Cradles and Coffins

A number of years ago, a colleague, Barbara Child, described a service that the congregation she was serving did for the first service of the year. She was new to this congregation, and it was clear that they expected her to continue the tradition (you know how important those church traditions can be!) All they gave her was the name of it – something about a “Coffin and Cradle” service – and that it generally had something to do with burying the old and birthing the new. So, armed with these bare facts, she took it from there.

The congregation’s secretary provided an old cradle in which she had been rocked as a baby and which she was about to use for her second child. Rev. Child recalled having seen a rough plank coffin in a neighboring front yard on Halloween. She admitted it felt just a little odd, knocking on the neighbor’s door in late December and asking, “Pardon me, but may I borrow your coffin?” (Once she explained her intent, however, they were happy to oblige!)

With these simple props, she led the congregation in a service in which they honored both what they wished to bury from the past and what they wished to “birth,” or bring into being, in the coming year.

The date of January 1st is artificial and arbitrary as a beginning, but there’s still something about the start of January that lends itself to a special consciousness of saying goodbye to what has been and greeting what is yet to come. January is named for the Roman god Janus, who was a gate-keeper with two faces – to enable him to simultaneously look backward and forward.

During the “Coffin and Cradle” service, members of the congregation were invited to come forward and place either objects or written messages into the coffin for things they wanted to let go of and into the cradle, for their hopes of what would come to be in the coming year.

There is power in ritual, in taking symbolic action. And we are free to create rituals that have meaning for us. Sometimes we make written lists of “resolutions” for the coming year. For a few of us, that actually works! But, if you’d like to try something a little different this year, here’s one idea that comes out of the “Coffin and Cradle” concept which you could easily adapt at home. As you reflect over the past year and your hopes for the future, you might try recording your thoughts on two pieces of paper, in words or in pictures. On one, you could make a large outline of a coffin. On the other, a large outline of a cradle. Within each outline, then, you could list or depict what you want to bury and what you want to give birth to. You might take two boxes, one to symbolize the coffin and the other to symbolize the cradle, and place each list in the appropriate place. But before you do so, you might try saying out loud what each list contains. Speaking our intentions can make them more real.

The coffin serves as a way to help us personally bury whatever we are ready to bury and need to bury to get on with our lives. And the cradle serves to help us – not to make resolutions that we will most likely not keep – but instead, to help us envision what we’d like to give birth to in ourselves in this coming year.

The coffin gives us an opportunity to let go of the past, to “dismantle sorrow while keeping the best of what was,” as Rev. Child puts it. It’s a chance to cast off old skins, to move out of a place where we have been stuck. To shed a dream that was not destined to come true. To drop a souvenir that is too heavy to keep carrying. To break a tie that binds too tightly. To acknowledge an ending that has already happened.

The cradle is a chance to welcome the future. To take one small action to start the process of manifesting your hopes. To begin to realize the potential you have recognized, even dimly, within yourself. A chance to move toward growth, to where the channels of your life are leading. To give yourself the courage to follow where the spirit and your inner wisdom lead you. To invite something new to begin in you.

I wish all of you a Happy New Year. May your “coffins” be at peace, and your “cradles” rock with new life.