it lit on the table with the rest of the candles.)

D., the first son, will light the next candle. (He takes a taper, lights it from the pillar candle, and carries the lit taper in its holder to his seat.)

We light the next candle for J., though her can’t be present due to illness. (J.’s son lights his father’s taper and leaves it lit on the table with the rest of the candles.)

Last, D. will light her candle. (D. takes a taper, lights it from the pillar candle, and carries the lit candle to her seat.)

From [my grandfather’s] children came his grandchildren and great-granddaughters.

M., M’s daughter, then C. and A., [my grandfather’s] great-granddaughters. (Celebrant lights three tapers from the pillar, leaves them lit on the table .)

J., J’s son. (J. lights his taper from the pillar, carries it lit in its candlestick to his seat.)

S. will light L., D.’s daughter, and L.’s daughter E.’s, candles. (S.-- D.’s wife and the mother of L., lights the two tapers from the pillar candle and leaves them lit on the table.)

J., D.’s son. (J. lights a candle from the pillar, carries it in its candlestick to his seat.)

Janelle, S.’s daughter. (I light a candle from the pillar, and hold it as I continue the ceremony.)

M., J’s daughter, whose candle will be lit by her sister-in-law, R. (R. lights the taper and leaves it on the table.)

Let us pray. Father of all, we pray to you for [my grandfather] and for all those we love but see no longer. Grant to them eternal rest. Let light perpetual shine upon them. May his soul and the souls of the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

(Each family member returns their candle around the pillar.)

(I, as celebrant, blow out [my grandfather’s] candle.)

(The funeral director announces the end of the visitation and gives instructions to continue to the graveside service.)

(Visitors file out, leaving the lit tapers in their candlesticks around my grandfather’s blown-out pillar candle. The funeral director blows out the lit candles after we all leave.)