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Rituals of Farewell

What if there were different rituals of farewell, to process different types of loss?

Photo of Marije Haas
19 16

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Funeral rituals are in place to help those who remain understand and accept that their loved one is gone.

What if there were different rituals for different departures?

It has been studied that it's easier to accept a loved-one's death in the case of a prolonged illness – the death is not sudden, but expected. There has been a chance to say goodbye.

With sudden deaths, peaceful or violent, the grieving process is very different. Those who remain struggle much more with the loss. There are things left unsaid. There was no chance to say goodbye.

In the case of Alzheimer's disease, biologically, the patient may take a long time to die, however, we have to accept the loss of their identity during this biological process. Again there is no chance for goodbye. This is particularly hard to accept and understand, as the biological individual is still around.

Could we help the carers for dementia patients by designing rituals of farewell for memories or skills lost?

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

Personally, I find it hugely hopeful to think we could be instrumental in designing our own death. I can find comfort in knowing how I will die, what legacy I may leave behind.

We can plan (to a degree) how we bring life into the world, how our children our born, why can we not do the same for death?


Mia de Haas


Join the conversation:

Photo of Bettina Fliegel

Wow Marije this is so special!  The memorial/sculpture you created is so beautiful.  Can I ask where it is located?  Is it located in someone's garden?  It does not appear to be related to a burial site but I cannot tell from the photo. 
We had an interesting conversation at the NYC OpenIDEO Meet Up about what happens around burials.  There was a guest speaker who came from the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Death Lab.  She spoke about the limitation of space for cemeteries as well as the environmental effects of traditional burials and cremations.  The subject of memorials, spaces for memorials came up.  The group also spoke about rituals, and how there might be new ones in the future.  This idea, creating something that speaks of loss, something unique that becomes something different is an interesting idea as a memorial, especially as it speaks to the Process of end of life, and losses along the way.

There is a post in the Ideas phase about creating community gardens as spaces where one can go to remember loved ones.  I like the idea of spaces that become distinct by bringing together these new ritual objects, like the one you made for mama.   Thoughts?
@   - from Ken Rosenfeld 

Marije - Here are the posts from the NYC OpenIDEO Chapter
 You might find the topics interesting and relevant.

Great inspiration post!  Thanks again for sharing it.

Photo of Marije Haas

Thanks Bettina Fliegel I have some thoughst on the matter, which I will try to shape and post as an idea soon! Thanks for linking thoughts together and opening up conversation.

Photo of Bettina Fliegel

Great!  I will be excited to check out your idea!

Photo of Marije Haas

Hi Bettina Fliegel , I finally managed to post up some ideas. In response to your questions above, the memorial we made for my mum is located in my dad's garden.  My mother was cremated and we did distribute her ashes at her favorite spot near the beach. Interestingly we weren't the first ones to do that there. There were some beautiful other memorials left there. A beautiful spot, enhanced by the memories of other people I think. This, by the way, is not entirely legal I believe, so I didn't quite want to publish it "live". 

Either way, food for thought!

Photo of Aaron Wong

Alzheimers is not an easy disease to live with. It's very unique and unlike most other disease.
Check out  Mariah Burton Nelson 's post about how her favorite professor framed her own end of life as a suicide when diagnosed with alzheimers: A Feminist's Suicide: One Professor's Radical Life Lessons . It's a strong statement to take control of a disease that ultimately controls you.

Photo of Marije Haas

Aaron Wong Thanks! Yes Mariah Burton Nelson s post is very inspiring. It makes me wonder if there are better ways to design a dignified end for Alzheimer patients, rather then having to end you own life, as I discuss in my other post It's such a hard disease!

Photo of Jim Rosenberg

I love this question about ritual. I've heard a couple of folks talk about how hard it is to know, for the person who is dying and for the family, where you are and what to do at different points. We have rituals after death for remembrance and grief that give us signposts and embody our collective wisdom about what is needed. Could we create rituals for the end of life experience that do the same? That give us ritual for that moment when we recognize death is coming and all the other important moments until death?

Photo of Marije Haas

Exactly! I think it would help a great deal in accepting and embracing what is happening. It is interesting looking at different cultures that treat death differently, for example the Torajans in Indonesia, who have a radically different view:

Photo of Jim Rosenberg

Wow, that article is fascinating. Such a different prism to look through than our western one. You might want to add the article as a post on it's own so more of the community see it and can use it as inspiration.

Photo of Gabriel Landowski


(And by that I mean the ability to be so close to the physical forms of death and have it mean something else to the individual...)

