Funeral For a Name

Introduction

When I started discovering my gender identity, I made some immediate changes — asking people to use different pronouns for me, changing the way I dressed, reimagining what it meant to be myself in public and in private. These changes were mostly subtle, but they did impact the people around me. However, none of them were as dramatic or challenging as when, about six months later, I decided to change my name to River.

Many of my friends were caught off guard by the change or did not know how to talk about my name change.  Ritualizing the name change in a way that normalized the changing of names became essential to me. It took me about three months to imagine how I wanted to ritualize my name change. In his book, Transforming, Austen Hartke recommends having liturgies available for name changes as one step a congregation could take to celebrate transgender and gender expansive people. The availability of these rites allows a congregation to both state they are welcoming and to have the resources to welcome transgender people. Similarly, these rites show a transgender individual that their specific needs were considered in the ritual life of the worshipping community.[1]

Before beginning the rite, it is important to note the specific social location in which it occurred, and how it might need to be adapted for different contexts. At the time I engaged in this ritualization, I was a Christian with pagan interests, so I timed the ritual with the moon. Similarly, I come from a European background which the music and some of the word choices make clear. According to the Transgender Spirituality Pulse Survey, 8.5% of transgender people claim Wicca, paganism or Earth-based spirituality as their religious affiliation. Compared with 0.3% of the general population, the notable difference points to an opportunity for earth-based rituals for transgender people.[2] This rite was developed and used as part of my transition, and I offer it here with potential adaptations noted.[3]

Rite

Supplies: Fire, Paper/pens, a few close friends, clipboards, chairs or other arrangements for sitting.

Considerations: Perhaps choosing people who are or want to be affirming of the name change, with a mix of people who are comfortable with the new name and those who struggle with it would be beneficial, so that people are present who can support the name change if there needs to be a conflict with someone who struggles to use the changed name.


            When inviting people, have the readings selected and ask two people to read them. The person inviting may also share that the invited person will be asked to write something about who the person who is changing names was as their old name; if someone is shy or nervous, suggest that they write ahead of time.

            On a similar note, this ritual is primarily geared toward the friends who will be joining the person changing their name on this journey. Consider that the presence of the person transitioning might be helpful or harmful and make an informed decision as to their attendance. When I used this rite, I was present and served as the ritual leader.

Location: On a waning moon, near dusk, near a body of water of some kind [optional]

Words and Actions:

Begin by singing: Gathered Here.[4] Other potential options include: Dona Nobis Pacem[5] Here and throughout those arranging this commemoration have the freedom to choose other music. This paper’s suggestions are solely from personal experience with this rite, and music those in attendance knew and were able to sing acapella. Choose music which is culturally and ritually appropriate to your context.

Leader: We are gathered to remember our beloved friend {OPTIONAL old name}, who has become {new name}.

Let us take a moment for a deep breath, as we allow ourselves to mourn what was, and what could have been.

Let us take a deep breath and allow ourselves to imagine and celebrate what is and what might be.

Pause

Readings:

Select Two from: Genesis 17:1-17, Genesis 32:22-32, Matthew 16:13-22, Street Tax by Alok Vaid-Menon,[6] Acts 9:10-11, 13:9. Poems from Troubling the Line,[7] Other readings as appropriate. Pause between each reading.

Light the fire. Make sure you have enough kindling to keep the fire going for a minimum of 30 minutes, but probably not longer than an hour.

Leader: As you light the fire say these or similar words:
Spirit Renewing,
Stay here Reminding,
Flaming and Burning,
the Passing of the Past.

Let us take a deep breath as we prepare to say goodbye.

 Distribute the paper, pens,and clipboards.

You are here because {new name} knows you and wants you to be part of {Pronouns} new life. {Pronoun} invites you each to write something — a safe memory, a kind happening, maybe a short poem about their old name and who they are. We’ll take a moment to read each one before we gift them to the fires of memory.

Pause 5 to 10 minutes for writing

Note: Person being commemorated may choose to write and share something, or not. It is their decision, just as their presence is their decision.

{Name}, please share your reflections, and deposit them into the fire.

N. Reads. Deposits into the fire. Invites next person to read.

Repeat as needed.

Let us sit and wait as the fire takes our memories and transforms them to ash.

Wait until the fire goes out.

[Ending One] Let us go with our memories to sustain us, our hope for {New name} to encourage us, and our love for each other to guide us forward.

Blessed Be.

[Ending Two]

Gather some of the ashes, encourage all present to do so.

Having burned our memories of who {new name} used to be, let us take them and submerge them in the water.

Ashes are poured into the water. Perhaps pouring water into water here, both to ensure the ashes are entirely submerged, and to bring forth images of birth and baptism — which ideally would be happening in the very near future.

Let us go with our memories to sustain us, our hope for {New name} to encourage us, and our love for each other to guide us forward.

Blessed Be.

Close by singing Shalom to You, replacing Christ be your shalom with Find your own Shalom.[8] Alternately, the rite could end with Dona Nobis Pacem,[9] Shalom Havayreem.[10] or other songs within the faith tradition and comfort level of the assembly that speak to new life, creation, or sacred identity.

