Thoughts on death and burial

Cara Schulz —  September 25, 2014 — 20 Comments

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Persephone Queen of the Underworld Artist: Kinuko Y. Craft

Persephone Queen of the Underworld Artist: Kinuko Y. Craft

“Be to her, Persephone,
All the things I might not be:
Take her head upon your knee.
She that was so proud and wild,
Flippant, arrogant and free,
She that had no need of me,
Is a little lonely child
Lost in Hell,—Persephone,
Take her head upon your knee:
Say to her, “My dear, my dear,
It is not so dreadful here.”

Laura LaVoie wishes that this poem by Edna St. Vincent Milay to be read at her funeral

What will happen when you die? This isn’t an esoteric pondering of where your soul resides in the afterlife, if you believe you’ll enjoy one, but the nuts and bolts of your funeral or burial. Have you planned it out? Does your family know your wishes? Will they follow your wishes?

For some, death is something too uncomfortable to contemplate. For the Pagans that The Wild Hunt talked with, it brings them peace of mind knowing they’ll be eased beyond the veil with rites which fit their religion and show honor to their Gods.

Kathryn Fernquist Hinds [photo by Fox Gradin, Celestial Studios Photography]

Kathryn Fernquist Hinds [photo by Fox Gradin, Celestial Studios Photography]

Kathryn Fernquist Hinds has a congenital heart defect and has already had four open-heart surgeries. She says that she’s always felt the proximity of death and, before each of her two most recent surgeries, made sure her wishes were known to her husband and her chosen family.

“I’ve wanted a Viking funeral ever since I first read about it as a kid,” says Kathryn. She notes her father’s family is Swedish and very proud of it, and that they always had books on the Vikings in the house.

Although a Viking-style cremation is legal in North Dakota, that’s too far away from Georgia, where she calls home. So she’s opts for a more practical solution, “…I will probably request normal cremation and then have some of my ashes taken to Lake Ontario, where I grew up.” She’s also impressed with the green cemetery at Circle Sanctuary and may have some of her ashes buried there along with a location near her current home. She wants her friends and family to have the comfort that comes from having a burial site they can visit.

As for her funeral? “I would like my service to be very open, with my friends and family of all faiths sharing memories and stories about me. Music, dancing, and good food and drink would hopefully feature as well,” says Kathryn. She hopes that her Pagan family will honor and remember her in the Samhain ritual following her death, according to Wiccan tradition.

Jeremiah Myer [photo provided by Myer]

Jeremiah Myer [photo provided by Myer]

Jeremiah Myer is a Minnesotan witch who started thinking about his funeral because he’s getting older and death is part of the natural order of life. “I’m not afraid of the next step in my journey nor am I afraid of what that step will bring,” says Jeremiah. He says, when the time comes, he’ll leave with a smile on his face.

He also realizes that his funeral is, in many ways, the last time he’ll have to speak with family and friends and allow them to experience the depth of his faith. He wants his ashes to be taken up to Baker lake, near the boundary waters canoe area. Once there, his oldest son will take his ashes by canoe to the middle of the lake and pour them in. Jeremiah says, “The water from the lake flows north and I’ll travel back to the great Mother.”

Jeremiah’s funeral ritual will be a blend of Wiccan Goddess Celtic practices with his daughter-in-law and a local witch casting the circle. “I’ll write my own ritual, my ritual tools will be used and when the ritual is over they [sic] are to be gifts to these women,” says Jeremiah. He wants his patroness, Danu and her consort the Greenman, invoked during the funeral rites.

Nicholas Sea

Nicholas Sea

Nicholas Sea also wishes to be cremated without any body preparation or viewing. He has asked a friend to scatter his ashes in a designated location, but says the friend can change the location if circumstances warrant it.

He wants to keep things very simple. “My view regarding memorial services is that friends and family can arrange memorial services if they would like,” Nicholas says. He goes on to say,”My family back east is not much a part of my life and generally follow a more involved funeral process than I. Since my desire is for very little funeral process, simple memorials are best in my view.”

