Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The New Funeral: A Dispatch from Richard Clarke

New American scattering funeral

Richard Clarke has shared some remarkable posts with The Daily Undertaker, from his adopted home in India. In the past, the subject was always an interesting and moving account of a traditional Indian death ritual. Once again, Richard has been gracious enough to share a post with us, but this time, it is on the occasion of his mother’s death in California, and the memorial service and ocean scattering that concluded it.

What stands out for me in this account is the way that disparate traditions and religious texts are combined, along with ritual participation, stories and songs in an informal and intimate way.

New ritual

This is the new American Funeral!

Today our families are a mix of not only blood and marriage relations, but of close friends, and others whose relationships are not defined by traditional terms.

We are scattered about the country and even the globe, and it takes time for us to gather. When we do, there is a blend of tradition, innovation and a spicy combination of outlooks and beliefs. We wrap this all up, sometimes in a funeral home, sometimes in a park, sometimes in a tavern or a living room, with a clergy member or without. Often a celebrant, a family member or a friend is chosen to lead the service. Music is meaningful, and drawn from old and new, secular and divine. The structure is loose and the dress code is widely varied.

We laugh and we cry, and we say, “This is about her, this is what she would want” and “This is what I want when I go”

And so, taking us from traditional Indian rites, to the most modern of American services, and finding common ground in both, is our friend Richard Clarke. Godspeed to your dear mother, Richard.

(This is an excerpt- for the full text and many more photos, visit Richard’s blog.)

memorial service ideas cremation ritual

My mother, Maxine Clarke, died on June 22, 2010. She was 91 years old, and was ready to go. She had been bedridden for the previous year, legally blind for ten years before this. She had been meditating each day, seeking patience and acceptance.

My daughter, Megan, had been providing the caregiving for my mother during the last six years. Just a few minutes after Maxine passed, a friend of Megan’s, Mystique, had a dream. In this dream Maxine was being carried through a crowd. She was waving and throwing flowers. She said, “I’m out of here!” If ever there was a true dream, this was it.

We held the memorial service a few weeks later on July 24th, scheduled so that other family members would be able to make the long drive from the San Francisco Bay Area to Eureka, California, a drive of about 300 miles. This post is from that day.

new cremation ritual death

The memorial service was at Patrick’s Point State Park, among the trees near the Pacific Ocean that Maxine so loved.
It is
4 pm, and there is still fog here. The temperature is in the mid 50s F.
For the service, Megan set up an altar on a tree stump. There are photos of my mother and a sculpture done by one of her friends decorating the altar, as well as flowers, a candle, and ashes, the last remains from the cremation.
The group that gathers is mainly relatives. Richard is presiding, wearing white ‘temple clothes’ from India.

Richard waves incense and gives the
Om, Om Namah Sivaya, Om, Om, Om.
(Siva is He, whose Consciousness fills the universe)
Then a few verses from the Bhagavad Gita are recited

ashes scattering cremation ritual

Richard then talked about Maxine’s life, followed by comments from others. A few details from this talk:

Maxine was born in 1918, a fraternal twin with Wilma. They were that last two children of Georgia and Wilkerson (Bill) Adams. Both parents were born in the 1880s, and had been married before, with children, so Maxine and Wilma were the last of a long line of kids. Wilma was outgoing, Maxine was shy.

As a child Maxine had holy spiritual experiences, unusual in Oklahoma, where she grew up. She would go by herself to the banks of the Red River, where she strongly felt the presence of Jesus. This was not something that she could talk about with any of her family or friends. She also discovered her love of reading, and devoured books from the local library.

At age 16, she was told by her mother that she had to get married. The family had suffered severe losses from the Depression and the Oklahoma dust bowl that followed in the 1930s. I think forcing Maxine into marriage was a way for the family to feel like she would be supported. Mother agreed, on one condition, that she be allowed to go to college. (No member of the family had ever gone to college at the time.)

My brother, Tom, was born in this period. After a few years, Maxine and Russell Burroughs divorced. They had felt more like brother and sister than husband and wife.

