Archives For Death

My grandmother is dying.

*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-

I have this memory. I am four. I am singing “Skidamarink.” Perhaps you know the song. It’s lyrics are simple:

“Skidamarink a-dink, a-dink,
Skidamarink a-doo,
I love you.

I love you in the morning,
And in the afternoon;
I love you in the evening,
And underneath the moon.

Oh, skidamarink a-dink, a-dink,
Skidamarink a-doo,
I love you.”

She is beaming with pride and recording me on a cassette tape as I sit on the kitchen counter. I feel a swelling of pride. She hugs me. I hug her, gripping her tightly; my arms still chubby with baby fat. My head pressed to her breastbone.

If I had listened hard enough, I would have heard her heartbeat.

*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-

I’ve been watching people die since I was four. I’ve buried 22 people. Some were classmates, others teachers, but most have been family. Not extended family, but close family. It’s shaped my practice as a witch, my relationship with my spirits, and my family.

My grandmother knows I’m a witch, a devil worshiper. I don’t mind her categorization. The Gods of one religion are often the demons of another. It also hasn’t lessened her love of me in any way. She doesn’t consciously know that I work with the dead, or the living about to left behind. But she seems to understand this unconsciously.

*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-

“Erin Morgan…”

“Yes, grandma.”

“I need you to help me organize my jewelry for you girls after I die.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to have us all over and make us mud wrestle for them? It’d be funny. You’d laugh.”

She ignores my comment and gingerly pulls out her jewelry box, necklaces and earrings coiled haphazardly within. I pull out a clip-on earring and notice her inhale sharply. I look up and consider her face. It’s pinched with the realization that the things you hold precious maybe junk to someone else.

“You girls have pierced ears. I guess you won’t want that.”

With my free hand I pull up my shirt and tuck it under my bra while my other hand opens and closes the earring clasp on the base of my bra. I shimmy for her.

“I can use this, grandma. See?” I keep shimming. “It’ll be fantastic for belly dancing.”

She gives me a wry smile. We both know what I’m trying to do. Can’t out run death. Can’t avoid it. But we can laugh at it. Nothing to do but laugh until we cry and cry until we laugh again.

“I have something for you.”

I watch her shuffle to one of her drawers and I follow her. She pulls out a cherry red box and opens it.

“These are opals from Australia. They’re yours. I haven’t worn them since your grandfather passed. You can get them remounted if you don’t like how I had them done.”

“They’re beautiful.”

“Good. They’re yours now.”

*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-

There are many things left unsaid between us. Understandings that I think we need to come to before she passes. But this is her death. It’s her process, not mine. She is living in the process of dying. My place is to help her. I’m struggling to help her where she’ll let me. I’m also trying as much as I can to remember.

Because what is remembered lives.

*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-

My grandfather is standing next to my sister. Their necks are craned with hands shielding eyes from the blistering desert sun. My grandmother exits the RV and walks to my grandfather and sister. She follows their eye-line to me. I am ten and am half way up a 150 foot sandstone cliff trying to get my sister’s kite where it’s wedged into the rock face. The rock, being sandstone, crumbles in my hands with too much pressure. Same with my precarious footholds. I can see her in my peripheral vision. Barely.

There are hushed expletives in her feathery voice. She asks my grandfather what the hell… and is cut off as my grandfather explains the situation. I can hear the fear spiked with anger in her voice. She questions my grandfather’s sanity and abandons her argument with him. Her voice rings out, echoing through Red Rock Canyon. I am now five feet from the kite. “Erin Morgan! Get down here NOW!” “I can’t!” I shout over my shoulder. “I’m almost to the kite!” I reach the kite. It’s only then I remember I don’t know how to go down. I look at my family over my shoulder. My grandfather’s and sister’s faces are unreadable. But not my grandmothers’. Her face is lined with worry and fear.

Even now I can hear her silent prayer: “please God, don’t let her fall; please God, don’t let her fall.”

I didn’t fall.

-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*

What is remembered, lives.

It’s a simple enough phrase, yet for me, it contains rich concepts that we only mine in the face of the enigma of Death. Even then the path to understanding was only opened when I chose to open the door and walk the path the words laid before me. Contained within those words are a type of grace, a spell, a binding, a life, a death, a reconnection, an undertaking, a renewal, an awareness. It’s this last word, awareness, that contains the spark of possibility in the face of Death. When I opened to it fully, this awareness was voluminous and multifaceted.

