Our Tip of the Week: Our sense of smell is directly connected to the emotional centers of our brains. The waft of smoke from a sweetly-scented herbal bundle can bring us out of our heads and into our bodies as we prepare a physical and emotional space for a memorial service or end-of-life ceremony.
Many different cultures around the world use the smoke of sacred herbs, bark and tree resins, in medicinal applications — such as moxibustion from traditional Chinese medicine — or ceremonially, as applied in some Native American rituals that integrate cedar, sage, tobacco or juniper.
The wood of the Bursera graveolens tree, commonly known as Palo Santo, or Holy Wood, is used in various ceremonies and healing modalities across Central and South America, and is prized for its grounding and purifying qualities.
Frankincense and myrrh are used in Catholic Mass to prepare a sacred space, both in the physical form of the cathedral and altar, and in the minds and hearts of the community.
Cross-culturally, smoke from smudge sticks and their like are believed to help purify a space for ceremony, a practice often referred to as “smudging” when the herbs are bundled together for burning.
How-To Suggestion: You can make your own smudge stick using a variety of medicinal plants and herbs plucked from your own garden (or politely snatched from your neighbor’s stash). Here is a great tutorial. These would make thoughtful, personal gifts for those grieving.
To make the bundle smoke, light it briefly then blow the flame out. Be sure the space is well ventilated and keep a watchful eye on the bundle as it burns.
In smudging a space, the point isn’t to get the air thick with smoke and make it hard to breathe. Lightly smoke the air and walk around the space letting the scent move through the air. Walking through the space can be incorporated into an end-of-life ritual.
People often use abalone shells to set the bundle down on, as the large surface area readily fits a burning bundle. The shells are beautiful enough to be incorporated into an altar.
We are sensory animals, and by calling on all the senses — including the emotional heart of smell — we can create sacred space and experiences.