by Bo Young
Author's note: A sacred and potent ceremony is described in the following piece. This ceremony is, in fact, the absolute property of the people of the Cosalish nation. The ceremonialist mentioned herein has the specific permission of the holder of this tradition among the Cosalish to perform this ceremony and the writer has the permission to write about it. No one should attempt to perform this ceremony in whole or in part without such express permission.
I recently attended a ceremony for the dead, a custom of the northwest Cosalish Indian nation, called a Burning. This lovely ritual is a meal served to the dead.
We gathered in a woods just north of New York City, in the town of Sleepy Hollow (coincidentally a village of legend associated with death) in a small clearing where a blanket had been laid out. On this blanket were plates filled with lovely food: roast beef, green beans, lyonnaise potatoes, cookies, fresh fruit; the food, that the spirits we were feeding that day would have served at a dinner party in their homes, in their lives.
Alongside were various glasses filled with cocktails, water and coffee for the guests. There were even after dinner cigarettes provided for those who had smoked.
Nearby was what the ceremonialist who was presiding called a "rack" or a mesa, in fact a table upon which the spirit dinner was soon set, complete with flowers and name tags and put to flame. Places were set for my friend's mother, father, her daughter's grandparents, family long-dead, for the children, a plate for the forgotten ones and finally for the spirits of the land upon which we stood.
Once lit, the fire devoured the meal as we watched in a trance. My friend's mother's spirit plate sat untouched until all the other flickering guests had eaten theirs, though her vodka cup seemed to be delicately sipped by the flames.
It has been said that staring into a campfire produces Alpha brain waves within 20 seconds. Between the rustling of the leaves and the licking of the tongues of flame I could almost make out the warm buzz of a dinner party where guests have been served a fine dinner and their conversation blends with the music of stemware and silver and china. Strawberries boiled into blood red pools and flowers turned to bone white ash. As the last plate was consumed, cloth napkins were offered to the glowing guests.
Soon the feast was over, a charred pile was all that was left. Another small fire had been built alongside the first rack. A "Y" stick held a cross stick over a tipi fire. MotherÕs favorite picnic outfit, some nice cotton pants in a blue check and a light blue blouse, along with a wide-brimmed straw hat with a blue ribbon tied around its crown were lovingly placed on the pyre, along with a blanket to keep her warm. These too were taken into the Spirit world by the licking fire.
Too often death is treated like an ending, of life, of a relationship. What touched me most about this simple meal was how it extended our connection to our dead relations. And too often we think of death as something that happens to other people. Nevertheless, along with our humanity, it is the one thing we all have in common. Like love, death is a primal thing that evokes a sense of magic and transcendence in humankind, a sense we often feel compelled to try to describe with words.
In this issue, we offer more than the usual amount of poetry we have published in recent times. In this time of death and grieving (of life and living? If life well-lived is about balance, then the balance of life is death) we have the balm of poetry to soothe an anguished and longing heart. We have communion that makes the eyes clear and heart rise on warm drafts of language polished to glow like embers.
Poetry then, is offered as a burning in our hearts. As a meal of metaphor and meaning, here is a repast offered to those who have crossed over before us and as a flickering light to illuminate the road that lies ahead of us all.