This past week the hospice organization I volunteer with had a Tree of Life ceremony (I believe it was the 26th annual). Usually it involves an outdoor tree lighting ceremony in Rose Memorial Park followed by an indoor reception of cookies and hot beverages in a community space at a nearby church. But due to the extremely low temperatures this week they moved the ceremony inside. During the reception there are memorial walls that have been constructed with the names of loved ones who have passed away. Any member of the Missoula community can submit a friend or family member’s name for the memorial wall who has passed away at anytime, not just over the last year. This year we had around 540 names submitted.
Our annual Tree of Life gathering is a time to come together as a community and to remember and honor those who have passed away. During the ceremony we had the opportunity to each hold a lit candle and spend a few minutes in silence. I roughly counted about 150 in attendance – to see the darkened hall filled with flickering candles accompanied by the soft strumming of a local harpist was very touching.
During the ceremony I thought of the passing away of a friend in late August. We weren’t close at all but I’d known him for years as the father of a good friend of my step-son’s since the 2nd grade, 6 years ago. He was also his 6th grade homeroom and math teacher when he moved onto middle school. He was one of those wonderfully dedicated teachers that all the kids loved. He passed away from a sudden heart attack right before the start of the school year, he was in his early 50’s with a wife and two kids. His nickname was Moose and his classroom was filled from floor to ceiling with toy Moose, collected in large part as gifts from his students. His funeral service in September was held at a local outdoor recreation area where he often went to folf (frisbee golf). On the picnic tables there were many folf discs and toy moose adorning each one that people were allowed to take with them. I took a moose with jingle bells attached to his feet and sweet gently sloped eyes who now perches on the dashboard of my car and serves as a reminder to enjoy this one life given to me, however long or short it may be.
We have all been effected by grief and sorrow. We have all been touched by death in one way or another. Volunteering with hospice for the past 11 years and meeting with folks who are at the end of life has given me many gifts. In a society that shuns death and is uncomfortable with the aging process I feel honored to be given the opportunity to learn from my elders to not fear the end of life but to understand deeply how it too is part of the cycle of life. Through visiting with families and individuals over the years I am grateful for the continued lessons I receive and to cultivate connection with those who have gone before me.
May we live well and in gratitude in this moment – for that is the greatest honoring we can offer to all those who have passed on.