“Love was both the softest edge and the sharpest edge of what made life real.”
~Susan Meissner, A Fall of Marigolds
Grief Begins With Love
The Renfest can be such a romantic place, with marriage proposals held on joust stages, knights reciting poetry to flattered and flustered patrons, and flower sellers carrying baskets of floral delights pride themselves as selling “love on a stem.” Roses and other flowers deliver messages such as a declaration of unspoken feelings, an apology, a long distant kiss, or a secret crush, and wedding venues of twining, climbing vines, rose gardens, or grand structures provide spaces for declarations and commitments of love. Shopkeepers, artisans, entertainers and guests know that flirting and love blossom under the common grounds of a Renaissance or Medieval festival village. Love poetry during the Renaissance period flourished under the pens of Christopher Marlowe, Sir Walter Raleigh, and William Shakespeare. Every day in the garden of life, love brings individuals, families, friends, and creatures together.
A perusal of the internet presents a multitude of definitions of love. Plato suggests, “Love was a grave mental disease.” However, Plato also wrote, “He whom love touches not walks in darkness.” The word “love” finds itself attached to jobs, destinations, colors, family members, books, and movies just to name a few seemingly unrelated and unromantic aspects of our daily lives. Savvy marketers use the word “love” to entice consumers into relationships with their products. For the 2020 Super bowl, New York Life Insurance placed a commercial about the four types of love.
As of September 1, 2020, the top definition of love from Urban Dictionary user, ha i have no name v, reads, “this is my definition of love. Every time you see and talk to this person you get butterflies in your stomach. You start to feel a bundle of emotions. You would do anything for this person including taking a bullet for them. You can’t function without them. If they left nothing would be the same everything would be ruined.” Clearly, that’s eros!
Just as the soft edge of a rose brings softness, the sharp point of a rose’s thorn brings pain. Loss and love share the same blade of green. Upon losing her beloved cat, a friend related that she keened all the way home and well into the evening. A mother broke with the Catholic Church after the death of her husband lost to cancer. At the loss of this writer’s heart horse, Sampson, it remains a challenge to feed the remaining horse while looking at an empty stall. A booth owner lost their spouse mere hours before the Renaissance Festival’s Saturday opening cannon; it took several years before she returned to the show to work in different capacity. Another booth owner died because of a construction accident, she moved to another state and has no plans to return to the festival life. Loss from love drives a universal, profound human need to mourn, with hopes of easing grief by sharing hurt while being supported by those near and far.
An Unexpected, Profound Profession and Calling
Thus says the Lord of hosts,
“Consider and call for the mourning women to come;
Send for the wailing women to come. (Jeremiah 9:17)
I stood with my friends holding hands. We gave honor to Sampson the Warhorse as he carried a bite of grass and took his last breath. The audible grief and visible tears of my friends echoed and bounced around my empty silent broken heart. Their tears were mine; I had none. During the quiet ride home, I understood why cultures, both ancient and new, employed wailing women to cry, to keen, and to bring honor to the deceased when I could not do naught but stare at the empty road ahead. The practice of professional mourning existed in Egypt, India, China, the early near East, and the Mediterranean. Chairman Mao banned the practice during his cultural revolution, but the tradition resumed and continues today in China.
The word keening originated in Ireland from the word ag caoinea, “crying”, and the women who keened were called mnathan-tuirim. The women keeners composed and performed live as part of a traditional Irish Wake. A keen contained raw emotion, unearthly sounds and vocalizations, words, messages to the deceased, repeated motifs, and elements of song. The family would have two to three mourners sometimes for several days guarding the body of their loved one. However, the tradition of Irish Keening ended in the 1950s. Marie Louise Muir explored the tradition’s death in her BBC 4 Radio broadcast “Songs for the Dead” which aired in 2016. At its end, keeners worked for whiskey while the Catholic priests earned money for the funeral service. The priests found keeners as pagan and began to discourage and outlaw the practice. As tourists to New Orleans hope to see a Jazz funeral, Victorians on their Grand Tour hoped to get to an Irish funeral to watch a keen. The Irish wanted status as a modern country, so they were also a part of the death of keening in Ireland.
Traditionally, professional mourners have been women, with men restricted because of the unhealthy belief that they could not, or should not, share their tears. A mourner’s work allowed women of the time an acceptable source of income. According to employment website Job Monkey, today’s professional mourner earns between $30 and $120/hour. Hiring wailing women displays the familial wealth as well as the importance of the deceased. In lieu of wailing women, Sampson’s fans took that role to help me send him off and ease my grief.
Rituals: The New Orleans Jazz Funeral Celebrates!
I’ve written before about being a native Louisianan, and as in so many aspects of life in Cajun and Creole country, traditions are unique and multi-faceted. The dirge gives way to the Dixieland. Jazz music underscores a funeral tradition unique to the city of New Orleans. However, this funeral parade boasting a brass band leading dancing mourners gained worldwide acknowledgment in 1973 with the release of the film Live and Let Die. As with many traditions from New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana, jazz funerals incorporate elements of West Africa through enslaved African Americans. Some believe that these celebratory funerals marked freedom for the deceased slave while the music called the spirits to guide him or her to the afterlife. Over years, the parade of mourners meshed with the new Jazz music and Black church hymns to become the heavily scripted, precise performance of today. A jazz funeral begins following the wake. The parade master, in formal attire marked with a sash and possibly an umbrella, leads the brass band. This is the first line of the parade, followed by the coffin. The second line consists of family members and then members of the community. Respectful visitors can join a jazz funeral following the family, becoming part of the second line of the parade. The musicians play somber music from the funeral home to the raised tombs of the gravesite. Because New Orleans sits below sea level, the deceased rests in an above ground tomb. After a year of the heat and humidity, the body returns to ashes. Those ashes make way for the next family member when the sexton pushes them to the back of the crypt. Following the traditional graveside service, the music shifts and becomes a joyous celebration of music and dance. The joyful jazz and moving feet puts the fun in a funeral.
