“Most people don’t grow up. Most people age. They find parking spaces, honor their credit cards, get married, have children and call that maturity. What that is, is aging.”

- Maya Angelou
Photo of Maya Angelous

Maya Angelou
(Credit: blog.ediindia.ac.in)

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Poem Explores Intimacy and Alienation in Grief Journey

Margaret Atwood's "Variation on the Word Sleep" journeys beside and within another's grief

In her poem “Variation on the Word Sleep“, well-loved Canadian poet Margaret Atwood (1939-) uses sleep as a metaphor for the highly personal, often isolating and poorly rehearsed journey of loss and transformation that is generally called grief in the modern industrial world. The poet finds herself laying next to her bedmate, wishing to journey with them to the “grief at the center of your dream,” and imagining herself doing so, yet knowing that she remains unable to support her companion as functionally and profoundly as she’d like to.

dream-like photo of a person, tidepool and moon shows grief journey

Credit: tuttartpitturasculturapoesiamusica.com

The poem begins with Atwood articulating the nature of her voyeuristic position, looking at grief from the outside. There is a sense of feeling separate, yet wishing to penetrate and participate in the experience:

“I would like to watch you,
sleeping. I would like to sleep
with you, to enter
your sleep as its smooth dark wave
slides over my head”

The poet goes on to imagine travelling through a dreamscape with her companion, ultimately arriving at “the cave where you must descend,/towards your worst fear.” Powerless to help navigate that cave, and knowing that it is not her journey to take, she  imagines offering a talisman-like a spell of protection:

“I would like to give you the silver
branch, the small white flower, the one
word that will protect you
from the grief at the center
of your dream, from the grief
at the center. I would like to follow
you up the long stairway
again & become
the boat that would row you back
carefully, a flame
in two cupped hands
to where your body lies
beside me”

woman holding flames space for grief

Credit: franceslivings.com

While this imagery is quite beautiful and in the spirit of compassionate service, it is tragically underscored by the fact that it is a flight of fancy — a failure to relate. The last few lines bring this home in a spare and effective flourish:

I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.

To be unnoticed and yet performing the necessary, basic human art of companionship is indeed the discretion required to hold space for another to grieve. That the poet “would” like to be this way is saying, in effect, that she is not that way currently. “Variation on the Word Sleep” can, in this sense, be understood to reflect the good-hearted desire that many people feel to help their loved ones through hard times, as well as the profound hole in mainstream culture where the skillfulness of grieving together should be.

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Monday Hearts for Madalene

Page Hodel creates the most beautiful hearts in an ongoing celebration of love

Spring 4_editedHappy Memorial Day!

It’s an honor for SevenPonds to share with our readers the story of the Monday Hearts for Madalene project, a true account of the power of love in the midst of death.

The project’s origins take us to 2005: the moment Page Hodel encountered Madalene Rodriguez and fell “instantly, dizzyingly in love with her.” The couple’s first meeting was electric, and Page felt inspired to do something unique for the woman who captured her heart. So, she began leaving handmade hearts – made from flowers, leaves, and other materials – on Madalene’s doorstep.  The hearts became a ritual, and they were there to greet Madalene as she left for work every Monday.

“To start her week with a visual reminder of our beautiful love.” Page Hodel

Just seven months later, Madalene was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and passed away on June 20th, 2006. But Page’s love for her hasn’t ceased, and she continues to make a heart for her every Monday in celebration of her life.

If you would like, you can also receive Page’s “Monday Hearts for Madalene” by emailing her at page.hodel@gmail.com with “subscribe” written as the subject. Images of the hearts can also be purchased on individual cards and in her beautifully compiled book, Monday Hearts for Madelene. Please also visit her website and Facebook  page. A portion of all sales will go to the Women’s Cancer Resource Center in Oakland, California (www.wcrc.org). See more Monday Hearts for Madalene here.

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Beautiful Portraits Bear Witness to Death

Deathbed portraits pay homage to the dead and inform our understanding of what it is to be alive

In today’s youth-obsessed culture, the twin subjects of aging and death are largely taboo. Although attitudes are changing, many people whose loved ones are dying hold on to the belief that it’s best to remember the person, “as they were in life.” Sadly, this avoidance of the present moment isolates them from the transformative power of actively bearing witness to another’s demise.

