Is the closing of curtains a vital ritual in the cremation service or an out-of-date tradition? A fundamental aspect of being a funeral celebrant is the ability to listen the needs and wishes of the chief mourner. One of the questions that we must ask, for those planning a cremation service, is “Do you want the curtains closed or left open?”
Increasingly, mourners are asking for the curtains to remain open. The thought of them closing is simply ‘too much’. It is an understandable fear, and regardless of the Chief Mourner’s decision, I respect the choice they make.
From the perspective of being specialist in ritual and ceremony, I’d like to share a few reasons why the drawing of curtains shouldn’t be so quickly dismissed.
Although our currency of communication is based on words and language, there are times when these are inadequate to reach into the core of where we need deepest healing. On such occasions, we call upon ritual to inform our ways.
The drawing of curtains on our beloved’s earthly life is enacted with immense reverence. It isn’t just a gimmick or one more bit of funereal theatre. It has a profound purpose, and isn’t done to make grief even more unbearable. This symbolic act of closure may offer us healing. It allows us to be mindful, and to recognise that the bond we’ve had in physical life is now over. Our loved one, in the form we knew them, has gone. Our love, however, shall remain.
As a child, I was raised on 700 acres in rural Australia where my siblings and I were surrounded by dozens of horses, cats and an assortment of wildlife. One of the things that always struck me deeply was how when a horse or cat died, other horses/cats would come up and smell the body. They’d walk around it, touch it, and make the connection that nothing was happening in that body anymore.
I had no way of truly appreciating the value of this until my father was killed in a car accident a little over seven years ago. I hadn’t seen him for about thirteen years, and I’m grateful for the opportunity that I had to view him in an open casket. Doing so allowed me to do what came so instinctively to the animals I had watched as a child. I was able to hold his hands and give thanks for all the work he’d done during his life to provide my siblings and I with a lovely childhood.
My hands then touched his cheeks. I smiled as I ran my fingers in and over the chicken-pox scars in his cheeks. As meaningful as his funeral ceremony was (apart from the useless celebrant getting his name wrong throughout), in many ways I gained far more from being able to body-and-mind register that he was dead. My ability to grieve was augmented in a healthy way. Not everyone has the option or chooses to see their loved one in death. Perhaps other sit with them during the dying process, and have no desire to see them again in that state afterwards. There is no right or wrong in how we walk ourselves through this part of grief, and from my perspective, certainly no judgement.
However, from a ceremony perspective, I have often found that a burial (particularly the woodland burials I officiate), can bring more closure to mourners because they are directly connected to the elements: they’re standing on the earth.
They feel the sunshine on their skin (or in the case of the vast majority of burials I do, the rain, sleet, hail or snow, or howling winds). There is birdsong in the air. Perhaps bluebells dance at our feet. Maybe the scent of the woodland floor rises up to meet us in welcoming reverence. And then…and then we witness the shrouded body or coffin going down, down, down into the embrace of mother earth. We are connected to the act of saying goodbye. Yes, it bloody well hurts. It’s meant to! We are severing a physical tie with someone who lives in our heart. This is raw grief. This is what it means to let someone go.
In a crematorium, we are (by nature of the process) disconnected to the element to which we are committing the body. Yes, we talk about the primordial nature of fire. But here’s the crucial thing: at the time of committing the body, we don’t see, smell or hear the fire.
The heat of those flames isn’t there to remind us of the transformation taking place. Smoke doesn’t permeate the landscape around us. We’re not piling logs onto the fire as a ceremonial rite. Whether we like it or not, we are disconnected from the commitment process of how we offer the body.
The tradition of cremating a body in a pyre connects mourners to the transformative nature of the ritual. Sitting in a crematorium does not.
So the ritualistic nature of closing the curtains in a cremation service is one of the only ways in which we truly have of informing our psyche that the physical life is over, and gone from our view. It is a simple act, yet deeply powerful. So powerful, in fact, that many mourners are shying away from including it in the ceremony. There are many layers of our being involved in recognising the passing of a loved one, and some of those layers need physical acts, like rituals, to enable the full flow of grieving.
Leaving your loved one’s body on the catafalque and walking away from them may prove to be a lot harder than having them ‘vanish’ behind the curtain.
There is no right or wrong decision to be made. It is, as always, the choice of the Chief Mourner.
Bidding a loved one farewell is a rite of passage that only happens once, so it has to be right.
Hello, my name is Veronika Robinson. It would be my honour to be graced with supporting you during your time of grief. The ceremony I create for you is based on your beliefs (and/or those of your loved one). This means I am not constrained by any belief system or motivated by my own.
I’ve officiated all manner of ceremonies, and am as comfortable leading mourners in The Lord’s Prayer as I am with a pagan ritual, angel blessing, or any other expression of deeply held beliefs. Whether you’re looking for a traditional service or something wildly unique, or anywhere in between, I have the skills and experience to meet your wishes.
Determining the nature and feel of a ceremony isn’t as simple as: religious or not religious. Most people have their own hybrid philosophy of life, death, love and living, and as your celebrant I seamlessly weave your beliefs into a ceremony that is enriching, healing and affirming of the relationship you shared with your beloved. I am able to do this because I listen clearly and carefully. At all times, my job is to craft a ceremony which belongs to you.
I’ve been an independent celebrant since 1995, and have officiated all manner of ceremonies internationally. My intention is to create, write and officiate deeply meaningful, personalised and beautiful ceremonies for every person I am honoured to serve.
Being a funeral celebrant, for me, is a vocation which is founded upon high-level care, compassion, empathy, responsibility and awareness.
Ceremonies, when crafted with skill and love, have the ability to be deeply healing.
“Thank you for everything you have done for us over the last few weeks. Your warmth and sensitivity made an awful situation just about bearable. I do hope we get to meet up again under better circumstances. You managed to write a beautiful eulogy that I will keep for my children.” Becky (Chief Mourner)