Nicholas says his practical and simple view came from assisting in a number of funeral services, burials, and cremations over the past 35 years. Additionally, he doesn’t have any children or a partner, and most of his friends live all over the country.  He says, “From experience, allowing for several small memorials in different places seems best.”

Several small memorials would allow the people in different parts of his life to have a memorial that best fits them. “For example, Circle Sanctuary would likely include my passing in a PSG and a Samhain memorial,” says Nicholas. “My local friends and adopted family would likely have a small local memorial and my family back east would likely have a small memorial as well.”

Simple and adaptable doesn’t mean Nicholas is without preferences. He says there are two core elements of his religious practice that he’d like to see in his memorial services. “First is the notion of letting go. In our lives we experience a recurring cycle of engagement and release. When someone passes from our lives, we go through a period of transition and ultimately release. So, as with the small things in our lives through the seasons each year, so too with the larger endings,” says Nicholas. That reminder of letting go is what he’d like to see as a part of the memorials.

The second element involves reincarnation and the awaking of our inner selves through each life we live. Nicholas says, “I have every expectation of returning in a coming generation and I am looking forward to the future world we create and evolve, day by day in our lives.” Nicholas is appreciative of the Tibetan approach to guiding individuals in their departure from life into the Bardo between lives, but doesn’t have any friends versed in that process, so he’ll do what he can ahead of time.

Nicholas says it’s important to have everything in writing so clear guidance is available to everyone. He isn’t worried about what his family will think of his last wishes. He says his sister and brother understand his wishes, and he believes they would be very supportive. He also thinks family and friends would do their best to carry out his requests but knows unexpected circumstances can pop up. He explains, “I know full well that many people are not in the same harmonious situation I am in, and that many times legal difficulties arise.”

Dawn Marshall takes a different approach to her funeral rites. She’s leaving it up to her partner and children. She says that funerals are for the living to help them grieve or say goodbye. So although she’s shared her ideas about cremation and green burials, her family can decide what to do. “Even if I pre-arrange and pre-pay for all funeral goods and services, those actually making the arrangements can change them when the time comes. Why put them in the position of having to blatantly oppose choices I made in a time they are likely to be under a great deal of stress.”

She likes the idea of a more generic Pagan-style service for her public memorial but envisions something different for those closest to her, “For those close to me spiritually and magically, I like to imagine a ritual specific to the tradition I practice, Feri.” She wants those grieving her loss to experience a service and practice that eases their pain, helps them find closure, feels like they have honored the relationship they had with her.

Because she’s leaving all decisions up to her loved ones, she’s not worried about any problems that may happen if those arranging her funeral don’t agree with her suggestions  Dawn says, “I have communicated with them that I want them to do what will help them most.”

Laura LaVoie, near her home in Asheville. [photo credit, Laura LaVoie]

Laura LaVoie, near her home in Asheville. [photo credit, Laura LaVoie]

Laura LaVoie recently started thinking about what she’d like for her funeral after the daughter of a close friend passed away after a lifelong battle with illness and disability. She says, “It didn’t take long for it to stir up conversations in our home about death and funerals.”

Laura has a clear idea of what she wants, and doesn’t want, at her funeral. For starters, she doesn’t want people to be too sad, “When I die I want people to remember how much fun I liked to have and celebrate that.”

As for what she wants? She would like her favorite poem by Edna St. Vincent Milay, quoted at the top of this article, read at the service. She also wants to incorporate Pagan elements that everyone can appreciate.  Laurea says, “I once saw a suggested ritual for a funeral where the family petitions a representative of Kharon for safe passage into the underworld by offering coins. I love that and would love to incorporate that.”

In addition, she’d like to have a big party with lots of drinking and fun. “I want my funeral to reflect who I was in life, Pagan or not.”

She thinks her wishes will most likely be carried out. As her parents are getting older she feels the chance that they would outlive her are slim, “Even still, I don’t expect that they would fight it much.” She doesn’t have any children and has a living will and power of attorney which designate her partner to make these decisions.

