The hereafter

June 11th, 2008

I won’t die.
I won’t go anywhere.
I’ll always be here.
But don’t ask me any questions.
I won’t answer.

– The Death Poem of Ikkyu

I’ve been keeping up the memorials this week, lighting incense and saying chants, which are like prayers. You might wonder why. At the bottom of things, “why” is the only question we ever ask.


Some people are drawn to the spirituality of things, the sentiment, but are not so comfortable with the ceremony, which they don’t understand. I tell people that no one understands ceremony. Not understanding is the ultimate understanding.

Although we might be averse to religious things, to what we see as pomp and posturing and mumbo jumbo, we use ceremony all day long in our everyday activities to keep things sane. We get out of bed in the morning, we eat our breakfast, we brush our teeth, we put one shoe on and then the other. These things are ceremony? You might scoff. But consider how the orderly sequencing of activities dignifies and sustains our lives, keeping us healthy and whole.

And so in our tradition we have ceremony to enliven and activate our intentions. When we remember, we don’t just remember with a thought, that triggers another thought, and another, and back into the shadowy depths of inexpressible despair, we remember with an action. Stepping forward. Lighting incense. Reciting chants and names. The place where we take action – right here – is the place that real transformation occurs. The magic is right in front of us, not in our imaginations.

So I counsel you, if you have someone to remember, if you have grief to bear, express it in ceremony. Mark your calendar and do it – light incense or a candle, say a verse or prayer – without ever knowing why. It is the least that you can do, and it is the very most.

Several years ago, my mother died on April 13.

A year after her death, I showed up one Saturday around April 13 at my Zen Center. A fellow priest came up to me without prompting and said, “Would you like to do a memorial service for your mom?”

I was surprised that he remembered the date. “How did you know?” I responded.

He said, “I’ve been doing services for her all along.”

This is how doing the least thing becomes doing the most. Isn’t it amazing?

We just keep going.

All this week, and on the first Sunday of every month to come, I’ll be memorializing lost children and unborn babies in services in my garden. To include the name of a child, just leave a comment. All names and sentiments will be recited. Children from any faith tradition are lovingly included. And I thank you.


  1. I’ve been silently appreciating this series. These kinds of memorials are a beautiful way of helping this suffering world, so thank you for doing them.

    The first Zen retreat I went on, we did a 49-day ceremony for the mother of a man who had helped our Zen center. The man wasn’t Buddhist & neither was his mother, but the ceremony was something we could do, so we did it.

    I’ll always remember the incredulous words of thanks the man shared afterward. Even though he didn’t really “believe in” the chants we’d done, it blew him away that “perfect strangers” would arrange this big, loud, and physically cathartic ceremony with incense, chanting, and lots of percussion. (Picture 30-some people chanting and beating pots & pans to cheer the deceased onto her journey: something like no funeral ceremony I’d ever seen.)

    It also blew me away that I was there, as a Christian who didn’t even know this man, pouring my entire soul into chanting words I didn’t even believe at the time because it was the right thing to do. It’s an experience I’ll probably always remember: a huge lesson in “just doing it.”

    Comment by Lorianne — June 11, 2008 @ 5:51 pm

  2. “It is the least that you can do, and it is the very most.” I will take this with me, thank you!

    Comment by Catherine — June 11, 2008 @ 6:20 pm

  3. I’m crying. Thank you.
    Please remember Nancy Grace.

    Comment by Honey — June 11, 2008 @ 8:05 pm

  4. “I’ve been doing services for her all along”. That was the most beautiful thing I’ve read all week. I am about t re-read a big Zen book in my bookshelf thanks to your inspiring posts. I wish you many blessings in the work you do for others.Thank you.

    Comment by Pam — June 11, 2008 @ 8:47 pm

  5. Since we are all children of someone, can we offer the name of someone who is an adult now? Actually, the person I’m thinking of is not only adult but also alive, but has just received news that she may have a recurrence of breast cancer (within a year of her last treatment at age 39).

    Comment by kathryn — June 11, 2008 @ 10:59 pm

  6. Sometimes ceremony is the only thing that keeps us sane.

    Comment by Mama Zen — June 12, 2008 @ 12:22 am

  7. I am not clear as to what you/buddhism thinks of abortion but…I think of these 2 so often, seeing the continuance of spirit in my little one.

    Comment by Anonymous — June 12, 2008 @ 1:01 am

  8. On Halloween–because I like the idea of a veil between worlds not the horror nonsense–I take pictures of those in the family who have gone and I make an altar and I cook a special meal (then again, me cooking at all is fairly remarkable). Keeps us all connected. Thats a ceremony to me.

    Comment by marta — June 12, 2008 @ 1:17 am

  9. Thank you. I read this several days ago and have carried it in my heart until I felt ready to speak my babies’ names out loud. Thank you for being open to loving them — they really were lovely.

    Ian Williams, Simon Lucht, Gordon Porter, and little unnamed one

    Comment by Jenell — June 12, 2008 @ 2:06 am

  10. Kathryn,
    Tell me the name of your friend because I say a separate service for sick and suffering.

    Anon, as for the means, the how, the why, the when of miscarriage or death, we neither ask nor judge.

    On the Japanese Buddhist calendar we do the same. It is called Obon. Here at my temple we like to celebrate it along with Day of the Dead. Isn’t it interesting that no matter what we believe, we humans have common spiritual instincts?

    Comment by Karen — June 12, 2008 @ 3:06 am

  11. A few months ago, I started printing some of these posts. To keep them and keep reading them. I printed this one too.

    Thank you.


