Guest Post: The Rituals We (Still) Perform

by Liz Johnson

My grandmother is dying.

Her cancer is incurable, and has spread to the degree that she has been given mere months to live. And so, with her mortal time rapidly closing, family and friends alike have flocked to her side to spend a few precious moments with a truly remarkable woman.

There could be no better tribute to a life well-lived than the outpouring of love that my grandmother has received in these past few weeks. Family members have flown across the country to sit by her side. The phone hasn’t stopped ringing with people calling to check in on her and to express their love. Almost every flat surface in her home has a vase of fresh flowers sitting on it, and her freezer is stocked to the gills with soup and other food brought to her by friends and ward members. Her door is being graced several times daily by friends and neighbors, wishing to express their love to her and to hug her at least one more time.

I realize that it’s not an unusual thing for a person to lose a grandparent – it’s the natural cycle of things. I have lost two before her. But yet the impending loss of this woman has affected me so profoundly. I have enjoyed a particularly close relationship with her – despite living far away during my entire childhood, we visited and stayed in her home almost every summer. She regularly had me over during my college years, eager to feed me or watch a show together (don’t ask about the time I inadvertently got her addicted to “The Bachelor”). Her home became my refuge during my tumultuous college years – whenever I felt the pressures and stresses were too much, I knew I could drop in without a moment’s notice, and she would sincerely be happy to see me. I could talk to her the way I could talk to my mother – openly and freely. She always abounded in sympathy and love, and I knew she would love me even if it felt like nobody else would. And what is truly amazing about this relationship is that I’m not the only grandchild who feels this way about her – in fact, all twenty-two of us feel like we’re her favorite person, and that she would do anything for any of us.

I was able to visit and spend time with her last week. My mother, my sister, my two younger children and I were able to spend several days talking and laughing and playing a lot of Yahtzee. I was able to hear her talk about her life, and about the sacred experiences she has had. At one point, my sister, who is somewhat famous for her foot massages and pedicures, busted out the supplies to give my grandmother a special spa treatment.

grandma feet 3
As she washed my grandmother’s feet, I was completely overcome with emotion. I was reminded of Christ washing his disciples’ feet as a sign of love and humility, as well as the washings and anointings that we participate in as sisters in the temple. I also was reminded of the blessings and anointings that women gave each other in the early church, preparatory to undergoing hard things like childbirth, sickness, and death. My sister lovingly washed, massaged, and painted my grandmother’s frail feet – the feet that have carried her through 81 years of life, through seven pregnancies and births, through three missions, and to the doors of countless people whom she has served throughout her life. What I was witnessing in an ordinary living room of Orem, Utah was perhaps the most symbolic and sacred service I had seen in my life.

While Mormon women don’t currently officially participate in any rituals or ordinances preparatory to death, I can’t help but see small glimmers of the divine in the acts we perform. The vats of soup delivered to comfort my grandmother’s fevered body, the flowers to liven her home, and surely the washing and painting of her beautiful feet – all of these are sacraments to me. They are acts of love, of humility, and of service. And in something so unfortunately common as the death of a loved one, I find glimpses of sisterhood, of holiness, and of Deity.

What rituals have you participated in surrounding death and dying? What traditions have brought you peace? What space do we have in our theology for ritual in sisterhood?

Liz Johnson is a wife, mother of four, and birth doula.  She recently relocated to Central Michigan and has high hopes of finding some fellow Mormon feminists there, as well as good gardening soil.


Liz is a reader, writer, wife, mother, gardener, social worker, story collector, cookie-maker, and hug-giver.

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23 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    What a wonderful tribute to your grandmother, Liz. And I love your reflections on women’s rituals in our acts of love.

    I haven’t ever participated in any rituals of dying, or at least I didn’t notice these beautiful acts of love you mention when it was my grandparents’ time to go. But I have participated in celebrations/rituals of birth that have been meaningful for me. I’ll never forget the way my female friends welcomed my daughter into the world. We went around the circle and each woman contributed a bead that was symbolic of something meaningful to her and a poem/thought which spoke to some truth they had found helpful as they navigated their women’s lives. The beads were turned into a bracelet, and I’m going to compile all the poems and thoughts for her one day.

    This experience of welcoming my daughter into the world has solidified in me the idea that we can and should (if we feel the call) create women’s rituals that are meaningful for us. Many of my Mormon feminist friends have incorporated earth-based rituals into their lives and have found them meaningful as well.

    • liz johnson says:

      Thank you, Caroline. I love the mother’s blessings and baby showers we often do before women give birth. And I love bridal showers! I admit that this whole experience felt a bit like a “death shower,” although spread over several days. While I love funerals, sometimes I wish we had something more formal to celebrate a person’s life while they’re still with us (if death is expected soon). That’s kind of what this felt like to me.

      I’ve also heard of women celebrating menarche with their young daughters – that’s another ritual I’d love to see explored!

  2. mraynes says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Liz. I love the idea of finding ritual in the mundane. The examples you give are beautiful and profound. I will carry this with me as I serve my family and community. Thank you!

    • liz johnson says:

      Thank you! I admit that I don’t think I’ll ever take somebody a meal again without thinking about this experience. It gives a whole new meaning to sacred service.

  3. EmilyCC says:

    Lovely post, Liz! I think your family and friend have intuited the rituals of dying that so many in our culture have lost.

    When I worked in a hospital as a chaplain, I became a huge fan of reading to the dying, scriptures, favorite poems, favorite novels. We so rarely take the time to read out-loud to other adults.

    I once read a book called The Hour of Our Death, which gave a history of how our views of death and the rituals around death and grief have changed over time. I wonder what came first–our fear surrounding death or the loss of rituals to deal with it?

