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Writing Your Own Ceremony

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Even if you’re very skilled at the production of ceremonies for physical world groups, making meaning online can feel very different for everyone involved. Suddenly there’s cameras and microphones and software to figure out, it’s harder to know when you can speak, and it’s harder to see others’ body language. The following are some of the guidelines that we were thinking about while we wrote the ceremonies we have available:

  • Each service should have distinct parts: an introduction, the main ceremony with any ritual components, and a definitive conclusion and closing.
  • Ceremonies work best when there is a participatory element that invites those gathered to reflect, share, and do something altogether. Ceremonies that are led and fully executed by just one person are less effective, as people may tune out or not feel included.
  • It is important to designate one person to be the facilitator or “master of ceremonies” (MC). The MC role can certainly be shared by multiple people. Just be sure to determine in advance when one person will pass off to the next. Mark this on your script, which you should print out, so that you are clear where you are handing off and picking up from others.
  • Keep the ceremony short. These are meant to be interim commemorations and are not designed to replace a funeral or memorial service to be held later, if so desired. Because of the online nature of the ceremony, people will not want to sit for very long. Also, some freely available video software have time limits. For example, without a paid account, Zoom will abruptly end the meeting after 40 minutes. This can be upsetting and painful for participants, so it is extremely important that the facilitator know how much time is available and manage that time to avoid getting abruptly cut off.
  • Although in an ideal world every participant would be allowed to share, the constraints of time, space, and technology mean that a fairly structured, simple, and limited format is generally more effective. Ensuring that only one person speaks at a time while others remain muted allows for fewer snafus and an overall smoother ceremony.
  • Prepare your space: take a moment to set things up the way they feel comfortable to you. Make your physical space as uncluttered as possible. Perhaps light a candle to invite a sense of the sacred. Take a few quiet minutes to yourself to invite yourself to be present in the ceremony.
  • Physicals acts and ritual gestures, such as mixing earth and water elements or simple breathing connect us to one another when done altogether. It is the participatory nature of these gestures that makes a ceremony different than simply following along to a webinar or watching a ceremony performed by someone else. Inviting participation in structured yet meaningful ways can help individuals process the experience of losing a loved one.
  • It may feel strange or even silly at first to conduct a ceremony in this way. That is okay. In an unusual time where many of us are trying new things for the first time, know that everyone is just doing their best. Even something that may feel initially strange may later feel meaningful. Trust that the fuller process of remembering, celebrating, and grieving your loved one will unfold over time, and this is just one small piece of that process.
  • It is normal that emotions arise during the ceremony among both participants as well as the facilitator/MC. This is okay. If you are serving in the MC role, do not feel pressure to keep everything bottled inside if you feel emotions arise; alternatively, do not feel any pressure to display false signs of emotion you may not actually be feeling. Simply being your authentic, honest self is best. Remember that everybody knows that you are human.
  • After the ceremony ends, encourage participants and especially the facilitator(s) to rest and take care of themselves. Emotions play a deep physical role, and their impacts can be significant. It is important not to plan ceremonies on a day when there are multiple competing demands on time, emotional energy, etc. Perhaps a weekend or a time when children may be occupied with other activities is better. These are all just things to think about. Most importantly, be gentle and encourage others to be gentle with themselves.
  • If you can, find a time later on to gather with participants in the real world to reflect on or follow-up on the ceremony. Don’t force the issue, especially if it may increase the emotional load for some participants. However, it can be quite meaningful to discuss and/or share aspects of the online ritual later in person, for example, combining rocks together into one large vase or pouring salt and water into a large vessel.
  • Be creative. If the ceremonies you see presented here do not seem like a good fit – create something new that is meaningful to you and your loved ones. We do not need to do what we think we “should” do; these are extraordinary times, and we are allowed to try extraordinary things that bring us a sense of peace.
  • Although it is important to watch the time carefully, you may find that you run through the ceremony very quickly and have plenty of time leftover. That is okay! You may choose to unmute participants and simply relish in having the time together to just share from the experience with one another. If there is a large group and you are using Zoom, you can use the “Breakout Rooms” function to assign people into smaller groups, if that make it easier to have an informal place to chat. However, if you do, please be sure to wrap up the formal part of the ceremony with a clear ending so that everybody has a distinct sense that the ceremony has closed.