*with picture by Jeremy Kagan
As a child, I cherished those two minutes of silence.
Without traffic sounds, the usual creaking and clanking of trams up and down the boulevard, I could hear birds chirping in the poplar trees in front of our building, and hear my own breathing. The stillness lent a solemn and magical air to the occasion. I wondered what my parents were thinking. Did Papa think of his cellmates in the Nazi prison cell, those not lucky enough to have escaped execution? Did my mother remember how she felt in those years of not knowing if he were alive? Did they mourn the memory of Pastor Vullinghs, beloved mentor and priest who recruited Papa and his family into the resistance and who died in a concentration camp the day before liberation?
I did not ask. Normally I was full of questions, but this quiet forbade words. The two minutes held me in a reverent state — much more than the speeches and wreaths laid by members of the government and the royal family at the national monument on Amsterdam’s Dam Square.
It now occurs to me that is because I actually participated in this ritual silence whereas it was dignitaries who performed the official ceremonies we watched on TV. Being an audience is not the same as being a participant. What was personal to my parents, became personal to me through my participation. That is what ritual allows.
As we reach a million COVID deaths in the USA and counting, how do we mourn such a large loss as a country? How do we hold all those families who are coping with the pain and grief of the empty place in the bed, at the table, or on the other end of the phone? My brother-in-law’s best friend and business partner’s death left him not just bereft but without a goodbye, the funeral put off until later, no place to engage in mourning with others who cared, a disorienting emptiness. The activities that normally help cope with such losses – hugs and touch, being present and listening, funeral rites, services, wakes, and gatherings over food and drinks – are exactly those that COVID restrictions have made difficult or impossible.
I appreciated President Biden’s immediate gesture, the night before his inauguration, to memorialize those who died. He clearly knows grief and the importance of marking loss rather than minimalizing it. The ceremony with the lights was lovely, but not a ritual inviting our own embodied experience. I wished that all watching on TV had been invited to light a candle to place in their window as well.
How many times have you heard the cliche that “we are all in this together”? Aside from the fact that the virus has affected different communities and people disproportionately, it begs the question: How do we actually experience that togetherness? Especially in a country as divided as ours, how do we experience solidarity? I loved seeing and hearing the televised images of spontaneous clapping for first responders in New York and other cities– a concrete way to express gratitude that became ritualized. How much more is possible and needed?
A few months before Covid changed our lives, my friend Birgitta who works as an end-of-life guide, and I gave a presentation at our local farmer’s market. We offered information about green burial and eco-friendly alternatives coming online to current toxic funeral practices. We also borrowed a cardboard coffin painted white, from our friend Olivia, a funeral director. We invited people to write messages to their beloved departed on the box with colored markers, to express in words or images anything they wanted to say.
Many people took one look and passed right on by. But some stopped to ask questions, mostly older people wanting information for their own end-of-life planning and young people who wanted to know about the “mushroom suit,” a cool invention of a mycelium shroud that allows to body to detoxify and decompose. Of those that stopped, some picked up the colored markers and wrote simple messages on the box: Happy Trails, Brother. Virginia: I miss you more than words can say; Buddy: You live in my heart forever. Tell Mom hello from me. Some decorated their words with curlicues, flowers and leaves, hearts, suns, moons, and stars. Not all were serious. One woman wrote: At least you no longer have to pay taxes. A few parents encouraged their children to draw pictures on the box, probably as a way to keep them occupied. One six-year-old girl penned in careful block letters: I miss you, Grandpa.
A middle-aged white gentleman stopped, and spoke in a huff: “I don’t appreciate having to see something like this at the farmer’s market.” I laughed, thinking, okay, no death for you, Mister. But my partner tried to engage him. “So why do you buy organic? You want to eat non-toxic food, so you must care about your body. How about the earth?” He turned on his heels. “Don’t you care what happens after you die? To the earth and those who come after?” He made a swatting gesture with his hand.
A young Latinx woman stood nearby looking at the box with what seemed like intense emotion in her dark eyes. I offered her a magic marker, explaining the purpose of the display. She told me that her father had died of a heart attack a year before, at the age of 52. There had been no occasion to see him, or touch him, or participate in the funeral other than as a bystander, as his new family didn’t want her involved. Her misery seemed palpable. I asked her what she loved about her father, what special things they shared. As she described how he played guitar and how they sang and wrote songs together, her voice got wobbly and she started sobbing.
After a bit, she wrote on the side of the box, pouring out her anger, grief, and so much love underneath. I suggested she make an altar with his picture, and once a week light a candle or place a fresh flower, or listen to a song they loved, as a way to honor both him, her own feelings of loss and ongoing love.