Maggie Beaumont is a Pennsylvania Wiccan who has been thinking about her funeral since she was in her 30’s, after losing a couple friends. She says her views have changed over the years, “I started out with ‘cremation’ because I didn’t want to use up a lot of financial and geographic resources by claiming a burial plot. Later I learned how energy intensive cremation actually is, and began looking for something else.”

That something else has included donating her body to medical science, as that was what her mother chose to do. But now she has a different plan.  Maggie says, “Nowadays my intention is for my body to go to one of the ‘Body Farms’ where it can be laid out in an outdoor site to add to forensic knowledge of how a body decomposes under different conditions.” If this isn’t an option for her, she’ll opt for a green burial, which returns the body to nature. She says all life feeds off of life and since her body has been sustained by eating plants and animals, she wants her body to feed them in turn.

By Bs0u10e01 [CC-BY-3.0  Wikimedia]

By Bs0u10e01 [CC-BY-3.0 Wikimedia]

Maggie’s views on the service or ceremony have changed, too. Just a year ago she wanted a life celebration “with people invited to share their memories of [her], and a little bit of drumming or chanting.” She says, “I was clear that I would want a cast circle, but as a good number of the folks who would want to be there are not Pagan I wouldn’t want the circle to be obtrusive.” Now she’s considering a home funeral and has begun preparing her family and covenmates to assist.

There are some challenges to a home funeral. Maggie lives alone and her children are widely scattered, so they most likely wouldn’t be able coordinate a home funeral. If willing, that may be handled by her fellow coveners.

The home funeral she’s envisioning would have evening ‘calling hours’ during which folks can sit beside her body, if they like, or gather in another room, if they prefer. The next day there would be a more formal ritual of leave-taking. Maggie has not yet written out the ritual she’d like used, but says she will do so since otherwise her family and coveners would need to create it during a time of grief and stress. She adds that the local Unitarian Universalist congregation would also hold a memorial service for her.

Maggie says the leave-taking ritual would be a mix of Wicca and Feri in the tradition of Victor Anderson. It would involve opening the Gates of the East, South, West and North and inviting each Element to contribute its powers and invoking her coven’s Patron deities. She’d also want someone to invite her power animals and guides: Bumble Bee, Dolphin, Wolf, and Chiron. She’d like her body blessed with salt water and incense and anointed with sage and rosemary. An important part of the ritual would include telling her that it’s time for her to leave her body,”Telling me, explicitly, to go to the light and look for guidance as to my next steps. Telling me, explicitly, that I am forgiven for my assorted wrongdoing and offenses against others; and telling everyone there present that I offer my global forgiveness to anyone who feels they need it.”

She wants her funeral to reflect her spiritual stance in this life and bring the most comfort to the people who are most important to her. She doesn’t anticipate any problems with carrying out her wishes.

As for my thoughts on the rituals of death?

Rituals have to have meaning, they have to serve a purpose, or they are discarded. Even when the religion that gave birth to the ritual is forced out, powerful rituals remain. In the US Military there is a ritual that is played each and every time a military member dies in combat, and it’s a ritual from the burial rites in Athens.

Centuries ago, in Athens, when someone died the body was taken by procession to the burial or cremation site. A family member would say the dead person’s name three times to see if they would answer. It was to show the person was really dead, to bring the reality that they had crossed to the land of the dead and will never be coming back.

The US military does the same thing. They take a final role call of the squad or element the military member belonged to and they call the dead person’s name last. Then they call it again adding in the first name. Then they call it a third time, using the person’s full name. When the person doesn’t respond, it is announced they person is dead and where they died. It’s as powerful a rite now as it was 2 or 3 thousand years ago, which is why it is still done. Which is why this will happen at my funeral.

