The Healing Power of Ceremony

By Jean Francis

“You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice” – Bob Marley

Like the Grim Reaper the Covid-19 virus rampages relentlessly through the world showing no mercy, families are left grief stricken in his wake. Covid-19 does not discriminate. People at their most vulnerable, are having to cremate loved ones, hurriedly without the comfort of being surrounded by family and friends. NHS staff and carers are stepping into the place of family by connecting patients remotely to say their last goodbyes; a distressing image that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. There will be many people reflecting over that last conversation, wishing they has said more or reacted differently.

Conveyor-belt funerals are taking place across the world daily; bland, automated procedures, with people having little input or time to make sense of what is happening. There are many families experiencing unbearable sadness, feeling that life going on around them is surreal. Everybody’s reaction to loss is different; there is no norm. It is a process that will take time and the stages can’t be rushed; denial, anger, depression and finally acceptance, allow it all to flow. Focusing on the positive doesn’t make your problems any less serious, but it does make the situation easier to bear.

For those dealing with grief following a death there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. A memorial ceremony can be a beautiful way to celebrate that special life and preparations can begin now, even with lockdown still in place. The focus of a memorial service or ceremony is on the life of the person who has died, to honour and give thanks for that life.  It is also important to consider what will bring comfort to those left behind this will be the memory that lingers on. Ritual and ceremony has throughout time brought people together to celebrate important moments in our lives, providing a space for conscious transition to take place, witnessed and shared with others. The healing power of a heart-felt ceremony is never to be under estimated.

For those who follow a particular faith path, a service will undoubtedly follow a set pattern that includes ancient readings and rituals; led by their own faith leader. For those who have no such template to follow, a ceremony can be anything you want it to be, providing the intention is good. A ritual can be as simple or as intricate as you feel appropriate. Will the occasion be: traditional, formal, spiritual, uplifting and maybe themed with a light-hearted approach, solemn or somewhere in between?

A good ceremony needs a beginning middle and an end with a clear cut moment of transition; moving from one place or situation to another and acknowledging the shift that has taken place. A heart-felt ceremony gives a focus to any gathering where families and friends get together, young and old alike to celebrate the important moments in life. When creating such an occasion your imagination is your only limitation. Celebrations can take place almost anywhere and for any reason; at home, in the garden, on the beach, in a cave, a woodland glade or on a hill top, in fact the sky’s the limit!

First of all, let us consider a possible theme? Choosing a theme makes decision making easy; whether it be where to hold the event, choosing poetry, readings, music and what to eat or drink. How would best reflect your loved ones spiritual beliefs, personality, hobbies, and passions?

A few examples to stimulate your imagination:

For a farmer hold the event in a barn, surrounded by all that is familiar, serve a ploughman’s lunch or supper. Choose readings, songs, hymns and poetry that link with his earth based life-style, sit on bales of hay, include animals and having checked which way the wind is blowing scatter his cremated remains on the land that he has lovingly cultivated

For a lady passionate about birds and her garden, decorate the space with flowers from the garden. Base the content of the ceremony on the many beautiful floral readings songs/hymns and music that are available. On a central and prettily clothed table, display a photograph, vase of flowers, a lighted candle and the straw hat she wore in the garden. Provide a book for in people to record their memories, which will bring great comfort to those left behind. Keep her cremated ashes in a bird bath designed especially so that if you move, she can go with you. Release doves into the blue yonder as a final farewell.

For someone who thrived on being in the great outdoors, form a procession and follow the beat of a drum into a leafy woodland glade. Create a centrepiece with the cremated remains in a rustic container, a lantern with a lighted candle and a basket of shells. Call in the elements of air, earth, fire and water; the elements that sustain all life. Native American readings are meaningful and honour the earth. Share memories that lift people’s spirits. Within the ceremony invite people to take a hand or shell full of ashes to scatter in the woodland as they say their personal goodbyes. Then off to the pub for a pie and a pint.

