Ever wondered who would come to your funeral? Most people wonder what, if any, impact they are having on the world. Though I caution you to not define your worth by who approves or feels something for you enough to show at your funeral (or any other life event), sometimes thinking on this topic leads people to re-evaluating what they are doing in the world and making life improvements. Holding an actual funeral also has many implications and benefits, even if you’re holding it for yourself.
One reason that we have funerals is to say good-bye to someone. I have found it to be beneficial in my own practice to have funerals for myself after major transition periods or intense experiences. There are times when a person gets stuck. For instance, a woman who has been a mother and wife since she was young suddenly finds herself divorced, and her children move off to college a month later. She may have trouble moving out of her prior roles. Another instance may be going through the end of a relationship that ruled your life, ending a job or embarking on a new career path when you’ve defined yourself through your old job, or choosing to step into a new role in the community that is in opposition to the person you’ve pretended to be for a long time (in this case, it is the false identity which now needs to die and be released). For the most part, holding a funeral for the self is appropriate when you have had such an earth-shattering change that you cannot seem to move on from it or, after time as passed, you seem to be caught in a mental and emotional loop as if you are, internally, not moving forward. This is not a practice you should need to do often, and doing so will lessen its psycho-emotive power in your life, making it less useful when you actually do need it. When used properly, having the psychological trigger (the funeral experience) that the person you were or pretended to be is gone, truly gone, dead in fact, and that you’ve been reborn into a new day and new way of life can be hugely psychologically beneficial.
I gave an interview some time back in which I mentioned having a funeral for the self, and attending one’s own funeral service. I’ve since gotten many questions about this practice and how it’s done. I do offer a Funeral for the Self as part of the services I offer, and it’s powerful to have a practitioner do this for you as we often move a lot of powerful, transformative energy, but there’s really no reason a person can’t do this for themselves. Indeed, the way I developed this was from my own practice based in transpersonal psychology and alchemical work. Eventually, combining my own experiences with research on ancient practices and archetypal understanding, I came up with a system for doing this that seems to be effective for most people asking for the service. Here are some things to consider if you feel this practice will serve you, based on the service I offer and the experiences I’ve had doing this since 2012. Of course, if I’m available you can always arrange the service with me, but this article is more of a guide for you to be empowered to do this yourself if the need arises.
First, consider questions such as where you will have your service. Are you planning to do this indoors or outside? How big is the space? You will want a place with enough room to make an altar, and preferably a place with a fire whether that is in a fire place or outdoors. When doing this in an inner city landscape in the winter, I have also used what appears to be a mountain of pillar candles, and though I do not consider it as impacting as an actual fire, it seems to be effective if there are enough candles.
Second, who will you want to share your funeral with if anyone? Don’t see your funeral as a public event. It’s not about approval. I suggest you make your experience an intimate one so that you have time for reflection and self-growth. Consider whether you want to do this on your own in a quiet setting or if you want to include others. If you do choose to include others, I suggest sharing this experience with no more than three to five people. More than this simply provides too much input and often ‘cheapens’ the experience for people. Those who are invited should understand what you’re doing and why, and understand that this is not a social, loud, party-like event. I also strongly suggest having this as a totally sober event.
I usually set some sort of altar or temple, often with a tent over it if it is outside (and even inside when possible simply for the visual impact of a ‘temple’). I call this the “Temple of Lead,” and I base the theory behind it on the principals and ideas of calcination in the alchemical process. I usually place the temple in the West if I am able to (when indoors and using a fire place this is not always possible as the fire should be across from the temple/altar in the center of the space). I place it in the west because in my beliefs, the West is the place of gratitude and water, which washes away that which is not needed and allows us to peer into the deep parts of our personal nature. I set this place in all black. The cloth covering it is black, the covering on the riser, platform or table is black, and elements on the surface are accented in black whenever possible. The reason is to symbolize black lead, burning, and the dark mysteries of the unconscious which in my experience often appears as dark water. In this temple you may place items that reflect and promote introspection (such as a ball of onyx or dark crystal for gazing into or a small mirror colored dark with smoke), and items which you associate with who you were, the person that needs released. This is the place where you will spend time in silence and where you may connect to others who are present if this is your wish.
The next thing to consider is what ‘services’ you want. Is it important for you to watch the sun go down on your old life the day of the funeral? Is it important to you to have an all night vigil and watch the sun come up on your new life? Should this be a silent experience, or should it end in celebration? If you have people attend, do you want them to be able to speak to the person who is no more, saying what they loved and admired about that person, and lighting a candle for them? Where will you place these candles and how will this service be done? What order will you do these things in?
Another thing to ask yourself is whether you want to invite the memory and energy of your ancestors into the circle with you. It is not uncommon, when we do the whole ceremony, for people to have an ancestral altar in the North and drums placed in the South for the celebration after the rebirth in the morning. In the East I keep a water basin which collects the energy of the moon through the night and has flowers that carry blessings for the new person birthed through the night. If the person chooses to have an Elixir of Life, this water is put alongside the basin through the night.
As a side note, the Elixir of Life which I am speaking of is made using the alchemical methods published during the 1500-early 1600s, as depicted in the Mutus Liber. I usually have the person collect the dew themselves using stretched linen or cotton, and either teach them to make the elixir themselves or make it for them from the collected dew they provide me. It is important that the person having the ceremony be actively involved in his or her own transformative process, and this is one way to engage. For your own interest and engagement, I will not explain more on the elixir here but allow you to do your own research.
