Death: From a Pagan Perspective
Viewing Death as Part of a Cycle
Death is such a fundamental process in nature that, without it, life could not exist. From the moment of our birth, the cells in our body are endlessly dying and being replaced. The body that dies is not the body that was born. In orer to grow, we experience many deaths. Over and over again we shed our appearance, our attitudes and our behavior as we change from one stage of our life to the next. The person that dies is only one of the people we became as we lived. As we grow toward a better unerstanding of death and life, the destinctions between the two are slowly eroding. If we are to go beyond the conventional view of death, we need to ask ourselves if our own fear of death is rooted in an outdated model of life. And we need to seek other ways in which we view both life and death. There are a few different ways to see life and death as a cyclical pattern involving necessary change.
1. The Wheel of Life: Our existance is a constant pattern of cyclical change. Life constantly changes into death and each moment of death is a moment of rebirth. We perceive beginnings and endings, but the flow of existance is never-ending.
2. The Wavicle:Quantum physics shows that at the sub-atomic level there is no distinction between matter and energy. Both have the qualities of particles and waves, giving rise to the concept of the wavicle. We are perpetual patterns of the energy of the cosmos. What we perceive to be the death of sinite individuals is simply the unending movement of the universe.
3. The Ascent of Life: Life forms have different levels of consciousness, but all of them have the potential for evolution. Human beings can manifest this potential to a very high degree. We can become aware of dimensions that transcend our limited understanding of our bodies and minds, and enter into a different experience of life and death.
Most Pagans view death as a passage rather than an ending, something to be celebrated , and not be feared or despised. Those left behind grieve for their loss but without the desperate edge often seen in the mainstream. This attitude tends to upset or frighten many people, since Modern American culture puts a great deal of energy into hiding death or not talking about it.
The dying Pagan faces the task of saying goodbye to this world and hello to the next. Ritual can serve an important role in this process, as can study or contemplation on the possibilities. If we have no curiosity about what might exist after death, we blind ourselves to what many people believe to be the next stage of our journey. Exploring death directly tends to produce a calmer more positive experience than greating death as an unfamiliar and terrifying prospect.
For friends and family, the dying process is also a journey. Their task is to support the dying person in whatever ways they can, according to the wishes of the dying person. They need to become sensitive to the needs of the ying person, and try to leave their own agendas at the door. Taking care of a dying person is a special committment with special rewards. Participating in the dying process can be awe-inspiring. There are a wide range of services for Pagans to draw on when caring for a ding person. One can be reading from a sacred text, such as The Tibetn Book of the Dead or the Book of Going Forth by Day, reading suitable poetry, or playing soothing music. Incense may also be soothing, and create a calm atmosphere. Often the dying wishes for company in thir last hours. Such a deathwatch can be solemn or festive, depending in the wishes of the ying individual. For Pagans, this sacred duty often takes on a special meaning , especially for those who serve a god or goddess associated with death. Few people in contemporary culture understand this, so try to be sensitive to their feelings without letting them ruin the occasion. As death becomes imminent, members of the deathwatch may notice signs such as changes in the dying person's behavior, a sudden wish for the ying person to reconcile and reach closure in all matters, the abrupt absense of pain, and family members become more agitated and wanting to be closer or be away from the dying person. A dying Pagan is quite likely to know when death is approaching, or to see thir messengers or guides. The best experience of death is a combination of joy and sorrow.
When we take care of the dying we may forget to take care of ourselves. But we must remember by taking showers deaily, keeping our auras clean, sleeping and eating when we are tired or hungry. Take vitamins and immune system boosters, move your body, get a massage, a haircut, a manicure or shave. Adore your body that holds itself. This is how you heal. Healing should start before the death of your loved one. Find ways to process your feelings both during and after the dying process. Talk to someone, write about your feelings, put them into artwork. If you keep things to yourself, you explode.
Making advance arrangements for your death and burial not only gives you a better chance of seeing your wishes followed, it also saves a great deal of time, money and energy. If possible, make your plans before you face a life-threatening situation. Pagans find it generally more challenging to go through this process due to the relative scarcity of experienced help and the reluctance of mainstream service providers to accomodate our needs and preferences. However, a variety of organizations offer support for the persisitent Pagan, so your quest is by no means hopeless.
