Religious Holidays

Finding the energy of our dead during the holiday season

Get ready for a new age-y and weird thought that isn’t nearly as new age-y and weird as it sounds.

The energy of our dead surround us in everything we do, especially during the holidays.

I know, whenever we talk about “energy” it’s super ambiguous and unquantifiable, and it sounds like something a Californian yogi (who lived in Tibet for a season and has a  Reiki session every Wednesday night) would say over a vegan dinner (and no shade towards vegans, yogis, reiki practitioners, or Californians, because I’m practically a vegan, who’s married to a Californian, has a basic yoga practice, and would love to try Reiki).

When you make a holiday recipe that was given to you by your late grandmother, that’s the energy of your dead.

When you decorate with Christmas ornaments that are family heirlooms, that’s the energy of the dead.

When your family gets together for a holiday dinner, THAT is the energy of the dead because each of you are there, each of you exists because you’ve been carried there by your ancestors.

It’s natural to think that the energy of our dead only dwells at funerals and cemeteries, but I’d like to think their energy is particularly strong right now . . . during the holiday season.  It’s in your cookies, your traditions, your decorations, the side dishes, the love, the giving, the hugs . . . it’s in the season, surrounding us.

As the holiday season kicks off, here’s a friendly reminder that the energy of our dead isn’t isolated to funerals and cemeteries, but it’s here, now, during this season.  Look for it.  Embrace it.

Good Irish Funeral Music: “Danny Boy” Revisited

Today’s guest post is written by NYC Funeral Director Amy Cunningham:

It seems fitting to reveal on Saint Patrick’s Day that the most common Google query that reliably draws readers to “The Inspired Funeral” day after day, week after week, is “Irish Funeral Music.” The last Irish funeral music post I wrote, garnered me tens-of-thousands of page views. Either the Irish are needing to know what is traditional or new to their own funerals, or those who aren’t Irish want to convey an Irish vibe to the festivities.

So lately, in my effort to be of sound funeral planning assistance, I’ve been fixated on how to make “Danny Boy,” the most famous of all Irish funeral ballads, new again. Can the beloved, seasoned, ever-so-classic-you-can’t-believe-they’re-trotting-it-out-again ballad be even more heart warming than it already is? Yes, it’s terrific–a total knock-out, in fact– sung in the classic mode by a male tenor, but here are some ideas you might consider when confronted with a funeral where “Danny Boy” is requested.

1. READ THE LYRICS AS STRAIGHT TEXT. DON’T HAVE IT SUNG AT ALL . Just read all four stanzas aloud from a podium, and grope for your handkerchief. Read it as a poem, aloud right now, and realize that by the time most singers get to the best, most moving lines, we listeners have been lulled into a sad, sweet snooze. (Take note, in stanza three: an “Ave” means “a prayer.”)

th-23Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side
The summer’s gone, and all the flowers are dying
‘Tis you, ’tis you must go and I must bide.

But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow
‘Tis I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so.

And if you come, when all the flowers are dying
And I am dead, as dead I well may be
You’ll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an “Ave” there for me.

And I shall hear, tho’ soft you tread above me
And all my dreams will warm and sweeter be
If you’ll not fail to tell me that you love me
I’ll simply sleep in peace until you come to me.

2. HAVE IT PLAYED WITHOUT THE LYRICS AS AN INSTRUMENTAL ON A SLIGHTLY UNUSUAL INSTRUMENT. Here’s a super great “Danny Boy,” totally right for a funeral, on church pipe organ and solo trumpet. Here’s Eric Clapton playing it on guitar with characteristic emotion, and not singing a word. And if you’re bleary-eyed from too much funeral planning and need a little chuckle, here’s “Danny Boy” played as an instrumental, down in the NYC subway system, on a saw.

3. JETTISON THE MALE IRISH TENOR. Women have been singing “Danny Boy” beautifully since soprano Elsie Griffin belted it out at the turn of the century. My personal favorite female-rendered “Danny Boy” is Sinead O’Connor’s, recorded in such a way that you could quickly improve any “Danny Boy” funeral by cuing it from an iPhone into Bose speakers. Nice save. And don’t neglect the grandchildren! They can sing “Danny Boy” at a grandfather’s funeral, and rock the house (though funeral music should generally not be a performance).

This idea might not be everyone’s pint of tea (or Guinness), but imagine “Danny Boy” played on sprightly banjo, after all concluding remarks and benedictions, as people are warmly greeting each other, hugging, finding their coats, blowing their noses, and remarking what a good funeral it was (Irish or not). Moral: it’s okay for a funeral to leave people uplifted in the vast majority of instances, grateful that the deceased were with us for as long as they were, and happier themselves–goddamnit– to still be alive, resolved to make good use of whatever time is left.


About the author: Amy Cunningham is a New York City funeral director and funeral celebrant especially passionate about getting families back involved in more personalized planning. She lectures on back-to-basics funeral planning and the greening of the industry. In her prior life she was a magazine journalist who wrote for Parenting, More, Glamour, and the Washington Post magazine. She is an active member of the National Home Funeral Association and ICCFA. 

