How to Do a Zen Memorial Service

Altar

When I offered to perform memorial services for my friends Jeremy Feratto and Logan Lestat, I didn’t tell anyone that I’d never officiated a memorial service before. I didn’t think it was useful to needlessly undermine anyone’s confidence in my ability to make it work.

All Zen services are pretty much the same. The variations between them are minimal. Since I have officiated the morning service at Tassajara about a dozen times and officiated other services at other temples more times than I can count, I knew I could get it together.

I enlisted the help of my friends Nina and Steve. Steve has studied at Zen Mountain Monastery at Mt. Tremperer, where he has learned loads of ceremonial stuff and Nina used to sit with me in Akron and has been to our Mt. Baldy retreats. Normally you need at least one other person to do the full service, but we parsed out the jobs so as to make them work as a three-piece. You know, the way Rush could play all those overdubs from the Moving Pictures album live with just three guys. It can be done.

I brought along my fancy robes. I have three sets of Buddhist robes. I purchased my first set for my dharma transmission ceremony. Not really knowing what I was getting into, I just ordered the standard Soto-shu version in nylon instead of silk to save a bit of money. They still cost around $400. A few years later, after I’d realized those robes were beastly hot, I ordered another set of “summer robes,” which were supposed to be lighter and cooler, but in reality were pretty much the same. There went another $400.

Finally my friend Marc Rosenbush, director of the film Zen Noir, sold me one of the robes he’d commissioned for that film. He only wanted $5o. How could I refuse? Those robes are my favorite. They’re made of cotton, rather than nylon, so they’re a lot cooler to wear. Plus they’re Rinzai style robes, which means they lack the ornamental, yet highly impractical, giant sleeves of a Soto-style robe.

But I’ve been wearing those movie robes for about a year since they had their last cleaning. They rode around in my suitcase for my entire recent trip to Europe too. So their condition was less than ideal. I therefore decided I’d wear my fancy set, the first ones that I bought all those years ago, which I haven’t taken out of the closet in years. It seemed more fitting to wear the really good ones for the memorial services for friends.

The services were very different from each other. Melissa, Jeremy’s brother, wanted a very small service held in the room where Jeremy had passed away and attended by only a few relatives. That meant I had to pare my three-piece version of the ceremony down to a one-man-band version. I called up my friend Gaelyn Godwin at Houston Zen Center. She coached me through the way to do the service without any assistants.

I did Gaelyn’s version at Jeremy’s house, only tripping over my robes a couple of times. It went OK, I think. It was nice and intimate. Later on Melissa and I sat by her fire and talked about Jeremy for a while.

Ghost AlleyLogan’s memorial was a lot bigger. The venue was a place called Ghost Alley, a combination bowling alley, bar and museum on the south side of Wadsworth, Ohio, the town where Logan and I grew up. “It’s ghostly good!” says their motto. Apparently the place is haunted, but not by Logan.

A lot of Logan’s friends from the old punk rock scene and his relatives turned up, including a number of people I hadn’t seen in years, who I barely recognized. Logan’s brother is a biker guy with a mohawk. He brought along some of his friends. So the place was filled with black leather jackets. This was not a Tassajara-type crowd!

The good news was that these folks wouldn’t notice if I goofed up the ceremony. The bad news was I wouldn’t be able to count on them joining in with the chanting and thus drowning out any mistakes I might make – something I’ve always depended on at places like Tassajara.

We improvised an altar by finding an old wooden desk in a back room, which looked a lot nicer than the folding card table we initially thought we’d have to use. We placed a photo of Logan inside a butsudan, which is a kind of cabinet-like thingy that usually houses photos of deceased relatives in Japanese homes. Folks from the Nichiren sect also use them to enshrine copies of the Lotus Sutra. The one Steve kindly provided was one of theirs, a light weight plastic model rather than the usual wooden kind. It looked nice, though. I bought the same kind of butsudan to house pictures of my mom at my dad’s house after she died.

AltarFoodWe placed some of Logan’s favorite food items on the altar, like you do. In this case we had some coconut water, a lollipop (he sucked on them when he was trying to quit smoking) and a tin of Devil Girl Hot Kisses. For Jeremy’s we had a bar of fancy chocolate and some blackberries. In Japan I’ve seen such diverse items as bottles of sake and packs of cigarettes on altars, so this wasn’t as weird as you might think.

