Rituals and Laments – Examples and Resources
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Ideas for actions and rituals
Before you start crafting a ritual, we strongly recommend you look at the advice and suggestions here
Don’t forget to try to use materials with a view to their recyclability, compostability and sustainability.
Mourning Armbands. There is a long tradition -now largely only seen on sports’ teams when they are remembering the death of one of their own- of wearing a black armband to signal a bereavement and to show one is in mourning. So the basic idea is simply to wear one for extinct species or habitats. Make your own and customise it. https://www.ehow.com/how_5143632_make-armband.html. Suggestion: to add to it a simple symbol or a word or two to make it clearer what is being mourned. Further development of this idea: to have a making workshop with prayers for the activity and to ‘bless’ the wearing of the completed armbands. The activity of donning the armband can be a significant moment to reflect and hold before God the grieving and the cause of grieving.
Sackcloth and ashes. The biblical phrase “repent in sackcloth and ashes” is still sometimes in use as a byword for recognising one was wrong about something. It harks back to times when these things were part of rituals expressing grief and/or repentance. Sackcloth could then, be used as an armband (see the armband section). Smaller pieces could be used as badges to be added to a coat or jacket. It is simple to use a safety pin to hold it in place. The suggestions about armbands could be brought to bear in the making and ‘commissioning’. One of the things that could be added might be an ashen symbol (maybe a cross maybe something else). It might be helpful to use a mix of oil and ash ( https://www.ehow.com/how_7530818_mix-palm-ash-oil.html ) to make the symbol. Other materials could be used, of course.
Imposition of humus &/or ash. ‘Imposition’ is a traditional church term which means ‘putting on’ -usually a forehead or hands are in mind and it’s commonly used for the act of smearing ash-oil mix on a forehead on Ash Wednesday. This idea is development of that. Humus is, of course, the dark soil-building material (https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/humus/) rather than the chick-pea paste!
Anointing and smearing. See also the imposition of humus/ash section.
Kiva. A Kiva is an underground, sacred space used for meditation and worship by indigenous North American peoples. You may be able to adapt the idea.
“The kiva is a square or circular underground chamber, covered by a roof of wooden beams with and opening in the centre. You enter a kiva the same way you enter a submarine: by descending the ladder. Once inside the packed earth chamber of the kiva you are in darkness. Without a fire in the kiva, the only light comes from above you. To reach it you have to ascend the ladder.
The kiva is a sacred space. It serves the same function as a cathedral, as a place of worship ——- (but) the spiritual focal point is not above us, but below. What we seek is not in the sky but in the earth.”
“For my ancestors —— the kiva was a waiting room. A place of new beginnings, formation, wisdom and transformation – the kiva was underground not as a shelter but as a seed. Its darkness was fertile, not fearful. The image of the kiva was the image of a womb, an environment redolent with the power of creation. In this spiritual context, going into the kiva was going underground for a positive reason: to be closer to the generative forces of the Spirit.
— I see the darkness in the kiva in the way my ancestors did: through the eyes of faith.
Faith is the first rung on the ladder to light because faith is perception. A long time ago, my ancestors came to view the world with a profound spiritual understanding: we do not believe because we see: we see because we believe.”
(From Ladder to the Light; an Indigenous Elder’s meditations on Hope and Courage by Steven Charleston. Steven is a member of the ChocTaw Nation of North America and an Episcopalian bishop.)
Prayer wall. For many people the go-to mental image of this might be the so-called Wailing Wall which is a foundation wall of what remains of the Temple in Jerusalem and is a place where Jewish pilgrims go to pray. One of the activities there is to place a written prayer into the cracks between the stones. Some places emulate this way of praying using small pieces of paper and a suitable wall (sometimes a pinboard or netting is used to ‘receive’ the paper).
