a remembering ritual in the prison

It’s been a tough year in the prison this year – a few deaths, lots of grief, and it’s continuing on…

I’ve been asked to do a ritual on Christmas morning for all the men in the unit, to remember the people from the unit who have died. This is the current draft. It will change after I go in tonight, and it will change again on Christmas morning. Christmas is such a weird day in the prison, and it’s impossible to tell whether the men will be wanting to celebrate or feeling like shit. The mood can be helped by the special breakfast – the prison version of bacon and egg McMuffins [a true christmas highlight]… though the anticipation of a 5pm lockdown can make it a pretty lonely day as well.

anyway… this is what i’ve written:

Despite all our attempts to believe otherwise,
death reminds us
that we are human
that this is our one life

Today we’re going to have some words
and some silence
it’s not religious, it’s just a place for all of us to remember those who have died here,
to remember that they – like every person here – matters.

There’ll also be some silence and an opportunity to light a candle
or to pray to remember those we love outside of this place who have died, or who we’re separated from today.

Let’s begin by being silent for a moment.

Today we remember those who have been part of this unit
who have died while here.

Whether we loved them, or couldn’t stand them
even if we did not know them
we remember that we were here together
that we share so much in common:

not just this place
and what it’s like to live here
but what it is to be human:
to fear
to know hope
to love
to have dreams
to imagine a better life
to feel desperate
and desolate,
lonely and happy

And if these men wondered
like so many of us do
if they would be remembered
or if anybody would care that they had gone
today we do.

We remember them.

If we knew them, we remember how they pissed us off
and made us laugh
we remember the things that were unique about them

And in the act of remembering
we let go of the things we wish they hadn’t done or said
and the things we wish we hadn’t done or said to them


Today many people celebrate Christmas
and in here that means something very different to the rest of the world
but Christmas isn’t always about joy and being with the people you love
it’s about peace being born in the most unlikely, impossible places.

so today
as we wish our lives and the world were different
let yourself be open to the possibility of peace
even here
and even now.

We have candles here.
if you’d like, you can come and light one

and when you’re ready, feel free to leave.


  1. Karlie

    Cheryl, your courage and sensitivity in attempting to hold things together where their tension is most fragile, as grief and wonder pull away from each other and stretch it so thin….inspires me. Thank you.

  2. Jim

    Cheryl, thanks for this site. I just got linked to it from a friend. Have spent a wonderful half hour surfing your courageous writing. I am also a prison chaplain and so happy to have found something that fits my soul, has edge and risk and poetic grace and is not the usual cookie cutter theology that so many have been eating as their steady diet.

    I’ll send you stuff if you want it.

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