The cycle of birth, experience and death is central to our physical lives, as it is to the celebration of the wheel of the year. Much is said about birth and life and experiences but not much about death except that it is the end and the beginning of the cycle – a necessary process but not one that most people are comfortable with.
Having said this death is one of the mysteries central to the craft and any belief systems that work with natural cycles. There are many cycles that we work with: The rising and setting of the sun; the progression of the moon from new to full and back again, the progress of the seasons through the year, and the longer one the process of our souls through this experience.
Death and dying are often “glazed over” in the general discussion of these processes as there is a lot of fear and uncertainty associated with the process of death. In my view, with our modern culture of finding the “absolute” truth and the “right” answer, when we come up with a situation we can’t define, we “freak out”.
When we function from a point of fear, we try to control our lives and the world around us to protect ourselves and those we care about. When it comes to death all we have is guesswork, mythology and superstition. No-one has “lived to tell about it” or has any verifiable information in real term experience. This doesn’t work for a fear-ridden soul which is why Organised Religion is so successful because it offers “guarantees” of salvation etc. and for the unenlightened this is a huge weight off their shoulders.
That is part of the beauty of the mystery of death though – “no-one really knows” is the only true answer we have.
There are many traditions and mythologies that deal with death and the afterlife etc. though – For example:
- Summerland: many of the pagan orientated beliefs talk about the Summerland as a place of rest and rejuvenation after a human experience. A place of contemplation and planning before your next experience.
- Nordic Tradition: The Nordic beliefs speak of Valhalla where courageous warriors go after death to prepare for Ragnarok – a mighty battle in the future; Hel ruled over by the Goddess Hel under the earth, Folkvangr ruled over by the Goddess Freya. Where your soul went was up to the Gods who evaluated your behaviour and allocated you a realm to go to.
- Epic Battles: For example, the battle between the Oak King and Holly King at Yule (Winter Solstice) where the Oak King beats the Holly King and Litha (Summer Solstice) where the Holly King returns and beats the Oak King. These battles mark the shift in the seasons (mid-summer and mid-winter).
There are many others too. The majority of pagan beliefs carry the concept of reincarnation as part of the cycle – well that’s obvious or it wouldn’t be a cycle would it? The problem though is what happens in that period? The best we can do really is guess.
It also depends on what you see the reason for being as. If you subscribe to the “Complete Evolution” concept or that life is a school and believe that the reason for being is to grow and expand your soul then the interim period of darkness would be to re-evaluate and decide on your next lessons.
If you think, as I do, that your soul is already complete and the purpose of life is to experience life in all its diversity of joy and pain then the period could be used for regrouping or resting – much like playing a computer game – when you have had enough you switch it off, and go back when you want to play more.
Unlike many other perspectives of belief, paganism doesn’t have the concept of punishment included in the reincarnation process. Paganism revers all life regardless if it is the life of a bug, a rock, an animal or bird or any other being capable of life and so the “coming back as a cockroach” thing isn’t a punishment just another state of being.
From my perspective, everything in life moves from “light” to “dark” and back again just like the seasons, and death is the ultimate “darkness” that ends one experience and begins another. Knowing what is coming would defeat the objective of the process, just like remembering previous incarnations would be like reading the last page of a novel before you start – kinda defeats the objective doesn’t it?
Just like “dark” periods of our lives, we need to embrace the process – nothing is created in the light – creation only happens in the dark of the womb, underground, in an egg etc. The “dark” periods of our life, while not always pleasant, are where we find our power and our strength. If we resist the process it delays everything and keeps us stuck, if we embrace it and experience it, it passes – sometimes like a kidney stone – but it passes. Death is the ultimate “dark” phase for our soul.
Rituals and processes around death
I believe that the processes and rituals around the death experience are all about the people left behind. In organised religion the focus is largely on “saving” the immortal soul of the deceased, thus avoiding and often, dismissing the process of the mourners and those left behind.
The person who has died is off on their new adventure, it is the people left behind that suffer through the process.
Washing and Anointing: Often the family of the deceased wash, dress and anoint the body of the deceased in preparation of the final goodbye/ceremony.
Vigils: Loved ones gather around the body of the deceased surrounded by candles. Each person is allowed to have a private moment with the deceased to say their last farewells. Death seems very final on the Earth plane, so rather than carry guilt around for the rest of their lives, they can say what needs to be said in privacy. Or they can release their anger – whatever works. Obviously, desecration of the body is not encouraged right!
Actual “funeral” ritual: A standard ritual format can be used. The Gods and Goddesses invoked could be any of the Dark Mothers or Dark Fathers, Lords and Ladies of the underworld etc. or the patron God or Goddess of the deceased. Other rites and process may apply depending on the tradition or specific traditions of the deceased etc. There is often a section in the ritual calling the spirits of the deceased’s loved ones who have passed, spirit guides and guardians that guide the deceased to the “other side”. Often the Cauldron is used as a tool of transformation.
The focus of the ritual, in my view, is the releasing; not only of the departed soul from the confines of this reality, but also releasing the cords and bonds of attachment to the mourners from the deceased.
Loved ones are often also encourage to say their public farewells and read poems, writings etc. This is a very personal ritual and the wishes of the mourners and, if available, the deceased need to be respected.
The body can be buried or cremated as desired. It is important when deciding what to do with the body that all local bylaws etc. are maintained. Being arrested at your partners funeral may not be the best way to end the day.
After the ritual
It is very important that loved ones are supported during the period after the funeral. It is also important that they be encouraged to create the break. I do not recommend connecting with the deceased’s soul for at least 6 months after the passing. In the mind of those left behind it can create the feeling that they have not passed and can impact negatively on the grieving and healing process. It is critical that the “end” and “break” be completed so the person can move forward and not spend the rest of their stuck in the grieving process.
I trust this helps you understand not only the rituals involved, but also the value and process of death as part of an ongoing natural cycle.
Be blessed and release your fear – death is not just the end of this experience it is also the beginning of another. Your loved ones will be fine, you will be fine. Everything works in cycles, embrace and work with them not against them.