Tears (ie weeping rather than rending cloth) the psalmist writes/recites of God storing our tears in a bottle – Psalm 56:8 (see and also you might find this article interesting: http://www.lachrymatory.com/History.htm). This could provide ideas for an action. An eye dropper is an effective way to deliver drops of water (symbolic tears) if some precision is needed about where they land. If not then fingers may well be suitable. Symbolic tears could be dropped into a bottle (try to find an attractive one which is transparent to allow the ‘tears’ to be seen. A flask or a carafe might be suitable rather than a fairly standard thin-necked bottle. ‘Tears’ could be dropped onto objects or words or pictures as a way to specify symbolically the occasion of, or reason for, lament. People could be invited to moisten a cheek below their eye to symbolise tears. The dropping action could accompany particular words in a liturgy and be done in such a way as to be seen by most people present or it could be even more fully participatory and members of the congregation could be invited to come to where the symbolic tears may be dropped to drop them themselves.
Rending cloth. This is an ancient Jewish practice referred to in scripture to express grief when someone would tear their own clothing and perhaps also put dust and ashes on their head. In our cultures this is not such a current symbol, but the suddenness, sound and visual impact of it could be quite arresting and, in a way, graphic. Phrases like ‘rending the fabric of creation’ could be related to it. Many contemporary Jewish people have a special ribbon or piece of cloth that is used especially for rending in grief -Kriah- though many will cut a garment they normally wear.
Tolling a bell. Most people in western cultures would associate a single bell tolling slowly with an occasion of mourning, and this association is the basis for this symbolic suggestion. It could be done as a standalone action, perhaps with a symbolic number of rings. It could be done to accompany particular liturgical words. Bells are also associated with prayer and/or meditation, for example the sounding of the bell in grouped tolling for praying the Angelus three times a day at some churches or simply to call people to prayer. There is also the use of a simple hand chime to begin and end times of meditation in south and east Asia.
Slow walk. Funeral processions often have a slow walk. This could be used and is most effective if done silently. It is probably most effective to be done with participants wearing sombre clothing and/or mourning armbands and with some people carrying some kind of symbolic object to make evident the occasion for mourning.
Penitential parade. In medieval western Europe (and still to this day in southern European customs around Holy Week), penitents might parade to and from shrines carrying statues, sometimes self flagellating (mention here is not an endorsement of this practice!), perhaps singing or chanting. Those familiar with Monty Python’s Holy Grail film, may recall the scene of people walking through the street chanting and hitting their heads on boards. While this is not a historical event, it gives a flavour if in a comedic manner. We could arrange to walk in similar manner, perhaps wearing ‘striking’ clothing, chanting and/or singing, probably between significant points, or buildings. We could combine with this some kind of stopping at prayer stations.
Cairn-raising. This is a traditional funereal practice in some parts of the world -placing small rocks and large stones over a body. The association with remembering and commemorating is widely understood and so inviting people to help to build a cairn. Consider in planning: placement and its effects on the surrounds and other people who may come across it. Consider also the provenance of the stones used -are they from a source that is ecologically innocuous? Will they remain so in situ?
Stones (more generally). Stones have become, over the last 20 years or so, quite a popular worship aid (some even say, “overused”). Cairns for remembrance have been built (see item above), stones have symbolised weight (of grief, guilt etc) and dropping stones has been able to symbolise letting go of a burden, white stones have referred us to the passage in Rev.2:17.
Composting griefs. The basic idea here is to symbolise the expression of griefs onto or into materials which can then be added to a compost heap or similar. Paper or card (in discreet quantities) can be used for this but so could leaves or pieces of wood. These objects could be written or drawn on to give concrete expression of ideas , feelings or causes for concern. (Consider the medium for writing in terms of toxicity). Objects for composting could simply be held and associated with a grief held in the mind. And they could be broken, ripped as part of the ritual.
Breaking things. -eg vase, plates, sugar glass… . Obviously (I trust) this should be planned with the risks of physical hurt in mind. It’s notable, for example, that the Jewish ceremony of breaking a glass at a wedding mitigates the risk by placing the glass in a cloth bag which is then trodden on. There can be various ways that we would break different objects or groups of objects and the symbolism of breaking could be affected by the different methods that could be used to do the breaking. Therefore there would be a variety of mitigations we might consider, including (but not exhaustively): shielding people or object behind barriers to shards etc; protective clothing (especially eye protection); safe distancing. If you are able to make/obtain ‘sugar glass’ this could be a relatively benign breaking-object needing fewer protective measures. (Sugar glass is used in film shoots for the glass that stunt doubles dive through in action sequences).
