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    Celebrating the Life of a Beloved

    reverendIn writing these articles for the “Weddings & Occasions” page in the San Francisco Bay Times, I so enjoy writing about weddings, including every aspect and detail of these thrilling, joyous events! It’s so pleasurable to write (and read and think about) love. Love is so powerful, and is possibly one of the most powerful states of being that we are capable of feeling and generating. Love really does conquer all.

    Never is this truer than when a relationship that began and endured in love finally reaches the point described in the marriage vows, “… until death do us part.” The consequences on the one left behind can be devastating. Grief is as powerful as love; it is, in fact, the other side of the coin. When the beloved is taken away, the love is transmuted into grief. One of the important things we do together as a community is to support those whom we love upon the death of their beloved partner. We do this in whatever way we can—with cards and visits, bringing food, sitting Shiva, offering words of comfort and reassurance: words of love.

    We also gather in community for the ritual of farewell to the one who died. We remember, honor, thank and bless that person while holding the surviving member of the couple in the strength of our love and support. This ritual has tremendous healing powers and can go a long way toward lifting the bereaved one out of the worst of the despair and “lost-ness” of feeling absolutely alone. This happens through the music and prayers, the poems and scriptures, the eulogies and rituals. One of the most healing things of all is the part where friends and relatives share their personal memories and stories of the deceased individual, often evoking laughter—which is, in my opinion, one of God’s greatest gifts.

    When I was a hospice chaplain, I officiated many memorial services, typically called “celebrations of life.” A few years ago I had the honor of leading a celebration of life for a man I will call Bill, whose grief-stricken spouse, Frank, was struggling desperately with his overwhelming sense of loss and even hopelessness. They had been together 43 years. Luckily, Frank and Bill’s two oldest friends Michael and Edward basically moved in with Frank for a few weeks, helping him get up and face each day. It was they, together with Frank, of course, who helped me put together a celebration of Bill’s life, which we held in their beautiful home for about 40 family members and friends. After the formal ceremony, when we all poured the wine and began the feast, the stories started to flow. We had the joy of watching Frank interrupt his weeping with bursts of laughter, sometimes unstoppable, as someone recalled a singular memory that was just so right! It was then that I knew the healing had begun.

    There are many wonderful poems and rituals we use in funerals and celebrations of life. I am going to share a meditation I use sometimes when the members of the congregation will be a mixed group of religious, non-religious, atheist, agnostic, skeptic—in other words, a typical mixed-bag of spiritual orientations.  I wrote this meditation because I am called to help all of us overcome the fear of death and come into a friendly relationship with it. As an interfaith minister, it is not my job to tell people where I think we go when we leave our bodies. In this meditation I offer people the chance to go inside and create their own picture of where someone’s spirit has gone, and find peace within themselves with the loss of this person’s corporal presence on the earth and in their lives.


    I invite you to close your eyes, and hold Bill in your heart, as if he were with you now. Each one of you, with everything that you have learned and felt and come to believe, may honor your own version of our journey beyond earthly life. Create a picture of Bill as he is now, in a kind of radiance, full of love, with his joy and enthusiasm for life. Hold him there with your heart and your imagination and your very best wishes and prayers for him. See him as you knew him—at his best, being who he really is. Feel the love and pleasure Bill brought to your life over the years and surround him with it now, as you hold him in your heart.  Thank him for his gifts to you, to the world. And just breathe.

    The bell rings.

    Rev. Elizabeth River is an ordained interfaith minister and wedding officiant in the North Bay. Please visit and, on Facebook,