How old is the habit of denial? We keep secrets from ourselves that all along we know…For perhaps we are like stones; our own history and the history of the world embedded in us, we hold a sorrow deep within and cannot weep until that history is sung. – Susan Griffin
I am convinced that we would solve many things if we all went out into the streets and uncovered our griefs, which perhaps would prove to be but one sole common grief…The chiefest sanctity of a temple is that it is a place to which men go to weep in common. – Miguel De Unamuno
I first learned about the importance of reviving the old traditions of communal grief rituals in the early 1990s. I was participating in men’s conferences led by Michael Meade and Malidoma Somé at the Mendocino Woodlands camp in Northern California. For the Dagara people of West Africa, there is no community without ritual and no ritual without community. And although their traditional funerals involve the entire community and take three full days to complete, Malidoma insisted that neither of those factors should inhibit our attempts to learn this work and share it with the public.
Another teacher at these men’s gatherings was Martín Prechtel, who passed on Mayan teachings from Guatemala, where the ancestors require two basic things from us: our beauty and our tears. The fullness of our grief, expressed in colorful, poetic, communal events, feeds the dead when they visit on certain auspicious dates, such as Day of the Dead, so that when they return to the other world, they can be of help to us who remain on this side of the veil.
Around that time, my wife Maya and I began attending San Francisco’s annual Spiral Dance and Day of the Dead Processions. By the end of that decade, the two of us were hosting an annual Day of the Dead Ritual. In 2010, I also started to lead grief rituals at the Redwood Men’s Conference, also in Mendocino. We continued leading these events until Covid prevented us.
This article isn’t about why we need to do this, but how, since a couple of friends have been moved to hold their own events and have asked for our advice. For more thoughts on why, please go to these links:
We understand that there may be other ways of doing these ceremonies, and that some people may prefer shorter, smaller events. And in 2021 of course, most such events must be held online. But these are the forms that we evolved for our rituals.
Malidoma’s General Principles of Radical or Transformative Ritual
1 – You can plan what will happen, but you can’t predict the outcome. Before you begin, you own the journey. Once you begin, the journey owns you.
2 – Spontaneous, strong feeling indicates the presence of spirit.
3 – Radical ritual must be done in community.
4 – An overwhelming dose of beauty and mystery is necessary. Shrines to the Other World should be as elaborate as possible.
5 – Everyone should bring something personal for the shrine. Giving equals participating.
6 – Invocation and de-vocation must be specific. The more specific, the more emotion.
7 – Leaders must be willing to risk criticism in order to rid the process of pretense.
8 – The purpose of radical ritual is always to restore balance.
9 – People who embody certain elements may become the gatekeepers for those elements.
10 – The level of success is proportionate to the level of surrender one can achieve.
11 – Community ritual can succeed only when every participant maintains a personal spiritual connection and is not a passive observer.
Some further principles of grief rituals that we evolved
1 – Even if we haven’t lost loved ones recently, even if we have attended many grief rituals in the past, we all carry immense loads of unexpressed grief.
2 – Beings on the other side of the veil call to us continually because they desire healing as much as we do. But it is our responsibility to approach them through ritual.
3 – Grieving may never completely end, but we can clarify our intentions to achieve closure with old wounds and with those who are no longer with us. Unfinished business keeps us from focusing on future goals. Dropping some of that weight makes room for a new imagination.
4 – Releasing emotions requires a safe space and a caring community. A person sick with grief can sicken the whole village, so grieving must be communal work.
5 – Having inherited a Western tradition deeply suspicious of the imagination, we know how difficult it is to let go. So we tell poems (preferably recited, rather than read), guide meditations, name the past year’s dead, and build altars. Stories and grief songs from many indigenous traditions help pull us out of normal, emotionally restrained consciousness.
6 – We must move the emotions. When ritual involves the body, the soul takes notice.
7 – “Radical ritual” is by nature, unpredictable. We respectfully invoke the spirits, but we never know how things will end.
8 – Ritual of this nature, like any initiation process, involves sacrifice. We attempt to release whatever holds us back, sabotages our relationships or keeps us stuck in unproductive patterns. In this imagination, the ancestors are eager for signs of our commitment and sincerity. What appears toxic to us, that which we wish to sacrifice, becomes food to them, and they gladly feast upon it.
So: you’ve been to one or more grief rituals before and are inspired to offer one yourself. But you cannot do this yourself! You must plan this several months ahead, and you will need a village to make it happen.
