Maybe it’s the season: the light has shifted to that amber that signals Summer dying. It’s the books I’ve been reading, which are Celtic archaeology and largely drawn from funerary remains. And it’s the rites of death and Samhain rituals I’ve been working on. I’ve been feeling as if Death has crept up behind me and taken me by the shoulder.
A few weeks ago, the Coru priesthood was contacted by a family on the East Coast, the relatives of a young man who was a dedicant of the Morrigan and who was on his deathbed. He had asked for a priest of the Morrigan to give his funeral rites. I agreed to travel out there to serve.
The experience of doing funerary service is, I think, the most consequential and weighty of any priestly work I’ve been called upon to do. It gripped me immediately, from the moment the request came to me.
Death is an intensely personal thing; or can be, anyway. I was struck once again by something that I’ve thought about many times before when I’ve been involved with deaths; the immense beauty and power that accompanies a person taking up the choice of how to face their own death. While still breathing, to sit with his family and make plans for his own wake and funeral rites, as he did. Choosing what to carry with him in his casket into the grave. Choosing his priest, his funeral clothing, the tone and character of his death rituals. Such courage, this. To hold fiercely to life until her wedding anniversary came, as the matriarch of my Craft tradition did, and then to choose the day and hour of her leaving, so she could go to meet the love of her life in the Otherworld. Such power. I hope to die so gracefully and with such courage when my time comes.
It sometimes seems to me that the manner of our dying, and the rituals we create for it, may be the ultimate creative act – the final work of art that places the seal on the great work that our life has been. We cannot, of course, complete the work of art alone, and this is where death moves from the personal to the collective. We rely on all the living to bring that final work of art, the funerary rite, to fruition. It becomes a collaboration between the living and the dead. A continued subtle intimacy across the veil between worlds.
It also struck me how very permeable that veil is. As in all Pagan ritual, we understand offerings to convey a flow of power, life force, or energy between the physical world and the Otherworld; this was no different. In the funeral, we create a ritual container and we fill it with emotion: love, grief, joy, remembrance, honor. We raise it up to the dead loved one and to their Gods, and we pour it out. Our offering. I was acutely aware of this in the funeral – as I sensed the presence of the Otherworld so near, his spirit receiving, deeply glad and deeply fed and eased by the offering.
Since coming back I’ve found myself thinking daily about funerary customs. I’ve had dreams of burial processions, voices chanting songs of honor. Ritual preparations and invocations. Cairns raised in the deep woods. I dreamed of a great passage-tomb in the Irish Neolithic style, watching as if from above as it is built: the stones of the passage set up, the passage laid out long and cruciform, the basins and carved stones placed. The great mound raised over the passage, its carpet of green creeping over it. The bones and ashes of the dead carried in, gifts to the earth. Generation upon generation, till the floors of the tomb itself are composed of unknown layers of ash and bone, sinking slowly down into the land. I dreamed of walking into this tomb again, and the strange lights that shone deep within at the end of the dark.
I hardly have words for how important this feels to me. About the beauty of these rites and ways, and about how absolutely crucial a religious freedom it is to have the funeral that one requires. I’ve known a few who have died who were able to be given the funeral customs that were right for them. But I’ve known many more whose families had to make painful compromises, because the funeral customs that were true to their being and needful in their traditions are not allowed. This is a tragedy to me. It’s one that affects me personally – the funeral rite that I would choose for myself (excarnation or sky-burial) isn’t legal anywhere in the Western world. It is entirely too visceral for our culture, too unpackaged, too intimate with the reality of death. Natural burial without embalming is barely tolerated as it is, let alone anything as raw as excarnation. What shall we do?
We must not fear intimacy with death. It is the way for us to honor our dead, to love them still, and to give them their due. And yes, this intimacy will remind us of our own mortality. We will see the image of our own deaths that await us, reflected in the deaths of our kin. We will have to embrace this overwhelming truth, that is both the finality and imprisonment of life, and its liberation. We must know as we anoint and honor our dead that we are preparing the way also for ourselves to join them one day. In my dreams this season, I walk down corridors of stone to meet the dead. I see them surrounded with lights and fires, bathed in the warmth of the devotion of the living. I hear their voices, whispering, speaking, wailing, singing. I see them lifted on a great wind, carried on the beating of mighty wings, the breath of a thousand spirits. I see them elevated from departed to the status of Ancestors, dwelling in that Otherworld place that is beyond time but always as near as our heartbeat.
I will not fear that place. I am alive now, and I will live. I will live without fear, giving myself fully to life and to love of living. I will pour out my love as an offering to all those whose being forms the very earth from which I live. I will live. And when the living is done, I will be dead, I will let go of my body and go into death. I will receive the offerings of the living. I will be an Ancestor and love will still move through me.
“To your barbarous rites and sinister ceremonies,
O Druids, you have returned since weapons now lie still.
To you alone it is given to know the gods
and spirits of the sky, or perhaps not to know at all.
You dwell in the distant, dark, and hidden groves.
You say that shades of the dead do not seek
the silent land of Erebus or the pallid kingdom of Dis,
but that the same spirit controls the limbs in another realm.
Death, if what you say is true, is but a mid point of a long life.”