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Chapter 11

Death



What happens when a Pagan dies? We have been so identified with the material and so attached to the Earth. Now what?

Pagans believe in a spiritual aspect of the person, a soul or a spirit. Their beliefs about what this is exactly differ, but they mostly agree on its existence. And while it is obviously connected to and affected by a material body, it survives that material body's demise.

Where does it go? Most Pagans would agree that it goes to another world, variously called the Summerland, Tir na nOg, the Land of Faerie, the Land of Yemos, or simply the Otherworld. The image most often employed is of a water or air journey, either to the north, the direction of greatest darkness, or to the west, where the sun dies his daily death. The soul goes to be rested and refreshed, to relax from this world's trials and assimilate this world's lessons. It may stay in this land for a long or a short time, and the Summerland's time may run at a different speed than ours anyway.

Many Pagans believe that when ready, the soul is reborn into this world. This is our world: we live within it, die within it, we return to it. There may be another world between our lives, but we return to live again. After life a death, and after death a life. Most Pagans who believe in reincarnation would agree that we are reborn into a human body, though some accept the possibility of animal rebirth.

There are two theories of how the circumstances of rebirth are determined. One is that the soul itself decides, based on what it feels it most needs to continue its advancement towards godhood. The more common belief is that one's actions in this life determine the circumstances of the next life, that cause and effect operate across the borders of death. Pagans have borrowed the Hindu word "karma" to express this. By a soul's karma it is returned to enter a body, at conception (say those who believe human life starts then) or later (say those who don't).

It is possible that we are reborn elsewhere, on other physical planets or other spiritual planes. As a Pagan, though, I am most likely to be reborn on this world, my beloved Earth. Where does a Pagan go when he dies? There is really no need for him to go anywhere.

Sometimes a soul does not accept its death, does not even believe it has died. This is most common with sudden deaths. Then instead of being able to relax in the Otherworld, the soul tries to come back. In short, it becomes a ghost. Dealing with such ghosts consists mainly of convincing them of their death. One of the purposes of Pagan death customs (wake, funeral, commemoration, and Samhain) is to acknowledge the death and thereby convince the dead person of it.

That there are apparently conflicting beliefs regarding death is natural. For instance, the Romans, while believing that the dead had gone to another world, still performed rituals that implied that the dead lived on in the tomb. This phenomenon is not limited to ancient times. I once heard the Christian parents of a murdered man say they were going to the cemetery to tell their son the news that his murderer had been convicted. Reincarnation, the Summerland, grave rituals, ancestor rites -- these are all aspects of the complicated pattern of Paganism. They help both the living and the dead, and that is enough to justify them.

Paganism does not have the same kind of comforting words as some other religions. We cannot tell ourselves that our loved ones are now living forever in a better place, or that we will see them again when we ourselves die.

We have our own ways of comfort. We have experienced death and rebirth many times. We have followed the seasons, watching life return in the Spring. We have faced death at Samhain, welcoming our ancestors and honoring death itself.

Death and rebirth, survival after death and return, are not just beliefs to us. We know them like we know our own height. They are part of our lives; not something to be thought of at funerals, but guides for everyday living.

We belong to this world, and we will return here. We belong to our loved ones, and we will return with them. This is how Pagans comfort each other in the face of loss, with the ease born of familiarity and the knowledge born of experience.

Wake


"Wake" means "watch." It came from the custom of watching over a dead person. This may have had the mundane purpose of protecting him from robbers or other predators, but it is more likely to have been to protect him from bad spirits or to prevent his spirit from bothering the living.

The way the wake has evolved in our country is for family and friends to gather in a room in a funeral home. The dead person (called "the deceased") is there in his coffin (called a "casket"). People stand around wondering what they're supposed to do. At some point there is a prayer service. Finally everyone talks to each other about anything, as long as it has nothing to do with the business at hand. The whole event seems orchestrated for the purpose of denying that a death has occurred.

This way of holding a wake is not all bad. It reminds us that even in the midst of death life goes on. It emphasizes the ties of family and friends in a time of crisis. But it leaves out what should be an important part of the event. Before we can reassure ourselves that life goes on, we need first to recognize that someone has died and then remember that person.

A funeral should be formal and ritualistic. Formality is very comforting. When everything is falling apart a structure is welcome. No one in the midst of grief should be expected to organize a ritual or develop meaningful ways of expressing their grief. I recommend that all Pagans write or adopt a funeral ritual during their lifetime and make sure it is in the hands of a friend who can make sure it is performed upon their death. Remember that there may be legal requirements to this, and consult with a lawyer to make sure there are ways to ensure that your wishes will be honored.

