Kindling the Fire at Home & in the Community

G is for Grief & Funeral Rites

When I think about grief and loss, as a Pagan, I feel that how I deal with it is much different from many of my friends and family who are Christian. Death has never been something frightening or scary to me. I’ve always seen it as the next phase of the cycle of life. I don’t believe in the existence of hell in the Christian sense so I think that maybe that removes much of the fear so many others seem to have surrounding death. That’s not to say that I don’t respect death, I do. However, I believe in celebrating life over mourning death. So when those that I love have passed through the veil, my inclination has been to celebrate the life they lived, play the music they liked, toast them with the alcohol they enjoyed and spend time with those they’ve left behind to reminisce and share our fondest memories of them.

I will admit that I do not like to attend funerals. I tend to prefer to grieve in private or surrounded by only my closest family or friends. While tears are shed, I somehow have found ways to laugh during times of grief. Those moments seem to heal and cleanse my aching heart more than any fancy funeral procession could. I also do not like the idea of being buried in a casket. I’d rather be cremated and returned to the earth. I hope that when I die, someone will plant a tree and bury my ashes with it or scatter them in the Pacific ocean.

I really like having an ancestor altar during Samhain and making it a point to honor those who have gone before us. I think that many Pagans find a lot of peace and closure in rituals done for or surrounding the memory of their loved ones. How we see death and treat it seems to be very unique to our community. We seem less afraid and more comfortable with talking about and dealing with grief than many other spiritual communities. So much that we are willing to commune with them, invite them into ritual space and seek their guidance when dealing with important issues in our lives. I know that after losing my cousin, my circle family was very integral in helping me cope with his loss. The year that he died, I lead Samhain ritual and was able to release a lot of the pain and turmoil surrounding my feelings about losing my vibrant 24-year-old cousin to suicide. Their support and love saw me through to the other side of my grief with peace and solace. Not to mention… a lot of gratitude.

Grief is defined as deep sorrow or mental anguish, esp. that caused by someone’s death. It is a reaction to loss and varies from person to person. Some people are very solemn and quiet about grief and others are very vocal about grief, sobbing and may even collapse to the ground. Grief will also vary with each loss; meaning that your reaction to the loss of one loved one may not be the reaction to the next.

Most people go through a grief process that comes in stages. It takes awhile to work through all of the stages, but they are good to know in the event you are dealing with grief or helping someone else through it.

7 Stages of Grief:

1. SHOCK & DENIAL- You will probably react to learning of the loss with numbed disbelief. You may deny the reality of the loss at some level, in order to avoid the pain. Shock provides emotional protection from being overwhelmed all at once. This may last for weeks.

2. PAIN & GUILT- As the shock wears off, it is replaced with the suffering of unbelievable pain. Although excruciating and almost unbearable, it is important that you experience the pain fully, and not hide it, avoid it or escape from it with alcohol or drugs. You may have guilty feelings or remorse over things you did or didn’t do with your loved one. Life feels chaotic and scary during this phase.

3. ANGER & BARGAINING- Frustration gives way to anger, and you may lash out and lay unwarranted blame for the death on someone else. Please try to control this, as permanent damage to your relationships may result. This is a time for the release of bottled up emotion.
You may rail against fate, questioning “Why me?” You may also try to bargain in vain with the powers that be for a way out of your despair (“I will never drink again if you just bring him back”)

4. “DEPRESSION”, REFLECTION, LONELINESS- Just when your friends may think you should be getting on with your life, a long period of sad reflection will likely overtake you. This is a normal stage of grief, so do not be “talked out of it” by well-meaning outsiders. Encouragement from others is not helpful to you during this stage of grieving.

During this time, you finally realize the true magnitude of your loss, and it depresses you. You may isolate yourself on purpose, reflect on things you did with your lost one, and focus on memories of the past. You may sense feelings of emptiness or despair.

5. THE UPWARD TURN- As you start to adjust to life without your dear one, your life becomes a little calmer and more organized. Your physical symptoms lessen, and your “depression” begins to lift slightly.

6. RECONSTRUCTION & WORKING THROUGH- As you become more functional, your mind starts working again, and you will find yourself seeking realistic solutions to problems posed by life without your loved one. You will start to work on practical and financial problems and reconstructing yourself and your life without him or her.

7. ACCEPTANCE & HOPE- During this, the last of the seven stages in this grief model, you learn to accept and deal with the reality of your situation. Acceptance does not necessarily mean instant happiness. Given the pain and turmoil you have experienced, you can never return to the carefree, untroubled YOU that existed before this tragedy. But you will find a way forward.

