ELDER MUSIC: 1948 Again

Creating Rites of Passage for Old Age

TGB reader Christi Fries sent a link to a Washington Post feature about how funerals are changing. Although there is discussion of green funerals and alternative burial choices, I've written about those at some length and will again at some point.

What I was most interested in is the information on how funeral rituals are changing.

”...end-of-life ceremonies are being personalized,” writes reporter Karen Heller, “golf-course cocktail send-offs, backyard potluck memorials, more Sinatra and Clapton, less Ave Maria, more Hawaiian shirts, fewer dark suits. Families want to put the 'fun' in funerals.”

Heller continues:

”Funeral homes have hired event planners, remodeled drab parlors to include dance floors and lounge areas, acquired liquor licenses to replace the traditional vat of industrial-strength coffee.

Katrina Spade of Recompose in Seattle, "considers herself part of the 'alternative death-care movement'”:

"Spade questions why death should be a one-event moment, rather than an opportunity to create an enduring tradition, a deathday, to honor the deceased: 'I want to force my family to choose a ritual that they do every year.'"

One interviewee wants her “'personal possessions...auctioned off,' the proceeds benefiting a children’s charity. Why can’t a memorial serve as a fundraiser?”

So: Put the fun in funerals, event planners, force my family.

Certainly everyone should celebrate their life passages and those of loved ones any way they want but the lengths many Americans go to deny and ignore the monumental nature of death and its sorrows appears to grow year by year.

At about the same time I received this WaPo story from Christi, I ran across a TED video from a man named Bob Stein. At age 71, he had been searching for a way to mark the passage into old age.

He settled on a ritual of giving away his stuff (he confesses to having 250 boxes of it collected through his lifetime!), wanting to make the observance “less about dying and more about opening a door to whatever comes next.”

Here is Stein's six-minute video:

As I wrote in these pages a few years ago,

”The big rituals of life – you know, religious, social, community, rites of passage, family, even some political events - serve to initiate, transform or reaffirm the philosophies and values by which we live.”

As years come and go, and the care and feeding of our culture passes to the next generations, old rituals may not apply comfortably anymore. I, as a member of the oldest generation, may feel a bit queasy at “putting the fun in funerals” and “end-of-life event planners” but that doesn't mean they are wrong for a different world than I have lived through.

None of this means that I haven't found need for a new ritual or two. Way back in 2006, I created a rite of passage for myself: signing up for Social Security. I turned what might otherwise have been a boring chore in a drab government office into a celebration of my official entry into old age. You can read it here.

What rituals do you observe?


I definitely agree that everyone has a right to handle death and life in their own way. We have been having the discussion at our house lately. Hubby wants proper service... like they did for years. I ask him how will he know what actually takes place.

There are individual rituals; and then there are communal rituals. The former are about who we are -- our precious selves --- and I am not snarking! We Americans find this sort of thing congenial. We can individually make them (what a gift!) and we will.

Communal rituals at death mark the place and passing of the individual in the long span of history. They are for the living.

I am lucky enough to have participated in multiple communities, including traditional (a church) and non-traditional (a three-decade long women's circle; several communities of seekers of justice and liberation). Since people do die, I find my non-traditional communities evolving their own rituals to mark passings. Traditional communities have the advantage of long experience -- and the baggage of whatever institutional corruption is embedded within them.

Feeling philosophical this morning. Thanks Ronni!

When Bob Hope was nearing the end of his life in 2003, his wife Dolores asked where he'd like to be buried. "Surprise me," he said.
That's pretty much where I am regarding any remembrance gathering when I'm gone. I'm not a member of a church and have no interest in a formal service at a funeral home.
I've pre-paid for a cremation. I'd prefer to be buried in a field or forest wrapped in a sheet if I hadn't already put money up for the cremation.
A party in a park, a pot luck in a back yard, a hike in the woods would all be fine by me. I think it's absurd to spend thousands of dollars on services. Before the funeral industry started early in the 1900s, it all happened at home.
So I've told my son and friends "Surprise me!" Just don't take me to a funeral home.

Just read your account of signing on for Social Security. Much different from mine. Mine was done online except for one phone call from a government official asking me a whole bunch of questions about my husband, and my teacher's pension. You know, if you get a teacher's pension, you don't get your full social security allotment. Because I am what is called a significant contributor to SS (I worked for almost 20 years in private sector), I get more of my SS than most pensioners will. It's still a puny amount but it pays for my hair appointment and groceries.

My big celebration (!) was when the Medicare card arrived. That was the day I became officially old. The government sends a card to prove it!

I am in agreement with janinsanfran, and as you know Ronni, I concocted my own ritual or Rite of Passage for my 80th last year, and did a a Celebration of Life while I am here to enjoy whatever people hd to say as I entered my 9th decade with a stepping across a threshold in the presence of my family and a few friends.

