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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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We Die.

We’re going to die. All of us.

Grappling with this fact may be the single most powerful factor in what it means to be human. It is so profound and unarguable a fact that every religion has to confront it in one way or another, and Atheopaganism must, as well.

And while most religions—including most flavors of Paganism—promise that death is only temporary; that some future in an afterlife will be provided to the Faithful, I’m sorry, folks, but I’m not going to do that.

We die. We really die. We simply have no credible evidence to the contrary.

But is that, frightening as it may be, really all that terrible?

I was dead for 13.7 billion years before I was conceived. I don’t remember it being unpleasant in any way, because I wasn’t there. And when I die, I won’t be there, either.

I don’t want to die too soon—I have things I hope to do. And I don’t want to experience pain. But the dying itself? Well, it lends urgency to my living. I don’t have millions of years to do everything there is to be done on Planet Earth. I have to pick and choose. I have to set priorities in my life. My moments of joy are finite, and precious. And I have to do what I can to move on from my disappointments and hurts, because time’s a-wasting. The MAN WHO SPEAKS IN CAPITAL LETTERS* is waiting.

Yes, we die. Knowing this makes our efforts and aspirations meaningful, because we have little time and how we spend it is therefore of crucial significance to us. Here is a lovely little video with narration by Stephen Fry by the British Humanist Association, on that very subject.

I view death as the price of the ticket for this wonderful ride on Planet Earth. I arose from the living systems of this planet as a result of the mathematics of chaos, and I am only given a little time. When the moment comes to pay the fare, I won’t mind, really. I’m grateful for having had life in the first place, and for having lived such a long one by comparison with the vast majority of my ancestors.

Knowledge that death is real and permanent changes my approach to the traditional Pagan concept of the Wheel of the Year, which usually stipulates Samhain (Hallows) as both end and beginning of the year, reasoning that Death is also Rebirth. But we are not composted and then ‘reborn’. The new sprout that arises in the spring is the next generation, not eternal life; the new leaves and shoots are a return from dormancy, and not from death.

Entire species go through long cycles of birth and death and birth of individuals, but the individuals themselves do not. And eventually, the species themselves die out, too.

If the Wheel of the Year is a metaphor for the cycle of life, Hallows is Death, and it is final. So my Atheopagan Wheel of the Year begins at Yule, with the beginning of the Sun’s return, and the last Sabbath is Hallows: the End.

I have Death Traditions at Hallows; not only ritual traditions, but practical ones as well. I update my will and my farewell letter to loved ones; I make sure my durable power of attorney, living will and wishes for the disposal of my remains are all in order, and that they include all pertinent information about legal requirements so grieving friends aren’t at the mercy of funeral homes when it comes to making decisions.

[UPDATE: The Druid Network has a wonderful workbook that can help you to pull all these pieces together, which can be downloaded here.]

It’s a good practice. It brings me to face, each year, that I’m going to go, and lets me know that I have done what I can for those who survive me to make that passage as easy as possible. To ensure it can be found easily, I keep the hard copy at the very front of my filing cabinet, and a soft copy on the desktop of my computer, labeled “My Death”. It has a cute little skull icon.

Speaking of which, I’m a big believer in natural, family-conducted, hands-on and affordable funeral practices. If you’d like to know more about this and to demystify death and the funeral industry generally, I suggest the delightful and funny videos of The Order of the Good Death, better known as “Ask a Mortician”, as well as Final Passages, a nonprofit that supports families in conducting their own funerals.

I highly recommend working with the fact of death in ritual and trance space. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but it is tremendously clarifying and empowering to finally be able to sit somewhat easily with the Old Man With The Scythe. To live in the factual reality of our temporary lives.

Atheopaganism is about living with as much happiness, social and environmental responsibility as possible. That’s only important because our time is limited; otherwise, we could be miserable for millennia until we finally got around to feeling better. Death whispers in our ears, saying (as I hear the late, lamented Robin Williams say à la Dead Poets Society), “carpe diem”.

We are, indeed, all worm food eventually. It is what happens in the meantime that counts.

Go forth and live!

 

*RIP, Sir Terry—If you haven’t read Terry Pratchett, go do it now!