Death, like life, is a process. A series of moments, memories, and events; some planned, others unplanned, all are weathered. It’s through remembering that my beloved dead live again within me. It’s through the act of remembering that I bring the lessons of the past with me. It’s how I make sense of the senseless by reframing old memories with new eyes and understandings. But I had to do it with intention. Remembering in this way has helped me see my ancestors as the flawed humans they are and hold them with compassion. This in turn has helped me increase the compassion I hold for myself. And the love. It’s in doing this work that I’ve realized that when I heal myself, somehow the dead are also healed. Maybe it’s because when the cycle of unintentional and intentional wounds that are passed from generation to generation is stopped, they can let go of their guilt and forgive themselves. Maybe it’s because love can move back in time to heal a broken heart. If you have had the magical experience that says all space and time is here and now, then this is certainly possible. Maybe it’s because all the ballads are true: that love is the only thing that survives.

-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*

“Your parents never told me that.” My grandmother’s face is contorted with worry, concern, and pain. “Why didn’t they tell me?”

I had just told her of a harrowing experience that left its indelible mark on me. She’d wanted to know why I acted a certain way. So I told her.

“What could you have done, grandma?”

“I could have loved you more.”

“Oh grandma, you love me enough already.”

-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*

And I want to hold on to her love. It’s flawed and it’s human, but it’ll be the only thing I’ll have left when she passes. Because her love, and her flaws and grace, are apart of the fabric of me. Because I need that love to carry me through life and eventually my own death. I want to pass on that love too. I want that love to be remembered, to leave it’s indelible imprint on me and my descendants. Maybe it’s the only way we achieve true immortality.

Because what is remembered, lives.

There was a time when James Arthur Ray was a heavy hitter in the world of New Age, self-help, guru-dom. He appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s popular daytime talk show during the height of “The Secret” (aka the “Law of Attraction”) craze, appearing in the 2006 “Secret” film, and collaborating with other Secret authors. His 2008 book “Harmonic Wealth” climbed the New York Times bestseller list, and he had positioned himself as someone who would use New Age teachings to, well, get you rich. This is hardly new, the New Thought movement, which heavily influenced the New Age movement, also concerned itself with the acquisition of wealth alongside spiritual enrichment, but Ray was a particularly turbo-charged and modern variant of this old profession.

Rays kingdom of macho spiritual affluence came crashing down in 2011 when he was convicted of negligent homicide in the deaths of three participants in a makeshift sweat-lodge ceremony that took place in 2009. The tragedy amplified everything wrong with the sort of empire Ray was running: near-abusive indifference to the suffering of his charges, a (deadly) misunderstanding of spiritual technologies that he was appropriating, and the inability to deal with his own edifice of his godlike confidence collapsing. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath, Ray spent a lot of time on damage control, instead of on his fatal failures. One Ray staffer, in a conference call to followers after the ceremony said that “the two that had passed and they left their bodies during the ceremony and had so much fun they chose not to come back and that was their choice that they made.” Ray initially called the deaths an “accident,” but that statement seems to have been scrubbed from his website. Ray, found guilty, served only two years in prison, and was released from custody this past Summer. During his incarceration, the New Age industry shuddered a bit, perhaps momentarily humbled by the deaths, not to mention that opulent spiritual searching had gone out of fashion in the age of Occupy (at least on the surface).

Those who assumed that a chastened Ray, now finally free, would lay low for awhile until the memory of his crimes were faded, were in for something of a shock. Ray almost immediately started blogging again, reaching out to followers, and was soon booked on primetime television. Appearing on the Piers Morgan show, alone, with no counter-point, on November 25th. There, he got to work rebuilding his empire, hoping to appear evolved and transformed from his time in prison.

“I think the most difficult thing I can ever imagine is investing your entire life in helping people, and then finding them getting hurt,” he said. “It’s just the antithesis of anything that I had ever stood for or wanted. And so that anguish has continued every single day since that moment.”

The organization Seek Safely, formed by family members of those killed in Ray’s sweat lodge ceremony, have been pushing for Ray to make real, concrete, promises about his teachings going forward.

“It has been our hope that Mr. Ray would cease and desist from practicing self-help programs. However, Mr. Ray has returned to national media, re-launching his brand, complete with a fresh website, blog entries and testimonials.

In an effort to protect people from further acts of gross negligence, we have asked Mr. Ray to sign the SEEK Safely Promise. The SEEK Safely Promise is a commitment that self-help practitioners can make to provide truthfulnessaccuracyrespectprotectionintegrity andsafety to their customers. While over 20 self-help practitioners have made the commitment to the SEEK Safely Promise, Mr. Ray has yet to respond.

