Ceremony for Dying: The Altar

Ceremony for Dying: The Altar

In the Presence of Death: Using ceremony to explore mindfulness in the journey of dying, death, and the years following, in this 9-part series

Courtesy of the author

Using altars to focus intention and connection in a space.

Perhaps you are at the bedside of someone who is actively dying. You are sitting in vigil, likely with others present. You will not know until moments after the last breath leaves her body that she has died, and so you are waiting and watchful. Perhaps you are holding the space of the dying person from afar, knowing that it is happening, but from a distance. Or it is sudden, and there’s little time to sort out your thoughts.

This can be a challenging time to stay present with yourself, especially in the presence of others trying (or not) to do the same thing. The focus is on the dying person, and the various feelings of separation from someone very important in your life. And during this time, you are all in limbo - neither here, nor there. You are waiting, witnessing, and experiencing.

The transition from being alive to being dead has a name in the ceremony space: it’s a threshold state. It’s the place of liminality, for the dying person and the people who hold her close. She is leaving her community behind, and they are watching her leave.

This space is emotional, with a tendency for the group to struggle with how to address the ambiguity of the vigil. And this is where the altar comes in, and does some of its best work.

An altar is a symbolic connection between the seen and unseen, between the here and the not here. Though unspoken, it’s a place to connect what’s happening in the room to what comes next. The most important reason to have an altar is to focus the group, with intention. It gives a place for deep emotion to rest.

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Altars can look formal. But even a wall of post-it note messages on the mirror, over flowers and photos, can be an altar – if elevated by focus and intention. Altars often grow organically, as an outpouring of love and concern, and also because people need a way to express themselves within the dying space. And they are effective.

Even if you are at a remove from the actual dying space, you could create an altar to hold the vigil. The most important thing is that there is intention attached to it. For example, alone in your home, hours away from grandma’s vigil, you could light a candle and say, “Grandma is dying right now. I light this candle as a symbol of the brightness she brought into my life, and the light that will stay with me of her love and kindness.” Be specific, and unique to your situation.

Whatever the setting, there is a way to create an altar. At home, a hospital, care facility – there’s a corner of a table or windowsill that can be used.

For example, bring in a potted tree or branch. Invite folks to write a note or memory on a label you have provided in a basket. Tie the labels on the tree. Later, take the tree to the funeral or memorial service (and of course, plant it in honor when appropriate).

One way to help focus the group towards intention and creation of an altar space could be to go around the room, asking “what has she taught you that means the most to you?” Take notes. Ask if they would like to record this, to share with those who can’t be there. Then attach the notes to a presentation board, or tape them on the wall. These could be used later at her celebration of life ceremony.

Should you call it an ‘Altar?’ That word can sound heavy, or religious to some. It’s not necessary to call it an altar, as long as there is focus and intention to the space, which will act as a link from what is, to what will become. Other ideas for what to name to space are:

  • Honoring space
  • Remembrance spot
  • Place for pictures and notes
  • Grandma’s special memories

If you are helping to facilitate the creation of the altar space, be mindful that this is a group process. Keep it light and let each person decide whether to participate. Include children. Also, stay secular and focused on the spiritual beliefs of the dying person, with regard for the many beliefs that may be present in the room. Remember that the dying person can hear you (that may be obvious or not), and include her by sharing all the parts of the altar, including the intention.

Some ideas for altars can be:

  • A presentation board
  • A tree or branch
  • A decorated tabletop

The most important thing is to make it intentional and interactive. “Here is our place to tell Grandma what she means to us, and that we love her and will miss her. Please add your own message (or flower, photo, etc.) to this memory place.”

The altar can help to hold what otherwise may be chaotic and not contained. As a bridge between what is happening in the dying space to what lies beyond, it helps to move from the threshold space that everyone finds themselves in, to the finality of death.

Peace, my Heart
Peace, my heart, let the time for
the parting be sweet.
Let it not be a death but completeness.
Let love melt into memory and pain
into songs.

Let the flight through the sky end
in the folding of the wings over the

Let the last touch of your hands be
gentle like the flower of the night.
Stand still, O Beautiful End, for a
moment, and say your last words in

I bow to you and hold up my lamp
to light you on your way.

—Rabindranath Tagore

Find readings, poetry, and prayers for a Living Memorial on the, a resource co-edited by Funeral Director Amy Cunningham and Funeral Celebrant Kateyanne Unullisi.

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