Lynne Ann DeSpelder: Death Rituals

Lynne Ann DeSpelder talks with Dr. Heidi Horsley about death rituals during the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC) conference. DeSpelder is a counselor, professor of psychology, and co-author of the book The Last Dance: Encountering Death and Dying, which is now in its eighth edition. A leader in the industry, DeSpelder got into the field of death and dying like many others: It stemmed from first-hand experience. Rituals that are rooted in history are rich in our society today.

In a recent visit to the Smithsonian, DeSpelder discovered that making a memorial quilt has been in practice for hundreds of years. It’s especially common when infants and babies pass away. It helps the dead stay a part of the lives of a living. The AIDS Quilt Project is a contemporary version of such a practice. Creating rituals can come from any source, and many of her students have shared their own rituals with her.

Rites of Passage

Bereavement, as described in the textbook, comes from a term meaning “shorn off.” Many people cut their hair when a loved one passes. It’s common in Native American cultures, India, and other demographics around the world. Others wear the clothing of their loved ones long after they’ve passed. Still others find that learning to do things that previously only their loved ones did can be a rite of passage.

You can find rituals that are practical, those which are not, and it all comes down to what helps the healing process for each individual. Fire rituals are very common in most cultures. DeSpelder suggests choosing two items. One will be consumed, and the other will be changed. The changed item represents survivorship, while the consumed item is a way of letting a loved one go to the next phase—though the item is not necessarily gone entirely.


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