Making your arrangements should include the follwing steps:
1. Consider your won needs and wishes. What motifs make you feel comfortable? Do you want to carry on a family tradition? Do you want a Priest(ess) of your own religion to stand deathwatch and/or speak at your funeral? Which songs would you like to have played/sung? Would you prefer a wake or some alternative to the funeral custom? What do you want done with your body after you have left it? How do you want your possessions distributed?
2. Consider the needs and wishes of those closest to you. What members of your birth family would feel comfortable at a Pagan funeral? Would your covenmates feel comfortable at a Christian or mixed-religious funeral? Would people feel left out if you chose not to have a public ceremony? How can you satisfy their needs for closure and remembrance?
3. Identify and memorize as much common ground as necessary. Would you like company in your last hours? Do you want flowers at your funeral or grave and if so what kinds? Are there arrangements for people to extend their condolences to your survivors, to leave offerings for the deceased, to remember you fondly to each other?
4. Research the legal and practical aspects of your plans. Fin out if what you want is possible. And id so, under what conditions and in what locations.
5. Research Pagan an contemporary sources for further ideas. Take notes when you find something you like. From your various lists of ideas, compile a plan that will meet the needs and wishes of yourself and those close to you, and which will be both legal and practical to implement.
6. Draw up and formalize the final plan. If you have not already hired a lawyer to help you with your project, doing so now might be a good idea. A lawyer can help with the necessary wording and explain what documents you need to write, fill out or file.
7. Store your original document(s) in a secure place, such as a safe-deposit box or with your lawyer. Make copies and include a set with your important household documents, such as lease/mortgage papers, insurance records. Make sure important people--the executor of your will, your Durable Power of Attorney, etc.--have copies of your papers.
You may have more options than you expect if you are willing to take the time to do some digging. You may turn up information that surprises you, provides you flexibility, and that you can use to your advantange if some people are hesitant to help you with your wishes. In securing your rights, be polite but firm. Be creative too. A green Pagan should also think twice about cremation, as burnt caskets pollute the air with many hazardous toxins. Remember that you do not have to use toxic materials. You can make or order your own coffin or shroud or decorate it as you wish, including in ritual. You can have a family member or Priest(ess) of your own tradition handle all the official details. In short, you can take control of most elements surrounding your death and the disposition of your mortal remains. If you need some help with the planning stages, you can turn to various organizations for support. Natural Death Care Project is one such organization, as is Pagan Hospice and Funeral Trust. Although some mainstream service providers may prove intractable, most will bend over backwards to help you get what you want.
Unfortunately, options for Pagan burial sites are somewhat limited. In most areas, you can arrange a burial on private property or have your ashes scattered where you wish, but most of the actual Pagan cemetery sites are still processing their paperwork. However, the Pagan Hospice and Funeral Trust includes creating a Pagan burial ground as one of their long-term goals. Mother Rest Sacred Grove, a Nest of the Church of All Worlds, intends to do this as well. As members of the Pagan community, we need to weave a safety net so that members of Earth-based religions can be assured of spiritual support, health care and sympathetic professionals, legal assistance from Pagan friendly lawyers, and appealing sacred sites in which to leave their mortal remains. When you find an organization that does this, do your part and send donations and other resource that help these organizations flourish.
Exploring How We Feel About Death
What Is Death?
Death is part of the
unending cycle of nature
Part of the immensity of
creation rather than a
mere abyss at the end of life.
Death is to be understood as
an integral part of existence
rather than shunned as a
Death is a great teacher,
offering striking insights
into life rather than a
mercilous threat to all that
we hold dear.
Death is to be faced
consciously, even embraced,
rather than avoided at all costs.
Death is to be discussed and
prepared for openly with
those we love, rather than a
social taboo to be hushed up
or hidden away.
Death, and all that surrounds
it, is a precious interval for
both the dying and the
living. It is a mystery that
We live in a society that tries very hard to defy death. Even though every person on this Earth dies, there is a socially-reinforced effort to banish this truth from our midst. The taboo is at work on many levels: the phrases we use to talk about death, the way death tend to be treated as a medical crisis, and the social pressures that aim to cover up death or suppress open discussion about it. If death is a taboo subject for us, we tend not to reach out to others and are unaware of the help we could give and receive from dying individuals. Because death is is not talked about and is handed to the professionals instead, we have been de-skilled in dealing with death. Without dealing with the dying process and without religious values that are often har to define in contemporary society, we are unprepared for the spiritual crisis of dealing with death. We are inwardly paralyzed, and although not turning away from our dying loved ones--we simply just don't know what to do.
