What is a family? The etymology of the word reveals that ancient Roman family members thought of themselves as “servants of the household.”
For most of history, families have been large, interrelated groups of grandparents, parents, and children living under the same roof. In the Victorian era the definition shrank, and people came to think of family as a group of parents and children living together. We call it the nuclear family. But the “nuclear option” is far from the only way to go. There are many ways to surround yourself with supportive, committed loved ones. Families today include close and distant relatives, adopted members, and “families of choice.” They are created out of commitment and love, and they include the ancestors who have lit our way. All these are something to celebrate.
In the Roots and Wings chapter of the Celebrant Foundation & Institute’s new book, we are reminded this fall season of the ritual value of family stories and traditions such as “storytime." Diane Gansauer outlines a tribute ceremony you can construct with the help of the very person, like the matriarch of your family, you want to honor.
Each of these ceremonies is specific, and yet each can be adopted to fit any group you live with or love. A family is no longer defined by parents and children or even by household. But it’s still a great container for belonging and a worthy thing to serve!
How to Honor the Elders in Your Family
My family was discussing the upcoming 98th birthday of our Aunt Helen, who survived the Great Depression and tended the home front while her three brothers fought for our country in World War II. We agreed that we shouldn’t wait to honor Helen but should instead pay tribute to her while she was able to enjoy the moment.
I started calling Helen to listen to her stories. She’d start out by saying that she wasn’t feeling very well, but before long it was hard to keep up with all the memories that poured out of her. By the fall, I had printed a mini-biography that Helen could edit.
Here’s how we prepared for the tribute dinner:
- I wrote a simple ceremony on the theme of “the family tree.”
- A family member brought a beautiful hand-drawn family tree tracing our heritage back to the 1500s.
- We booked a banquet room and placed on each table a small tree on which people could hang notes to Helen.
- We set a table with photos of family members who had passed away and gave thanks for their presence in our lives.
- Each person was given a card extolling the example trees provide by sinking roots into the ground and by changing with the seasons.
- The youngest children brought small gifts to give Helen.
On Helen’s big night, family members gathered at a banquet room near her home. We shared mealtime grace and named loved ones who could not make the journey. And then my husband gave a funny speech that put Helen’s life in historical context: “Aunt Helen has outlasted almost everything from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Phyllis Diller.” Then family members took turns reading parts of Helen’s poignant and funny story out loud.
Later that evening, when she heard her favorite big band music, Helen led the dancing. When she looked around and said, “They all came!”
I knew we had not only honored her but had also given her—and the whole family—a very happy memory.
There is no simpler, more beautiful way to honor someone than to make room for their story to be told. By listening, we affirm the one who lived the story and we protect it from being lost. As time goes on, questions and observations by the youngest family members reveal that they are keeping these family stories in their hearts.
Diane Gansauer is a Life-Cycle Celebrant® with certification in Funerals and Ceremonies Across the Life Cycle. Director of Celebrant services Dignity Memorial, Metro Denver.