The wake should be less formal. Different people have different needs, and those who need an informal gathering should be given one. Remember, too, that a person's death affects those who are outside of the Pagan community. It is common for a funeral to be limited to those very close to the dead person, but for a wake to be attended by a large number of acquaintances, including co-workers and sometimes even friends of friends. These people need to grieve in their own way. Schedule time for both the usual mingling and a remembrance service.

The wake as Americans know it is not held in all cultures. In England, for example, the viewing of the body is not held. Some people think the viewing is macabre, while others find in it a way of convincing themselves that their friend is really dead. A wake can be held with the casket open, or the casket closed, or no casket at all. None of this is essentially Pagan, although the visible presence of the corpse is indicative of the easy relationship with death and the world cultivated by Pagans. If the casket is not there, a picture of the dead person should be used as the focal point for the wake. However, there must be no attempt to deny the fact of death. One of the purposes of the wake and the funeral is to start the process of accepting loss.

Since a death affects an entire family it will naturally affect the children of the family. They should take part in the wake and the funeral to the extent that they wish to. If they do not feel up to participating, that is fine. If they want to take part, however, they should not be prevented. It is a sign of maturity to do so; by taking part in such events they are entering into the responsibilities of life, one of which is an acknowledgement of death, and since they will only have this chance to attend, they may regret it later if they didn't.

If possible, hold the wake in the home of the deceased. The household guardians and the spirits of the ancestors will be able to take part more easily if the ritual is on their home turf. From a practical point of view, this will preclude problems with what you choose to do, as well as conveying a message that death is a part of normal life, not something to be quarantined.

If it is not possible to have the wake at home, make sure that what will be done is possible in the funeral home. The further in advance that arrangements can be made, the better. If the director is concerned that noises will disturb other wakes, perhaps a non-conflicting time or another funeral home can be found.

Ritual:

After sufficient time has passed to allow for informal socializing, the person who is presiding calls for attention, with a drum or bells. He then says:

We are here to remember one of us who has died.
Everyone is part of many communities
and those of [name] are here today.
It is time to remember [name].
When the talking stick reaches you, tell us about [name].
Speak from your heart of what you most know.
If you do not wish to speak, pass the stick on.
There is no shame in not speaking,
only in not remembering.

Pass a talking stick. This is a short stick, decorated if you wish, that is passed from hand to hand. The holder of the stick speaks of the dead for as long as she wishes, trying always to speak from the heart. When they are finished, they pass it to the next person. While the stick is in someone's possession, they may not be interrupted.

When the stick reaches the presiding official again, he says:

We have gathered and we have remembered.
We have done the right thing.
It is good.

The others say:

It is good.

The presiding official then puts the stick on or in the coffin and says:

Our thoughts go with you.
We will remember.

He then thanks everyone for coming and invites them to stay for a while. This will be a good time for more socializing or more ritual, as may seem right. If it is possible, there may be drumming.

Funeral


There is no obviously Pagan way to dispose of a dead person. Pagans have practiced cremation, burial, and exposure. Their dead have been laid to rest in stone tombs, the earth, ponds, and pyramids. Bodies have been left permanently interred, rearranged after the flesh has rotted, and removed to make room for new bodies. Any way a body can be disposed of, Pagans have done. We cannot look strictly to our past for guidance. Instead we must ask ourselves how a Pagan's body should be disposed of today.

The two choices for disposal of remains in our culture are burial and cremation. Neither are particularly acceptable from an environmental point of view. The way bodies are usually buried prevents them from returning to the soil and the intense heat used in crematoria (supplied by polluting sources) leaves very little that the earth can use. Perhaps someday Pagans will have cemeteries where the dead can be buried with minimum packaging, allowing a true return to the soil.

In the meantime we still have to do something. Both ways have a long history of Pagan use behind them, but there is nothing particularly Pagan or non-Pagan about either of them. It comes down to personal choice, then.

In any case, a Pagan will want to rest gently in the Earth, and not make his death one more scar upon her lovely face. No large memorial, no bronze casket, preferably no embalming. At best, just a body, with such ritual tools and personal items that should belong to no one else. Second best, a wooden box that will soon return the body's elements to the soil. And if he is cremated, then the ashes should be returned to the earth from which they came.

Two rituals are given here, one for those whose path is Wicca, and one for those who practice shamanism. Because of its elaborate symbolism, the first is best for a funeral attended mostly by Pagans.

Ritual 1:

This is a descent with the dead to the Land of the Dead, with a final farewell there and an affirmation of rebirth. This is followed by a return to the world of the living. The Land of the Dead is conceived of here as a shadow realm, in many ways a mirror image of this world. Thus the dark clothing and white faces and doing everything counter-clockwise. This is not to say, of course, that the Otherworld is a depressing place. The entry of the living in this rite, however, is only into its outer region, its vestibule, and that is indeed a forbidding place, especially for the living.