In the full service I do, it normally goes like this: Before the person or people arrive, I cleanse the space of any prior energy, set boundaries to prevent unwanted energies in the area, build the sacred fire in the center (which has it’s own rituals and process), then build the Temple of Lead. When I am performing this for someone in an Abrahamic faith, I then use this time to invite in those whom I welcome to help- the elemental principals, my personal guides and allies as well as those of the person the service is for, and the ancestors, descendants and witnesses. If the person is open to this process, I consider it better to involve the people in the service in the calling in and will then put it in after they have been ritually cleansed and have entered the space.
When the person or people arrive just before sun down, we watch the sun go down together. I then ritually cleanse the person the service is for, and they enter into the space where the services are offered. I turn to any who have come to support the ceremony and make a few statements on our intention, stating who is being released tonight, and why we are here. I then ask them why they have come and what they would like to honor about the person. They state why they have come, and why they loved the person who is being released, loud enough for the person the service is for to hear why they have been loved enough for these people to come to their funeral. This is like their passage into the gate. It focuses intention, clears the mind, and demonstrates and understanding and willingness to partake in the event.
I then ritually cleanse each person and give them a lit candle as they enter the space. They each go to the altar in the ‘temple’ and spend the night with the person. The person who is having the service is free to speak about their experience, why they were the way they were, and why it’s now time to release this. The rest of us are basically there to support, hear that person, affirm that person and their experience. Crying often happens, both for the person who is transitioning and on the side of those who are attending. I am there on site for counseling and support, to talk about things like why the lead, the person who is being released, was healthy at the time, but is now holding that person back, and about the space that release will leave and how it can be filled with positive, healthy things. Quiet periods are expected and allowed for, shared in our presence and witnessing. I often also share stories, fables, legends, myths and metaphors to give the person something to plant new roots in and have understanding through (if you are doing this on your own, you may wish to research some myths first and read them during your ritual, or play recordings of stories on an appropriate theme). I also sometimes bring appropriate instruments and will play for them (for instance, an Irish whistle or a Lakota flute can be emotionally moving and cleansing while restoring the spirit). Towards the end of the night, the conversation shifts to the value of the opportunity to be reborn and create new.
Usually at some point the person who is having the funeral will become aware of some sort of shift within. They’ll feel something leave them or something become peaceful. There’s often an emotional release of some sort, crying, laughing, talking a lot, however that person purges. Anything used during this time, the tissues or cloth they may cough, vomit or cry into, is bundled ritually for the burning that takes place toward the end of the night. After this release, the person is able to talk into the items they’ve brought for their altar all the emotions, experiences, anything they need to get rid of that that item symbolizes for them. The other people may also speak into these items, if that was decided to be a good thing earlier, that which they want to see the person free of or that which they themselves need to be free of (indeed, this ritual can also be adapted for groups so that the entire group witnesses their own funerals, simply adapting the altar for more than one person). Then these items, one by one, are ritually burned, along with the bundle of purge.
Then, as the sun comes up, we move to the East, where the sun is born, to witness the birth of a new day and new life for the person (or people if it is a group ceremony). First the person drinks their Elixir, if they have chosen to have one. The Elixir of Life is the traditional elixir that embodies the alchemical process, and encourages spiritual cleansing and continued energetic transmutation internally. If they do not have an elixir, I often use some of the water from the bowl. Then I bless the person, facing East, then have them place their hands in prayer pose or in a cross over their heart, depending on their faith (both neutralize and balance the energy field). Then I have them turn clockwise while pouring the water with the flower and herbal essences and moon energy in it over them. This is their rebirth, the washing away of the ash of what was burned during the night. This last part is followed by much celebration as the others in the group welcome that person as they would a new born, with all the hope and opportunity a new born has. If we have included drums, we then rejoice through that sound to fill the person’s void with joyful sound, and we share a light meal together to break the fast from the night.
When the fire has burned itself out, the ceremony is completed. I cover the ash with a ritual layer of salt and earth, or the ash is buried, along with anything that was in the ash. This is the burial of the past. The cycle is completed, and the person is released from who they were completely so they can be the new person who was just reborn.
In shorter ceremonies in which we do not watch the sun rise, once the burning is finished, I will send the person home with the water that was set out in the moon with the plant essences, and they can finish their ceremony on their own. You will have to decide if you want to do this all night or simply for a few hours and then finish it on your own. If this is a long ritual for you, then you should make sure anyone else involved knows of this, and that you take care of their needs. For instance, water should be available, and some people also include coffee or tea. If someone cannot go without eating for a long time, you will need to have food available. You will need to have restroom facilities available, and they will need to have the freedom to sit, stand and move about as needed.
After your experience, take time to journal. Take time to meditate, to pray. Take time to rest through the new day and focus on who you want to be. You’re a fresh human being who can build whatever you want. Allow yourself the time to process that, and the time to create who that is. Another positive side of doing this with a practitioner is that there is someone you can call when you feel something that you want to share, but you can also share your feelings or experiences with someone who is close to you (though I suggest you let them know what you plan to do prior to doing it if they are not going to be present with you; explaining later while you’re processing can pull you back into the space of the ritual, which you should leave behind you as much as is humanly possible when you step into your new life).
The key to this ritual being successful is often that you choose not to look back anymore after the ceremony. I do not suggest ever speaking about the ceremony again (except, perhaps, to recommend the process to someone whom you think would benefit), not even to the people who were there. That person is dead now, given respects, and gone. It is finished. Besides, when you look into the eyes of people who were there, you will share a certain secret depth between you that is even more powerful as it is not cheapened with unnecessary words. You shared the experience. Allow it and move on.
It has been my experience that people come away with this enjoying a sense of cleansing, rebirth, freshness, new perspective, and freedom from this ceremony. Sometimes people who have been stuck for many years are no longer stuck after this. That is what I wish for you- that you are able to move on and move forward with your life using this method.
Love and blessings to you.