Death, the Creator

Classic depictions of Death personified include skeletons carrying an hourglass or a scythe, mummified persons extending leathery hands, armies of skeletal warriors mowing down the living, or Pale Horsemen laying waste to kings, priests and children, as in the Coleman-Waite “Rider” Tarot deck.

It makes complete sense that we view death with fear and revulsion. We are, after all, hardwired to wish to survive, hardwired to want to pass our genes on, however we may. Certainly, our deaths scare us. We die, and by and large, we don’t want to.

But if we step back, we can see the value of death. The importance it plays in the perpetuation and evolution of Life on Earth.

We are assemblies of molecules, intricate biological machines that start self-assembling according to genetic instructions as soon as THIS sperm cell hits THAT egg. We are assembled by Life to perpetuate Life. And when we have fulfilled our natural spans, we die, and our components are disassembled and reassembled into new Life.

This is not a dark, horrible thing! It is the only way we could have existed in the first place.

And for those who seize onto terror of death—or fetishize its power—well: both are missing the point.

This is the time of year that we Atheopagans acknowledge our mortality, honor it, recognize the driving force it has in our lives. We decorate our homes with skulls and bones and frightening jack o’ lanterns; we scare ourselves with spooky films and stories about frightening beings that break the fundamental rule of death, like mummies, ghosts, vampires and Frankenstein’s monster; we remember those whose deaths we have lived through. We make death as real to ourselves as we can, short of the actual, final experience.

And this is apt. Because the next, magical, phenomenally important phase after death is the one we will never live, never experience: the composting. The rotting into rich, fertile soil, the recomposition of our component molecules into bacteria, badgers, bluebirds or bears.

We Atheopagans acknowledge this essential time in the weeks between Hallows and Yule: the period of Resting. Of decomposition and recomposition.

Death is the Creator.

Yes: that very thing we fear is what makes all we love about Nature, about Life on Earth. Death creates; it is the process of gathering of resources for assembly of new creatures, plants and animals and microbes.

And we are exponents of it: we eat what is living, and disassemble it, create flesh and bone and thoughts and actions, and excrete food filled with nutrients for other creatures. It is the essential nature of what we are.

So as we scare ourselves with our spooks and skulls and dead bodies–as we feel the very real loss when we grieve–let us remember the tremendous kindness of Death. We would not be here without it. We are death-makers and death-beneficiaries, like all life on Earth. Our precious lives were assembled for us out of the dead, and we in turn will go forward for disassembly and reassembly in our time.

Death is the means to Life: the only gateway to living this magnificent voyage we enjoy as humans. The price of the ticket, in fact.

Let us not hate it so much.

An Underworld Focus

At this time of year, I pay a lot of attention to one part of my Focus*.

As altar-y spaces go, it is unquestionably the “witchiest” part of mine: bones, skulls, fossils of extinct species, a mummified bat, images of prehistoric cave paintings, megalithic spiral carvings and departed loved ones, a dried pomegranate. It is where I keep the black jar of rose water with which I have anointed several dead people, and the tiny jar of cedar oil, veteran of so many Hallows rituals, whose scent reminds me of the inside of a coffin.

It is The Underworld.

My Focus is built in a bookcase, with one shelf removed to make a double-height space. This area is The World, filled with all the symbols and reminders of what delights and moves me about life on Earth.

But on the shelf below The World is The Underworld, the place of grief, and memory, and ancestry.

This space is important to me because life is not all joy. It is loss and fear and the inevitable fact of mortality as well. Memory of what has forever gone away. And this, too, must be remembered and honored and reckoned with. And so I curate and care for this grim part of my Focus, and urge you, too, to create one on such themes, at least at this time of year: the time of Hallows.

Making an Underworld Focus is simple in concept but may be emotionally challenging. Gathering the images of your Honored Dead can be an experience of great sadness…or it can be one of fond remembrance. It depends on you.

Do you, like so many Pagans, have skulls or bones or Halloween decorations that set the proper mood? Gather those. Put down a black cloth as a base upon which to create your Focus. Arrange the objects and the pictures of your Honored Dead. Include a candle so you can “activate” your Focus when it is complete, and so it will be illuminated at night when you light it. You may want a small dish or incense burner so you can burn some incense there: perhaps the evocative, mood-altering resin incenses such as dragon’s blood or frankincense.

I keep some ritual tools in my Underworld, as well: a clamp and surgical scissors that were found in my mother’s apartment when she died (she was an RN), and a sprig of yew I gather in a cemetery each Halloween, dry for a year on the Focus, and then use to light the Hallows fire the following year.

You may wish to place an empty plate and/or drinking vessel on your Focus: symbol of the “empty place setting” that is often set for those who have died at Hallows feasts. You can make offerings on this plate: pomegranates are popular, or perhaps a red rose (fresh or dried).

