Symbols and Rituals

It is often helpful to have a symbol that represents our loved one’s life as part of the Celebration of Life ceremony or funeral/memorial service.  I have discovered that these symbols can be a very powerful outlet for grief and letting go if they are incorporated into a ritual.  This ritual could be during the service itself or at the graveside.

The following are some symbols and rituals that come to mind – some I have tried, some not, and some have come from funerals I have attended or from talking with colleagues or friends.  The rituals included here are meant to simply be starting points only as you let your own creativity flow to make each symbol and each ritual fit the life of the deceased.  They can also be used as is.

To download a PDF document, click on the name of the ritual.  To download a PDF document of all the rituals, click Symbols and Rituals.


Afghan

It would be wonderful to have an afghan that the deceased had made.  As the following is said it could be draped over a corner of the coffin, or be there already and just a corner lifted or acknowledged in some way.

 ________ enjoyed knitting (crocheting) and putting together these afghans.  She put much of herself into each one she made.  Every stitch was done with love.  As these afghans keep us warm so her love still wraps around us, warming our hearts as we remember all that she gave to us, all that she was to us, all that she meant to us.  (Some of her attributes could be named here). These things will never go away, but will live on in our memories and in the way we live our lives.

A container of small bits of yarn (maybe even some left over from her afghans) could be available and as each attribute is named, pick some up and drop them into a basket.  The mourners and/or others could be invited to do this as well.

Graveside – the basket full of bits of yarn could be taken out to the graveside and if this was not done at the service itself, people could be invited to come forward and put some bits of wool on the coffin, urn, or in the grave. Or they might like to take a piece to keep as a reminder of their loved one.


Butterflies

I attended my father’s cousin’s funeral a while ago.  She was a collector of butterflies and so her daughter, daughter-in-law, and each of the granddaughters wore one of her butterfly pins.  The message also included butterflies.  Butterflies are a wonderful symbol of transformation and new life that we talk about at Easter time.  They can also be used at funerals as we talk about the change that happens with death and the new life that is entered into at that time.  Butterflies are quite easy to come by these days, so if you can, find one big enough for all to see and display it somewhere at the front.  

 Graveside – small butterflies could be available at the cemetery for folks to take home, or to throw in the grave, or place on the casket or urn.

Other ideas
Hymn – In the Bulb There is a Flower

Scripture – anything to do with new life


Candles

Candles can be used in all sorts of ways.  Sometimes I have a candle (usually a pillar candle) on a table at the front and light it near the beginning of the service with the following words (or similar):

 We light this candle as a symbol of ________’s life.  His/her life was filled with the light of Holy Love and it shone through him/her in all that s/he did.

At the end of the service, just before the blessing, extinguish the candle with the words:

________’s life here on earth has ended and so we put out the light.

Several candles could be used.  The centre candle would be in memory of the deceased.  This could be a pillar candle perhaps in the deceased’s favourite colour.  Several other candles (tapers) could be placed in a circle around the pillar candle and the following words said: 

The centre candle was lit in memory of ________’s life.  I light these other candles now in memory of some of the ways ________ let God’s love shine through him/her to others.

** his/her peaceful, quiet nature

** his/her gentle joking and teasing

** his/her kind-heartedness, the way s/he would do anything for anyone

List other attributes of the deceased.  You may want to have as many candles as there are people in the immediate family so that each could take one home in memory of their beloved.  Perhaps the central candle would be for the spouse and the others for children, for example.

When the single, centre candle is extinguished, the others are left lit with the following words:

________’s life here on earth is ended so we put out the flame.  But the light of his/her loving ways shines on through all of you.  Tend these flames of love so that ________ may live on in you in all those ways that are now a part of you.  May all you do and say be through, with, and in that Holy Presence of Love!

