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Five Characteristics of Helpful Ceremonies

Some elements of funeral ceremonies owe their beginnings to the oldest funerals about which we have written records or artifacts, spanning every inhabited continent and thousands of years. When included in death-related ceremonies, these six common characteristics have historical precedent for helping family and community in adjusting to a loved one's death.

1. Significant Symbols

Humans are visual so we depend on "symbols" to help us communicate beyond words. Favorite photographs of memorable places and occasions tell stories the words alone cannot convey. Be sure the memorial ceremonies you create include ample use of symbols-faith symbols, photos, and items from your loved one's favorite hobby or pastime, for example. In many traditions, flowers carry special significance because their message of love and concern is conveyed by their vibrant colors and aroma. 

2. Ritual Action

From time immemorial, death demands that family and community "get into the action" and do something. Bereaved people around the world find value in doing something.

3. Gathered People

Bereavement is best resolved in the support of caring people rather than alone. Consider the different groups of people with which your loved one and your family participate as you consider the most appropriate ways to gather people together to pay tribute to his or her life.

4. Connection to Heritage

Ceremonies at a loved one's death also provide a measure of predictability in the midst of the chaos of early grief. This phenomenon might explain the choice among many non-religious people to have the Twenty-Third Psalm read and Amazing Grace sung at a funeral service. Much like so-called comfort foods, these older elements of memorial rituals provide comfort in the instability of bereavement. While you will certainly want to include elements in the memorial ceremonies that are unique to your loved one and your family, don't overlook the use of ancient elements, too, which can create comfort as they link us to our past.

5. Healing Touch

Even among cultural groups where personal space is highly prized, those boundaries become more flexible in the face of bereavement. We are more likely to embrace a person in bereavement who we would otherwise offer a handshake. Graciously receive-and offer-embraces to the people who offer their support and to the people who need your support. An arm around the shoulder or a warm handclasp communicates volumes about our concern for others. Humans need the touch of others most acutely in periods of crisis like death and bereavement.

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