    Comment by Anonymous — June 12, 2008 @ 1:38 pm

  12. Weleetka OK. Taylor Dawn Paschal-Placker, 13, and Skyla Jade Whitaker, 11, were found shot to death Sunday in Okfuskee County near their homes. No arrests have been made.

    This really has affected me- we think of this type of “drive by” in the inner cities, but it can happen on a quiet country road to two girls on a walk……

    Please say prayers for the family and community…

    Thank you

    Comment by Anonymous — June 13, 2008 @ 11:11 am

  13. for Nayelis who had too much trauma entering this world and left it again a week later…

    thank you for remembering.

    Comment by Anonymous — June 13, 2008 @ 3:22 pm

  14. For Brandon Borchert, because today is your birthday. It’s possible that I didn’t really discover this site by accident. Not quite what I would choose, but you would have found solace in these pages. You may have succeeded in removing yourself from this world, but you will never completely disappear as long as some of us have a say in the matter. And may your dear, sweet mother experience peace from these prayers, as well. All of us hope you have found whatever It is you could not find here. We hope that you are no longer lost. Or that you are at least closer to finding It and know some comfort in being near. I miss you my friend.

    Comment by — June 13, 2008 @ 7:10 pm

  15. oi ve. i dont’ think i’m quite there yet karen.

    closest to ‘memorial’ i get is to my therapists office.

    and i thought they said time heals wounds.

    beautiful post.

    Comment by Stella — June 14, 2008 @ 1:41 pm

  16. beautiful post, I’m going to continue to read.

    My nephew died in May 2007, he was only 14 months old. we released balloons at his funeral and did the same thing just a couple weeks ago, we plan on doing it every year.

    Comment by Anonymous — June 14, 2008 @ 6:14 pm

  17. My friend, it turns out, does not have a reoccurrence of cancer. I am grateful.

    However, I am sick through and through upon hearing about an unidentified toddler who was beaten and stomped to death yesterday on a country road in Turlock County (California Central Valley). Bystanders and witnesses attempted to stop the man but with no success. Police also tried, but in the end he was shot to death by the police. I think to myself, “How could several adults fail to get the child pulled away from the man or subdue him? How can this BE?” The poor child was beaten so badly that police are not certain of his identity yet. I do not know how to bear the news — right now I am numb. Would you please include this child in your service?

    Comment by Kathryn — June 16, 2008 @ 4:16 pm

  18. Please remember these little ones for us.
    The Bean
    Godzilla D
    circle dot

    I know the names are silly, but they represent our hope. I thank you for this, and for your site, and for sharing your wisdom.

    Comment by Domesticrazy — June 16, 2008 @ 7:47 pm

  19. Hi… name is Tiffany. You don’t know me but I have to confess that I’ve “peeped” at your blog for awhile now following along with your life. I really enjoy your writing and appreciate the love for your family. I’ve blogged for about a year now and have enjoyed reading what others write. I love how women have bonded together and shared stories and comments. I would love to do that with others! How did you get people to recognize your site and share in your experiences? I feel like I write some great things and would love to share with other women as well. Thank you for giving me a glimpse into your world even though you don’t know me. I’ve enjoyed it, and have been inspired by your writing….You are an amazing woman.


    Comment by Tiffany — June 17, 2008 @ 12:27 am

  20. Karen,
    Thank-you for doing this.
    It is all we can do, it is everything.
    The least we can do, the most we can do.
    And I feel comforted knowing you are doing this, there.
    It feels like safe harbor to me.
    As for ceremony, yes, it is glue.
    And you have gently reminded me, again, that I need such honoring, intentional ceremony in my life.
    So thank-you for this too.
    At your next service please remember:

    Comment by bella — June 18, 2008 @ 12:33 am

  21. I am the mother who Karen described in her first post on this subject – it was my son who died, who we memorialized with a Jizo ceremony in her garden. I’m touched that she mentioned it here, and that so many of you responded with the names of your little ones. It is comforting to know that we’re not alone in our sorrow. Thank you. Jen

    Comment by Jennifer Olson — June 19, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

  22. After reading this post, I had to release a breath of trying not to think I’m silly.

    I’ve volunteerd in a children’s cancer ward for 3 years. With some children you ‘connect’ more than with others, and those that you ‘connect’ to become like your own children. In one week, 5 of my children left the earth…

    They are:

    Natasha (17 years old)
    Lisa (4 years old)
    Stefan (4 years old)
    Jaco (12 years old)
    Hybrie (11 years old)

    The breath was a release to know that someone else is also having ceremonies for them. I’ve been honoring and celebrating them through my life… and knowing that you do this in your garden… gives me a sense of relieve…

    thank you Karen… thank you xx

    Comment by pERiWinKle — June 25, 2008 @ 5:16 pm

  23. Pretty post, Maezen.

    Comment by DQ's Windmill — July 4, 2008 @ 6:17 pm

  24. tears flow abundantly … then i got up and got my toe caught under the dishwasher … physical pain! and my little ones saying äre you okay mom?”…. called to the present:)

    please celebrate
    our cutie-pie, gone this april
    our fleeting soul who left this august

    and for my special friend s,
    a baby, gone long before i knew her
    a small soul, who left us in april

    thank you for this and the reminder of the wonders of ceremony

    Comment by helen — December 14, 2008 @ 7:31 pm

  25. oh, please, when you do a ceremony for the sick and suffering, could you include Tara, our friend dealing with colorectal cancer. we love her and honour her!

    thank you so much

    Comment by helen — December 14, 2008 @ 7:33 pm

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