You will start to look forward and actually plan things for the future. Eventually, you will be able to think about your lost loved one without pain; sadness, yes, but the wrenching pain will be gone. You will once again anticipate some good times to come, and yes, even find joy again in the experience of living.

Below are the funerary practices & rites of some of the ancient cultures many Pagans base their modern-day practices off of:

Ancient Celts

In researching ancient funerary customs I discovered that the Celts buried their dead in burial mounds usually with weapons, food and other ornamental items. Most believe that the ancient Celts & Druids burying them with those items was an indication that they believed in reincarnation or an afterlife.

The traditional wake was held in the home of the deceased or at the home of a close relative; this is known as the wake house. A room will be prepared for the deceased, in the past it would have been a parlor but more often these days a bedroom is used.

After death a window is opened to allow the spirit of the deceased to leave the house, no-one must stand or block the path to the window as this may prevent the spirit from leaving and will bring misfortune to the person who blocks the route. After two hours the window should be closed as this will prevent the spirit from re-entering.

The body is washed and dressed; in times gone by they would have been clothed in white. If the deceased was a male he would have been freshly shaved. This is known as being ‘laid out’.Candles are placed at the head and foot of the coffin and remain lit while the deceased is still present in the house. Family members or close friends will stay with the deceased at all times taking it in shifts to watch over the departed. All clocks in the house will be stopped at the time the person died and all mirrors will be covered or turned to face the wall as a mark of respect. Also, traditionally all the curtains will be closed.

In earlier times ‘keening’ would have taken place. This is when the women family members would cry and wail over the deceased. This took place after the body had been laid out, if the women started ‘keening’ before the body was ‘laid-out’ it would invoke evil spirits. ‘Keening’ would have carried on for some time. One wonders if this has some bearing in the legend of the banshee.

Ancient Romans

In ancient Rome, the eldest surviving male of the household, the pater familias, was summoned to the death-bed, where he was supposed to try to catch and inhale the last breath of the decedent.

Funerals of the socially prominent were usually undertaken by professional undertakers called libitinarii. These rites usually included a public procession to the tomb or pyre where the body was to be cremated. The most noteworthy thing about this procession was that the survivors bore masks bearing the images of the family’s deceased ancestors. The right to carry the masks in public was eventually restricted to families prominent enough to have held curule magistracies. Mimes, dancers, and musicians hired by the undertakers, as well as professional female mourners, took part in these processions. Less well-to-do Romans could join benevolent funerary societies (collegia funeraticia) who undertook these rites on their behalf.

Nine days after the disposal of the body, by burial or cremation, a feast was given (cena novendialis) and a libation poured over the grave or the ashes. Since most Romans were cremated, the ashes were typically collected in an urn and placed in a niche in a collective tomb called a columbarium (literally, “dovecote”). During this nine-day period, the house was considered to be tainted, funesta, and was hung with Taxus baccata or Mediterranean Cypress branches to warn passersby. At the end of the period, the house was swept out to symbolically purge it of the taint of death.

Several Roman holidays commemorated a family’s dead ancestors, including the Parentalia, held February 13 through 21, to honor the family’s ancestors; and the Feast of the Lemures, held on May 9, 11, and 13, in which ghosts (larvae) were feared to be active, and the pater familias sought to appease them with offerings of beans.

Ancient Greeks

The ancient Greek funeral since the Homeric era included the próthesē (πρόθεση), the ekphorá (εκφορά), the burial and the perídeipno (περίδειπνο). In most cases, this process is followed faithfully in Greece until today.

Próthesē is the deposition of the body of the deceased on the funereal bed and the threnody of his relatives. Today the body is placed in the casket, that is always open in Greek funerals. This part takes place in the house where the deceased had lived. An important part of the Greek tradition is the epicedium, the mournful songs that are sung by the family of the deceased along with professional mourners (who are extinct in the modern era). The deceased was watched over by his beloved the entire night before the burial, an obligatory ritual in popular thought, which is maintained still.

Ekphorá is the process of transport of the mortal remains of the deceased from his residence to the church, nowadays, and afterward to the place of burial. The procession in the ancient times, according to the law, should have passed silently through the streets of the city. Usually certain favourite objects of the deceased were placed in the coffin in order to “go along with him.” In certain regions, coins to pay Charon, who ferries the dead to the underworld, are also placed inside the casket. A last kiss is given to the beloved dead by the family before the coffin is closed.

Cicero describes the habit of planting flowers around the tomb as an effort to guarantee the repose of the deceased and the purification of the ground, a custom that is maintained until today. After the ceremony, the mourners return to the house of the deceased for the perídeipno, the dinner after the burial.

Two days after the burial, a ceremony called “the thirds” would take place, while eight days after the burial, the relatives and the friends of the deceased assembled at the burial spot, where “the ninths” would take place, a custom that is maintained until today.

