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Death And Funeral Rituals

Death is not a purely individual act, any more than life is. Like every great milestone in life, death is celebrated by a ceremony that is always more or less solemn and whose purpose is to express the individual's solidarity with his family and community.
The three most important moments of this ceremony are the dying man's acceptance of his active role, the scene of the farewells, and the scene of mourning. The rites in the bedroom or those of the oldest liturgy express the conviction the life a man is not an individual destiny but a link in an unbroken chain, the biological continuation of a family or a line that begins with Adam and includes the whole human race. (Aries, 603)
Personal responses to one's own or another's death provide an intimate look into one's deeply held belief system. While it is relatively easy to maintain a non-traditional view of death and dying when not faced with the actuality of death, how one reacts when death touches oneself or a beloved friend or family member is a better measure of beliefs. Although few of our Internet correspondents had an occasion to participate in such an event (several mentioned they had not yet had a significant person in their life die) one example was provided. How this correspondent choose to participate in the death of a friend provides an example of how the beliefs reviewed above can provide help in the dying process.
A second example shows how a mother using these beliefs devised a ritual to help her mourn her miscarried child. After reviewing these two very private responses to death and dying we will end this section by exploring the obituaries published in Circle Network News for a view of the public face of grieving.
Kubler-Ross talks about the stages of dying. As the patient resolves the various issues involved in his condition he begins to occupy himself with his future transition. (Ross, 87-88) She provides examples of the techniques she and her students used to help the dying through these various stages. The only ritual for the dying posted to the Internet was for friend dying of AIDS. Before he had been diagnosed he had asked our correspondent to be his "teacher and priestess." (onca, 10/15/93) Almost a year later he asked her "as his priestess" (onca, 10/15/93) to "help him die." Rather than taking that request literally she began to use meditation to try to help ease his pain. During one of these sessions she decided to lead him through a series of guided meditations designed to "introduce him to the 'other side' and give him the opportunity to say good bye to his loved ones." (onca, 10/15/93) In the first meditation they visualized a "beautiful cave with many crystals, each exuding light of its own color." At the far end of the cave was a gate. Beyond the gate waited many other people as well as feelings of love and the complete absence of pain. The dying friend was told he could go through the gate if he wanted to. The second meditation took place on a mountain with "winds and fresh air, [t]he smells and feeling was of freedom." Again at the top of the mountain was a large gate slightly ajar. The dying friend was told there was nothing but love on the other side of the gate. The final meditation was in a quiet, peaceful, beautiful forest. Walking along the path through the forest the friend met various people "still on this side." He had the opportunity to say what he needed to say to each one. "[S]ome were 'I'm sorry', some were 'I forgive you', all were ended with 'Good-bye.'" When he had said good-bye to everyone they again came to a gate. The guide could go no further but she told him "we would always love him; but that the love he felt from the other side of the gate was much greater than the love he had ever felt on this side. It was perfect love, without judgment. That there was nothing he could feel from that side of the gate that made him fearful. He may feel sadness that he had to leave the people on this side, but that the love on the other side overwhelmed that feeling of sadness." Before this meditation the patient was in constant pain. (orca, 10/15/93) That night he was reported to have spent the most pain- free night of his two-month stay in the nursing home. The next day he woke up proclaiming that he felt "wonderful." After going into a seizure he fell into a deep coma and died about 24 hours later. "I have no doubt that it was in part my aid that helped him to cross over to the other side. He was terrified of dying before then." Rather than using Kubler-Ross' psychologically-based talking therapies, the guide used a common meditative technique to share her view of death with her friend, allow him to complete his unfinished good-byes and prepare himself for that final transition. Having a set of shared beliefs as well as a powerful technique for communicating with the subconscious gave the teacher a way to communicate with the student in a unique and powerful way. We can see in the meditative descriptions of the transition the research of Raymond Moody, author of Life After Life, concerning near-death experiences. In this ritual little is said about an afterlife except that it was characterized by perfect love, without judgment and the absence of pain. The belief in some type of continued existence is postulated by the presence of others on the other side of the gate but the nature of their existence is left open (or perhaps assumed, based on information not provided in the correspondence). The opportunity to communicate with the living, saying good-bye, forgiving some and asking forgiveness for others provided in the hospital-like institution some of the elements of Aries' "tame death" and the correspondent believed reduced the dying man's fear of that final transition. One of the most painful experiences in the life of any parent is the loss of a child. This may be particularly painful in the event of a miscarriage or still birth when the unborn child may not be accepted by the surrounding community as a "real" person and parents are not accorded all the grief and mourning rituals normally associated with death.

The following ritual is included in this paper because I feel it not only highlights the view many Pagans have toward life, death and rebirth it also provide an example of how one mother used her Pagan beliefs to deal with her own pain. Since it was published in a widely-read Pagan periodical it is explicitly shared by the author with the wider community as an example of how they might also deal with a similar situation. According to the introduction to this short ritual it was written by the mother after she suffered a miscarriage.

As a catharsis for my grief and to provide a sense of finality to an experience that seemed more nightmare than reality....[T]o release...the tenuous link between my spirit and that of the tiny life until so recently carried within me, that we both might continue on, as Fate decreed.

After setting up a simple altar with four candles (a central white candle and black, red and white candles) and a rosebud, and ritually establishing sacred space, the woman lit the central candle and said:
"It is the way of Life that all living beings, whether early or late, come unto Death, that in Time, they may come round again to circle in Life."

She picked up and cradled the rosebud, symbol of her lost child, saying:
And so unto Death have you gone, my little one, blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh, Child of My Heart; like this bud never to bloom, not in the fullness of time to bear seeds, wither and die. Yet like this flower bud, a thing of joy and beauty even for all its unfulfilled promise, so you were for me a wondrous and magical experience however short. Thank you for your precious gift.

Then she lit the three candles, symbols of the three aspects of the Goddess (Maiden, Mother and Crone) saying:
Of the Triple Goddess, She Who Opens and Shuts All Doors, Lady of All Joys and Sorrows, I ask for you: that the Crone always fly you to Summerland wrapped in the softest black feathers; that the Mother always comfort you in Her loving embrace; that the Maiden always smile brightly on you. Know that there will always be an empty place under my heart that cannot be filled, where your memory shall dwell forever. I bid you a pleasant journey, and a peaceful sojourn. Rest well, be renewed and return again. Fare thee well, forever.

Then she extinguished the central candle, and buried the rosebud saying:

This simple ritual seems to describe a coming to terms with a personal and deeply felt death in a way not consistent with Aries' description of contemporary views. Here death is recognized and the grief process allowed within a safe space. The child is recognized and released, the death is seen as an inevitable part of the circle of life and belief in the child's ability to return is affirmed. The child's death is accepted as the "way of Life of all living beings," "Fate," not the result of untamed nature nor some evil force. At the same time death is not an insignificant, ordinary event but one worthy of ritualizing in a personal way.

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