A brave new frontier is opening up for party planning your trip to the Great Beyond. My friends Jim and Elizabeth Cochran, who keep the cremated remains of both their mothers and Jim’s father in a special spot their family room, pioneered their own creative end-of-life celebrations at their home.
Elizabeth’s mother lived in a casita behind the main house, and she died in her sleep at the age of 79. Elizabeth and Jim put together a celebration of life at their home, featuring a table full of items that reflected Mom’s life. Among the family photos and framed paintings she had done as a young woman were odd items, such as 20 pairs of cotton gloves and turbans that she was fond of wearing.
Mom was a librarian during her career, and had saved numerous magazine clippings on homemaking, fertility and other topics. She had her idiosyncrasies, particularly regarding brushing her teeth and frequently using a fresh toothbrush. Her mother’s list of activities to prepare for going to church on Sundays, broken down by the minute, included 20 minutes for tooth brushing. The buckets of more than 100 barely used brushes prompted me to ask Elizabeth if her mother had all her teeth when she died. In fact, she did.
I would have never known these things about Elizabeth’s mother were it not for this memorial lifetime display. These items prompted questions from guests and stories from Elizabeth’s children about Grandma’s idiosyncrasies. Their father discreetly videotaped their impromptu storytelling for a treasured family record.
We toasted Grandma’s memory with Irish whiskey. We wrote goodbye notes that were tossed with sprigs of cleansing rosemary and fragrant lavender into a bonfire, to send her into the afterlife with her favorite scent. We sang songs of joy and love. Afterward, my mother-in-law said, “Don’t sit shiva for me when I’m gone, have a party like that one!”
“There’s nothing holding you back from creating your own meaningful rituals. The important part is to celebrate the life, not mourn the death,” said Elizabeth. “Pull the elements together by following a trail of meaning. Just pick a place to start – a statue, a picture, something. We’re culturally diverse enough right now that we don’t have to use the same rituals of our village.”