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Ceremony before Death: A Living Memorial

In the Presence of Death: ​Using ceremony to explore mindfulness in the journey of dying, death, and the years following, in this 9-part series.​

two hands planting together

Pattanaphong Khuankaew/Thinkstock

Suggestions for Living Memorials—gatherings for a person who is present and alive before death.

Death. Dying. We don’t want it, don’t like it, and don’t even want to think about it. It may be the last ‘in the closet’ part of our culture. So we’ve found ways to turn away, to resist the inevitable, and even to outsource it.

But like any scary monster lurking under our beds, it grows bigger the more you ignore it. Shining a light on it can help transform the fear into something known, and even accepted.  It doesn’t relieve the finality of saying goodbye to someone we love, or the sadness that their absence brings. But consider how bringing intention and presence into this fear, of opening the closet to let the light in, can soften the experience.

In this 9-part series, we’ll explore the times in the journey leading up to death and beyond, and ways to bring your awareness into the space. There are points in that journey that, with ceremony – which is as simple as a shared, witnessed intention brought into action – can be transformative.

In the first part of the journey, when someone knows she is dying, or is elderly and naturally giving it a lot of thought, there are ways to gather community to acknowledge and honor the end-of-lifetime. Living Memorials are gatherings for a person who is present and alive before her death.

Saying Goodbye to Aunt Lorraine

My Aunt Lorraine showed up for her dying by holding a Living Wake. I don’t think she called it that, but what else is a family and friends gathering in a beautiful forest by a lake called, when she had only a few months to live?

Aunt Lorraine was a beauty, a hairdresser, always put together. She was diagnosed with cancer at 76 and chose to receive palliative care, at home. “I’ve had a good run,” she said.

The gathering was held in a campground where her brother’s large RV lived. They turned the RV over to her, while family and friends, children and dogs, played, cooked and swam. She would rest for a spell, then redo her makeup and hair, and be escorted slowly down the stairs to her special chair. There, one by one, people came to sit beside her. They reminisced, as she gave out her final loving advice. When she tired, she was led back into the RV to rest, until she came back for another round of goodbyes.

She made it OK to say goodbye.

These goodbyes were blessings given and received. Love shared, and summed up by her natural grace like a benediction, under the trees and the sky.

Sponsored by Conscious Dying Institute: "Experience life-fulfilling education that creates holistic End of Life solutions."

Then there’s 87-year old Shatzi Weisberger, a vibrant New Yorker who held a ‘Celebration of Life’ gathering where she invited folks to decorate her cardboard coffin. She doesn’t want to die, she says. But her mind is on it, so why not head into it? After all, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime, to say goodbye to all her friends and family.

Others have a party surrounded by friends and motorcycles, like New Zealander Ken Turner, after finding out, at 52, he had just a few months to live.

Or a ‘pre-wake wake’, where Arizona restaurateur Pat Conner gathered with friends, customers and fellow restaurant owners on the day he entered hospice care.

Are these considered ceremonies? Yes. Whether or not there is pomp and circumstance (which likely there was – a song, a poem, a prayer), these gatherings invite us to intentionally face death, together. To show up and be present, even if we don’t want to. To open the closet and let the shadows and the light loose to the trees and the sky.

Would you consider having a Living Memorial? Here are a few suggestions:

  • At home or hospital, with a small group. Open with intention: “We are here to say goodbye to Grandma. We want her to hear how much we love and will miss her.” Then share one by one. Give her plenty of time to sit with each person, to receive and to give memories and wishes. Close with a prayer or blessing or poem.
  • A tree planting ceremony. The dying person chooses a favorite tree and location to gather and plant it together. This setting will call in the intention to give back something alive to the Earth, to acknowledge the cycle of life and death. It can also be the location later, for a memorial service.
  • An internet group conference call. Have a facilitator guide the group. Send out an order of service ahead of time. Ask everyone to light a candle and share a memory. Perhaps they can each say what gift they’ve been given to carry in their heart by the person they are saying goodbye to.

Find readings, poetry, and prayers for a Living Memorial on the InspiredFuneral.com, a resource co-edited by Funeral Director Amy Cunningham and Funeral Celebrant Kateyanne Unullisi.


Kateyanne Unullisi is a Pacific Northwest-based funeral celebrant, home funeral guide, writer and death educator. As founder of The Emerge Foundation, Kateyanne works to educate and empower people to have the kind of positive death experiences she knows are possible. As a funeral celebrant, she is known for creating memorials and celebrations of life that help bring healing and connection. She is co-editor of The Inspired Funeral, a resource for language and ceremony templates for dying and death. She is co-author of Home Funeral Ceremonies: A primer to honor the dying and the dead with reverence, light-heartedness and grace.


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