I brought it with me over ten years ago from East Texas. Four hundred miles and more than one lifetime from where I am now.
I call it, “The Memory Tree Service” — a way to honour the dead during a time when their absence is most deeply felt, but seldom marked.
It has been a part of my life for so long now that the memory of its creation is a bit hazy, as though there’s never really been a holiday season that didn’t include a Memory Tree Service, just as it seems as though there’s never been a time when I wasn’t “a death professional”.
But there was.
That first service came at the end of my first year as a Grief Counselor. It had been a year of personal loss in all ways but death. The end of a ten year career and a twenty year marriage set in motion a series of losses that left me feeling empty, excited, and not a little frightened. Everything about grief counseling was new to me, new and yet so familiar. I had never been so certain that I was doing what I was meant to do.
I still am.
But that first year, the holidays found me faced with the task of helping people make sense of a season that was, for me, no more than a sad reminder of times past or never been; a season full of emotional, temporal, and financial burdens I had no idea how to meet. I couldn’t imagine how I was going to help myself, much less anyone else.
Writing this, five short months after my mother’s death, I realize that I feel much the same today.
In 2004, however, I had far fewer resources than I do today. Then, when faced with task of how to create a memorial service, I did the only thing I knew to do — I consulted The Oracle. In other words, I Googled.
First I Googled “memorial services”. Mistake. Then I tried, “holiday services”. Even bigger mistake. I was sent to site after site full of trite symbolism and bad music. Occasionally, a truly beautiful, honest tribute to an individual would pop up, but I was at a loss as to how to translate what had been shared there into something accessible to many, for many, of any faith, (including the faith of non-faith), of any culture, age, or income. How was I to create an environment in which it was safe for people to openly mourn when all the world was screaming Ho!Ho!Ho! at them?
The only thing I knew for sure was that I needed a ritual.
I am a huge believer in ritual. Ritual speaks to us on a visceral level. It begins with the human animal, and through its power, through its link to ancestors, it connects us to all other human animals in the world, transforming us into Mankind. But we, especially we in the West, have basically done away with ritual. We have disregarded its efficacy as we have done that of the Shaman and the Medicine Woman, replacing them with Science and Technology. The pros and cons of this exchange are for another post, but, as Joseph Campbell said, “If you want to find out what it means to have a society without any rituals, read the New York Times.”
I was determined to give the grieving a ritual to help them transcend not only their pain, but the tinsel and holly and price-tags as well. From that determination was born The Memory Tree Service.
It is a very simple service that I have staged in all kinds of locations, from auditorium-like churches to tiny chapels, from institutional dining rooms to drafty foyers. So long as there is room for a tree and a gathering of people who want, who need, to Remember, any location will do.
What is far more important than location, or even the tree (which doesn’t necessarily even have to be a traditional Christmas tree), is the music.
Each year I make a new Memory Tree Service Mix. Knowing that in the community I currently serve, the attendees will be widely older and conservative, I include pieces that will be familiar to them, but I also try to use interpretations by people they have most likely never heard, interspersed with new pieces not usually associated with loss or even with memory. This year’s mix includes music by Christine Kane, Diana Krall, The Beatles, Vince Gill, Steven Curtis Chapman, Billie Holiday, Damien Rice, kd Lang and Coldplay, among others.
Here’s what will happen Saturday, Dec 5th, at this year’s Memory Tree Service:
The venue this year is very small, a cozy space with overstuffed furniture and lots of natural light. There are two lit pre-lit trees, one filled with ornaments from past services, one standing bare, awaiting this year’s remembrances. Music will play as people enter, then our Hospice Chaplain will offer a welcome and light the central of five pillar candles, officially beginning the service.
The Hospice Director will then introduce each of the Hospice disciplines: nursing, home health aides, social work, spiritual care, and volunteers. The remaining four candles will be lit by representatives of those disciplines while the Director reads of Grief, Courage, Memory, and Love.
Then will come the placing of the ornaments.
Each family, staff member, and business partner in our community has been invited to bring an ornament representing the loved one/s they have lost. It does not matter whether or not the person was a hospice patient. What matters is only that they have been loved, have died, and someone wants them to be remembered.
The ornaments we get are amazing. Some are hand made, some very expensive; some are personalized, some anonymous, each one representing a very personal aspect of the life of a dead loved one. If someone realizes at the service that there are others they want to remember, we have simple ornaments available for personalization.
We ask only that the ornament be something you are willing to leave behind as a perpetual memorial to your loved one. After the first year, the Memory Tree is never again bare. All ornaments are placed year after year, expanding to additional trees as necessary. Over the years, decorating the trees before the service becomes a ritual in itself.
Placing of the Ornaments is followed by a short Litany of Remembrance then the closing prayer. Afterwards, we invite you to join us for cider and cookies and the opportunity to see again the hospice care team that was with you during your loved one’s illness. During this time many attendees take photographs and videos of their ornaments on the tree. We also encourage them to return throughout the holiday season, especially if there are visiting family and friends who might like to see the trees.
The 2015 Memory Tree Service is Saturday, December 5th at 1:00 p.m. at the Amarillo Hospice of the Plains Business Office. If you would like to attend, or would like more information, please let me know.
May your holidays be blessed with peace.