In 2010, Daphne Todd took a small step towards breaking this modern convention with her painting, “Last Portrait of My Mother,” a hauntingly beautiful painting of her 100-year-old mother, Annie Mary Todd, following her death. Created over three days in the cold room of a funeral home, the portrait shows her mother’s nude, emaciated body propped up on pillows, a white hospital ID band still on her wrist. Calling it a “devotional study” Todd said of the painting, “I think she looks magnificent.”

The painting earned Todd the 2010 BP Portrait Award and international acclaim.

Painting of an elderly woman after death

“Last Portrait of My Mother” by Daphne Todd
(Credit: theguardian.com)

Deathbed portraiture was a common practice during the 18th and 19th centuries, when patrons of the arts would regularly commission portraits of wealthy or powerful individuals following their deaths. Napoleon, Alexander II of Russia and Johann von Goethe are just a few notables whose images were immortalized in this way. When photography became widely available in the mid-1800s, deathbed portraiture experienced a surge in popularity as means of memorializing a loved one who had died. It wasn’t until the early 20th century, when the traditional home funeral was replaced by funeral parlors, undertakers and the embalming of the dead, that the practice became more or less obsolete.

Deathbed portrait of his child by Albert Anker

Reudi Anker on his Deathbed, 1869
(Credit: art-now-and-then.blogspot.com)

Some of the most heartrending  deathbed portraits are those created by artists who were closely connected to the person who died. Swiss painter Albert Anker’s “Ruedi Anker on his Deathbed,” a deathbed portrait of Anker’s young son, speaks eloquently to the artist’s love for his child and the depth of a parent’s grief.  

Deathbed photo of Father Damien of Molokai

Father Damien of Molokai
(Credit: wikipedia)

Other portraits are striking in their depiction of the magnificent transition from life into death. For instance, this photograph of Father Damien, the Roman Catholic priest who cared the lepers on the island of Molokai, Hawaii, for 16 years before succumbing to leprosy in April of 1889, was taken shortly before his death. In it, we see the canonized priest staring wide-eyed into the camera, facing death with equanimity and an unflinching acceptance of what is to come. It is a fitting memorial to a man who lived and died in the service to those less fortunate than himself. 

Far from morbid or maudlin, deathbed portraiture is a form of homage and remembrance — not just a tribute to those who have died, but a stark reminder that we should each take advantage of this moment to embrace our only opportunity to be fully alive.

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What is an Undertaker? An Interview with Patrick McNally: Part Two

Patrick McNally shares his insights on ritual, art and funerals

Today SevenPonds speaks with Patrick McNally, the inspired real-life funeral director behind the blog The Daily Undertaker, which explores ritual and art surrounding death and dying. In this second part of our two-part interview, Patrick discusses the significance of ritual and how your loved one’s memorial service can harmonize tradition and personalization to hit the perfect key. (Read the first part of our discussion with Patrick here. )

Aurora: You say, “Art and ritual help us to make sense of our mortality.” At SevenPonds, we believe in the importance of personalized ritual as a way to celebrate memory. How have you witnessed the evolution of end-of-life rituals, both as a practitioner in the funeral trade curator for The Daily Undertaker?

Patrick: I think that creating and experiencing art and ritual are the most important of all human activities.  We need this abstracted presentation of the world, and our place in it, to better understand and appreciate our existence.  End-of-life rituals have an incredible variety across and within the many cultures and traditions in our world.  The value in this is that exposure to the traditions of others not only gives us new ideas to incorporate into our own rites, but it helps us see the meaning and importance of our own traditions.

Funeral rituals of the Dagara people

The Dagara people of West Africa incorporate color, dance and music in their funeral rituals

If it can be said that there is an evolution of funeral practices, I would describe it as the interplay between tradition and personalization. Both aspects are extremely important and valuable. I would describe the broad sweep of history in funerals like this: For millennia, funerals have been about traditional ritual, the comforting refrain of time-honored traditions.  These traditional rituals have reminded us of our place in our community and in the cosmos.  They tell us that our loved one was important to us and to our God(s).  They play out for us the drama and ceremony of our beliefs, and reassure us that the rhythm of life goes on despite our loss.

Personalization is the other player in this evolution.  As modern society moves away from an identity based on membership within a traditional community, family and culture towards defining ourselves by what makes us unique, we need to celebrate that unique nature in our end-of-life rituals. We want less of the old traditions. We want our service to reflect our personality and not to be the same as everyone else’s funeral.  Often the old rituals have lost meaning for us, and we demand that the service be about us, and not about the traditions of our forebears.

