Looking for a creative way to honor a loved one at a memorial service? Making “prayer flags” is a simple and powerful way to engage family and friends when you gather together. It’s an opportunity to send your love on the wind and celebrate the cycle of life.
When I visited the east coast last fall, the prayer flags created to celebrate my life-partner Kate were still blowing in the breeze on her family’s land. They blended beautifully with the colors of the natural world – with the white birch bark, the orange and yellow autumn foliage, and the slow-turning green leaves of summer. (See the fall photo at the end of the article).
One of the highlights for me of the memorial celebrations in both California and Vermont was these homemade “prayer flags” with personal messages from those who had been touched by Kate’s life. Because I’ve enjoyed these flags so much, I wanted to share with you what’s needed to create your own prayer flags in memory of someone you love.
I hope the following suggestions and photos offer you or your friends and family an easy step-by-step guide to create prayer flags of your own.
What are prayer flags?
You can call the prayer flags anything you’d like, such as “gratitude flags” or “message flags” or “blessing flags.” Whatever may resonate for you and the person you are honoring.
The idea of “prayer flags” is borrowed from a Tibetan tradition of hanging small colorful flags mostly in the Himalayas (esp. Nepal). For over 2,000 years, this has been a way to send prayers of peace, compassion and strength out into the world as the wind blows the messages through the air. The prayers, mantras and symbols written on the flags are intended to benefit and bless all beings.
When a handful of us were talking about Kate’s service, our dear friends Bayla and Raven suggested the idea of prayer flags based on experiencing them at a local Peace Garden we all enjoyed. The best part is that they then made this idea happen! (I’m so grateful for their support. Many people commented on how touched they were to participate in creating the project).
Traditional prayer flags are in specific colors, each one representing the five elements of sky/space, air/wind, fire, water and earth. I happened to have a set of Kate’s childhood sheets, soft and faded but still vibrant with her favorite combination of colors – bright yellow, orange, spring green and white. Since they had a large abstract pattern, they worked perfectly without being too busy when people wrote their messages on them.
We used the prayer flags to express our wishes for Kate and to offer gratitude and love for her journey and for her influence on ours. Bayla and Raven made a sign encouraging people to share whatever they were moved to: a word, a blessing, a thought, a message, a memory, a drawing or a symbol.
As Bayla shared with me, she loved that people could write a little or a lot as they’re moved to, and it “allows people a range of how to express themselves.” She mentioned that the prayer flags are both very personal and part of a collective project, which is quite touching.
I was super grateful to Bayla and Raven for taking the time to get together everything that was needed before the memorial services. If you are the main person organizing a gathering, I encourage you to see if anyone else is interested in doing these steps so that you have more time for the other arrangements. It’s a nice way for other people to help out and be involved.
How to create the prayer flags
As I mentioned, I gave Bayla and Raven a colorful childhood sheet set that had been Kate’s. But you can use any fabric or sheets. You can even use white since people can add color with the markers.
Bayla and Raven cut the twin flat and fitted sheets into roughly 2 inch by 18 inch (2” x 18”) strips. Actually, they didn’t even need scissors once they got started and were able to rip the material with the weave. These twin sheets and some pillow cases yielded over 300 strips to use!
Because they knew the flags would hang outside in the Northeast, with rain and snow and wind, they found a synthetic twine to endure these more rugged weather conditions. But you can use cotton rope or whatever you’d like, depending on your vision for how long the flags will fly, or for your aesthetic preferences.
- Fabric or sheets
- Colorful permanent markers
- Twine or rope
- A sign to post at the “prayer flag station” at the gathering
- Something under the flags because the markers may bleed through (poster board or thick material)
- Table for the “prayer flag station” and a few chairs
Tips for the gathering:
- Hang the rope at the gathering with some sample flags already tied to it.
- When you announce the activity at the memorial, encourage people to leave a few inches or so blank on one end of their flag because that end will be tied onto the rope.
- Give people instructions at the end of the service to create their flags and tie them onto the rope. Having people tie their own flags onto the rope can be a powerful part of the process.
- Have enough room for multiple people to sit down at the table at once. If you can, having at least 4 to 6 chairs with be helpful since several people will want to participate immediately after the service.
One of the nice things about the prayer flags is that people who couldn’t attend the memorial celebrations could still participate. Some of Kate’s flags were made at family holiday gatherings and an open house. The flags are very portable this way! If there are groups of people who live farther away and cannot attend the memorial celebration, you can mail them a bunch of flags and some markers, and then simply add their contribution to the beautiful string of love.
What we did with the prayer flags
After the flags were added at the California and Vermont memorial celebrations, I had a gathering at my house in which friends and I sat in a circle and took time to look at and read the prayer flags. It was the first time I actually looked at each one as we passed the rope around the circle.
I loved experiencing each flag before the string of them all were hung on the trees at Kate’s family’s land in Canada where we had a ceremony the following summer. The flags are still flying there today, some faded, but nonetheless conveying the messages that connected us all to what Kate meant to us.
Our intention was to eventually hang the flags where they can experience the wind. When creating the project, I encourage you to have the intention of hanging them outside somewhere among the trees. It’s okay if the writing fades away from the sunshine and rain. That is meant to happen – the prayers of the flag become a permanent part of the universe as they are exposed to the elements of nature.
In the Tibetan tradition, old prayer flags are burned rather than simply discarded. You can decide what to do with your flags over time, but I suggest treating them as any sacred object.
As one website about prayer flags eloquently put it: “Prayer flags are gentle reminders, bringing us back to our essence and helping us to open our hearts and minds.” In this way, Kate’s prayer flags have been gentle reminders of her essence, connecting us all to our hearts and to her presence.
I hope sharing this process will be supportive to you and those you love. May we celebrate those who have returned to sprit in heartfelt, colorful and life-affirming ways.
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