I will have a non-traditional "natural" burial with no monument in an age old funeral tradition with no poisons put in the earth, or hight energy cremation and be buried au natural by a attended by a death doula, a fairly new professional, and with no non-biodegradable items put into the ground with me. My family and friends already have what few instructions there are to my "ceremony", and they get to do whatever they choose to do, after they lower me back to the earth I came from. We do our laughing out loud now while I am here to hear it. Meanwhile I plan on living as much of my life "out loud" as i can, like I have so far.

My philosophy early in the morning.

I love that auction-for-charity idea! A great way to make my relatives take something I treasure. LOL

In my country people don't talk about death, as if they think that they are going to live for ever. They have a superstitious feeling that talking about death will hasten it!
When I advised clients (and family and friends) to draw a will (testament) they would recoil in horror, as if I had threatened them!!
I don't understand it. We will have to go. So, let's go, if possible, as we would like, let's have that little bit of extra control on our «life» after we have departed.
I agree that in death rituals we should celebrate the life of whoever we are sending away, remember her/him as the sort of person we liked and loved, with virtues and shortcomings. When life is over, it is easier for the mourners to remember the departed as a full human being who shared life with them than just a body in a coffin.
After two years, I'm still having to deal with the belongings of my most beloved Son, who died unexpectedly. It still breaks my heart to touch and dispose of his possessions, documents, letters...
So i have already started my ritual of death: I'm getting rid of my personal stuff. Whether private papers or professional ones, I've been reading them, remembering other times and enjoying myself thoroughly!! I'm afraid I had already forgotten some events, and the younger version of me is reminding me of the life I had, it's ups and downs.
Clothes, mementos, books, everything my children don't want or need, I give away to people or charities I choose, family members, friends.
For me, I'll keep what I love most and gives me most pleasure, whatever it may be.

The auction idea is brilliant! And I will add that to the instruction book I have prepared for my kids. My DH wanted a traditional funeral so we had one...…..short & sweet. Family only, no mass, the priest gave a short rememberance address & off to the the cemetary.
I have a book called Making Things easier for my Family which I just finished & it spells out everything especially if I end up in the hospital. First order is "get a DNR. It's a big relief to have that & all papers for who has POA,etc. I was a girl scout...……..be PREPARED! Dee:):)

I'd prefer cremation, a tiny little memorial service if my son desires (please, no religion!), and my ashes scattered in some beautiful place in the mountains. I'd rather fertilize a tree than be left to rot in a coffin. But of course once I'm dead, I won't know or care what my survivors do. Everything done after my death is for their benefit, not mine. Prepaying a cremation might guarantee that part of it. As for my belongings, survivors can pick out what they want and put a figurative match to to the rest.

What I've been thinking of, for many weeks now, may qualify as a rite of passage. Many years ago, I purchased a few blank spiral books from an art store, and began pasting findings that amused me or inspired me to change.

I have been thinking that after my passing, I would like my daughters ~~possibly my sons, too ~~
to have possession of, IMHO, their mother's brilliant collection of art, poetry, wit, and truth :)

Art lessons over the years never quite cut it, but clipping and pasting in an artful arrangement has given me many minutes of joy. Wow, I've created hefty little books.

Clipped from where, I don't recall, but here's an example that I ran across again today :
"The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another."
William James

My mother, who died 8 months ago, wanted cremation, no service and said her surviving children should go out to dinner, drink as much as we like, and have someone else drive us home! Her ashes are still in a black box in the living room. We still haven't had that dinner.

My dad, on the other hand, who died 14 years ago, wanted to be buried in a military funeral, with my middle brother playing Taps on the bugle. We even had a drunken sailor standing at attention (well, sort of) , along with the rifle shots. The "service" itself was cobbled together by my mother and me--a little bit of Bennet Cerf, May Sarton, and words by the kids--ended with a reading of "Crossing the Bar" by Tennyson--a favorite of my Dad--all held at the grave site. The funeral director asked for a copy of our program as he had never seen a family put together something like that and thoroughly enjoyed it. And my bro did play "Taps" as my dad had said if he didn't, he'd come back to haunt him!

For my "disposal", I'd like cremation. Though already paid to the Neptune Society, I think I'd like my son and his kids to take the ashes for a hike and scatter them in their favorite place. Or if they'd like to keep me on their mantel, it's fine too!

No fuss, no feathers! My husband and I prepaid for simple cremations almost 20 years ago. He's slightly ambivalent about a small "celebration of life" (that will be up the kids), but I'm not. No, thanks! Like Susan R., I'd prefer to have my ashes scattered in the mountains or the ocean, but I won't be around so "whatever. . .".