Light and darkness. -including candles though other kinds of light production might be considered. Whichever light production method is deployed, do think about the environmental dimension to it. Light is often associated with hope, goodness or understanding while darkness often stands for ignorance, evil or fear. Thus lighting a candle in a darkness is seen as conveying hope. The aesthetic qualities of candlelight underlines the feel-good factor of this symbolism. The sharing of a light by lighting other candles -including those held by other people- further symbolises a hopeful growth of goodness, understanding or hope. A candle can be taken to represent the Light of Christ -as at some baptisms where a lighted candle is given to the person baptised after they have been baptised.
By contrast darkness can be used to dramatise being in grace-less states, in the grip of evil (or at least the privation of good). Dousing lights can, thus, accompany recognition of evils or symbolise a recognition of encroaching wrong or growing menace. Lighting lights can symbolise desires or prayers for good, or present a sense of hope. The difficulty with darkness is (drum roll for stating the obvious) that you can’t see (well) in it -and if you can, then it isn’t dark. This is a dramatic consideration with practical implications. For example a number of liturgies of kindling Easter fire are undermined in their drama and impact by having lights on to read the liturgy (or even being conducted when it is not dark) -they’d be improved by having leaders memorise the words or extemporising them and simplified, easily remembered or repeated responses. I hope it is fairly obvious that doing things in the dark holds risks for movement of people and sometimes anxiety for some people. Using naked flame carries risks to do with the wrong things catching fire (hair, clothes, furnishings, parts of buildings …). It may be worthwhile to consider using LED candles in some circumstances.
Water. This has multiple meanings and uses -many of them already present in usage within the Christian traditions. The central metaphors seem to do with washing, quenching thirst and, relatedly, life-giving/refreshing. Suggested actions can be simply drinking or washing. There is also sprinkling and pouring out (onto, say, the ground). See also the paragraph, above, on ‘tears’. Some actions could make use of water’s ability to dissolve some things.
Crosses. These could be made of various materials -wood, twigs, card or paper, palm leaves … They tend to suggest the execution of Christ or by derivation death more generally -of people, other creatures or projects. Crosses planted in the ground or leaned against walls or monuments can do this symbolic work.
Dropping petals or leaves. There are occasions when we are used to petals being dropped or strewn: some Remembrance day ceremonies drop poppy petals. Some weddings use flower petals instead of confetti, or strew petals in front of the bride to walk on.
The following are mainly links (and related comment) to liturgies or prayer materials. Most actions will want words of some kind to frame them and may be enhanced with prayers. Some forms of words will suggest and lend themselves to actions such as those above.
Requiem for extinct species: three documents on this Green Christians page.
There is a nicely written Lament for the Climate and Ecological Emergency written and compiled by Jon Swales (published in February 2021). This has a form reminiscent of the litany in Church of England prayer resources.
A Litany of Climate Grieving -started from a service of commination and evolved to focus on climate change.
Here is a liturgy with lamentary elements in it, it’s a series of slides, voiced over and with a piano accompaniment. Running time is just over 5 minutes.
Engage Worship have some helpful ideas. One “Ashes of Lament” is more confession-of-sin focused but could be tweaked for focus if desired.
There is a growing body of songs for corporate worship which give voice to lament. Keiko Ying’s Hear the Song of Our Lament has helpful lyrics and a suitable melody and is in a contemporary idiom. Similarly in terms of musical style is Chris Juby’s If the Fields are Parched (Have Mercy). You’ll see that those have a common lodging place which will also let you explore other musical offerings related to the theme.
Towards Silence: In 2018, a Green Christian member, Carol Nixon, commissioned a string quartet from Welsh composer John Metcalf, with a brief to reflect the tragic mass extinction of species. Please find a couple of films: the music with an accompanying documentary (33 minutes), or the music on its own (17 minutes), either of which could be shown in a church or non-church setting, allowing people to just sit, listen and lament.