This is a formal, highly ritualistic event. That is good for impressing on all that a death has occurred and that they are dealing with it. If a mourner has experienced the same form of funeral numerous times, they have the added advantage of not having to think too much at a difficult time. They can run on automatic, as it were.

The ritual is performed at the cemetery or crematorium. The grave should be laid out so that the foot end is in the north or west, if possible. At the head end of the grave put two chairs on either side of a table. On the table put a knife, a cup of water, a plate with three apple seeds, and a bowl of ocher or other red powder. If the dead person had ancestral symbols in his shrine, place them on or behind the table. Put a bowl of white powder (chalk or flour) at the edge of the sacred space, next to a large bowl or bottle of water, a towel, and a plate with bread or crackers on it.

Before the body is brought to the cemetery or crematorium the Priest and Priestess go there and create sacred space. They will need an assistant who will serve as Guide of Souls. He will also hand required objects to the participants of the ritual. For the actual creating of sacred space they do everything counter-clockwise, the direction of death and dissolution). They wear black robes. They call on the Gods and Goddesses of death. The Priestess says:

Come, Dark Mother, come to us,
Out of the night on owl's wings.
Come, by the screeching wind.
Come, by the cleansing fire.
Come, by the absorbing water.
Come, by the restful earth.
Come, by the Spirit that waits.
Come to Your people.
Be with us now.

The Priest says:

We call upon the Horned One,
The Stern Lord of the Land of Death.
Come, by the whirlwind.
Come, by the force of fire.
Come, by the receiving sea.
Come, by the accepting earth.
Come, by the Spirit that waits.
Come to Your people.
Be with us now.

They then sit in silence while the assistant goes and summons the others. Either the priest or the priestess may start a slow drumbeat to call the dead person home.

The others are also dressed in black or other dark colors. When they are brought to the place they come counter-clockwise and in a spiral if possible.

The nearest relative (or friend if she has no relatives) of the opposite sex to the deceased has a cord tied around his wrist, with the other end tied to the coffin.

When they reach the edge of the sacred place the assistant says:

We are at the edge of the Land of Death.
Will you go on?

The relative says:

We will go on, with steadfast hearts.

The others say:

We will go on.

As the people cross the border into the sacred space, the assistant whitens their faces. With a large number of people, there may need to be more than one person doing this, or the whitening can be reduced to a line across the forehead. Unless there is an exceptional amount of room the coffin will have to be brought to its place by the shortest route, but the others are brought in a counter-clockwise spiral towards the center. As they go, the assistant says:

We spiral down into the center.
We have left the land of the living behind.

A journey of seven circuits will bring to mind the ancient Mediterranean belief of the journey of the soul through the seven planets. If there isn't enough room for seven, try to make three, to bring to mind the sacredness of that number, number of the moon's phases and the sacred number of the Indo-Europeans. When everyone has stopped, the body is placed next to or over the grave. If there has been drumming, it stops. The relative is given a knife by the Priest and he cuts the cord, saying:

Everything changes
Everything passes.
Go, friend, on your journey.
We have come this far in love
but we can no longer walk with you.
Change may not be undone;
that which passes, passes away.
Go, now, to the Land of the Gods,
the Summerland, the Land of Apples,
there to rest and be refreshed.
But when you are ready, and reborn on the earth,
may it be in the same time and the same place as your loved ones
that we may meet, and know, and remember, and love again.

(From "may it be" to the end is from the Gardnerian Book of Shadows.)

If the relative is unable to say this, perfectly understandable under the circumstances, it may be said by the Priest or Priestess, whichever is the same sex as the relative. The Priestess then takes the ocher from the table and uses it to draw a sacred sign that meant much to the deceased (a pentagram, Thor's hammer, circle, etc.) on her forehead, saying:

Receive rebirth from my hand
when it is time, when it is time.

The relative says:

Go now, marked with the sign of life,
on the way that has been taken by so many before you.

The cord is put in the coffin and the coffin is closed. If it is to be buried, the coffin is lowered into the ground while the High Priestess says:

We commit (here all the names by which she was known, to include nicknames and craft names) to your care.
Love her, cherish her, feed her,
Let her grow
until she is ready for rebirth.

If the relative is a woman she now pours water on the coffin. If not, another woman will be chosen to do it. She will say:

The sea is the womb
from which we sprang
and which absorbs us again in the end.

A man (the relative if a man or someone else if not) drops three apple seeds onto the coffin. He says:

The seed goes into the darkness
and from it comes new life.

If the deceased is to be cremated, this is the point where it will be done and where "We commit etc." will be said.