Under the altar, Logan’s best friend Mark placed a copy of the Knack’s debut album Get the Knack. Apparently one time Mark confessed to Logan that he liked the Knack. Thereafter, every time Mark had a birthday or any other occasion where presents were given, Logan went out to a thrift shop and bought copies of Get the Knack to give him. Sometimes he’d wrap up four or five of them. Mark ended up with a couple dozen copies of the record. He even got it on 8-track one time. Mark had that 8-track autographed by the band during one of their reunion shows in the early nineties.

We put the other standard items on the altar; candles, flowers, a holder for the incense offerings. Then we performed the ceremony.

We chanted the Heart Sutra and a poem called En Mei Jukku Kannon Gyo, which is an homage to the spirit of compassion in the form of the bodhisattva Kwan Yin (aka Kannon, aka Avalokiteshvara). Steve read a dedication verse. Rather than simply dedicating the service to Logan’s usual name, Logan Lestat, I canvassed his friends for all of Logan’s various nicknames and listed them all. The best one, The Muffinator, got a good laugh from the crowd. I always think it’s important to get at least one laugh at a funeral or memorial service.

After the service was done, friends and family members gave short eulogies. I was especially moved by Logan’s mom telling the story of how Logan had approached her when he decided to change his name from his given one of Patrick Cleckner. He had her read the books Logan’s Run and The Vampire Lestat so she’d understand his choice. Dave Materna read a poem he’d composed for the occasion. Logan’s brother said a few words. It was good.

After that we all chowed down on the potluck food people had brought. I loaded up on too much chips and hummus. Lots of people came up to tell me how moving it had been.

So next time you have to officiate a memorial for a friend, don’t stress out. Just put something appropriate together and run with it.

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There is still plenty of time to sign up for our  Three-Day Zazen and Yoga Retreat Dec. 5-7, 2014 at Mt. Baldy (near Los Angeles, CA)

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Donations will be spent on veggie sausage and hot pretzels at Frankford Hall.

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10 Responses

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  1. Fred
    Fred November 17, 2014 at 8:46 am |

    This Dave Materna?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAclu-1UxO4

    Lets hear his poem.

  2. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer November 17, 2014 at 11:41 am |

    Brad, it looks like you did a good job with the service.

    I hope you weren’t too wrapped up with the memorial ceremony and actually had some time to experience the event.

    Cheers.

  3. buzzard30
    buzzard30 November 17, 2014 at 1:26 pm |

    I t was good of Dave to offer a poem. Usually the officiant has one that his attendant hands off to him in some precise manner akin to a card trick but this was a great gift. Safe trip out of CAK tonight.

  4. dangergirl56
    dangergirl56 November 17, 2014 at 5:14 pm |

    The Devilgirl Hot Kisses were not really about the candy. It was all about the tin. Something I gave to him long ago, before we were married.

    You did a great job Brad, you really did. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  5. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon November 17, 2014 at 5:26 pm |

    Does Brad have the authority to perform marriage ceremonies?
    http://news.yahoo.com/ap-exclusive-charles-manson-gets-marriage-license-215524033.html

    1. mb
      mb November 17, 2014 at 6:16 pm |

      “Manson can have a wedding at the prison and invite an officiant from outside the prison to perform the ceremony.”

  6. Mumbles
    Mumbles November 18, 2014 at 3:53 pm |

    Good job, Brad. Since 1988 I have officiated at three non-denominational weddings (well, one was kind of pseudo-Wiccan) and one funeral. The funeral was pretty cool, the old guy had been a motorcycle racer in his youth, so on the “altar ” beside me up in front was a b/w pic of him speeding around a track in his youth/hey day. It rained so we had to have the service inside a mausoleum at the cemetery, and the audience consisted of some family but the crowd mainly consisted of denizens of the bars around town that the deceased frequented on a regular -daily/nightly-basis. One of the barflies was a former student of mine back when I’d taught Art History at the local college, and he really really wanted me to joint the whole crew down at the bar that morning to send their dead pal off in high style so to speak. But, alas, my ride showed up and I didn’t make it to the wake.

  7. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote November 22, 2014 at 11:21 am |

    “got the keys and gave them to the chosen son
    got the keys and gave them to the wrong one.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2bMVMjOMRkU&feature=youtu.be

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