Four or five generations ago, death was very different. The majority of people died at home, and carrying for a person during and after their death was an intimate family responsibility. Funeral and grief rituals often involved entire communities. Death was also not a stranger--the infant mortality rate was high and death was more frequent and inescapable. Now, with high-tech medical breakthroughs, we are often lead to believe we are closer to immortality, even though this will never be true. However, there seems to be a growing increase in complementary ("alternative") therapies, showing the need of people to be treated as a whole. There is also a growing attention being given to the psychological, emotional, and spiritual needs of dying people. Complementary therapies help improve the quality of life and enhance overrall well-being, as well as giving symptom relief.
Most complementary therapies have a common underlying approach. They view each person as an individual and aim to treat the whole person and not simply suppress specific symptoms. They seek internal balance and respect natural processes, including aging and dying.
These health systems respect the impact of the mind's energies on the body, hence the importance of relaxation and visualization exercises. They can also ease mental stress through bodywork such as massage and aromatherapy.
Complementary therapies are beneficial for both the dying and the caregivers. When patients turn to complemntary therapies, it is to exercise their autonomy and their feeling of control. Their experience may offer them a way to deal with their feelings as they come to terms with their death. For caregivers, particularly health care providers, it is an opportunity to use such skills as touch, caring and intensive personal treatment which may be missing in the normal clinical setting. For carers in the family, using complementary therapies such as massage may be a way of enabling them to do something in an otherwise "hopeless" situation.
Here is a basic overview of some of the therapies that may be used in helping a dying individual.
1. Herbal remedies: This is one of the oldest traditions in the world. Most herbs contain several active ingredients which work together to ensure that they can be absorbed by the body without adverse side-effects. They can be made into teas, prepared or purchased as tinctures, or added to food or drink. When properly prepared, herbal remedies are gentle, safe and effective. However, as with everything, it is a skill to prepare them, and a prfessional herbalist should be contacted for treatment recommendations.
2. Bach Flower Remedies: This is a system drawing on the energy of plants, flowers and trees and was developed in the early 20th century by Dr. Edward Bach. The tinctures form a complete and simple system that is aimed at the emotional imbalances that can lie in the root of disease and unhappiness. They are entirely safe and can be used by anyone.
3. Aromatherapy: Aromatic essences are extracted from roots, leaves, flowers or fruits and have been used since antiquity to cleanse and heal both the body and the mind. Many pharmacists and health food shops stock aromatherapy oils which can be safely messaged into the skin, used in a bath, or inhaled. Essential oils used in aromatherapy can have powerful effects in small recommended doses. Take care to avoid employing large amounts of oils.
4. Color and Sound Therapy: Both color and sound are potent forms of natural energy. Their sensitive vibrations can be used to eal with emotional difficulties and to aid in the treatment of related physical symptoms. Both color and sound are worthy of considering in creating an appropriate environment for a person's inner work at the time of death.
There are several complementary therapies dealing with bodywork that can also be used to care for the dying.
1. Massage: Therapeutic massage is one of the most powerful forms of healing known to humanity. Fundamental techniques which can releive pain may be used by carers at home or in hospitals and hospices. Massage also plays an important role in enabling people to deepen the contact they make with each other.
2. Shiatsu: Shiatsu is a Japanese word meaning "finger pressure". This treatment consists of still relaxed pressure at various points on the body. The receiver's internal energy is enhanced and rebalanced.
3. Relaxation Techniques: Many of our aches and other complaints are a direct result of stress. Natural health systems promote relaxation, with positive benefits for our joints, muscles, nervous system and internal organs. There are specific mental and physical exercises that can be learned at any age and in almost any state of health to relieve stress.
4. Energy exercises (Chi Kung): The oldest medical tradition in the world can be found in China, where great emphasis is laid on regulating the "life force" or "internal energy" of the human body. Gentle exercises, which include some that are completely stationary, are still used in Chinese hospitals today, often in the treatment of cancer or other serious illnesses. They are now being introduced in the West and can be practiced at home.