Honoring Death Rituals of Others
An exhibition dedicated to jazz funerals opened in November of 2020 at The National Museum of Funeral History. Former Texas Renaissance Festival cast member, Chelsey Stanley Eyler, interned at The National Museum of Funeral History located in Houston, Texas. She enjoyed her work at this truly unique museum. While not superstitious, Eyler did not enter a few rooms after 5:00 p.m. as none of the staff ventured into those rooms after closing, in our conversation she reluctantly mumbled about a ghost. On her recommendation, I made time to visit with a friend. The museum offers exhibits for everyone and takes about two hours for the main displays, but every item bears close reading for some truly intriguing facts from history, science, and religion. Visitors can find elaborate horse-drawn hearses, detailed accounts of the growth and science of cremation, and an extensive display celebrating the lives and deaths of popes. The museum contains sixteen permanent exhibits including Day of the Dead/Día de los Muertos from Mexico, Fantasy Coffins from Ghana, and Japanese funerary traditions. The motto of the National Museum of Funeral History happily reminds us, “Any day above ground is a good one”. With both dignity and humor, the museum’s gift shop presents shoppers with a variety of choices to die for.
Grieving In Community
Despite the levity needed for enduring grief and difficult endings, the reality of life means that loss hurts with no endpoint in sight. As ha i have no name v, describes in their definition of love, “You can’t function without them [the beloved person]. If they left, nothing would be the same; everything would be ruined.” Mourners struggling to function and seeing no hope beyond the ruin of their life bring consternation to their circle of friends and family who desperately want to make the hurt end, but correct support eludes most people. When pirate, shop owner, and jeweler, Nina Burks, lost her significant other, she discovered that social media morphed from a place of genuine sympathy and concern to a place of gossip and grief posturing. During her grief and healing processes, Burks discovered what she called the “grief circle”.
Psychologist Susan Silk and her friend Barry Goldman created the “Ring Theory” to help others know how to handle grieving friends. Draw a circle with several outer rings (remember those atom pictures from high school science?) The center circle represents the person in grief. Each concentric circle represents the distance from the bereaved. The innermost person can say, cry, rant, rail, rage, scream anything to the outer circles. Those in the outer circles must send comfort to the individual in the center. They must direct their grief to the outward circles. In short, grief out and comfort in. Burks frequently posts a ring theory/grief circle infographic on her social media during crisis and loss in her extended groups as a reminder of how to assist people through grief.
In 1969, Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross presented the now well-known stages of grief-denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Critics attacked Kübler-Ross for the rigidity and linear path of the grief stages. She has since agreed that each individual experiences grief in their own fashion and not everyone goes through each of the stages. The loss of a pet, a horse, a job, a marriage, a family member, or religion all carry equal weights of grief and pain. In some cases, people find themselves stuck in grief where they are unwilling to move forward and look beyond their ruined life. No matter who or what they mourn, staying mired in grief can lead to serious issues of both physical and mental health. Psychology Today succinctly points out “To live is to grieve” in their article listing thirty signs that a grief therapist should be considered. Grief counseling benefits anyone who experiences any loss. San Francisco Well Clinic’s blog provides an excellent comparison of depression versus grief and reminds us “grief is not depression”, but grief can lead to depression. Professional counseling with a trained therapist provides a great deal of assistance and support, but other means of help exist such as local support groups, communities of faith, online groups, friendships, and books to name a few. Consulting with a medical professional provides medical help with specific medications for depression and anxiety. Dear readers, please seek help without shame.
Evolving Traditions: Eco Funerals
Lush green cemeteries give way to urbanization. Funeral costs continue to increase. Burial chemicals and coffin materials fail to decay and may leave toxic hazards. COVID-19 strains funeral homes. As of 2017, cremation comprised 55% of funeral deaths compared to 5% in 1970. The increase in cremations has inspired artists to create wearable urns or jewelry from cremation ashes.
Green or Eco-friendly burial methods attempt to provide other options. A simple biodegradable container allows the burial of an un-embalmed individual to naturally to the earth; a growing technique called water cremation liquefies the body. Some families elect to take care of the entire process of washing, wrapping and burying their loved ones. While a small farm or backyard is sufficient for pets, laws allowing home burials vary across the country.
Modern love and modern funerals involve flowers. Flower choices and colors contain depths of meaning differing across religions and cultures. In Asia, white flowers represent death and ghosts compared to western cultures the same flowers convey innocence and purity. For funerals, lilies lead the list, but roses take a place in the top ten. For love, roses lead the list especially on Valentine’s Day. Backstage at renaissance festivals and other events, vendors strip the flowers of thorns before putting loading their colorful baskets. Thorns vanish within the fantasy of times past, chivalrous deeds, and joyful flirtations. No tool exists to remove thorns from our lives. May our lives never be without the realness of both edges of love the soft and the sharp.
For more reading
Definition of Love
The National Museum of Funeral History
The Ring Theory