Soon after this, Maxine met my father, Richard Clarke, at Oklahoma University in Norman, Oklahoma, where he was studying chemical engineering, financed by his membership in the US Army ROTC. He ‘swept her off her feet’ and shortly after, told Maxine that he was taking her to a dance, instead took her off to get married. They had a few happy years. Then WWII started, and my father was being called into active duty as an artillery officer. I was born just few weeks before he departed for Europe.

I was born in an ambulance on the way to the hospital in the middle of a snowstorm. The ambulance attendants were saying, “Lady, can’t you wait? You are messing up the ambulance and our boss will be mad. He’ll make us clean it up before we go home.” Somehow during all this, Maxine surrendered to God. Then suddenly the ambulance was filled with light. I was born in this light. Mother said that this was the first time she experienced this light of God. She arrived at the hospital with me on her belly, her face radiant with joy.

In the years that followed, Maxine divorced Richard, who seemed to have changed during the war, moved us to California (San Jose, then Los Gatos), supported us by writing, selling about one story a month to the ‘confession magazines’ (with titles like “I fell in love with a younger man”). She then got a government job as a Social Worker for Santa Clara County. She enjoyed this work, and went on to get a Master’s degree from the University of Southern California, becoming one of the first registered Family Counselors in the state of California.

Her spiritual experiences continued. One high point was at Stanford Hospital, where she was hospitalized for severe back problems. Again, one night she surrendered, then the room was filled with light. The next day, the doctors could no longer find any problems with her back and she was released from the hospital.

Maxine had a very good career as a Family Counselor, helping people and making friends who would stay as friends for the rest of her life. The spiritual experiences continued throughout her life. For me, these experiences opened the doors to my own spirituality.

Then Sandy, a friend of Megan’s who had gotten to know Maxine,
and her two kids sang an old spiritual song, “I’ll fly away.”

Some glad morning when this life is over,

I’ll fly away.
To a home on God’s celestial shore,
I’ll fly away.

I’ll fly away, O Glory,
I’ll fly away. (In the morning)
When I die, Hallelujah, bye and bye,
I’ll fly away.

Richard read one more verse, this time from the Katha Upanishad:

“The wise soul is not born nor does it die.
This one has not come from anywhere nor has it become anyone.
Unborn, eternal, constant, primal,
This one is not killed when the body is killed.”
Therefore the wise grieve not for the living nor the dead.

Sandy sang a last song, one that Maxine loved, “Imagine” by John Lennon.

Imagine there’s no Heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today

ocean ashes scattering

Then those present paid last respects by throwing flower petals onto the altar. After this, came the waving of the fire. We could not find camphor in Eureka, so we used a torch. During this, Richard recited a verse, adapted from Sanskrit:

“The Light within joins the Light without,
Light of Lights, illuminating all.
You are filled with Light. You are only Light.
Light of Lights, illuminating all.

Om, Shanti, shanti, shanti.” (Om, peace, peace, peace)

The altar is beautiful with the flower petals tossed upon it by those who love Maxine. There are two photos, first from the 1940s, then the 1960s, showing Maxine in all her glory. And a later one, from the 1990s, I think.

After the service, Megan carried the ashes down to the ocean. She was accompanied by James on the right, and Mystique, on the left. James is not wearing shoes. We are going to take him to visit India soon, and he is getting ready for barefoot walking.

The green of Patrick’s Point is wonderful. The ocean appears. We climb down to it. James and Megan do the honors …And release Maxine’s ashes into the Pacific Ocean, which was what Maxine had wanted.

Afterward, the trek back up the hill. I look back to where my mother’s ashes were released. The ocean is absorbing them now. One last look, from up the hill. As I walk back I am again taken by the vibrant green of the vegetation.

memorial service ideas

Finally I pass through this opening on the path. My heart is filled with gratitude for what my mother has given me, and joy for her passing. I hope this posting will provide some solace and closure for family members and friends who were not able to join us today.

living with grief green cemetary

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Funeral service faces a crisis of relevance, and I am passionate about keeping the best traditions of service alive while adapting to the changing needs of families. Feel free to contact me with questions, or to share your thoughts on funeral service, ritual, and memorialization.