Ancient Norse

According to historical sources, a Viking funeral consisted of cremation in a ship. Many funerals took place on land with the deceased being cremated on a pyre, (a structure, usually made of wood), in a boat and piles of stone and soil being lain on top of the burnt remains. Pyre’s were built on a ship, usually shaped like a dragon’s nose.

A funeral for a Viking could, at times, be a considerable, but necessary expense. It was also very common for gifts to be left with the deceased. The amount and the value of the goods were dependent upon the social group to which the deceased belonged and, therefore, it was important for them to be buried in a manner which allowed them to have the same social standing in the afterlife, and to avoid becoming an eternal wandering soul. The manner in which they were buried was also used to provide strength to the grieving family to carry on with their lives. In addition, it is said that sometimes thralls (slaves) were sacrificed upon funeral pyres so that they could serve their master in the next world.

In Viking funerals, there existed an element of fear surrounding death. If a proper burial were not provided for the deceased, the bereaved would be visited by the deceased as a form of revenge. Such a possibility was frightful, as it was interpreted to mean that additional family members would die. It was during the Viking period of starvation, when communities were seemingly struck with series of misfortunes that rumors about the revengeful souls began to flourish. The sagas tell of drastic precautions being undertaken during the Viking funeral ceremony such as a stake being be put through the body of the deceased, or its head cut off, as a way of stopping it from finding its way back to the living.

Modern Pagan Practices

I wanted to talk about some of the modern Pagan practices of honoring the dead. Ways in which you can help yourself or other Pagans through the process of grieving a loved one.

  • The Dumb Supper:

In this case, the word “dumb” refers to being silent. The origins of this tradition have been fairly well debated — some claim it goes back to ancient cultures, others believe it’s a relatively new idea. Regardless, it’s one that’s observed by many people around the world.

When holding a Dumb Supper, there are a few simple guidelines to follow. First of all, make your dining area sacred, either by casting a circle, smudging, or some other method. Turn off phones and televisions, eliminating outside distractions.

Secondly, remember that this is a solemn and silent occasion, not a carnival. It’s a time of silence, as the name reminds us. You may wish to leave younger children out of this ceremony. Ask each adult guest to bring a note to the dinner. The note’s contents will be kept private, and should contain what they wish to say to their deceased friends or relatives.

Set a place at the table for each guest, and reserve the head of the table for the place of the Spirits. Although it’s nice to have a place setting for each individual you wish to honor, sometimes it’s just not feasible. Instead, use a tealight candle at the Spirit setting to represent each of the deceased. Shroud the Spirit chair in black or white cloth.

No one may speak from the time they enter the dining room. As each guest enters the room, they should take a moment to stop at the Spirit chair and offer a silent prayer to the dead. Once everyone is seated, join hands and take a moment to silently bless the meal. The host or hostess, who should be seated directly across from the Spirit chair, serves the meal to guests in order of age, from the oldest to youngest. No one should eat until all guests — including Spirit — are served.

When everyone has finished eating, each guest should get out the note to the dead that they brought. Go to the head of the table where Spirit sits, and find the candle for your deceased loved one. Focus on the note, and then burn it in the candle’s flame (you may wish to have a plate or small cauldron on hand to catch burning bits of paper) and then return to their seat. When everyone has had their turn, join hands once again and offer a silent prayer to the dead.

Everyone leaves the room in silence. Stop at the Spirit chair on your way out the door, and say goodbye one more time.

  • Setting Up an Ancestor Altar:

In many cultures, ancestor worship is an ancient practice. Although traditionally found more in African and Asian societies, more and more Pagans of European heritage are beginning to embrace this idea. After all, we all want to know where we came from. You can build an altar to honor your ancestors, featuring photos, heirlooms, and even a family tree sheet. Leave it up all year-long, or set it out at Samhain. This is a good time to perform a ritual for Honoring the Ancestors.

  • Last Rites:

Whether you officiate at the funeral your family attends or you choose to have a ceremony in honor of the loved one you’ve lost by yourself, with a small group of family/friends or with your circle or coven, honoring your loved one in a meaningful way is something you should participate in. You may choose to call upon your patron God/Goddess for guidance & strength, sing songs or play music you believe your loved one liked, read a poem, spread their ashes, or any number of ritual practices that you feel will help to bring a sense of peace and closure to your loss. There is no right or wrong way to do this. Do what is in your heart.

Hopefully when grief is upon you, you will find strength in your spirituality and those people around you who care most about you. Knowing that I can honor those who have gone before me has always been a great comfort. Even in my greatest despair, I have found peace and respite when I have turned towards ritual as a means to alleviate the burden of a heavy heart.

Blessings,

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