Other Ideas
Hymn – Jesus Bids Us Shine


Dragonfly

When you know that the mourners will include a number of young children, the story “Water Bugs and Dragonflies” by Doris Stickney could be told or read as part or all of the message. This would also make a good Children’s Time message.   Have a dragonfly to hold up as the story unfolds.  Small cloth dragonflies can be purchased at a dollar store to hand out to the young folk as a reminder of the story and of their loved one.

Earth

Earth can be part of several important rituals that can take place at the graveside.  Sometimes earth from the deceased’s home farm or garden is brought to be used.  A pail of earth could be made available so that family members or any of the people gathered could pick up a handful and drop it on the coffin, urn, or in the grave.  Sometimes the family would like to have a whole wheelbarrow full of earth so that they can each put a shovel full of earth into the grave.  I have even known families to totally fill in the grave themselves.  


Garden Gloves

_______enjoyed working in the garden, turning over the soil, planting seeds, watching the plants grow.  So, too, s/he tilled the soil of our hearts, planting seeds of love, of the zest for life (list others).  We place these garden gloves (trowel, etc.) here as a symbol of ________ and to remind us that life is hard work but the fruits of our labours are worth it all!

Other Ideas
Hymns – In the Garden, In the Bulb There Is a Flower

Graveside – seeds could be made available in a basket and sprinkled on the casket, urn, or in the grave, by anyone who would like to.  (See ‘Seeds” in this section for more ideas.)


Grain

Stalks of grain or grain seeds could be used, especially for farmers.  This could be done in the church, but especially at the graveside.  Each family member or even all who are gathered, could be invited to place a stalk of grain or a handful of grain kernels on the coffin or urn, or in the grave itself.

Other ideas
Scriptures  – John 12:24-26 – unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth
– Matthew 13:3-8 – the sower and the seed


Knitting Needles

Have a pair of knitting needles, preferably a pair that the deceased has worked with.

These knitting needles are a reminder of ________, a symbol of her life.  As she loved to knit for others, she taught us all how to live, knitting us all together into one big family.  Her stitches were the love she put into everything she did, her laughter, her joy of life (name other attributes of the deceased).  And so as we say good-bye to ________, may we remember the stitches she taught us so that her goodness will live on through us.

Place knitting needles on coffin or on table beside urn.

Other ideas
Hymns – Part of the Family

Scriptures – parts of Psalm 139 – you knit me together

Graveside Ritual – perhaps one of the family may wish to carry the needles out at the end of the service to be placed with the coffin or urn in the grave.

If the person crocheted instead of knitting, a crochet hook could be used in place of knitting needles.

This could also be used with bits of yarn as suggested under ‘Afghan’ in this section.


Leaves

If you want to use leaves as a part of the service itself some artificial fall leaves could be used.  These can be found in a variety of places and are usually quite inexpensive.  Perhaps they could be handed out to everyone gathered or just to the family and close friends.

Today as we celebrate ________’s life with us there are many things that we must let go of.  We let go of ________’s smile, her joyful nature, her sense of humour, her love for nature, her love for her family (name other qualities of the deceased).

As each is named a leaf is dropped on the coffin or urn.  It’s okay if they don’t stay there—the point is letting go.

Even as we let go of the earthly body of ________ and all the things she gave us, we know, too, that they will live on within us, in our memories, and in the way we live them out in our own lives.  (Family members and close friends could be invited to come and let go of some leaves as well, naming the qualities of the deceased that they admired and will hold in their hearts, either out loud or silently.)

Other ideas
Scriptures – Ecclesiastes 3:1-4 – for everything there is a season…

Graveside – if they weren’t used at the church, the artificial leaves could be brought to the graveside and let go there
– a basket of real leaves could be made available and folks invited to come forward, pick some up, and let them go to fall around the coffin or urn.


Quilt

It would be wonderful to have a quilt that the deceased had made on display somehow at the front—perhaps even draped over the coffin.  The whole message could revolve around the quilt with the idea that each piece is someone or some experience in their life.

