2020-04-29
In her recent book, "Remembering Well," Unitarian Universalist minister Sarah York seeks to help make it easier for survivors to express grief through creative mourning rituals. Recently, Death & Grief producer Jenny Kinscy spoke with York about the book.

What inspired you to write "Remembering Well"?

It was the gratitude of the people who came to the memorial services that I did, and who were surprised that a memorial service had done so much to help them begin their processes of grief. They came out of it feeling good. They were mourning of course, but they came out feeling good because they felt like they had really honored and blessed the life of the person who died. I think many of them were frustrated by their experiences of funerals and memorial services (or so I gathered from the feedback I got from people). I gathered feedback from people at my church and outside people that there weren't

a whole lot of resources out there. The other thing that inspired me was that I observed an increasing amount of people who, even in my own congregation, were electing not to have any services at all. I was appalled by that.

Would you suggest that the family not have services in place of traditional services?

It depends on the family and what their needs are. My observation was that there was an increase in people who had no religious community and who therefore had no context for the ritual. There's also been an increase in the number of people who are doing their own thing, who choose not to go to a church or a religious community and they do their own thing, and they need guidance. These are people who did not have a sense of how to move through ritual and use ritual. I have discovered, however, that it's been a very useful tool for many clergy and mainline Christian churches.

There's a chapter on "Soul Sketching." Can you explain to us what that is?

It is the process through which the person who speaks [at the service] gets information from family and friends. That's an opportunity for people to get together and talk about their memories and talk about some of those issues that are less easy to talk about--anger, grief, and guilt. When I'm preparing for that time [as a celebrant], I discover what kind of tension may exist in families, and I become acquainted with the special circumstances of a death. Whoever is leading a ritual is holding a space for an incredible amount of loss, not all positive feelings, and sometimes negative ones. So the soul sketch itself is as authentic a picture of a person as you can create, and not necessarily the story of their life but the story of how their life made a difference in the world and in other people's lives.

Sometimes there are different faiths in one family. Perhaps the person who died is atheist. If the family isn't atheist, they may not be sure how to celebrate it, both in a way that fits the bereaved and celebrates the person. Any suggestions or advice?

Yes. I recognize that it's really difficult because you really want to be able to serve the needs of the ones who mourn. And if a particular prayer, for example, is meaningful to them, I think there also ought to be a way that they can have a prayer. At the same time, they need to honor and respect the person who died. So for example, if the person who died was an atheist, you talk about them, and you should be honest about that.

How can the family members in such a situation do that?

You might preface a prayer with some kind of light remark, like, "You know, so and so didn't want us to pray over him, but we need this! Let's take a few moments to seek some comfort in our own faith," or something like that. You could always find a way to acknowledge and honor a person [and] at the same time serve the needs of the people who are there. The important thing is to not have a totally religious service where you're saying someone is going to heaven when they didn't believe it. If the deceased didn't believe there was a heaven, then you don't talk about a heaven. You can say, "Our prayers are with them and we bless them."

Which family members should participate? Is there a way that family members should choose?

I think it's by the choice of the family. You get all kinds of family dynamics, of course. Anybody in the family who really wants to speak or something will find a way to do that. And in the close personal family, you may have a limit in how many people can participate. I always encourage people to participate. One of the things that I do too is if, say, the children of someone who died say, "I think I want to speak, but I don't know if I'll be able to handle it"--that's very typical--I always say, "You can decide at the last minute, and we'll make a space here where you can elect to speak, and I'll be watching for you at that time," or something.

What about family members who don't get along with each other?

Some people in the family may end up being totally excluded because they're alienated from the ones who are in charge of this thing, and they sometimes need to do something else for themselves. That's one of the things that I addressed in the book. There are other times to do rituals, and you're not limited to that one funeral or memorial service after a death. If, in fact, family members aren't served because of alienation in the family, then I think they do have other opportunities. There are all kinds of things that families have disagreements on, and sometimes it's stuff like whether the body was cremated or embalmed, buried. Sometimes, somebody will take the ashes and just put them on their mantle and keep them in their house, and other members of the family never have a sense of completion.

I think that people need a sense of completion so that they can get on with life and move on.

Right, and that's where some of the "stuckness" happens, and they can't move on. So one reason I wrote the book is that people can still do rituals years and years after a death that will help them with those ongoing issues of grief.

What about the logistics of a service? Can a memorial service take place anywhere, anyplace?

Actually, it's not that unusual for people to have memorial services in unusual places.

I've done them out at an amphitheatre, a natural history museum, and in gardens. There are services in lots of places. It might be at the beach, in the ocean, or at a lake, so there really is no limit to it. I mean, sacred space is where you make it sacred space. You consecrate it as holy space.

Do you think that those who are not from a particular religious tradition will know how to make space sacred?

I do think you have to be intentional about creating that sacred space, and that's a part of what I think you need in your ritual. I think sometimes people are too casual about it. I think that even in a secular context, you can create sacred space. You can still acknowledge some element of a time and a space apart. I think you need to. So, if it's in your house or in some kind of public building or wherever it is, I think is your opening remarks, that's part of how you define that space.

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