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To commemorate the one-year anniversary of my mother’s passing, I organized a memorial in her honour. 1 It wasn’t an easy task, especially considering my region’s health restrictions that encouraged social circles to remain small and the high level of anxiety that everyone felt, in addition to their grief. That said, the need to host such gatherings, whatever the circumstances and whatever the means, persists. They play an important role in the healing process of the family members of those who have passed away, as well as for those whose lives were touched by the deceased. I’ve been reflecting on the memorial gatherings where I’ve left feeling uplifted and deeply connected to those in attendance, and the characteristics that may have contributed to these feelings. Here are five that I keep coming back to:
- A spirit of joy
Abdu’l-Baha said that “there is no greater satisfaction than being a source of joy to the hearts. I ask God that ye may become like angels of heaven, sources of happiness to souls,” 2 and in Paris Talks He tells us “Joy gives us wings! In times of joy our strength is more vital, our intellect keener, and our understanding less clouded. We seem better able to cope with the world and to find our sphere of usefulness.” 3 While it can be hard to focus on joy when we are grieving, I find it helpful to remember that the purpose of a memorial gathering is to remember and honour the life of the person who has passed away and celebrate all the good they brought into this world. When my mother was dying we discussed the atmosphere she wanted at her own celebration of life. What was most important to her was that it felt light, hopeful, and that everyone who attended felt uplifted. There is no set way to nurture joy, but the gatherings that have felt most joyful to me integrated music, poetry, prayers and other readings that focused on the ongoing journey of the soul rather than the finality of death (Baha’i blog has put together a wonderful list of prayers for the departed that have been put to music that could be used at memorial gatherings). A great deal of thought and love was clearly put into decorating the spaces in which these events were held, which created a warm and welcoming atmosphere. And the hosts themselves play a role. By radiating happiness themselves, they set the tone for everyone present.
2. A celebration of unity
We read so much about unity in the Baha’i Writings that I think we sometimes forget what a powerful force it really is. Baha’u’llah says:
Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. Deal ye one with another with the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship…So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth…Exert yourselves that ye may attain this transcendent and most sublime station, the station that can insure the protection and security of all mankind. This goal excelleth every other goal, and this aspiration is the monarch of all aspirations.Baha’u’llah 4
The events that I have felt most uplifted by have been ones that reinforced the unity of those present through careful selection of music and readings; attention to how guests are introduced to each other and are made to feel welcome, and even the intention with which the space is held for collective healing. All of these have the potential to bind the hearts of those present even more closely together. Programs that included readings and prayers highlighting the unity between souls in the next world and those of us who are still living on this physical plane also raised the consciousness of those present and invited us to reflect more on the closeness to, and continued connection with, the souls of those we love who have passed on. Doing so nurtured an awareness among those present that spiritual unity has no limitations.
3. An atmosphere of peace and tranquility
The need for spaces in which our hearts and souls feel at peace is great right now, and memorial gatherings are a perfect opportunity to nurture just such a space. The Universal House of Justice tells us that we must make our homes “havens for the believers, folds for their gatherings…so that people of all strata…may feel at home and be able to consort in an atmosphere of love and fellowship.” 5 There are an endless number of ways to create gatherings characterized by a peaceful atmosphere. Hosting gatherings outside in beautiful natural areas (when the weather is conducive!) is one. Soft or natural light can have a calming influence. Encouraging guests to slow down and be fully present in the moment and with each other also creates a greater level of tranquility. I am reminded of a memorial gathering hosted by Hospice at a local cathedral for the family members of individuals who had lost their lives to cancer. When I attended I had just returned from burying my mother on the other side of the continent and was desperately in need of feeling embraced by community that supported me in my grief. I recall clearly how calming it felt to sit and listen to uplifting music, and what a gift it was to be surrounded by others who were all going through the same experience. The gathering taught me that simply holding a space for collective experience can be peaceful and reassuring.
4. Being steeped in love
Memorial gatherings are all about celebrating love: the love we feel for the person whose life we are celebrating; the love they shared with everyone they knew; the love that guests felt for the deceased, and the love between those of us who are soldiering on together. No matter what the program consists of, how elaborate or basic the decorations or refreshments, hearts will be touched if the intention behind the event is to celebrate love. This quote from Abdu’l-Baha communicates this perfectly:
My home is the home of peace. My home is the home of joy and delight. My home is the home of laughter and exultation. Whosoever enters through the portals of this home, must go out with gladsome heart. This is the home of light; whosoever enters here must become illumined. This is the home of knowledge: the one who enters it must receive knowledge. This is the home of love: those who come in must learn the lessons of love; thus may they know how to love each other.Abdu’l-Baha 6
5. A welcoming feeling of comfort
Those attending memorial gatherings may be coming from a wide diversity of backgrounds and experiences of loss, and making everyone feel welcome and at ease goes a long way to creating an uplifting atmosphere that facilitates connection. To this end I find including readings from different traditions and in a variety of languages if different mother tongues are represented at the gathering will help everyone feel at home. Inviting guests to read, chant prayers, tell stories or sing songs also can also make those present feel included on a deeper level and build connection between people who may not have known each other at all before the event. Making everyone feel there is a space for them, wherever they are coming from, gives those who have not done so before the opportunity to consider how they might like to honour the lives of their loved ones with others—important reflections that can create an opening for more meaningful conversations among those present.
These are five elements that I feel have created an elevated atmosphere at memorial gatherings I have had the honour of attending, but I’m certain there are many more that should be added to this list. What characteristics have you found contribute to elevating the human soul and deepening spiritual connection at memorial gatherings you have hosted/attended?
- While there are many similarities between memorials and funerals, a memorial is a gathering that celebrates the life of someone who has passed away. There are no formal requirements in the Baha’i Writings for what this includes. Baha’i funerals differ in that the prayer for the dead must be read in addition to any other readings or music that the organizers want to include in the program.
- Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v1, p. 23
- Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 109
- Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 14
- The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 437
- Abdu’l-Baha, from a Tablet, published in Star of the West, vol. 9, no. 3, 28 April 1918, p. 40
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