While SEEK Safely supports everyone’s journey of growth and improvement, we do not condone Mr. Ray’s returning to the public stage to promote his business without his first making a commitment to provide a safe environment for his customers.”

The Verge, in a longform piece of journalism, explores Ray’s career, the sweat lodge deaths, and his new attempts at a comeback. At its heart is a James Arthur Ray who doesn’t seem all that different than the one who entered prison.

“The Browns watched the interview, but, they say, were not invited to participate — Ray stipulated he could be the only guest. Ginny Brown watched, looking for some evidence of a changed man. “If he doesn’t understand that he caused this, he’s not a safe person to follow. I do believe that he’s sorry that Kirby and James and Liz are dead. I think he’s sorry that this tragedy happened. But he doesn’t understand that he needs to apologize, that he caused this to happen. And I don’t think he’ll apologize for that,” she says. She and her husband have asked James Arthur Ray to sign the Seek Safely promise. He has refused.”

The question now is, will the New Age Movement allow for Ray’s comeback? Will his former followers? For those in our broader religious and spiritual community who overlap into New Age events, what is our duty, and what are the lessons of Ray? Can a multi-million dollar industry, and those who want a piece of it, ever be truly humbled? When you think you’re speaking with the voice of the universe, or of God(s), what limits you? What stops you from treating students like servants, or pets, and appropriating from cultures one barely understands?

In the twenty years I have been a part of the Pagan movement, many have (publicly and privately) yearned for “New Age” money, the big paychecks that come from luring the rich and powerful to your classes. But with that inflated pocketbook comes the deadly over-feeding of ego and desire. The guru humbled by controversy is nothing new, power often corrupts. The question is can this industry, and those who would emulate it, really turn toward a more just and accountable system before the next deadly “accident” occurs? Maybe spiritual teachers should never allowed to be rich, maybe a rich spiritual teacher has learned, and is transmitting, the wrong lessons.

This week has weighed heavily on me.  As the mother of three school age children, I spent this holiday week in-and-out of classrooms. With the Newtown tragedy still fresh, there was an underlying uneasiness within our elementary school – a profound sadness and unspoken fear.  While I looked at all the children’s projects taped to the walls, one phrase kept passing through my mind:

“How could God have allowed that to happen?”

Pere Lachaise

From Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise
Photo courtesy of Leo Reynolds of Flickr

You wonder how a practicing Pagan, a Wiccan Priestess could ask this question? But I’m not asking it. I’m hearing it. I’m reading it. Whether it’s spoken by neighbors or published on the internet, this burning question is drowning out much of the news reports and political calls-to-action as people desperately grasp for meaning.

I began to wonder how we, as Pagans, approach this question. Not for ourselves within our Pagan community but for others outside of our faith. How can we, as Pagans, talk to a depressed Catholic man who has recently lost his wife in a flood?  How do we help a young Jewish girl find peace after losing her friend in a war? How do we calm a Methodist mother whose child has just been shot in a classroom?

Whether at a private memorial service or on the front-lines of tragedy, we all will be or have been put in the position to console the grieving. Given we are in a minority religion, there is very good chance that the grieving individual is not Pagan. How do we console someone who understands the Divine in an entirely different way?

Sandra L. Harris, M.Div., Pagan Pastoral Counseling

Sandra L. Harris, M.Div., Pagan Pastoral Counseling

Several months ago, when I interviewed Sandra Harris, the master’s graduate from Cherry Hill Seminary, we briefly discussed this topic in relation to the Hurricane Sandy disaster.  Aside from her work in hospital chaplaincy, Sandra was accepted to the Fairfax County Community Chaplain Corps, an interfaith first-response unit that “provides spiritual care and support to community members during and after a local emergency or man-made or natural disaster.”

I turned to Sandra this week to revisit her advice. She shared this:

When something happens none of us knows why, in all its details, cosmic or mundane. Asking the question [“Why?”] is a very normal human behavior.  We count on the Universe to have some order, some predictability. The question arises because the Universe didn’t follow the rules and we fear there are other things we assumed to be true that maybe aren’t. 