Cara Schulz

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Cara Schulz is a journalist and author living in Minnesota with her husband and cat. She has previously written for PAGAN+politics, PNC-Minnesota, and Patheos. Her work has appeared in several books by Bibliotheca Alexandrina and she's the author of Martinis & Marshmallows: A Field Guide to Luxury Tent Camping and (Almost) Foolproof Mead Making. She loves red wine, camping, and has no tattoos.
  • This is something that has been on my mind, simply because my family has seen a lot of death in recent years, and I know that my religion means my wishes for services will be entirely different from what is common in my family. I have made it clear to my parents that if I am unlucky enough to die before them, I don’t want a funeral in a church, and I don’t want a Christian leading the proceedings (in my family, that generally leads to threats that you won’t see your loved one again unless you’ve been saved, and I HATE that).

    But I don’t know how seriously they took my comments, or if they would respect and follow my wishes. I have chosen a dear friend, and plan to do what is necessary legally to make certain that my friend, and not my family, is in charge of everything.

  • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

    I’ve not thought of all the nuts and bolts of the processing of my mortal remains, but I do quite like the sound of being interred in a long barrow. Fortunately for me, the long barrow at All Cannings was officially opened last weekend!

    The Long Barrow

    • Finnchuill

      This looks wonderful.

  • Lupa

    As I’ve gotten older I’ve put a lot of thought toward what I want done with my remains once I’m no longer using them. My ideal is a green burial, preferably of the sort where I’m wrapped in a sheet and laid directly in the ground–no concrete shaft, no fancy coffin treated with all sorts of nasty chemicals. Just put me in the earth, and let this flesh that I temporarily borrowed from the cycles of the elements return (somewhat more used). Plant a tree over me–I’m fond of Western Hemlock–and let that be my marker. And for the funeral? Trade good stories and memories about me, and eat good food, and be there for each other. Let it be celebration and mourning together.

    • Mine is similar: wrap me in a sheet, put this body in the ground with an acorn in its mouth and my sword in its hand.

      Funerals are for the living.

  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    Interesting article. A great reminder that it’s important to have a will (or your state’s equivalent) that spells out exactly what you want.

    • Florence Edwards-Miller

      Good comment, but one little note – a will is not actually a good place to put your burial wishes, because it is often not read till a week or more after the death. Particularly with green burial, decisions need to be made almost at once after death, so that would be far too late. A better way of going about things is to designate a legal executor ahead of time who you know will honor your beliefs, put your wishes in writing and give it to them, and also set aside money that can be used for expenses – again, by the time things get sorted out with an estate its often too late for up-front burial expenses.

  • Roi de Guerre

    Thank you for an excellent article and the many wonderful perspectives on a vital (no pun intended) and important topic.

    Hopefully without detracting from the tone of hopefulness in the article and comments I’d like to ask this group for thoughts and reflections on two different scenarios.

    The plans and perspectives offered are well suited to “out” Pagans with supporting family and / or friends. What would we recommend for closeted Pagans? Should they reveal themselves in their wills and burial wishes? How much should they consider the possible disillusionment of loved ones? Would that add to their grief? ( not just the “shock” of discovery but the feeling of not being trusted?)

    In another vein what about those who are openly Pagan yet lack supporting family? Almost 1 year to the day a close family friend, whom we considered as a son to us and brother to our children; a wounded warrior struggling to get VA approval for treatment for the physical and emotional trauma he suffered with daily, took his own life.

    Though openly professing and living his beliefs, his family disregarded his wishes; holding an explicitly Christian funeral and openly mocking his beliefs during their eulogies (“as a child he always loved comic books and I guess he got too much into them and their superheroes as an adult”). An obvious reference to his Mjolnir pendant and ink.

    With respect, what does this group advise for folks in these and similar situations?

    Apologies again for the downer questions on such a well done and upbeat article.

    • Those are very good questions, I think.

      I have no answers for someone for whom their family and friends don’t know; I would say that would be an individual choice on how to deal with it, and I don’t have any suggestions.

      For myself, I don’t know for certain if my family would respect my wishes. That’s why I plan to name one or two friends whom I trust to see it done as the people who should make all the arrangements for me. I’ve been doing some research thanks to this article, and this is something I should be able to do, but it would have to be done legally. I would have to get a lawyer, and see legal papers drawn up. But it is doable, and it’s what I plan. One day, when I’ve finished school, have a good job, and can afford to hire a lawyer.

