“Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush<
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft star-shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.”
~ Mary Elizabeth Frye
This past weekend was a whirlwind with regards to emotion. Friday night and Saturday morning I attended the wake and funeral of a beloved family member. It was a somber two days, yet there have been what seems like these random flashes of memories being played out right in front of my face, over and over again. I know I am blessed, because in thinking and feeling these memories out, all I can feel now is love and happiness even from with in the darkest memories. As I made it into the afternoon of Saturday the energy changed a bit as I attended the dance recital of my beautiful cousins, Olivia (5), Kelsey (14) and Kaitlyn (16). I couldn’t help but shed some tears as Olivia danced, she was glowing and happy and I knew in that moment that these were the steps to the beginning of everything for her and I was there to see it. I ended the weekend with great friends, good food and drink and an amazing time and so I began to think of this incredible cycle we call life and how in the same weekend I had experienced the extremes of what life is all about. Where we had the departing of an older soul, those who are developing their own and those who are only just beginning.
The first time I ever read the poem above written by Mary Elizabeth Frye, was on the first day of my grandfathers wake (my mothers father), 11 years ago. I was so confused, and I was sure as hell not ready to say goodbye to him and so a large part of me stayed hidden away trying to understand what had just taken place. I had never felt that deep of a loss or had experienced losing someone before my own eyes as I did with my grandfather Pat. I can remember I was sitting in the funeral parlor and I flipped over one of my grandfather Patsy’s mass cards and that poem is what I found. I was floored, stunned. I knew, even with being so young at the time and not aware of my own divinity just yet, I knew I was supposed to read the poem and that the poem was supposed to be on my grandfather’s mass cards for so many to have read and take home with them forever, including myself. You see, this poem encompassed all of who I perceived my grandfather to be and so I knew in my heart that he had fixed it so that specific poem would find me at that precise moment. He was selfless, intelligent, hard working, honest, loving, kind and free and he would have never wanted us to hurt, to mourn as deeply as we did.
He would have smirked and chuckled and said, “Cut it out! Just look around and I’ll be right there, whenever you need me.” The minute I read that poem I knew, without a shadow of a doubt that my grandfather was not in that coffin. His vessel was, but his spirit was very much alive and with me, with us all. I didn’t equate this to my beliefs or religion at the time but more so what I was feeling and my intuition. He was here one minute, full of love and the next, gone? It didn’t make sense to me. Then, we were to follow through these ceremonies, mourn him and bury him to say our goodbyes? No, I knew there was more to it and I didn’t stop until I figured it out for myself, and I have.
I am a people watcher and so I tend to observe people especially in the most significant and monumental moments. Death, being one of them, I find it fascinating how each individual, culture and society handles death uniquely. With the experiences of this past weekend, I began thinking of our rituals of death, and by us I mean of the world and how they have came about. As well, how our rituals and ceremonies are so richly and closely entwined with our spiritual and religious beliefs.
Funeral rituals and customs are as old as civilization itself and there are three things in common relating to death that have held through time no matter the culture and they are funeral rites, rituals, ceremonies, a sacred place and memorialization. Neanderthal burial grounds dating to 60,000 BC had animal antlers on the body and flower fragments next to the corpse telling us some type of ritual, gift and remembrance existed. As primitive and without any great psychological knowledge as the Neanderthal man was believed to be, there is proof that they instinctively buried their dead with ritual and ceremony, very much in the same way we do now. But why? And how did this come about?
It is said that fear played a huge part in what we accept as our rituals today and that this fear of the dead carried over into what was developed into our religions and philosophies. Neanderthal believed life and death events were the acts of spirits but since he was not able to see or sense these spirits, he lived in a world of terror. The first burial customs then, were within a raw state of efforts to protect the living from the spirits, which were believed to have caused the death of the person. Fear of the dead caused the burning of bodies to destroy evil spirits, which later became a custom adopted by many through time including certain Hindu and Asian cultures.
