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.

Advertisements

After the Fire

It isn’t really over, of course.

Two dozen have lost their lives. Thousands are without homes, their possessions rendered to gray ashes. The most vulnerable among them–renters, the uninsured–will almost certainly flee our expensive region, despite admirable community efforts to raise funds to support them. The acrid smell of burned lives lingers in the air, and driving past the devastation is still like a bad dream. On and on it goes: the gray, burned wreckage, the burned-out cars.

That said, people are getting on with it, as they must. The ground floor of our local daily newspaper has been let out as a disaster center with representatives of dozens of government agencies available to help, and insurance companies have set up tents in the parking lot where people can file and follow up on their claims. It’s a remarkable effort and those who organized it should be proud.

As things go, I was impacted only marginally. Other than a frightening last-minute evacuation with our cat and what we could carry, and a week away from home, we suffered little. Our loss was some out-of-pocket expenses and a refrigerator full of food, and our insurance covered even those.

In our back yard, two palm-sized embers of burning roof shingles landed, and burned themselves out. If I hadn’t whacked the weeds, if they had landed a little closer to the house, things would be very different.

But they weren’t. So I have no excuse, really.

Yet since the fires, I have been in a sort of daze. My sleep is still heavily disturbed and I don’t leave the house much. Work on the Atheopaganism book I began to outline has stalled for the moment; I can’t seem to focus on it.

I think I am still in some kind of shock.

I turn to my spirituality at such times: to the perspective and wisdom I find in the natural world and the values, principles and practices of Atheopaganism. But even that has seemed removed, far away. I couldn’t bring myself to light candles on my Focus for a period of more than a week, just not wanting to deal with or traffic in fire. So it sat cold and dark in the evenings when usually it has a merry glow; I added extra water as the fires still burned, but without light it seemed lifeless (I prefer not to use electric lights on my Focus, personally).

Similarly, any inspiration for writing for this site was stymied by the dark fog blurring my mind. I racked my brain and simply couldn’t find anything worth saying. And one day passed into another, and national news began to creep in around the edges of the all-encompassing and never-ending updates about the fires and their aftermath. None of which helped, of course.

A disaster is a community event. Every victim is an individual, of course, with a unique story, but it is something we also all go through together. Thousands here are mourning loved ones and pets and baby pictures and prized possessions and home; collectively, we are swept up in something larger than ourselves and our individual experiences.

Hallows will be particularly poignant for me this year. I attended a Reclaiming Samhain ritual last weekend, and of course there was much talk about the fires, but somehow, not enough, for me. Something was missing, some cathartic piece about the grief that was never really reached. I hope my circle gathering will provide that.

In any case, I’ve made myself sit down and write in an effort to break this spell. To renormalize being at the keyboard and in author’s mode. If this piece has relatively little to do with Atheopaganism, I’m sorry, but this is how I get back to creating content for the site again. Our religion is nothing if not personal; this is where I am.

May those who have been injured by these fires heal and be made whole. May all remembered losses be honored. May this community reknit stronger and happier than before. May the sacred land re-green with winter rains, and bring the heartbreaking beauty back.

Dark Hallows

Hallows is unique among Atheopagan Sabbaths.

For one thing, it’s a week long: it extends from Halloween through the actual midpoint between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, which falls around the 7th of November. A whole week of observances, of rituals, of spooky-eerie awareness of Death, of Ancestry, of the Dark.

As it happens, where I live, the transition from Daylight Savings Time to Standard Time happens on the first weekend in November, so there is a sudden plunge into night as the clocks roll back an hour and sunset is suddenly an hour earlier. It doesn’t take imagination to realize that the Darkness has arrived.

And let’s just say up front: if you like a gothic aesthetic, Hallows is spooky cool. Hallows is jack o’lanterns flickering, cobwebs and skulls and bones and graveyards. And witches, let us not forget.

We’re both fascinated and appalled by the prospect of our deaths, and Hallows is the time when we live in that state: with the knowledge that It Is Coming, with coming to grips with that reality, with reflecting on those who are gone, and with contemplating the deep history of ancestry.

Death is the price of the ticket to this glorious ride on Planet Earth. As such, it must be honored. The names of the Beloved Dead must be spoken. The Ancestors—human and non- — must be remembered, and their contributions to the fact of our existence celebrated.

In the secular world, Halloween in particular is a time when we are allowed to play in ways we are not otherwise indulged throughout the remainder of the year. We can dress up silly, or scary, or sexy, and enjoy the thrill of fear and empowerment that comes with each of these qualities. As a costuming geek myself, I love a chance to roll something out from my closet—or make something new— and be Someone/Something Else in public, just for one day. We can play with identity, and gender, and actually get away with it in the homophobic United States. It is no surprise that Halloween is an important and beloved event in the LGBTQ community.

I see Hallows as a week of Pagan celebration that begins with Halloween itself, with its costumes and parties and spooky decorations, and extends through the following week into my circle’s annual Samhain ritual, which takes place on the first weekend in November each year.

During the intervening week, I update my Death Document: my funeral wishes, farewell letter, will, medical directives, important passwords and other information that my loved ones will need when it’s my time to go.

This will be Dark Sun circle’s 27th annual gathering for Samhain. Our ritual includes a hushed circle of remembrance around the unlit fire, a silent walk into the woods to visit the Land of the Dead, and, once there, we speak their names, tell them what we would have liked them to have known about our feelings, our memories, our wishes and our love.

Upon return from the Land of the Dead, we light the fire and the candles and jack o’lanterns on the Focus and celebrate, singing “We Are Alive!”, sharing goblets of blood-red wine and chocolate. And then, when it is time, we go indoors and break our fast with a sumptuous meal.

By the time our ritual and feast are complete, I feel we have turned the Wheel of the Year again. I feel prepared for the arrival of the Darkness as the year ages. And I feel connected with my circle kin, with my broader Pagan community, and with the great cycle of Life coming and going on this magnificent planet. I feel more accepting of the losses that Death has dealt me, and of the fact that one day, it will be my turn.

I feel like an Atheopagan, celebrating his life in the world.