Planning the Ritual:
– Find an appropriate venue and make a clear agreement with its managers, including costs, kitchen responsibilities, arrival and departure times, acceptable noise levels, pre-event preparation and post-event cleanup.
– Be realistic about expenses and appropriate (sliding scale) admission prices. This should be a non-profit event. Some people may need to pay with labor rather than money. Don’t exclude them if they can’t afford the admission fee. Expect some people to not show up without telling you and others to arrive without having signed up ahead.
– Gather a group of committed facilitators, including poets, musicians, small-group leaders and – especially – drummers. One or two experienced drummers are sufficient, or four to six inexperienced. It’s best to have one real drummer who can lead and monitor the others. You may need to print out instructions to the kitchen crew and group leaders.
– Expect a very long day. Expect to be exhausted by the end. Offer discounts or scholarships for kitchen and cleanup people. You will need more help than you expect.
– Do appropriate PR well ahead and repeat often as the event approaches.
Email instructions and suggestions a few days before the event (here is a sample):
We are really looking forward to this year’s Day of the Dead Ritual on Saturday, November 2nd, and don’t we need to come together and grieve in community!
Place: Hillside Community Church – 1422 Navellier Street, El Cerrito
Time: Please try to arrive by 9:00 and no later than 9:30. The time between 9:00 and 9:30 will be spent in registration, creating the altar, and silent contemplation. We will then begin the ritual, and it would be somewhat disruptive to enter after that point. It is difficult to say when it will end (spirit will determine that), but we anticipate 5 P.M. or so, followed by a potluck dinner. Please do try to stay for the dinner.
Food: Have a good breakfast! We are expecting a deeply meaningful and emotional day, and everyone’s presence, attention and participation is vitally important. We will take a silent lunch break.
– Pillow, blanket, or low chair
– Journal / writing materials
– Pictures of ancestors
– A light bag lunch for yourself and a contribution to the potluck diner
– A poem or song if you want to share one
– Loose, comfortable clothing. Dress in layers, as it may be warm or cold.
– Beautiful items for the altar (pictures, flowers, especially marigolds, sacred objects) — as many as possible! Let’s feed the ancestors with beauty!
– If you’d like to help with setting up the altars, we will be at the church between 2:00 and 5:00 PM on Friday and would love your help.
Preparing the Space (on the day before if possible)
– Building Shrines: The major shrine to the ancestors should be at one end of the room. If possible, the group can build a second shrine at the opposite end to symbolize the village, and smaller shrines around the room to symbolize the elemental spirits. If possible, tape grief poems to the walls.
– Kitchen: Set up hot water heaters, utensils, napkins, Kleenex, etc. Have snacks for those who forget to bring food.
– Signs for parking
– Set up a front desk for sign-ins and payments
When the heart weeps for what it has lost, the spirit laughs for what it has found. – Sufi proverb
Brother, when God gets ready, you’ve got to move – Reverend Gary Davis
“Bobo malay, shu-shu maya!” (Lord, make this body dance!) – West Africa
If you don’t have ancestors, you have ghosts. – Martin Shaw
The Day of the Ritual:
These are ideas and forms that we have found useful. There won’t be time for all of them, so pick and choose among them. Feel free to contact us for more details, especially for ideas marked with an asterisk*. Keep in mind that some people may need to grieve in ways that that can interfere with the plan. There is no perfect way to do this.
But remember the basic premise: the first part of the day involves doing whatever you can to get people to drop down into their bodies and their emotions, which may well involve talking about their emotions. The second part of the day is about actively grieving, not talking about it.
And please understand the critical importance of holding the container. This means that the leaders may need to sacrifice their own need to grieve to keep track of how others are doing.
– Preparing the kitchen: One or two volunteers direct people where to put their clothes, drums, lunches and offerings for the post-ritual potluck dinner. Prepare hot water for tea. It’s best for all this to be done in silence if possible.
– Preparing the main room: Turn on heat, light candles, play some background music.
– Before people arrive: The facilitators should make a circle in the main room and do a short prayer acknowledging their inexperience. They should ask for help and protection and set the intention to do the best job possible and not take on anyone else’s grief.
– As guests arrive: One or two greeters should arrange for silent entrance into the room and do some kind of ritual greeting such as smudging (consider non-smoke versions). People should enter one-at-a-time, bringing only what they really need. Encourage them to add photos and other sacred objects to the shrine. A well-considered question can help them clarify their intentions. It’s natural for participants to feel uncomfortable, so try to make them feel welcome. Know that for some people, even such efforts may trigger old wounds.