This quilt is made up of many different pieces of fabric.  It is a wonderful illustration of all of the people in ________’s life and her encounters with them.  Each of these pieces is a person in her life who touched her life in some way, or whom she touched.  These pieces are all held together by the thread of God’s love.  As the quilt ages, sometimes one piece will tear or come apart from the others.  ________’s piece has come apart from the rest of the quilt, from all of us, and ________ has moved on to a new life where she will become a piece of a new and even more wonderful quilt.

Remember, the quilt still remains—life still goes on, held together by that thread of Holy love.

Remember the stitches of love that tied you to ________.  The stitches of love with which ________ touched your life.  Stitches of love and caring, of fun and laughter, (name other qualities of the deceased).  Remember the thread of Divine Love that holds us all together that we may all treat each other with that same love and respect, kindness and compassion.

Other ideas
Graveside – have small pieces of cloth available and invite all to come forward and either take a piece of cloth to take home in memory of the deceased, or to place on the coffin or urn to say good-bye.  This would be even more meaningful if they were pieces of fabric that the deceased had in their collection.


Rose

Have the head of a rose so that you can take the petals off, or have a basket of rose petals that you can use.

The rose that was ________ has withered and died.  She has gone back to that wonderful Creator who forms us, the Source of all Love.  But she has left behind her many petals of love that we will remember her by.  There are the petals of laughter, a wonderful sense of humour, incredible wisdom, giving, caring, sharing, and receiving love, friendship, spirituality, love of music and dancing and playing cards, especially Bridge, love of people—family and friends, hard work, the love of gardening.  (change or modify this list to reflect the qualities of the deceased)

Pick up a rose petal and let it fall around the urn or on the coffin as each of these is named.

 Remember and cherish these gifts of love in your hearts; always keep connected to that eternal Source of Love, that these petals may grow strong within you, blossoming with the light of love, to shine for all to see.

Other ideas
Hymn – In the Bulb There is a Flower

Scripture – Matthew 6:25-34 – do not worry about your life

Graveside – often families will each place a single flower on the coffin or urn.

My mother-in-law’s funeral was quite a small gathering and the interment of ashes was to be at a later time.  During the service, my father-in-law was invited to place a single rose on the urn.  Then the rest of the family was invited to come forward and pick up some rose petals from a basket and let them fall on the urn.  The song “The Rose” was played from a CD while this was happening.  I found it to be very powerful and helpful to begin to let go.

If it is a bigger funeral, this could be done at the cemetery where all could be invited to pick up some petals and let them float down onto the coffin or urn as a symbol of letting go, releasing the loved one into the cycle of life.


Seeds

Use one or two packages of seeds or handfuls of seeds, depending on what kind of seeds they are.  You may choose to use a variety.

________ planted many seeds in this world throughout her/his life.  Seeds of honesty, love, laughter, kindness, (name more of the deceased’s attributes).  May these seeds land on fertile soil in our hearts that they may continue to grow within each of us.  In this way ________ continues to live on through us.

Packages of seeds are laid on coffin or table.  If loose seeds are used they could be sprinkled as each seed above is mentioned, or this could be done in silence after you are done speaking.  You could also invite family and/or friends to come forward, name a seed that they have received from the deceased and sprinkle some seeds on the table.  Or better yet, have a planter full of earth to plant the seeds in, perhaps to be left at the cemetery or taken home by the family.

Other ideas
Scriptures – Matthew 13:3-8 – the sower and the seed

Graveside  – have people bring seeds from home to sprinkle in the grave.

Collect packages of garden seeds to be given to a community garden project.  These could be brought forward after the liturgy of seeds.  Each person could name some seed that has been planted in them, or that they would like to have, as they place the package of seeds on a table or in a basket near the coffin.  These could be supplied at the door so everyone coming in could pick up a package.

Small packets of seeds could be made available for everyone to take home with them.

This could also be used with farmers and use grain for the seeds.