When the pandemic spread, I kept thinking about that young woman. Her suffering was in part caused by a similar sense of isolation and delayed mourning. We have such large numbers of bereft people. Not just family members of those who died of COVID, but those who died from despair, loss of income, and loss of health care. And in the wider circle, those lives cut short in our suicide epidemic, by our gun violence epidemic– a slow-motion war we don’t even acknowledge– and the continuing stream of people of color killed by police.
While I am not personally coping with one of these particular bereavements, in my seventh decade, the deaths of my parents, sisters, and a number of friends have taught me to know loss and grief and to value the power and potential for healing connection provided by ritual.
When my sister Suki died, although not in good health, her death was sudden. The days we spent together creating funeral rites to represent and honor her, allowed us to share laughter, tears, upset, regret, joy, memories. We celebrated her devotion to her garden by covering her with branches of sage and lavender, mint and thyme. Her seven grandchildren, five boys and two girls between the ages of 13 and 25, contributed by writing funny stories about their exploits with her on her coffin; they were also her pallbearers. Bringing in music and art, creating beauty together, as well as lots of story-telling in the wake held afterwards, while not a cure for grief, helped us contain the pain of letting go of her physical presence.
Many friends showed up who had not had the opportunity to say goodbye and I watched as they came forward to write personal messages on sticky paper until her coffin was covered with layers of differently colored strips of paper. This simple participatory practice provided a tangible sense of inclusion in the circle of connection.
After Birgitta and I arrived home from the farmer’s market, I repainted the box white before returning it to the funeral director’s garage. Less than a week later, she received a call from a family whose 17-year-old daughter, I will call her Macey, was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting right in front of their home. Visiting with the girl’s family and friends to arrange the funeral, she saw they were all in a state of shock and agonized suspension as they had to wait for the body to be released by the police. Olivia could see they needed some way to ground their feelings and bodies from the shock, numbness, unreality, and horror. She brought our repainted cardboard coffin to their home.
Over the next 48 hours, Macey’s school friends and family put their all into this box. They did not leave one inch uncovered inside and out. Photos, paintings, messages, flowers, materials, pieces of clothing, baby quilt, jewelry, all honoring what she meant to them and her unique presence in life. The very object offered them a focus, a vehicle to engage in memory and creativity together, beginning the difficult process of integrating what had happened. By the time they readied the box to take to the funeral home, the shock had started to wear off and instead, they could be more fully, whole-heartedly present to express their grief and rage and love, holding each other, literally, in shared sorrow.
As the pandemic continues to sweep people up in its wave of illness and death, I keep thinking how this ritual of the box, provides a way to move beyond private pain into something larger, the family, the community, a higher power maybe, our common humanity certainly. A while earlier, visiting Boulder, Colorado, I drove by the Supermarket where a mass shooting took place. I stopped to take in the makeshift altar – a fence upon which people had placed flowers, photos, candles, messages– a spontaneous outpouring I found beautiful, reminding me of the memorial site where George Floyd was murdered and is honored with public art, flowers, ceremonies, and protest.
We inhabit a space of tremendous loss that demands acknowledgment.
On Juneteenth, my friend Vicky and I attended a Black Lives Matter event at a park in El Segundo, about 20 minutes away from my neighborhood by car, not the white progressive bubble that I live in. In this majority Latinx and black neighborhood, there have been issues with policing.
We sat down in the grass, along with many small family groups mostly people of color, sitting apart, families with children, the adults mostly masked. All around the park yard signs were posted, with on the front a photo of a black person killed by police and on the back, a short bio of that individual. I recognized maybe half of the names. The organizers stepped up to the little stage, and their leader, a black woman, welcomed us by reading a Maya Angelou poem.
Then one by one each of the participant organizers went to stand in front of one of the yard signs. Slowly, loudly, they read aloud about the person: “Breonna always wanted to be a nurse; she worked as an emergency medical technician, she loved helping people. She was shot eight times while sleeping.” After which, a presenter with a bullhorn commanded us: “Say her Name”, three times. We shouted back: Breonna Taylor. Breonna Taylor. Breonna Taylor. The next presenter stood in front of the George Floyd sign. The bio was read. Names were shouted.
Before long though, Vicky and I started to feel bothered by three policemen standing at the edge of the park, two Latinx, one white. They clearly wanted to be noticed, their stances macho, even threatening, their guns obvious on their hips. We found their presence disturbing. Vicky surprised me by walking over to engage them in a conversation.