    • liz johnson says:

      I would LOVE to hear more about your chaplain experiences. I have a family member who’s a hospice nurse, and she refers to herself as a “death doula.” I love that idea. And I’m putting that book on my to-read list!

  4. Jamie P says:

    What a wonderful and heartfelt post documenting this blessed time with your grandmother. I am lucky that I was born into a family where strong women are celebrated and their strength and bond to each other is often evident during difficult times. My younger sister passed away one summer when I was in high school (she was also in her teens). We had some advance notice that the end was coming, and she was in a hospital several states away from our family home. I was struck that along with a few other family visitors coming to visit- my mom’s four sisters and mother came to be with her in the final days. There was much pampering- braiding of her hair, hand and foot massages, and other special treatments. This time will always stand out for me as an example of the special bond women have within a family and a really blessed time.

    • liz johnson says:

      That’s so beautiful! I really think women grow and bond so beautifully in these kinds of life-changing events. I’m so glad that you got to have that experience with her.

  5. Em says:

    I love the footwashing ritual. We did it for a young women’s activity last year. We had struggled some with the older girls and suggested the possibility to them of showing humility and love for the younger girls with the activity. At first they were resistant and uncomfortable, but it turned into a really sweet and good thing. They first read the scriptures about washing feet and then we washed feet. It was a good exercise in humility all around — it was hard for the girls being washed to accept the service and to allow someone else to serve in that way. It was actually a really great and spiritual activity. After we washed we got around to the usual business of laughing and painting nails and talking but it was a really wonderful way to teach humility and service and to grow together as sisters.

  6. spunky says:

    This is beautiful, Liz. I have also thought of the symbolic nature of having our feet washed and pampered and Christ washing the feet of His disciples. Your peaceful post also made me think of my grandmother, and the stories she told me of washing her grandmother’s feet, as she had walked in one of the pioneer companies, and her feet, from that time, fought infection and disease. Its made me long for family time, and made me smile. Thank you. It is a gift.

    • liz johnson says:

      You know, there really is something to that foot washing thing. Whether we do it person-to-person, or even as a big group getting pedicures together, there’s something bonding and symbolic about it. Thanks for sharing the story about your grandmother and her grandmother.

  7. X2 Dora says:

    In October 2012 General Conference, President Uchtdorf gave a talk on Regrets and Resolutions. He talked about a researcher exploring the biggest regrets of dying adults. Although I thought the meaning derived from the research project was important, as a pediatric ICU nurse, I think that to continue the study would have been a continuation in heartbreak. The time to ask about regrets is when people are healthy, and able to do something to change the actions they regret. When a person is nearing death, I encourage the family to talk about their favorite memories, acts of kindness performed for them, or acts of service that they themselves were glad to have participated in. If these can be recorded, in on paper, in words, in video if the person feels comfortable with it, these memories will live on and comfort those who are left behind, and serve as another legacy.

    • Ziff says:

      This makes me think of Claudia Bushman’s Claremont Mormon Women Oral History Project. I attended a panel discussion of it at Sunstone in the past few years. A couple of the panelists emphasized that this type of archiving of treasured memories is easier than ever, given how many of us have smartphones with recording apps.

      I can’t find a link to the project itself, but here’s a discussion Bushman had with Jana Riess about the project:

      • X2 Dora says:

        Yes, Caroline interviewed me for this a while ago. I think that the Mormon Women Oral History Project is an important way to document and archive the LDS female experience. I also wonder at how the answers might change if the interviews were done longitudinally, especially given all the activism currently underway.

      • Rachel says:

        X2 Dora, I have wondered about that longitudinal thing myself, because I was also interviewed, and I know that I would definitely answer some things differently if I were interviewed again. It seems like each interview is a time stamp of where the women (and Church) was then.

      • liz johnson says:

        I’ve also thought about re-interviewing people (perhaps 8-10 years after their first interview, and then again 8-10 years later, and so on) to see how opinions and thoughts have changed, and to get a better glimpse of the whole arc of a person’s experience and growth, rather than just one point. I’m hopeful the project will be able to go in that direction. 🙂

  8. Ziff says:

    This is beautiful, Liz. I don’t have anything of my own to contribute, but one of my favorite posts ever written on the Bloggernacle was on a related topic: Ardis Parshall’s “Dressing the Dead.”

    • liz johnson says:

      That was such a beautiful post. I have never dressed a deceased family member, but I look forward to participating – I think it’s a tender ritual.

      One of the best parts of visiting with my grandmother was recording her oral history. It was such a sacred experience.

    • Melody says:

      Thank you for this link. Dressing my mother for burial was profoundly healing. My younger sister did the make up. None of us trusted the mortuary to do it right. (My mother wore very little make up, if any at all.) This ritual, for many, involves temple clothes. There was something wonderful and celebratory about clothing the mortal coil in sacred ritual robes. It was an acknowledgement of the “highest and best self”. . . even in the face of dysfunction or strange relationship dynamics (which there were in our case), this ritual seemed to wash away all the garbage and for a moment it was just the essence of each individual in that room. Including the one who had passed away.

  9. Rachel says:

    Liz, this post is really beautiful. The things that you describe are sacred. I am thankful you and others have been able to rejoice and mourn with your grandma.

    • liz johnson says:

      Thank you. I am so glad that I got to rejoice and mourn with her, too, and hopefully after she passes, I’ll get to rejoice and mourn again.

  10. Melody says:

    This is beautiful. The photo moved me to tears. God bless you and your family during this time. Thank you for sharing some of yourself and your grandmother with us.

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