Theological Reflection

Clearly, from the story of this ritual, this is the ritual of a profoundly personal and also communal account of a name change. In the stories of ancestors in the faith, we find that name changes are not uncommon. In the last common ancestor of several monotheistic faith traditions, we have Abram who became Abraham when he found out that he would father a child in advanced age.  Similarly, the story of Jacob, another ancestor of several traditions wrestled with The Eternal One[11] and left with both a broken hip socket and the new name of Israel.[12]

These stories, and many more remind us that throughout the Hebrew and Christian Scripture names are changed, people change. For example, when Jacob became Israel, his body was changed. When Hagar named God, she pointed out a characteristic of God that had not been shown previously in Scripture. Even today, telling these stories helps normalize the experience of changing names, even cross-gender name changes. As Hartke acknowledges, examining biblical name changes can create normalcy around deeply personal and disruptive changes.[13]

In analyzing the ritual, we can see quickly that this is a purification/authenticity ritual rather than purely a death ritual. Purity rituals, in addition to being used to cleanse of sin are also used in some pagan traditions as a means of banishing old or negative energy.[14] Clues to this dual function include the fact that the person being “mourned” may or may not be present with the group mourning. The rite collectively releases and receives energy related to the person being commemorated. The participants become intricate actors in the rite which results in the cleansing of older memories and prepares for new ones to be formed by the collective release of written memories and their burning — releasing old and no longer needed energy and opening up space for new memories.[15] Similarly, the use of fire as an ancient symbol of purification provides further evidence that we’re not only mourning death, but rather mourning a release of something in the past.[16]

In this ritual the primary symbolic items are the fire and with the alternate ending the water. These two ritual symbols symbolize purifying fire and cooling water to recover from the purification.  In Malachi, for example, we find reference to God functioning as a refiner of fine metals.[17] How much more so is God a refiner of human life? That is, how much more active is God in the act of becoming more and more ourselves throughout a human lifespan!

This ritual, though holding a Christopagan emphasis, explains the name change using familiar Christian theological language. Similarly, the use of the moon phase, the water and fire as pagan symbols lean into the Christopagan influence. Not included, but easy adaptations in this rite could include a welcome and farewell of the six directions and a specific circle casting spell.

To the end of using Christian theological language, we are celebrating and mourning an eschatological moment where God broke through and brought about more authenticity — more of God’s reign into the here and now of life on earth. These symbols, without naming the Christian or even the Abrahamic God explicitly, provide subtle references to this mythology and theological framework in ways that are hopefully still accessible regardless of one’s faith or lack thereof.[18]

The symbolic motion of paper becoming ash also harkens back to the creation story where out of dust the human one was formed, and the story we hear every Ash Wednesday, that we are dust and to dust we shall return.[19]  In a short period, we are reenacting both the return to dust and reminding ourselves that we are more than dust, we are stories that will live on in memories. This ritual allows for easy conversion into a pagan or a Christian rite or can remain Christopagan as written; this means that the ritual community can easily adapt it to their religious and spiritual needs. Having rites that respect both the spiritual/religious needs of a community and the marking of a significant transition of one of its members is a gift to the world.[20]


[1] *Hartke, Transforming, 171.

[2] Salazar, “The Transgender Spirituality Pulse Survey [TSPS] A Qualitative & Quantitative Study,” 5, 6, 10.

[3] Salazar, 5–6.

[4] The Unitarian Universalist Association, Singing The Living Tradition (Boston MA USA: Beacon Press, 1993), 389.

[5] The Unitarian Universalist Association, 388.

[6] Alok Vaid-Menon, Femme in Public, 2017.

[7] TC Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson, eds., Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics (New York, New York, USA: Nightboat Books, 2013).

[8] The United Methodist Hymnal, Pew Edition (Nashville, Tennessee, USA: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 666.

[9] The Unitarian Universalist Association, Singing The Living Tradition, 388.

[10] The Unitarian Universalist Association, 400.

[11] The Eternal One refers to the ancient Hebrew name for God, which must never be uttered. This was chosen rather than the traditional rendering LORD due to the gender connotations of LORD.

[12] Hartke, Transforming, 75–77.

[13] Hartke, 2, 76.

[14] Lisa Chamberlain, Wicca Magic Starter Kit: Candle Magic, Crystal Magic and Herbal Magic, Kindle, Wicca Magic Start (Lisa Chamberlain, n.d.), 22.

[15] Grimes, Beginnings in Ritual Studies, 150–51.

[16] Beck and Metrick, The Art of Ritual: Creating and Performing Ceremonies for Growth and Change, loc. 1028.

[17] Malachi 3:2-3

[18] Chamberlain, Wicca For Beginners: A Guide to Wiccan Beliefs, Rituals, Magic and Witchcraft, 65–67; Beck and Metrick, The Art of Ritual: Creating and Performing Ceremonies for Growth and Change, loc. 108.

[19] Genesis 3:19

[20] Genesis 2:7-9.