Introducing the ritual
There is a fine line between explaining concepts and lecturing to people who have already decided that they need to grieve. The leaders must intuit who needs to hear these ideas and how much to speak before risking the possibility of taking people out of their bodies.
– Introductory poem or chant*
– “Lost Boys of the Sudan” welcoming exercise: (“Hey, Hey! Ho, Ho!”)*
– Remind people to turn off cellphones.
– Introduce group leaders. Explain location of hot water, bathrooms, etc.
— Explain the purpose of the ritual: to release the weight of unexpressed grief we carry that blocks our creativity.
– Acknowledge recent tragedies: Mass shootings, children separated from their families, fires, hurricanes, Yemen, Syria, Gaza, Myanmar, drowned refugees, Covid, etc. It’s been a hard year.
– Speak about Samhain – the veil between worlds – We’ll use elements from different cultures.
– Honor each other for tending our griefs.
– Speak about epistemic, ancestral trauma.* The emotions you will feel may not be your own.
– This will be a safe container for you to experience whatever arises. But it will not be predictable, and we don’t know when it will end. Some aspects may work for you better than others. But we need everyone. When grieving, grieve fully. When not, hold the space for others. Expect to feel and hear strong emotions – ask for support if needed. We cannot grieve and still remain composed.
– Agreements: confidentiality, no physical violence.
– Martin Prechtel’s words: We feed the dead and help move them completely to the other side with beauty and tears. Only then can they become ancestors and be of help to us.
– Describe the day – altars, logistics (tea, names on cups, food and pee breaks) – There are snacks for those who forgot to bring lunch – After lunch we may have a community time to offer poems and personal stories.
– Use the time well, as if we’ve known each other all our lives
– try not to let the energy leak – let us know if you absolutely need to leave early – silence or quiet talk during breaks – silent lunch with your dead, potluck; candle awareness. Don’t disappear with feelings of isolation. Ask for help, a hug.
– Rather than thinking, “What can I get out of this day?” think, “What can I offer to this community?
– Who’s here for the first time? Give them an extra welcome.
— Welcome late arrivals.
First Half of the Day, Building up Grief
– Invocations, Calling in directions. This may be a good time to involve other people.
– Poetry, music*
– Hand out stones*
– Everyone introduces themselves, speaks one word that they’re feeling.
– Read the names of the dead from the past year. Then ask the group to contribute names of their own dead (without giving extended explanations). Know that this can take a long time.
– “Cross the Line” exercise*
– Guided Ancestor Meditation*
– Blue cloth in middle of the room to symbolize a river of grief*
– Story: Each year we tell a story (usually mythic, but sometimes historic) to encourage the gradual buildup of emotion, structured around certain recurrent themes, such as exile, imprisonment or regret.
– Writing exercise: write quick answers to prompts, such as What haunts you? Are you in exile from home? Family? Society? Have you exiled or hurt others? Personal losses? Choices not to have children? What have you sacrificed in order to survive? Are you clinging to something that must die so that you can live?
– Break up into pairs and share your responses.
– Here are some suggestions for speaking to the group:
Sufi Saying: Before speaking, let your words pass through three gates:
1 – Is it true?
2 – Is it necessary?
3 – Is it kind?
1 – Show up.
2 – Pay attention.
3 – Speak the truth without blame or judgment.
4 – Be unattached to the results.
WAIT: Ask yourself, Why Am I Talking?
Suggestions for Small Group Leaders
– Do introductions. Ask: If big emotions come up, is touch welcome or would you prefer not to be touched?
– Agree on confidentiality
– The purpose of the small groups is for everyone to have a chance to tell their stories, since there may not be time to speak to the full group (and it may be less intimidating to speak with a few people).
– Make time for each person to speak and be heard, without cross-talk or comment. Advise people to not give advice unless it is requested.
– People can read what they’ve written, speak to the theme or simply talk about why they have come to the ritual.
– There will be time for each person, but they should be mindful of not taking up so much time that it restricts others’ participation.
– Do a simple closing ritual before rejoining the larger group.
Silent Lunch with the Dead (outside if possible, or in front of shrine) – leave a food offering.