If the deceased is being buried, the close relatives and friends help fill in the grave. It need not all be done now, but each person should put in at least one handful of dirt. Although painful, this is a healing act, providing one last gift for their loved one while at the same time impressing on them the finality of their loss.

When this is done, the Priest says:

She is with the ancestors now,
in the Land of Youth.

The Priestess says:

This very moment, even as we stand here in the Land of Death,
new life is being born.
Perhaps even our friend is ready to be reborn.
Out there, in the world you live in, life goes on.
Life is good.
Blessed be life!

All say:

Blessed be life!

They then spiral out again, clockwise this time. It is important that they turn the same number of times they did coming in. As they leave the circle the assistant or others wipe away the white from their faces. When they are all out they turn to face the center once more. The relative or someone else says:

You have gone to be with the Ancestors and we will remember you.

All:

We will remember you.

Relative:

On the day of remembering and all the days between

All: We will remember you.

Relative:

When the ocean brings us words and the wind whispers its messages

All: We will remember you.

Relative:

At the rising of the moon, at the coming of the sun

All: We will remember you.

Relative: In the lives we live and the ways we go

All: We will remember you.

Relative:

Have no doubt
Feel no fears

All: We will remember you.

Everyone is given something to eat from the plate of bread or crackers, to mark the return to the land of the living. They then go to change their clothes before gathering somewhere to eat and drink and talk. After the others have left, the Priest and Priestess recast the sacred space, this time clockwise before saying farewell to the Gods and banishing it.

Ritual 2:

This is performed at the grave site, or at the spot where the ashes will be disposed of. A pile of stones is next to the grave. One will be needed for each person there. Depending on cemetery requirements, these can be small or large. If the cemetery won't allow stones at all, perhaps they will allow pegs that can be pushed into the ground. If even pegs are unacceptable, a container of birdseed from which each person can take a handful may be used. There are drums for those who will wish them. The dead person's drum is put into the grave by his nearest relative so that the coffin will be on top of it. In this way, the dead person might ride his drum to the land of the Gods. The coffin is lowered and the hole partially filled. There is slow drumming while this is done.

The drumming continues while whoever is presiding says:

Our friend is dead.
He is gone.
Our friend has set sail.
He is on his way.
Go, with our blessings.
Our drums fill your sails and speed you home
to the Summerland, the Land of Apples.
Go, and rest.
And when rested, return.
Be reborn among friends.
Be reborn among your people.
The nearest relative then throws some apple seeds into the grave. Each person then picks up a marker (stone, peg, or handful of birdseed) and lays it down around the grave so that together they form the shape of a ship. This is also the shape of a vagina. Thus the ship that carries the dead person away is also the path through which he will be reborn.

The people can lay the stones down in silence or say a goodbye as they do so. It must be understood by all that the choice of silence or words is theirs. If they would like to say something, but don't know what, they can say:

One last thing I do for you as you go on your way.

or simply

Goodbye.

When all the markers are placed, the person presiding says:

Goodbye, goodbye.
Go on your way.
You go your way, and we go ours.
We will remember you.

The others repeat "We will remember you," and then they leave the cemetery without looking back.

After either ritual everyone goes to someone's house to socialize further. The living have their own needs.

If you have a stove with a pilot light, it would be in keeping with tradition to put it out before leaving home (remember to shut off the gas!) Then relight it when you return after the funeral.

Be sure to call out the deceased's name at the next Samhain.

Commemoration


There is a custom among some peoples, particularly well-known among Jews, of commemorating the anniversary of a relative's death. The Yiddish for it is "Yahrzeit," the "Year-time." It fulfills several functions. One of the more important is to allow for a socially sanctioned time of mourning that has a distinct end. Although mourning is a personal thing and the necessary length varies from person to person, sometimes people feel guilty about stopping it. An official day on which it is OK to stop is a great help to such people.

Among Pagans, commemorations are frequently held a year and a day after the event. This allows for a whole year before starting a new phase. The commemoration therefore acknowledges that a period of change is over and a new one is beginning.
At the beginning of the commemoration, light a candle which will burn for the whole period (Yahrzeit candles, candles in a jar which burn for a long time, can be found in many grocery stores), while saying:

You are with us now.
We have not forgotten you.
The day is spent in fasting, meditation, and remembering. Friends may wish to stop by and remember with the close relatives. At the very end of the day, visit the cemetery. Perform the acts of remembrance performed at Samhain and leave without looking back.

Alternatively, if people consider that their mourning has reached an appropriate point by the Samhain after the funeral, these observances could be held then. Whenever they are held, though, make sure you remember your relative at Samhain. It is especially important to call out their name at the first Samhain after death. Remember them.