Barry’s Blog # 386: How to Lead a Grief Ritual, Part One of Two

How old is the habit of denial? We keep secrets from ourselves that all along we know…For perhaps we are like stones; our own history and the history of the world embedded in us, we hold a sorrow deep within and cannot weep until that history is sung.  – Susan Griffin

I am convinced that we would solve many things if we all went out into the streets and uncovered our griefs, which perhaps would prove to be but one sole common grief…The chiefest sanctity of a temple is that it is a place to which men go to weep in common. – Miguel De Unamuno

I first learned about the importance of reviving the old traditions of communal grief rituals in the early 1990s. I was participating in men’s conferences led by Michael Meade and Malidoma Somé at the Mendocino Woodlands camp in Northern California. For the Dagara people of West Africa, there is no community without ritual and no ritual without community. And although their traditional funerals involve the entire community and take three full days to complete, Malidoma insisted that neither of those factors should inhibit our attempts to learn this work and share it with the public.

Another teacher at these men’s gatherings was Martín Prechtel, who passed on Mayan teachings from Guatemala, where the ancestors require two basic things from us: our beauty and our tears. The fullness of our grief, expressed in colorful, poetic, communal events, feeds the dead when they visit on certain auspicious dates, such as Day of the Dead, so that when they return to the other world, they can be of help to us who remain on this side of the veil. alter-2018

Around that time, my wife Maya and I began attending San Francisco’s annual Spiral Dance and Day of the Dead Processions. By the end of that decade, the two of us were hosting an annual Day of the Dead Ritual. In 2010, I also started to lead grief rituals at the Redwood Men’s Conference, also in Mendocino. We continued leading these events until Covid prevented us.

This article isn’t about why we need to do this, but how, since a couple of friends have been moved to hold their own events and have asked for our advice. For more thoughts on why, please go to these links:

The Background to Our Day of the Dead Grief Ritual

Rituals of Grief

Grief and Remembrance in Greece

Cultural Appropriation?

Our website

We understand that there may be other ways of doing these ceremonies, and that some people may prefer shorter, smaller events. And in 2021 of course, most such events must be held online. But these are the forms that we evolved for our rituals.

Malidoma’s General Principles of Radical or Transformative Ritual

1 – You can plan what will happen, but you can’t predict the outcome. Before you begin, you own the journey. Once you begin, the journey owns you.

2 – Spontaneous, strong feeling indicates the presence of spirit.

3 – Radical ritual must be done in community.

4 – An overwhelming dose of beauty and mystery is necessary. Shrines to the Other World should be as elaborate as possible.

5 – Everyone should bring something personal for the shrine. Giving equals participating.

6 – Invocation and de-vocation must be specific. The more specific, the more emotion.

7 – Leaders must be willing to risk criticism in order to rid the process of pretense.

8 – The purpose of radical ritual is always to restore balance.

9 – People who embody certain elements may become the gatekeepers for those elements.

10 – The level of success is proportionate to the level of surrender one can achieve.

11 – Community ritual can succeed only when every participant maintains a personal spiritual connection and is not a passive observer.

Some further principles of grief rituals that we evolved

1 – Even if we haven’t lost loved ones recently, even if we have attended many grief rituals in the past, we all carry immense loads of unexpressed grief.

2 – Beings on the other side of the veil call to us continually because they desire healing as much as we do. But it is our responsibility to approach them through ritual.

3 – Grieving may never completely end, but we can clarify our intentions to achieve closure with old wounds and with those who are no longer with us. Unfinished business keeps us from focusing on future goals. Dropping some of that weight makes room for a new imagination.

4 – Releasing emotions requires a safe space and a caring community. A person sick with grief can sicken the whole village, so grieving must be communal work.

5 – Having inherited a Western tradition deeply suspicious of the imagination, we know how difficult it is to let go. So we tell poems (preferably recited, rather than read), guide meditations, name the past year’s dead, and build altars. Stories and grief songs from many indigenous traditions help pull us out of normal, emotionally restrained consciousness.

6 – We must move the emotions. When ritual involves the body, the soul takes notice.

7 – “Radical ritual” is by nature, unpredictable. We respectfully invoke the spirits, but we never know how things will end.

8 – Ritual of this nature, like any initiation process, involves sacrifice. We attempt to release whatever holds us back, sabotages our relationships or keeps us stuck in unproductive patterns. In this imagination, the ancestors are eager for signs of our commitment and sincerity. What appears toxic to us, that which we wish to sacrifice, becomes food to them, and they gladly feast upon it.

So: you’ve been to one or more grief rituals before and are inspired to offer one yourself. But you cannot do this yourself! You must plan this several months ahead, and you will need a village to make it happen.

Planning the Ritual:

– Find an appropriate venue and make a clear agreement with its managers, including costs, kitchen responsibilities, arrival and departure times, acceptable noise levels, pre-event preparation and post-event cleanup.

– Be realistic about expenses and appropriate (sliding scale) admission prices. This should be a non-profit event. Some people may need to pay with labor rather than money. Don’t exclude them if they can’t afford the admission fee. Expect some people to not show up without telling you and others to arrive without having signed up ahead.

– Gather a group of committed facilitators, including poets, musicians, small-group leaders and – especially – drummers. One or two experienced drummers are sufficient, or four to six inexperienced. It’s best to have one real drummer who can lead and monitor the others. You may need to print out instructions to the kitchen crew and group leaders.

– Expect a very long day. Expect to be exhausted by the end. Offer discounts or scholarships for kitchen and cleanup people. You will need more help than you expect.

– Do appropriate PR well ahead and repeat often as the event approaches.

Email instructions and suggestions a few days before the event (here is a sample): 

Dear Friends:

We are really looking forward to this year’s Day of the Dead Ritual on Saturday, November 2nd, and don’t we need to come together and grieve in community!

Place: Hillside Community Church – 1422 Navellier Street, El Cerrito

Time: Please try to arrive by 9:00 and no later than 9:30. The time between 9:00 and 9:30 will be spent in registration, creating the altar, and silent contemplation. We will then begin the ritual, and it would be somewhat disruptive to enter after that point. It is difficult to say when it will end (spirit will determine that), but we anticipate 5 P.M. or so, followed by a potluck dinner. Please do try to stay for the dinner.

Food: Have a good breakfast!  We are expecting a deeply meaningful and emotional day, and everyone’s presence, attention and participation is vitally important. We will take a silent lunch break.

Please bring:

– Pillow, blanket, or low chair

– Journal / writing materials

– Pictures of ancestors

– A light bag lunch for yourself and a contribution to the potluck diner

– A poem or song if you want to share one

– Loose, comfortable clothing. Dress in layers, as it may be warm or cold.

– Beautiful items for the altar (pictures, flowers, especially marigolds, sacred objects) — as many as possible! Let’s feed the ancestors with beauty!

– If you’d like to help with setting up the altars, we will be at the church between 2:00 and 5:00 PM on Friday and would love your help.

Preparing the Space (on the day before if possible)

– Building Shrines: The major shrine to the ancestors should be at one end of the room. If possible, the group can build a second shrine at the opposite end to symbolize the village, and smaller shrines around the room to symbolize the elemental spirits. If possible, tape grief poems to the walls.

– Kitchen: Set up hot water heaters, utensils, napkins, Kleenex, etc. Have snacks for those who forget to bring food.

– Signs for parking

– Set up a front desk for sign-ins and payments

Read Part Two here.

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