      All I can do is hope nothing happens to me before then. BUT… just in case it does, I DO plan to write up my wishes, and have it notarized, which should have some legal punch, at least in regards to what I wish done with my body, if not the person or people I would prefer to have in charge.

      • Guest

        That is a very good point, and I’ve actually seen it come up often. What you, and others in similar situations, may need to do is legally designate an executor who will respect your beliefs. You may need the assistance of an attorney to make sure that all the decision making, and the money to make it happen, rests with that person and not with your family. One note, which I also put elsewhere, is that a will is not sufficient, as it is usually not read till after the funeral.

    • What about writing a portion of your will to include the funeral preferences so that the executor can carry them out at your death? That seems to me to be the only way to sidestep a hostile takeover of one’s funerary preferences and services. That said, I am not a lawyer.

      • Roi de Guerre

        I think that would work. I know that my Father (a Christian) did that because he wants a party and not a funeral per se.

        It seems to me the more fundamental question is “who does a funeral benefit?”. And I guess I’m distinguishing here between ritual and interment practices. The answer I come up with is “it depends”.

        If you want to be adamant to a greater or lesser degree that others recognize (and hopefully celebrate) how important your spiritual path is to you, then using a will or other document might be a good answer.

        If you want for people to experience and work through their emotions according to their own beliefs, then maybe you don’t provide many, if any, speficics.

        Either way I do think that planning ahead for this event brings a certain amount of comfort to each of us.

    • Florence Edwards-Miller

      That is a very good point, and it happens far too often.

      What you, and others in similar situations, may need to do is legally designate an executor who will respect your beliefs. You may need the assistance of an attorney to make sure that all the decision making, and the money to make it happen, rests with that person and not with your family.

      One note, which I also put elsewhere, is that a will is not sufficient, as it is usually not read till after the funeral.

  • Charles Cosimano

    I wonder how many have given thought to future archeologists who may dig us up a few thousand years down the road.

    • Josh the Pagan

      Like to be buried with the head of a dog and the tail of a lion to confuse the hell out of them? 🙂

  • Josh the Pagan

    Cremate me, put me in the ground with seeds from a tree, and let the symbol of life from death be my message of hope and renewal for all. Let there be music, lots and lots of music that pulls at the deepest parts of the soul to let everyone know how alive they are and to enjoy every minute of it.


    Organ donor here, though by the time I’m done with them I doubt my parts will be helpful. (Expecting a long life here)

  • For anyone has a preference on your end-of-life care and/or final disposition, make sure to get it down in writing according to the laws of your state and make sure that paperwork is in a place it can be easily found (NOT a safe deposit box – I’ve got mine in my freezer!). Include who you want to carry all of this out for you so there’s no argument about it.

    It’s fairly easy to get individual state information off the internet and do it yourself. If you aren’t comfortable doing it that way, see if you have a working death midwife and/or home funeral guide in your area – or consult with a lawyer.

    Don’t assume telling family is enough.

  • angel in deguise

    I’m not going to say all but one thing I want is to be laid to rest without my jewlery Ifeel that even though that it be mine while here in the presants of all I would much rather leave it to my own children to bless then with the blessings that go along with it so that it may be past on down through the generations beyond me so they don’t have to suffer what I had to and so Iwould be so fondly remembered by my future so that my life and my sufferings weren’t in vain So Ican meet the family of this aira at a better place and we may somehow be togetherwhere they won’t let me down as they have in this aira of time an d also I would like to go to where my family from the prior time before this are
    to meet and greet them I would like for father or my grandfather from my fathers side comeand gather my spirit to take to the place I rightful;ly belong with my family Ialso would like to leave my knowledge to my own family my children for it is part of there inheritince this the way I BELIEVETHAT THIS PORTION OF MY DEATH should be

  • Genexs

    I know I should be focusing on myself, and what should happen to my mortal remains. But this article makes me want to learn more about the wonderful people written about. Like so many of the best articles here, this one reminds us as to why we think and believe as we do.