As far as possessions we have little of major value at this point. Our cars and furniture are old like us (although in better condition overall). I've left the phone number of the local equivalent for "GOT JUNK" in our Survivors' Folder along with our Wills, DPAs, etc.. They can probably clear everything out in 4 hours or less. If we still have living kitties, the Pet Guardian Program number is there, too.

A great topic, Ronni! What I want, if I'm close to the end and have the stamina and my wits about me, is a big goodbye party. I want to hear from family and friends about what they'll remember about me, or anecdotes, or what they've learned from me. It's always struck me that the most moving funeral services feature all of that, but that the deceased doesn't get to hear it (we don't think, anyway). Lots of food, lots to drink, lots of chatter. That's what I want.

I have been a member of the Funeral Consumers Alliance for many years and have options. I have chosen cremation and my ashes will be scattered in the same place that my husband's were.

To enable closure (whatever that is) for my family we have discussed having a celebration of my life at my house with food and wine. It will be open to anyone who knows me and I do hope the comments they make are positive but has been pointed out, I won't know or care.

Most of my friends are dead so I doubt that there will be many to attend but it's for the living and not the deceased. Maybe the men who collect my trash will come for the free food. ;-)

I haven't thought a lot about a possible memorial for me--I think it's probably up to whoever might want to remember me.

But I am howling over "Families want to put the 'fun' in funerals!" LOVE it!!

Bringing your wallet to a funeral is a No, No in my book, in response to "Why can’t a memorial serve as a fundraiser?” Perhaps you don't want to donate money to that particular charity + who wants your stuff anyways? In real time, your family/best of friends will be the one who will clean out your home, if you haven't done so already, while you were living. However, whatever floats your boat, as they say. Remember, the ones you leave behind will need people around and thus, that is why a "viewing" was created--to comfort those who lost the loved one.

Like Nana, I have already made a pact with my sons and paid for the cremation.

I bought a nice contraption that will hold my ashes along with a sprout of a tree which will enable my sons to plant them in the place I love the most -- the place I went to spend nearly every summer day of my childhood -- alone on a wild, tree-covered hillside near my home in West Virginia where a tiny spring rose out of the ground near the top of the hill and ran downhill for a half-mile or so to the creek. My sons have already been there with me and know where to go.

My sons also know where my parents and grandparents and many of our forebears are buried in a town nearby and will be given the plot's ownership papers shortly so they can continue to care for them. That's our family's traditions. The 'old fashioned' ways of West Virginia. Mine will be the first, I believe, non-traditional burial for a very long time.

I've noticed not many funerals are held at church's but memorials instead. The only family we have here is our daughter so our funerals will probably only be with church members attending. The people I volunteered with are no longer in my social gathering.

I am a firm believer funerals are for the living.

Some time ago I read that it would be a gift to our survivors to present them with an envelope containing details of arrangements already made for our passing (especially great for our adult children if their father should call them some night in panic at two a.m.)
Nice mom that I am, I made pre-paid arrangements with a super funeral director I found. I paid for cremation, selected a lovely container for ashes, a burial plot to please my husband, and later a headstone bearing both my name and my husband's.
One day (prior to that) my better half and I had spent a full two hours (by the clock) with his refusing to hear nor respect my wishes for --> myself.
A few weeks later, he told me that he had consulted with a priest at the church where he attends Mass weekly. He came home assured that he could be could be cremated and buried beside me, under a headstone covering us both, and that he could rest assured that the cemetery (one with a delightful name) that I had selected would be just fine ~~ though not formally designated as a Catholic cemetery.
Our children are happy campers, well, in the sense that their dad will not be insisting on a casket burial nor a Mass, which none the children nor I have attended in many years. I think I can say that my husband is somewhat happy himself, at least in the sense that something is resolved. Not many years ago, he admitted he was finally able to face the fact that he would not live forever !!

I thought funerals were for the living, but as my "best-before" date approaches I'm finding that I do after all have a couple of preferences.

I want cremation offstage, before the memorial service. And the urn matters -- it's going to be representing me, so I have picked out a blue cloissone vase that I like.

The way I look at it is: this is my rite of passage. I want it to be clear in their minds that I have made the transition from flesh to existing in their memories.

I entered this life without fanfare and that's the way I intend to leave it. I've pre-arranged a fairly simple funeral. Dignified (closed) casket and burial in a plot near my parents as soon as possible after death. Although I'll be buried in a Jewish cemetery, I've requested a non-religious service. I figure a few words of Hebrew spoken over a hole-in-the-ground will not increase my chances of a better after-life.

These are interesting comments. My husband who had Alzheimer’s but was expected to live another 2 or 3 years died in his sleep suddenly 6 months ago. I did not know what to do because the only other funeral I had arranged was my mother’s who died in Paris. She had paid for everything and wished to be laid down near my father in a little country cemetery.

