There is something incredibly primal about a lit flame in the darkness.
Flame has been ceremoniously valued by man since we started rubbing sticks together and drawing on cave walls. The drawings were clearly lacking on light from an art history perspective but none the less.
We light candles at church, on birthday cakes, around the bath tub and at dinner parties. We use candle light to create a mood and set the scene. We pass the flame during silent night at Christmas eve church service and light a candle for each night of the Hanukah and other religious and cultural ceremonies. We light candles at baptisms, weddings and birthdays. One of our most impressive displays is when we all light our phones at concerts. That is an amazing moment to be part of- even if it takes half the song to find the zippo ap in the dark, then finally figure out how to light it only by shaking your phone in frustration. On a larger scale we send off fireworks at celebrations and float burning lanterns over the water or into the atmosphere.
So why this deep connection with the flame?
Well at concerts, it's just cool. It's awesome to participate in making a moment light up the night and burn in our memories. At that moment we're all one tribe, singing one song, at one place- all at once. Do you ever feel that way with a group of people during the day. In the checkout at the grocery store for example or shuffling through through the security gates entering a baseball game? Not exactly a tribal moments. No fire.
The lighting of candles on birthday cakes is said to date back to the ancient greeks who made round cakes to symbolize the moon honoring the moon goddess Artemis. Lighting candles on the cake made it glow like the moon and the smoke when extinguished carried wishes and prayers to the gods. Supposedly the ancient Germans also have something to do with it by making bread-like cakes to celebrate children's birthdays. Eventually they added sugar, made them taste good and called it Geburtstagorten. How we went from the goddess Artemis to my last birthday cake that almost burned the house down is anyone's guess.
At Christmas Eve church service, passing the flame is meant to represent the the spreading of the light of the world meaning; God, the birth of Jesus, the Holy Spirit- from one person to the next. I remember being a young child and the excitement and anticipation of lighting my candle, lighting the candle to my left and then getting to hold that hot piece of pyromania for at least one whole song in a public place. So much for not playing with matches. Seems that all of childhood's rules go out the door at church. Once I became a parent of two small boys, being surrounded by flammable polyester Christmas sweaters took all my attention away from the bright light of the holy spirit, holding my breath until that moment of sweet relief when we got to blow them out. Getting out of there without a smoke alarm going off always felt like the true gift of Christmas.
In Judaism, the lighting of the menorah is meant to symbolize the idea of universal enlightenment and the seven days of creation. One candle is lit, each of seven days (or eight days for the Modern Hanukah tradition) by the central taller candle representing the light of god.
Catholics light votive candles (votive from the Latin word for vow) in order to symbolize a prayer on behalf of themselves or another person. My Aunt Andrea went to church every day for years after my father disappeared and lit a candle for him. I myself am not Catholic so this has always seemed like a mysterious and intriguing tradition.
At weddings, we take the flame from two candles and together light one. Pretty self explanatory. Unless you get married on the Chesapeake bay between two hurricanes like I did. Then there are no candles because there's no way in hell they would stay lit. The exception are the bumpy glass, heavy bottom, stinky citronella ones you break out at dusk to fend off the uninvited mosquitos.
In many religions lighting a candle is meant to punctuate the power of a request, intention, wish, hope or prayer raising it to god with the flame. There is a special candle reserved for baptisms (the Paschal candle, blessed on Easter Sunday symbolizing the light of god in the world conquering evil) that is meant to shine the light of god on the child and protect them from evil and the darkness of the world.
Speaking of darkness in the world, have you ever heard of the Zozobra festival in Santa Fe, NM. Also known as Old Man Gloom, Zozobra is a 50-foot tall man constructed of fabric and wood that looks like a puppet. He represents darkness, unhappiness, gloom and despair. The townspeople build him, wait for his spirit to come into the looming figure and then they set him ablaze with torches. He eventually burns to the ground amidst celebration, chanting and song. It is said that if you write a wish on a piece of paper and throw it on the fire, that your wish will come true. I met a family who had lost their cat three years prior to attending the festival. One of the children, unbeknownst to the family, wrote that they wished their cat would be found. When they returned home from NM there was a voicemail on their answering machine that their cat had been scanned and identified by a vet's office over three hours away from their home. Up to you what you believe but I'm making a trip to NM. Friday Aug 31st 2018 is the 94th annual Zozobra in Santa Fe, NM.
Asian cultures, specifically the Chinese started lighting red hanging lanterns in the new year as an activity for children. Toro Nagashi is the Japanese ritual of sending square lanterns floating down a river on the final evening of the Bon Festival with the intention of helping to guide souls of the departed to the spirit world. They believe that people come from water so this ritual represents their bodies returning to the sea. Sky lanterns or sky candles originated in Asia also and are used to punctuate festivals and celebrations. They may have wishes written on them or they may just be decorative. In Thailand thousands of paper lanterns are released into the air at the Yi Peng Floating Lantern Festival. It looks like an amazing site to behold. There are several start ups in the US that are holding sky lantern events to sold out crowds. Check out The Lantern Fest, Nov 5th (Note- Sky lanterns can be a fire/environmental hazard and are in banned in several states as well as several countries).
If you've ever been to a hot yoga class, the best ones are where the instructor dims the lights and places lit candles around the room (usually the fake candles with the battery powered flame) and then you sweat your butt off while thinking about chakras and not throwing your back out. I must say, it's awesome and somehow transcendent.
So with all these great reasons we light candles, lanterns, 50-foot tall men, why then is it not common practice to light candles at funeral ceremonies or celebrations of life.
If there was ever a ceremonial moment to commit to flame, it seems to me that the passing of a life is the mother of all events to light a candle for. The lighting of the candle can symbolize the eternal flame of god, the spirit of the person, or our love for the person. Each family member lighting their own candle and pledging their love to the person who has passed can be a deep moment of connection in an otherwise disconnected time. Then just as ceremoniously as watching the lit flames throughout the service; while the person is prayed for, celebrated, cry'd over, and grieved for; each person then walks up and extinguishes their candle, allowing the smoke to rise with all their intentions and messages. Or, leaving with the candle still lit and allowing the flame of that life to continue to burn as if for eternity.
Now that is a powerful use of a candle, a flame and a human. Funerals have lost much of their ceremony. This in my opinion is why so many people feel like they can just "do" funerals on their own. Sadly these gatherings often don't accomplish the cathartic closure most people need in the sending off of a loved one.
If we do it at concerts to create a moment, why not simply take inspiration from that. Lets use symbolism, the power of people gathered together with one purpose and the power of flame to put a little of the ceremony back into funerals.
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