I drummed as people gathered and took their seats, and then welcomed them and explained the parts of the unique event to follow. Creating a memorial service for a woman devoted to indigenous spirituality felt like a huge responsibility, especially when I worry about people’s comfort levels with shamanic practices. But the family assured me that everyone there would appreciate knowing more about this tradition that meant so much to…I’ll call her Sophia.
The family chose an outdoor venue known for its beauty, and we had chairs set up across from a semi-circular outdoor “stage,” where we put a 6- foot table that would serve as an altar.
The table was laden with bowls full of seeds, candies, feathers, glitter, cotton, chiles, raisins, popcorn and piles of photos, special objects and flower arrangements, feathers, beads and Native fabrics. It looked like a combination of an exotic kitchen and an outdoor market.
First, we called in the directions and created a sacred space, me using my rattle and spirit water and saying prayers, as we stood and faced each of the four directions, and then by touching Mother Earth and raising our hands to Father Sky.
Then we began an adaptation of an indigenous Peruvian despacho ceremony. I explained, speaking especially to the children, that we would be making a present for Sophia, a package packed with our prayers, our memories and our symbols of all that was precious about her life. For our simplified version, we would create three layers of symbols on tissue paper, representing the lower, middle and upper worlds.
On the ground below the altar, we had placed the green and purple ceramic urn with Sophia’s ashes, and her photograph. On a hand woven green and purple Peruvian textile, I laid out white tissue paper, which would become the outer layer of the despacho. Then came red paper for the lower world-the world of the unmanifest.
“Sophia’s life was like a seed that will grow through her children and grandchildren,” I told them. “So I need some volunteers to place seeds and other symbols of Mother Earth.” All the grandchildren ran up.
After making a traditional Southern Cross of sugar, the children sprinkled seeds, and then spices for the flavors of life: cumin, cinnamon sticks and chiles for southwestern heat. We offered rose petals for the beauty of the earth, seaweed to honor all sea life, plastic neon bugs for the creepy crawlers, raisins to honor the old wrinkled ancestors, and candies for the sweetness of the earth.
The family came up and offered “kintus” made of trios of bay leaves, into which they had blown their prayers. It was a beautiful layer, and I invited people to come and look at it before it was covered. (We were demonstrating creation and death.)
I laid out green tissue paper for the middle world-the one we experience with our five senses, and therefore believe is “real.” Family and close friends had brought symbols and placed them on the altar, and now they came up to place them into the despacho and explain their meaning.
There were photos of outings, cards from favorite restaurants. Thread from Sophia’s sewing machine. A single dice and a playing card. The grandchildren all brought drawings or letters, some placed amidst tears. A co-worker placed a fetish made by her office, a heart wrapped with a crystal. A daughter placed a small elephant that had been a childhood favorite.The middle layer was a fine mess, like life. Full of treasures.
We covered it with blue tissue for the upper world. More kintus. And now the grandchildren tore up cotton balls to make clouds. They sprinkled popcorn to honor the lightening spirits. They sprinkled glitter shaped like stars, feathers for the winged ones, silver and gold candies for the rain and sun, angels.
It was time to wrap it all up. Sophia’s closest friend came up and helped me fold it all by holding the package—now white—while I folded it in the traditional way and wrapped it with a silver ribbon and a golden cord. I held it up and said a blessing for Sophia’s soul—may she fly.
The prayer bundle would be ceremonially burned by the family, and the ashes would be combined with Sophia’s ashes, and sprinkled as she had requested.
Now it was time for tributes and stories. People had written things, and people tearfully said things they hadn’t written. One of her daughters talked about Sophia’s beliefs, ending with her mantra—Walk in peace.
We closed the directions and the sacred space as I played my rose quartz crystal bowl, which produces a beautiful, reverberating sound that enters the heart. What we all wanted was to walk out of this ceremony and keep those hearts open paying forward the love we all felt. And so we listened to the reverberation, and I reminded us all that the heart’s love reverberates ever so much farther than this sound. We ended with, “May we all walk in peace.”
As I returned to my drum, which I played again as they made their way to each other, and eventually to food and drink and conversation, many whispered thanks. I was especially touched by one young man with full eyes, who said he had never experienced anything like this and that the power of it was almost overwhelming. And of course there were the children.
On my way home, my heart full from the love of this community, I had an extraordinary experience. I saw or felt a huge flash of light whip past the front of my car like a comet. It took my breath away. Tears came, as I felt this was an acknowledgement from the soul of this woman I did not even know. I could see and feel the stunning beauty of this one life, and the stunning beauty of each life. This light, this importance, this beauty of each life is what I want to always remember.
I came home and sat at my computer, and this poured out, along with my tears:
Oh, oh! The splendor of this one life!
It is like a star exploding!
And the whole cosmos applauds
As the fireworks resound throughout the blackness of space,
That is thirsty for light.
Oh, oh again!
Another burst of light as she transcends,
As she expands
Past her body
Lending her light
To all who gather
At the well.
We earthlings have no idea
How huge this one life is.
It is awe-some.
Deserving of hands up to mouths,
In astounded speechlessness.
And this is just one soul
Making its transition.
Think of it.
What could yours be like?