Military funeral rituals comfort young boy

Credit: youtube.com

Each meaningful service has elements of both.  We need both, and the right mix of the two depends upon the personalities of the person who has died and his survivors.  The best services create new rituals and draws on tradition as well as the person’s personality for their message and content.  Often rituals involving the physical tasks of preparing the body and transporting it to its place of rest are particularly meaningful.  Sharing memories in some form, focusing together on the person who has died, and acknowledging the importance of their lives and their deaths are other essential ingredients in rituals, old and new.

Aurora: Can you tell us about a particularly moving or memorable end-of-life ritual you have witnessed?

Patrick: For me, it was the services for my father, who died at age 42, when I was 8 and my brother was 9. My mother and other relatives created a meaningful and personally relevant service that involved her children and friends, despite the dubious efforts of the funeral director on hand.  We viewed and said our goodbyes to my father’s remains.  My brother and I created the artwork for the memorial programs and took turns, along with others who loved my father, reading poems and playing active roles in the liturgy. We all witnessed the lowering of the casket and shared in the work of covering the casket with earth.

Now, as an undertaker and writer, I strive to be a gentle force of encouragement and assistance — helping facilitate meaningful rituals, rather than trying to “direct” a family through the service that I might think they should have.

Pencil drawing of a grieving person

Drawing by John Clum
(Credit: pictify.saatchigallery.com)

Aurora: What advice do you have for someone looking to incorporate art or ritual into an end-of-life celebration?

Patrick: We often do not fully realize what we really feel or think until we try to express it to others; that is the beauty and value of art.  I advise setting aside an hour or two to focus on sharing thoughts and memories of the deceased with other survivors. This is a valuable exercise in and of itself, and it can lead you to wonderful places. As the memories come out, look for a theme.  The theme doesn’t need to be profound, or to somehow completely sum up that person’s impact or personality.  It can be very specific or very general as long as it is true.

Next, build off that theme in a creative and loving way to create a ritual or artistic expression that allows you to acknowledge that person’s life and death. If you are able to involve others in this expression, or even to involve everyone in it, so much the better.

Aurora: Finally, who is your favorite artist who addresses themes of death and dying in her or his work? Why?

Patrick: I appreciate the work of artists who can bring us into their work, involving us, challenging us and changing us.  In the visual arts, I think first of designer Sebastian Errazuriz and the elegant way he repositions our expectations with transformative and meaningful results.  In ritual arts, I think first of Paula Jardine, whose work at Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver and Royal Oak Burial Park in Victoria, British Columbia, brings new levels of meaning and involvement between communities and their cemeteries.

I must point out, though, that the most moving expressions I have encountered were created from a place of love by grieving survivors.  Art and ritual are not just the province of professional artists.  They belong to everyone.

Aurora: Thank you, Patrick, for your insights. 

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Our Weekly Tip: Use the Hierarchy of Needs to Overcome Grief

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs pyramid helps you handle the basics first
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Credit: Wikipedia.org

Our Tip of the Week: When you’ve experienced a loss, it can be difficult to take care of yourself in the aftermath. Failing to take care of your own needs may lead to depression and loss of self-identity in the long run. Taking a moment to pause and consider your own needs is not a selfish act. It gives you the energy you need to process your grief and remember your loved one. Using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you can identify which aspects of your life you need to focus on in the moment, ensuring that your needs are met as you overcome a significant loss.

How-to Suggestion: Begin with the base of the pyramid, your physiological needs. Get outside in the fresh air; drink plenty of water; take breaks during the day; get enough sleep; and eat healthfully.

After you’ve taken care of those basics, move on to your need for safety and security. Establish rules in your household to support your grieving process, such as giving yourself at least one hour of alone time every night or creating a “safe zone” in your home where you can escape for a while.

Processing grief through meditation

Credit: post40bloggers.com

Next, do things that meet your need for love and friendship. Spend time with loved ones who make you feel at peace. Go out to lunch with friends, or talk with people you trust on the phone. Once you’ve established those connections, engage in activities that build your self-esteem. Speak to a therapist, or try activities such as yoga, exercise or meditation. Embrace your achievements as you begin to move through your grief.

Finally, you’ll be ready to tackle your need for self-actualization and find a place of personal growth. Pick a goal that you’ve always wanted to accomplish, and make it a reality. It can take a long time to get to this point, but when you do, you will find a  purpose and create meaning from the death of your loved one.

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