When Vicky returned to tell me what she learned, that they were asked to attend the event because death threats had been received, my sense of what was happening shifted. What kind of death threats, I wondered. I found myself scanning the edges of the park, looking for unsavory white men with guns. Turning my attention back to the ceremony, as I raised my voice to shout the names, Tamar Rice, Erik Garner, and on in the sad litany, I felt on edge, relating more personally to the reality of people of color who live daily with the fear of being killed by police, with the fear that those they love will not come home that day.
At the same time, my attitude toward the policemen altered. I wondered if they felt afraid. A sense of the fragility of all our lives became more palpable as we continued ringing out the names, our voices growing stronger, more united. Reminded of protests I have attended where a similar refrain of “Say His Name” occurred, with songs and chants, it occurred to me that protest is also a ritual of sorts.
The last five names were of trans women I’ve never heard of. For the final person, the presenter read no bio, as nothing was known about her, sad to contemplate. After the refrain, the presenter with the bullhorn paused. We waited, a few moments of silence and anticipation. Is this it? Then he shouted a single word: “Shame!” and the person who read Breonna Taylor’s bio, dropped down into the grass, as if shot. This happened again and again, “Shame!” until all 18 presenters were lying in the grass, motionless.
The people in the park were quiet except for some toddlers’ sounds. A few applauded, but most did not. I wanted this hush to last. It felt holy to me, like those two minutes of silence in my childhood.
As the presenters stood back up and moved to the little stage, the woman who had welcomed us to the event, thanked everyone for coming. Then she said: “I want you to know I have been scared the whole time we have been here. So I want to thank the police for coming today to keep us safe.” Gesturing to where they still stood, she started to applaud.
Many though not all folks present joined her. I clapped my hands, come full circle to a more inclusive awareness that could hold danger and vulnerability and bad cops and good cops and systemic racism and our need for protection and inequality and outrage and appreciation — the contradictions of this time within myself. As we got ready to leave the park, I engaged in eye contact with others who shared this experience with me and who now felt less like strangers and more like a community.
The impact of this Black Lives Matter ceremony lingered as Vicky and I imagined how helpful it might be if every community enacted such story-telling events, speaking or chanting together. Of course, people of religious faith pray and sing in church, but in a country where religion also seems to divide people, we need secular expressions of our collective pain and aspirations, of solidarity.
Back in Amsterdam, in 1962, the Dutch national day of mourning started to include remembering the dead of wars since WW2. For instance, the soldiers who died in more recent peace-keeping missions. So also since 1987, a ceremony is held at the Homomonument in Amsterdam, a granite sculpture in the shape of three pink triangles, to honor the many homosexuals imprisoned and murdered by the Nazis, finally acknowledging their community’s suffering.
Ritual is a traditional way of preserving or strengthening historical memory. In this country, we are engaged in a struggle between those who want to acknowledge historical and current wrongs and thus learn how to start a process of reparation, and those who want to ignore, forget or whitewash the evils in our past. There are so many more holocaust remembrances than memorials to slavery and genocide of the indigenous people. Fortunately, this is beginning to change, with the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, also known as the Lynching Museum in Birmingham, as a powerful case in point.
What if we engaged our artists to memorialize those gigantic losses in installations and ceremonies that encourage participation and learning, in the same way the Germans have done to confront the evils committed by the Nazi regime and thus make sure that “never again” actually means something? Take the example of the “stumbling stones” where neighbors, school children, church or civic groups descendent from those who allowed the horror to happen, now raise money to pay for cobblestones engraved with the names and dates of the person(s) killed in the holocaust and during an installation ceremony remember what happened in their own neighborhood.
This is what I imagine: Giant altars in every community, where folks can come together to honor current victims and ancestors, with photos and flowers, secular or religious icons, natural elements such as water, earth, flame, and ash. Places where secular or church groups can visit to sing or chant or pray or create ceremony. Museums in every state that confront the past honestly but also celebrate the courage and success of abolitionists, suffragists, Indigenous leaders, civil rights organizers, of all those who stood up to resist evil and rescue people, expand rights, and create change. Imagine a whole day of ceremonies every year all over the country, say on Martin Luther King Day, in which children participate in plays, music, dance, and art to learn history and find ways to honor and mourn both past and present wrongs, together as a community.
And on that day, I wish for at least two minutes of silence in which everything stops and we breathe together.
Thank you for this beautiful essay. You capture the poignancy and importance of ritual – especially the creative coming together around loss and grief. I love your vision for the future too.