She writes a blog called

The Vulnerability of God

The Vulnerable God

William Placher writes,

Love involves a willingness to put oneself at risk, and God is in fact vulnerable in love, vulnerable even to great suffering.  God’s self-revelation is Jesus Christ, and, as readers encounter him in the biblical stories, he wanders with nowhere to lay his head, washes the feet of his disciples like a servant, and suffers and dies on a cross — condemned by the authorities of his time, undergoing great pain, “despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity”

This week we reflect on the pinnacle of the vulnerably of God … the death of Jesus.

Pulled Into the Narrative of Suffering
In Matthew 20: 20 – 23, the mother of disciples James and John asks Jesus this question, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”

Jesus’ response turns the whole conversation on it’s head.  James and John’s mother assumes that Jesus is coming into Jerusalem to set up his Kingdom, whereby Jesus will claim the thrown of David and push the Romans and their rule out of the land of Israel.

The disciples see Jesus’ entering Jerusalem as a power play and they want a piece of the power.

It was evident that James and John, their mother and the disciples had yet to understand the nature of the Kingdom: freedom, vulnerability, love and often suffering.

Jesus responds, “You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”  In the Old Testament “the cup” was a metaphor for suffering … the very opposite of power.  In fact, power is the human response to suffering.  Power is the human response to vulnerability.  Suffering is the divine response to vulnerability.

Jesus then states, “You will indeed drink from my cup ….”

And although they didn’t understand it, the disciples eventually would understand the brokenness of God over the world.  They would eventually re-narrate the vulnerability of God in their own suffering … a re-narration that God invites all of his followers to embrace. As we’ve prayed so often, “Lord, break my heart with the things that break yours.”

Simon of Cyrene


Perhaps that re-narration is nowhere more visually clear than in Simon of Cyrene.  It seems that Simon is actually forced into helping Jesus carry the cross to Golgotha.  Mel Gibson portrayed Simon in “The Passion of the Christ” as being unwilling to carry the cross.

And I think most of us respond in the same way.  When God asks us to help him carry his burdens and we realize that his burdens are the weak, the poor and the sinful, we all turn our heads in disgust.

“You mean you’re calling me to weakness?”, we ask.   “I thought you saved me in order to give me strength?” we snark.

And we find ourselves like Simon of Cyrene being forced to carry a cross that isn’t ours.

“But, you’re God … why can’t you carry this on your own?” we retort.  ”Aren’t you all-powerful?  Aren’t you the one who created the world?”

The truth sets in.

God  needs  our  help.


Some final thoughts from William Placher,

If God becomes human in just this way, moreover, then that tells us something about how we might seek our own fullest humanity — not in quests of power and wealth and fame but in service, solidarity with the despised and rejected, and the willingness to be vulnerable in love.

We become human when we become Simon of Cyrene and embrace the vulnerability of God by carrying his cross with Him.

Holy Week Reflections on God’s Broken Heart

Floyd McClung had just finished teaching at a YWAM (Youth With A Mission) school, which involved speaking, personal ministry and personal counseling—18 hour days.  Physically and spiritually exhausted, and simply “tired of people,” McClung boarded his plane back to his home in Amsterdam where he encounter the last thing he wanted—a needy, drunk man wanting his attention:

After a few minutes his head came around the corner. “Whatcha reading?” he asked as he peered over my shoulder.  “My Bible,” I replied a bit impatiently.  Couldn’t he see I wanted to be alone?  I settled back in my seat, but a few minutes later the same pair of eyes were again looking over the top of my seat. “What kind of work do you do?” he asked.

Not wanting to get involved in a long conversation, I decided to make my answer brief.  “A kind of social work,” I said, hoping he wouldn’t be interested.  It bothered me a little that I was verging on not telling the truth, but I dared not tell him I was involved in helping needy people in the inner city of Amsterdam.  That would be sure to provoke more questions.

“Mind if I sit by you?” he asked as he stepped over my crossed legs.  He seemed to be oblivious to my efforts to avoid talking to him.  He turned to face me and he reeked of alcohol.  He spat as he spoke, sending a fine spray over my face.

I was deeply irritated by this man’s obnoxiousness.  Couldn’t he see I wanted to be alone?  All my plans for a quiet morning were destroyed by his insensitivity. “Oh God,” I groaned inwardly, “please help me.” The conversation moved slowly at first.  I answered a few questions about our work in Amsterdam, and began to wonder why this man wanted so desperately to talk to someone.  As the conversation unfolded it dawned on me that perhaps I was the one who was being insensitive.

“My wife was like you,” he said after a while.  “She prayed with our children, sang to them and took them to church.  In fact,” he said slowly, his eyes misting over, “she was the only real friend I ever had.”

“Had?” I asked.  “Why are you referring to her in that way?”