For my husband since he had been a professional environmentalist and editor of a magazine we decided against cremation when we found out that it was not environmentally safe as the incineration process emits a load of noxious substances like dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide and climate-changing carbon dioxide. We were lucky to find out that last summer the Nature Conservancy opened their first protected burial ground in the US about one hour from Nashville, TN. They have a conservation easement preventing development of the land forever. It is adjacent to a wildlife preserve. We chose a plain pine casket and a spot close to a large tree at the end of a trail (no vehicles are allowed.) I gave the death doula several of my husband’s magazines with his editorials so he could speak about him. We selected quotations and poems that several of us recited while his favorite music was played (going from Joan Baez to Chopin.) The grandchildren (ages from 4 to 11) had small shovels to help the adults to pour the earth back on the casket. Then the wild flowers, grass were placed back to cover it. Just a small metal marker was left. A large deer had been seen at that spot in the morning. We knew he would have liked to be there surrounded by nature. The doula told us this was the way people were buried in the west about 150 years ago. My husband loved westerns as well, so I know he would have approved.

Once I’m dead it matters little to me what happens to the body I have vacated — whatever is most convenient, giving my children comfort, since they may have to be coming from across country, or I may be with one of them, but they live distances apart — few, if any other relatives except their children will still be living. I have said I wish to be cremated so I expect they may well arrange for my ashes to be distributed in an area near where my husband’s were — by land, air or burial at sea is possible, too, if the other options are no longer feasible.

The disposition of his ashes was determined by us jointly when my son became aware this could be done from the air over a legally designated National Forest area at Sedona, Arizona — flight and Sedona, individually, had special significance to my husband and I, my son and thus our daughter. The poem “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee, Jr. was read as the ashes were spread.

Unanticipated, later that summer friends in the midwest where we lived years earlier gathered, held a Celebration of Life we attended. A pianist friend performed a song I was unexpectedly asked to select so I requested “That’s All” — the unsung lyrics there speaking loudly to me of my marriage relationship. This occasion meant much to me, and allowed our children and my granddaughter to see an aspect of their father’s earlier musical life, meet so many of his old friends.

My mother, years earlier, had always expected a traditional burial, likely burial in a plot near where she was born and ancestors headstones were still present. After moving to the west coast, for whatever her reasons, she expressed the wish to be cremated but did not specify anything further. Few relatives were still living and those that were could not travel the distances to come here. My brother, coming from Hawaii, and I provided her a more traditional church service presided over by a minister of the denomination that had been a hallmark in her life. Subsequently, her ashes were buried at sea, off the coast, with Hawaiian leis and flower petals. My SIL has remembered our loved ones in the annual Hawaii Lantern Floating Festival.

My brother’s first wife who died of ovarian cancer was cremated, with her ashes buried at Punchbowl Cemetery on Oahu in Hawaii.

For us any services, or none, associated with each departure from Earth is unique, dependent on various factors. I expect no service with so many friends, including those mutual friends from my husband’s memorial, and family, including my only brother, gone — who was cremated, requested no service of any kind with his ashes retained by his wife — so defer to whatever my children choose is best for them at the time.

My possessions of any consequence will have long since been designated by who wants what, but there isn’t much. Disposition of anything else is immaterial.

Ever since reading Vagabonde’s blogpost following her husband’s death with what she shared here relative to cremation issues I have had second thoughts about that process.

Rituals I observe: doing laundry twice a week, paying bills & balancing 4 bank accounts once a month,programming the DVR daily to record all of husband's tv shows; not much time for anything else.

I have prepaid for a cremation but am now having second thoughts. I’m interested in a green burial and there is a place just a few hours away from me. But I don’t think I can get a refund now. So the best I can do is have my ashes along with my husband’s scattered in my lovely yard...when no one is looking, I suppose.

I have no children and by then probably no relatives who will care and my friends are my age or older, so I could be completely alone.

I want no service, nothing religious..just a pretty place to symbolical rest.

I do like the idea of getting an auction company to do a fundraiser after any few friends or fewer relatives might want anything.

Another thought is that have collected screenshots of many quotes, poems, and sayings. I thought about doing something like Shutterfly to make some little books and I have done some paintings that are fairly good I would like not to end up in the trash...

I worry that my nice garden and landscaping will go to seed before my stepsons take ownership and get it sold. All my hard labor of love....gone.

Oh well I’ll be dead, so I won’t know about it.

I am not a Christian who celebrates Christmas. I love the colors, the fun, and the sharing. I celebrate G's birthday and mine. Not too simply...just with fun. We went around the US by train for my 70th. 60th, we went to london and Paris.

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