A lady loved nothing more than a day at the seaside. Family and friends gathered in a hired room at a hotel with sea views in readiness for the ceremony. An ornate jewellery box contained her cremated ashes, mingled with those of her late husband, stood beside a photograph of the couple on their wedding day. The ceremony reflected her spiritual beliefs and included poetry written and read by their granddaughter and ended by remembering those who gave their lives in helping others. The ceremony was followed by a cream tea during which guests drank a toast in the couple’s memory. A basket containing her collection of glitzy jewellery was passed around for people to take a memento. Later that evening as the sun was setting, the close family gathered on the beach to scatter the ashes of their loved ones on an out-going tide, wrote loving messages in the sand and shared memories.

Be prepared! The world is on hold. This is an ideal time to start making plans to in readiness to send out invitations before people’s diaries begin to overflow.

Think about and plan a beautiful Celebration of Life Ceremony

  • Choose a possible date looking well ahead: Consider choosing the birthday or perhaps an anniversary of the person whose life is being celebrated
  • Depending on whether you plan to scatter cremated ashes and/or plant a tree as part of the ceremony, this will define your choice of venue. There is nowhere more comforting than a family home and or garden, space permitting. A Community centre if decorated will afford space, especially if children are involved. A function room at a hotel, restaurant the local, should that feel appropriate. Maybe plan a country walk, scattering the loved ones ashes as you walk, dogs and all with ceremony in the great outdoors followed by a picnic; providing you are willing to take a gamble on the weather.
  • Locate a minister/celebrant in your area that you feel comfortable working with and begin to plan:

  • Choose a date in accordance with the ministers availability. A truly personal ceremony takes time to construct and for everyone to feel comfortable with the contents. It is never too soon to start discussing ideas with the minister/celebrant you have chosen. They will need to feel they have known the person whose life is being celebrated to enable them to offer an abundance of ideas towards the ceremony content. Words will be exchanged until everyone involved is comfortable with what is written.
  • In the meanwhile you could research readings, poetry, write notes recording the person’s life history and achievements; such information will be invaluable when creating the service/ceremony for the unique being whose life is the reason for the celebration.
  • Your minister/celebrant will have a host of ideas to offer but a few of suggestions follow, for you as a family to mull over in the meanwhile
  • Decide on the time of day
  • Make a guest list, Invite friends, family, neighbours and the wider community as appropriate,
  • Get designing the invitations in readiness to add the date and dispatch when the lockdown is lifted
  • Order the champagne and glasses.

It would be a great privilege to gently guide you and your family through the process of creating a loving and meaningful celebration of their life. Much of the planning will need your input, but together we can achieve something exceedingly special. We are all unique beings so let this celebration be equally unique, there are no templates involved, never will there be two occasions alike.

As OneSpirit ministers/celebrants and spiritual counsellors, we support people of all faiths or none, specialising in the creation of heart-felt and healing ceremonies. There are no rules when creating such an occasion, other that the intention be created with honesty and love. When people gather together with conscious intention a shift happens.

Having worked for many years as a party/wedding planner, caterer and funeral arranger, I trained to become a OneSpirit minister/celebrant and spiritual counsellor. I am now Chair and Creative Director of the Last Wishes programme. I specialise in the creation of ceremony and I can guide you gently through the numerous options.

In the Last Wishes Shop ther are a number of books available including:

Finishing Touches: 60+ Ways to Enrich a Funeral by Jean Francis

Ashes and Memorials: 60+ ways to be remembered by Jean Francis

Here are a  few ideas to leave you with until next week:

  • Setting the scene for a unique ceremony:
  • Creating a harmonious occasion
  • Ideas that include ceremony content
  • Rituals and personal touches
  • What to eat and drink
  • Cost saving tips
  • Getting children involved
  • Everlasting memorials
  • Planting trees in memory of a loved one (See Ancient and Sacred Trees for tree planting)
  • Accepting offers of help


Next week, ‘The Healing Power of Ceremony’