Second Part of Day, Releasing the Grief
Preparing the water ritual
– Drummers and chant leaders may need to go outside to practice and review the rhythm* and the chant*. The chant should be easy to teach and to sing (remember, it may have to last for two hours or more!). It should not be in English.* The chant leader should choose a key that isn’t too high or too low. The chant is a prayer, not an affirmation.
– Meanwhile, this is a good time to encourage participants to tell stories about their dead.
– Designate one experienced person to remain near the shrine to offer help (not condolence) and keep people from going into silent meditation. If they aren’t actively grieving (or trying to), they should return to the village.
– Light candles, turn down the lights, set out bowls of water and floor pads* and prepare seats for the drummers, who will sit facing the shrine but immediately behind the village. The lead drummer may need to drum continually without a break, while others can substitute in and out.
– Everyone: final pee break, then we all process back into the room. This may be a good time for people to bring a candle to the shrine. Then all stand at the end opposite the main shrine, which now has candles lit, bowls of water and floor pads.
Instructions to Grievers
– You may feel both the “pull” of the ancestors and the “push” of the village encouraging you. We’ll have your back. Feel free to ask someone to accompany you.
– Move grief through the body: feel free to move, dance, scream, make big gestures!
– Welcome the dead who appear to you. You may be surprised by who shows up and you may experience different emotions from what you expected. All are appropriate and all are welcome. Rage can lead to grief, and vice versa.
– Wait for spirit to move you, feel it in your body. But go at least once, to pay your respects. Go often as you like but return to the village if you aren’t feeling it. The shrine is for release, not for meditation.
– Feeling our strong emotions, the spirits become interested. They stand with you, many generations behind each shoulder, saying “perhaps this will be the one!”*
Instructions to the Village
– We all have a big responsibility to keep the chant going and support the grievers.
– All should stand if possible, facing the shrine, keeping your attention and your love on the grievers, who will be doing difficult but necessary work for themselves and the world. Try to stay focused. Your work of holding the container is very important.
– Keep up the chant. Dance!
– Give everyone a huge welcome. The return is as important as the grieving. We need to be seen by the village, returning from this hero’s journey with a new face.
– If people return from the shrine and are still weeping, they are not done. Gently turn them around and guide them back to the shrine.
– Keep chanting even if the drumming stops momentarily.
– We’ll end when everyone has delivered all they can to the shrine and returned to the village. This may take a very long time.
– Teach the chant until everyone gets it. They don’t need to know its meaning.
– Begin the water ritual with more invocations.
During the water ritual
– Leaders continually encourage members of the village to keep up the chant, go to the shrine at least once and not leave the room. They watch the faces of those returning from the shrine to see if they are still grieving.
– Lead drummer continually monitors the drummers and keeps them from speeding up the rhythm.
– A volunteer may choose to offer drinking water to the drummers.
– Be sensitive to how and when to end the water ritual. If few people remain at the shrine, remind the villagers to make a final visit if they need to. If the last person stays too long, gently encourage them to finish up and rejoin the village.
– Once a few minutes have passed with no one left at the shrine, have the village turn around to face the drummers. One option is to have the drummers stop while the village slowly sings the chant acapella. Another is for the drum leader to synchronize a final stop on the last beat. A sign that the ritual has been effective is the open, relaxed, compassionate looks on the faces of the villagers.
– A leader may add a brief poem acknowledging the hard work everyone has done and thanking the ancestors.
Third Part of the Day
– We’re all exhausted, but we’re not quite finished with the ritual. Everyone please sit down.
– Do a simple closure ritual that helps turn people from grieving the past to imagining a better future, for example: Break up into pairs or threesomes and speak positive intentions for the new year* (5-10 minutes). Name any babies that have been born in the past year.
– Make a final circle, standing up. Remind people that grieving is a long process; today may have been only the beginning. After a few days, reach out to others who are here if you need to. Honor confidentiality. Don’t tell details to others; speak only of your own experiences. Remember that you’ve been in ritual space all day, so be extra careful driving home. Don’t leave right away unless you need to.
– Devoke, thank the spirits and all volunteers and share a final gratitude poem or song such as “Hallelujah”.
Ask for volunteers to help take down the shrines and clean up.
Go to a body of water and cleanse yourself of any emotions that may have “stuck” to you.
Two-Three Days After the Ritual
Send out an email to the group praising them for the courageous work they’ve done. Remind them to reach out. Send the lyrics to poems and songs that people told. Good luck! Have compassion for yourself and know that we are all still quite new at this!