When I light the candle on my Underworld Focus each night, I say the words, “The Honored Dead” (just as I say “The Sacred Earth” when I light the candle on The World Focus). This reminds me that I am of a lineage of organisms far beyond my mere nearby genetic neighbors and extending back billions of years. My Honored Dead are not only relatives and departed friends: they are ammonites and trilobites and bacteria.

Here, at this time of year when Pagans of all stripes contemplate mortality and ancestry, an Underworld Focus is a way to begin a practice of coming to grips with the fact that we will die, that all that arise from the Earth are subsumed within its Sacred fabric again, to be reconstituted as new life.


*An Atheopagan term for an altar, used as an alternative so as not to imply worship or sacrifice.

REMINDER! Please vote for my book for a Witchie Award! CLICK HERE!

A Gift from the Dying

I’ll cut to the chase: we’re all dying. It’s the only guaranteed fact of our lives: we die.

Atheopaganism doesn’t promise an afterlife. There really isn’t compelling evidence to support the idea of one, and so we conclude (tentatively, at least) that it is unlikely that there is one.

This is the life that we have. And it ends.

Personally, I no longer fear death much. I don’t want for it to come any time soon, but I was dead for 13.7 billion years before I was conceived, and I don’t expect it to be any less pleasant when I am dead again. I simply will not be; there will be no suffering.

the-weeping-angel-is

That said, in this culture we have to make an effort to try to guarantee that we receive the kind of death experience we hope for (barring accidents and sudden deaths, of course). We must state clearly, for example, and in legal terms that we do not wish heroic measures and machinery to keep us alive.

This is a good time of year (in the Northern hemisphere) for contemplating death and our wishes around it. Life is drawing down all around us as the year dwindles to the death of Hallows.

And so it is the time of year when I update my Death Packet.

The Death Packet is a compilation of documents to inform and guide our loved ones in facilitating our wishes as we die, and afterwards. It contains two elements:

  • A filled-out copy of the Death Planning Workbook–a very helpful piece of work originally created by the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, and which I have modified and updated slightly. It gathers all the financial information, passwords, etc. that your loved ones will need when you are gone, your will, your authorization of a proxy to make health decisions for you if you are unable to do so, your wishes in regard to resuscitation and end of life care, your wishes for how your body is to be disposed of, any farewell messages, and your wishes for any memorial services, rituals or observances. This is an editable Word document; a pdf you will have to fill out by hand is available here.
  • A page outlining the legal requirements for your survivors in the event of your death (varies by country and area–here is an example from California–search the Internet for what is required where you live)

I can’t speak to the specifics of legal requirements in all states and countries: you’ll need to make certain your will and your advanced directive regarding health care are legal. But the workbook will give you a roadmap for outlining your wishes and then you can adjust details to make sure everything is legal.

93830027_opt

The kindness and generosity of creating a Death Packet and making sure your loved ones know where to find it cannot be overstated. Grieving people are adrift in their pain: having clear guidance about your wishes and the legal power to carry them out is not only a wise move for yourself, but a true gift for those who will survive you. A completed packet gives them the details they will need, but also expresses your preferences in matters such as how you would like your deathbed experience to be, what you would like done with your body, how you would like to be memorialized, and any farewell messages you would like to leave for the living.

Once you have your Death Packet, print out a hard copy and have the documents signed and witnessed, as required by law. Then put the packet somewhere that your loved ones will know to look when they need it.

I also keep a copy of the digital file, compiled into a single document, on the desktop of my computer. The file is called “My Death”, and has a cute little skull icon.

It only takes a few hours to pull all these things together, for most people. And it is a kind of meditation on dying; an opportunity to sit with the fact of our mortality and start to become more comfortable with it.

93830027_opt

Some may find the suggestion of doing this death work uncomfortable. I understand that. But just as talking about sex won’t make anyone pregnant, talking about death will not accelerate its onset. Doing this work can only make it an easier transition than it might otherwise be, and it ensures, for example, that if you don’t wish to be kept alive with machines when you have little prospect of recovery, your loved ones will know this and have the power to act on it.

There is a revolution taking place in society’s relationship with death, which in many places (including the U.S.) has been dominated for more than a century by the for-profit funeral industry and its efforts to sell expensive, unnecessary and usually environmentally destructive funereal processes to grieving families. Through movements such as Caitlin Doughty’s Order of the Good Death, people are again learning to see death as a natural part of life: one which deserves neither fear nor disgust, but rather consideration and care and kindness. I see ecologically and economically benign funeral practices such as home funerals and natural body disposal (without embalming or expensive caskets, grave liners and the like) as completely consistent with Atheopaganism’s efforts to resacralize the major passages in a human life, and to take back to ourselves power which has been destructively usurped by corporate interests.

We have a few weeks until Hallows. My goal is always to update my documents as needed by Halloween itself, Oct. 31.

I invite you to join me. We as Atheopagans seek to live well: to lead joyous and principled lives. Let us die as we live, conscientiously and with integrity.