Many primitive tribes even today simply run away from their dead, leaving them to rot. Zoroastrians allow their dead to rot or be devoured by vultures. In Tibet and among the Kamchatkan Indians, dogs are used. Herodotus tells us that the Calatians ate their own dead, it was considered a sacred honor and duty. To this day, certain African tribes are known to grind the bones of their dead and mingle them with their food. The Zulus burn all of the belongings of the deceased to prevent the evil spirits from even hovering in the vicinity. In Hebrew belief, the dead were considered unclean and anyone who came in contact with the dead were declared unclean. Sacrifices of one kind or another were also offered in honor of the dead. In some cases their purpose was again, to appease the spirits. In some cultures, these sacrifices were meant to be used by the deceased in the future world.
Native American tribes maintained their own death customs and adapted them to their regional environments, although such rituals and beliefs could pass from one group to the other through trade and intermarriage. Most Native American tribes believed that the souls of the dead passed into a spirit world and became part of the spiritual forces that influenced every aspect of their lives. Many tribes believed in two souls: one that died when the body died and one that might wander on and eventually die. Burial customs varied widely from tribe to tribe. Indians disposed of their dead in a variety of ways.
Within certain Italian cultures, the family themselves take control of the deceased’s body. They prepare the body, wash them, clothe them and set them out for viewing for relatives and the town. The visitors and mourners bring coffee or sugar as gifts. The body sleeps in the house with the family until it is time to bury them. Once the wake is over, the family caries the body through the streets of the town to the cemetery where they nail the coffin themselves and place them into the wall. I know this because, I experienced it first hand in Italy when my fathers father (Eduardo).
Many of our own funeral customs have their historical basis in pagan rituals. Modern mourning clothing came from the custom of wearing special clothing as a disguise to hide identity from returning spirits. Covering the face of the deceased with a sheet stems from pagan tribes who believed that the spirit of the deceased escaped through the mouth. Feasting and gatherings associated with the funeral began as an essential part of the primitive funeral where food offerings were made. Wakes held today come from ancient customs of keeping watch over the deceased hoping that life would return. The lighting of candles comes from the attempts to protect the living from the spirits. The practice of ringing bells comes from the common medieval belief that the spirits would be kept at bay by the ringing of a consecrated bell. The firing of a rifle volley over the deceased mirrors the tribal practice of throwing spears into the air to ward off spirits hovering over the deceased. Originally, holy water was sprinkled on the body to protect it from the demons. Floral offerings were originally intended to gain favor with the spirit of the deceased and Funeral music had its origins in the ancient chants designed to placate the spirits.
I have read up quite of bit on this subject and I have been through my own experiences. As well, I have experienced loss and its rituals within other cultures first hand. In the end, what takes place after the souls of those I loved departed didn’t matter. Don’t get me wrong, it felt good to work within tradition and see the rituals and ceremonies through as a means of respect. However, what was most important for me was the understanding that those who leave here are never truly gone, and that those who have left have done so for us, just as much as themselves. That, what we are left with after they leave, what we see fit as a means of saying a proper goodbye is purely for our comfort here on the 3rd dimensional plane, to help us transition within a time that holds fear and seemingly has no reason, when in truth everything has its reason.
Presently, there is no doubt that a large part of our rituals and our ceremonies have just as much to do with the psychological aspects of grief and mourning as they have to do with tradition or conditioning. For many, regardless of how our ways were formed, find great relief in them, which in turn allows our rituals to act as a vehicle for healing. Yet, in having read all of this information perhaps another question is formed, what other parts of us and our beliefs, our culture and society have we allowed fear to construct for us? What comes to mind for me could triple the length of this post! However, I’ll leave you with that question to answer for yourself and possibly challenge some thoughts, maybe finally ask those questions that have needed asking, or to make some changes that you knew you needed to make, but couldn’t until right now.
♥ All of my love and light ♥