“She’s gone.” By this time the tears were beginning to trickle down his cheeks.  “She died three months ago giving birth to our fifth child. Why?” he gasped, “Why did your caring God take my wife away?  She was so good.  Why not me?  Why her?  And now the government says I’m not fit to care for my own children, and they’re gone too!”

I reached out and took his hand and we wept together.  How selfish, how insensitive I had been.  I had only been thinking of my need for a little rest when someone like this man desperately needed a friend.  He filled in the rest of the story for me.  After his wife died, a government appointed social worker recommended that the children be cared for by the state.  He was so overwhelmed by grief that he couldn’t work, so he also lost his job.  In just a few weeks he had lost everything, his wife, his children and his work.  It was December so he had decided to leave; he couldn’t bear the thought of being at home alone for Christmas without his wife or children, and he was literally trying to drown his sorrows in alcohol.

He was almost too bitter to be comforted.  He had grown up with four different step-fathers and he never knew his real dad.  All of them were hard men.  When I mentioned God he reacted bitterly.  “God?” he said.  “I think if there is a God he must be a cruel monster!  Why did your loving God do this to me?

As I flew on the airplane with that wounded, hurt man, I was reminded again that many people in our world have no understanding of a loving God – a God who is a loving Father.  To speak of a loving God, a God who is a Father, only evokes pain for them.  And anger.  To speak of the father heart of God to these people, without empathizing with their pain, verges on cruelty.  The only way I could be a friend to that man, on the trip from Oslo to Amsterdam, was to be God’s love to him.  I didn’t try to give pat answers.  There were none.  I just let him be angry and then poured some oil on his wounds.  He wanted to believe in God, but deep inside his sense of justice had been violated.  He needed someone to say that it was okay for him to be angry too.  By the time I had listened and cared and wept with him, he was ready to hear me say that God was more hurt than he was by what had happened to his wife and family.

No one had ever told him that God has a broken heart. (8)

From “The Father Heart of God

What does a broken hearted God imply?

It implies that God is not the victimizer… He’s not the master puppeteer behind this world of evil, but rather that HE HATES EVIL!

His grief reveals that God doesn’t have control over evil, for, if God controlled the evil, why would He grieve Himself?

God’s broken heart attests to his innocence, justice, hate of sin and effort to do everything in His power to stop sin.  God is not the one inflicting suffering, He is the ultimate one who sufferers!  Recognizing this alone has often staved my heart from losing faith in the goodness of God.

And maybe the cross is the pinnacle of that suffering.  A suffering so intense that His body was unable to handle the grief and he died, not from the wounds of the body, but the wounds of the heart (more thoughts on this tomorrow).

Fighting the Unrest of Grief During the Holidays

Holidays can underscore everything that is wonderful in life.  Especially in America, where life is so busy, where there’s rarely time off from the grind, holidays allow us a chance to be human, to enjoy our relationships … to enjoy our family and friends.

For many, it’s a time when we come home.  Maybe our jobs have taken us away from our extended families, or our wanderlust has created a land distance between the place we grew up and the place we’ve planted ourselves.

Holidays allow us to touch … again.  Touch, hug, and kiss our parents.  Embrace our brothers … tightly hug our sisters.  It fills what Facebook and Skype can’t provide.

But the same thing that underscores life also underscores what’s missing.

Parents, who only a couple years past were welcoming you home for the holidays with their embrace, their holiday feast, are now gone.  Siblings, spouses, maybe even children … people who were mainstays in our lives … are no longer there to share in the life of Christmas morning, of New Year feasts, of presents.

And what is meant for rest … what is meant for life … becomes a time that creates unrest as it all accentuates what’s missing … or rather who’s missing … from the family table, from the celebrations.  The busyness of work, of kids, of our schedules comes to a screeching halt during the holidays and all of a sudden we have time to remember.

We remember the holidays past.  The joy.  The hugs.  The love.  The life that is now missing.  And all the grief that we thought was over all comes flooding back into our hearts and our minds.


If that’s you.  If you’re the person who will be met with the unrest of death during this holiday season, I want to ask you to do something.

When you’re with your family and friends this season, take time to remember your loved one who has recently passed away.  Before the meal, or during the game, speak up and share something like this, “Hey guys, I just want to say that I love you all and I really miss ______ this year.”  That’s it.  Or, if you want to go on, share your favorite holiday memory of your loved one.

And if you haven’t lost a loved one recently, I encourage you to love EXTRA HARD this holiday season.  Live!  Hug!  Speak your love over your family and friends!  And when the festivities are done and they’re leaving to go home, make sure you tell them that you love them.

If you really want to be an angel this holiday, visit or call or send a card to someone you know who has recently lost.  A simple “I’m thinking about you this holiday” goes a very, very long way.

And one final thing – and this comes from the authority that only funeral director possesses – if you’re at odds with a family member or a friend, no matter how ugly the dispute or no matter how hurt your pride, life is simply too short to hold a grudge.  Give your family, your friends and yourself the greatest gift you could possibly give this Christmas – a gift that reflects the real reason of Christmas – and forgive.

I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas!  I love you all.

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