If you take the beltway south to Route 210, Indian Head Highway, to Accokeek, then to Bryan Point Rd, you’ll eventually come to Piscataway National Park, part of the National Capital Parks-East. If you then turn onto Mockley Point Road you’ll follow a dirt road. You'll drive past a farm then to the bank of the Potomac where an old Red Cedar tree grows. This land is sacred land to the Piscataway Nation to which they have special access. And it is here, each November, that they have their Feast of the Dead ceremony. It was last year at that place where the boys and I were privileged to attend.
The day was chilly and breezy, but perfectly sunny. Enough so, that we could feel the sun’s warmth on our faces but there was no doubt it was November. About 200 hundred gathered. We wrote the names of those who had died on red ribbons and gave them to Chief Billy Tayac, who is the hereditary Sagamore, or leader, of the Piscataway Indian Nation. Then we all walked across a large field about a mile, back to the farmhouse we had driven past earlier. At the farmhouse we assembled into a loose line. Near the front, four men held the four corners of a deerskin stretcher fashioned from young tree branches. The ribbons with names were spread out on the stretcher. Several others, banging drums and chanting, led us back, in slow procession, to the red cedar tree. We paused four times along the way. Each time we faced a different direction. East, then South, then West, then North while someone gave a prayer to each direction.
At the cedar tree we gathered in a semi-circle, on blankets, on camp chairs, on benches, facing the tree and Chief Tayac. From the stretcher Chief Tayac would chose a ribbon and read aloud a name. Whoever wrote the name was called forward to hold the ribbon and say something about the person. Then the person would tie the ribbon to the red cedar tree. Then Chief Tayac would call out another name. When Amy’s name was called, the boys and I walked forward. We stood with the red cedar tree behind us and the assembled in front of us. The boys clutched my legs as I spoke through my tears that Amy was my wife and the mother to these boys and had died 6 months before. We turned to the tree and the boys helped tie the ribbon to the tree. It was then I noticed the scores of other ribbons, faded from wind and rain and time, clinging to the branches, tied there last year, or the year before that, or the year before that.
After the last name, Chief Billy Tayac led us in prayer. The wind, he said, would carry our prayers through the branches and the ribbons and to heaven where the spirits of those who had died would hear them. There was then singing and more drumming, and mingling. We made new friends and we hugged. We walked along the Potomac and the boys threw rocks in the water. We gathered again then drove to a nearby elementary school for a potluck dinner.
It was moving and profound. Speaking aloud Amy’s name on that chilly, sunny November day, on that sacred land on the banks of the Potomac across, literally in line of sight from Mount Vernon, created a connection to something both greater, but also simpler. I was aware of the immense span of time before and beyond my own life. I was aware of the strong and eternal connection to the Earth. It was important and necessary that we were there.
In Thomas Golden’s book on grief, “Swallowed by the Snake,” he writes:
“Joy and grief are brothers in a way, and if you experience one fully you will probably experience the other in its fullness. If you deny either one, you will limit the other to the same degree.”
There is comfort in those words. They allow me to reflect on the joy Amy and I had as my grief raged through that first year, and still flares up from time to time. In his book, Golden then moves from that thought to the importance of honoring our grief and honoring it specifically through ritual. The ritual may be something built into a culture or religion, or it may be something very personal. For example, our family lets go of purple balloons on Mother’s Day. Ritual provides something constant or stable in what is the chaos of grief. And provides for a way to sample our grief in manageable bites in an ongoing way. Golden describes many different faith’s and culture’s approach to ritualizing grief after death. In our culture, however, sanctioned grief rituals are not so prevalent, and, to some extent are abandoned and lost.
Golden says our modern western world has moved far way, too far away, from the direct experiences of death and grief. Not so long ago the family and the community were much more hands-on, literally, in the attention to our dying and then the anointing, preparation and burial of our dead. Over time, Golden writes,
“we have been gradually dealing out all of our ritual responsibilities to professionals. From making a casket to the delivery of the oratory at the funeral, we have given out our death-related duties. Given them to funeral homes and funeral directors, doctors and medical professionals, florists and Hallmark. We have lost touch with the body sensation of having death near to us. Grief is in many ways dependent on death as its father. Without a connection to death, grief becomes more of a mystery then it already is.”
I found this very true for me when grasping for some sort of traditions or rituals to hang my grief on. A few existed, like the quilts that hang here in our sanctuary on which the names of those who have passed are embroidered, but others we created. Some very much in the moment, and not planned. An others like letting go of balloons on Mother's Day, writing, gathering with others, splitting wood in my back yard, and sewing Amy’s name into the quilt behind me. And also creating this service with Robin today. I admit, perhaps selfishly, that standing here today is very much about my own grief. But I hope that in creating this day to join together and honor the lives of those who have died before us, we can each be present with our own grief in our own ways. As Golden remarked about the relationship and inter-dependency of “joy and grief,” so too, I believe is the interdependency of life and death. We are unique, as animals, in our ability to both comprehend our own mortality, but to also revel in and celebrate life. Let us then, celebrate life.