I always thought it would be interesting to be able to visit a grave marker and activate a hologram which would allow visitors to interact with the deceased (like a Holodeck on Star Trek). It would be amazing if with the advent of cognitive computing we could capture the electric essence of an individual and be able to interact with them after their physical bodies have failed (alla The Matrix)...

Photo of Marije Haas

Yes, bizarre! I think there are a few more sci-fi movies out there to that effect. I'll dig out some titles...

Photo of Mariah Burton Nelson

I too love the question, "What if there were different rituals for different departures?" You're so right that dying is not one loss but a series of losses. And not only does the dying person often lose their physical abilities, the loved ones lose their own hopes and dreams for the future, their role within the family or friendship, and so much more.

Then, if/as we get better at acknowledging and creating rituals to mark various endings related to dying, maybe we can eventually create rituals to say goodbye to other abilities, expectations, and relationships earlier in life. The sixty-year-old who is not terminally ill but suffers from arthritis, for instance, might create or adopt a ritual way to say goodbye to her ability to play golf, or play the piano. Life is a series of losses (among other things) and it would really help if we could get better at saying goodbye.

P.S. - Yes, the Torajan rituals around death are fascinating! 

Photo of Gabriel Landowski

I think the interesting thing for me is that we just need to accept that to an extent we die a little every day - period. So my focus is not just on ritual within a moment or short period of time, but rather encompasses my entire lifetime and is constantly being modified and updated.

By this I mean the flower gardens I tend around our property so that my wife sees how I feel about her. If I should pass today without seeing her again she could walk among the growth and feel my presence around her. I think a lot of the charity work I do is to convey the same thing, so that whether I have passed or not, those folks can take pause and remember that I cared enough to do something for them, and in being remembered I am, to some degree, alive again.

The other hard angle on this topic is the nature of death, because my demise by a brutal motorcycle gang can be a hard thing to reconcile, and not necessarily something others would want to bring up again and again. Perhaps that is part of the discussion, that I cannot control what others do to me, but they cannot truly destroy who I am to others.

I don't know....

Photo of Marije Haas

Mariah Burton Nelson thanks so much for your thoughts. I guess it is al to do with accepting loss. For the person losing abilities, but also for the loved-ones. Accepting for example, that your mother does not remember you, is hard, perhaps by performing a ritual, this can help normalising this loss, understanding it, and eventually accepting it.

Photo of Marije Haas

Gabriel Landowski Interesting thoughts! I think there is a difference between a legacy and memories versus a ritualised act. What you describe sounds like this is part of personality and the acts that make you, you. The legacy you leave behind is extremely valuable for those who remain. I guess the rituals I am thinking of are more to do with acceptance of loss. And each type of loss being unique; a violent and sudden death, or simply loss of a skill, or loss of a memory, each of these losses could be dealt with differently, making the loss easier to understand, respect, accept...

Photo of Gabriel Landowski

Ah, I see. 

For me I think I was recalling attending military funerals. The ritual of acknowledgement and recognition for the service provided compared to the legacy left behind.

I think for me the ritual is nice enough, but personally that is the part I find myself walking away from. Too much preparing and executing the ritual, and not enough focusing on the man or woman you just laid in the ground. Usually the healing and acceptance activities were before or after the ritual was executed, so I guess that is why I focused on that aspect.

For some people the use of regular daily rituals can help deal with loss or mourning, and I am not dismissing them, but I think for me the "ritual" I had in mind was one that is ongoing, and often started by the person who passed years before they left us.

By example: My step-mother died from breast cancer back in 1987, but back in 1986 when she felt it was reasonable to assume that she might not make it, the first thing she did was sit me down (10 at the time) and explain what was going on so that I was aware. She handled it in such a fashion that when she died a year later, I recall walking around the graveyard and everyone is crying and hugging and I just didn't feel that sense of loss and I wondered if there was something wrong with me. But then it occurred to me years later that what she had done was preparing me for her passing and I appreciated that.

Photo of Marije Haas

Gabriel Landowski Thanks for your thoughts! Interesting you mention military funerals, super structured and ritualised, good for the "soldier" not so good for the individual, presumably the individual was more then just a person in service of his/her country. How to acknowledge that? 

And very interesting story about your step-mother, and sorry for your loss. But it does show again that being prepared or dealing with loss over time, helps. I think?

Thanks for sharing!

Photo of Shane Zhao

This is a great thought Marijie! You'll be curious to check out Jim Rosenberg 's post, Reimagining (all) the end of life experience(s) 

Photo of Marije Haas

Hi Shane Zhao  thanks for pointing out that inspiration, very relevant indeed!