[As a Pagan friend, minister or confidant] our best response is one that, first, affirms the need and validity of the question and the questioner. Our second response is to encourage the questioner to talk with the aim of releasing what meaning he or she fears the event has. Finally, our third and most difficult job is to help the questioner re-frame the event in some way that leaves hope alive and allows meaning to grow from what happens next. This is where we walk with the questioner while the he or she questions the Divine. We just facilitate that conversation, gently reigning it in when it sidetracks down dark alleys, trying to steer clear from the “if only” and the “what ifs.” 

In all cases, never take away hope, stay in the “here and now,” and never be so presumptuous as to impugn meaning to an event in another’s life.

Lady Emrys

Lady Emrys, Wiccan Priestess
Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Sandra’s thoughts were echoed by another Pagan minister, Lady Emrys, who is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) with extensive experience in hospice and palliative care as well as psychotherapy. She has worked to ease the spirits of both grieving families and the dying themselves. For much of her career, Lady Emrys worked in the heavily Baptist Deep South with many of those years spent at St. Joeseph’s, a Catholic hospital in Atlanta. Her patients and clients are rarely Pagan. When I posed my question to her, she remarked:

When we sit with people who are experiencing this level of suffering, it’s not about what you say. It’s about how well you listen; how well you can create a space for them to safely feel and say whatever is in their hearts.  It’s about how well you can stay present with them, when their pain is so difficult to witness, that all you want to do is fix them.

Whether as minister or as a friend, helping another in this capacity is no easy task for even the trained. Lady Emrys added, “On rare occasions [when] I had interactions with people who were nearly impossible to work with due to a combination of fundamentalism and personality issues, I partnered with another team member, especially the chaplain. This was always helpful in my own self-care and safety.”

In the end, whether the client is Pagan or another faith, in order to truly be present as both Lady Emrys and Sandra describe, we must step outside the barriers that separate our religions. We must journey far beyond interfaith constructs to reach a boundless space where only universal humanity exists. Lady Emrys reminds us:

Regardless of our differences, we are humans with similar needs and desires. If we focus on our similarities, on the compassion we have for our fellow human beings, the connection we make will cause those differences to become insignificant.

So, when they ask, “How could God have allowed that to happen?”  We respond, “Well, what do you think?”    And then, once there, we listen.  Most importantly,  Sandra Harris reminds us, “Silence is OK.”

Merry Solstice, Light the lights and may peace find you today and always.

 

 

 

The Gifts of Madame Death

Eric O. Scott —  November 16, 2012 — 19 Comments
Image taken at the Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis, MO

Death and Birth at the Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis, MO.
Image by William Scott.

Madame Death’s dressed all in black and seated next to a battered metal table. We do not look at her, or touch her, or do anything else to acknowledge her. For her part, she says nothing, but only watches our circle while we partake in the first communion of the night: water and crackers, nothing else.

We chew on this meager harvest, and for a moment, at least, we forget that we stand in the backyard of a house in St. Louis, Missouri, a house with electricity, heat, and more food waiting in the kitchen than we could possibly eat in one night. The ritual takes us to a darker place, a hungry place, a pit in our collective unconscious that knows that the coming months bring a time want and death. We know that we travel through a gate tonight, a gate on the road between bountiful autumn and desperate winter, and the gate is called Samhain.

For me, this Samhain cuts deeper. I expect it is the same for the rest of Sabbatsmeet, too – Sabbatsmeet being a group of covens and unattached Witches that share the festivals together. I have been a part of one of those covens, Pleiades, since I was born. We range from infants – little Julian, less than a year old – to retirees. Most of us have been a part of Sabbatsmeet for decades. This is my family, the same or more so than my legal relatives. And this year, our family has been visited by Madame Death.

“We have come to the part of the ceremony where we remember the dead,” my father says. He sets the cup and the plate, now barren even of simple grain and water, on the battered table. “Speak their names, and remember them.”

I don’t recognize most of the names spoken: people who were known and loved by someone within our circle, but who were not of the circle themselves. Sometimes we mention someone better known: a writer, or a musician. (Someone says “Whitney Houston,” and the circle goes quiet save for a few badly-suppressed snickers.) But we all knew the name that hung heaviest on our hearts.

“Barb,” says my father, the first name called.

Madame Death came to her this year. She arrived after a lengthy correspondence, the culmination of many years of cancer. We had barely seen her in years – her health had been too poor, and she had lived too far away, to travel to St. Louis for the sabbats. But still, we missed her – she had been ours, and now, she was gone. Her absence felt like January wind through a broken window.

I do not cry in the moment’s silence that follows. Instead, just as Barb’s name is called a second time, a memory floods in…

Another Samhain, more than a decade ago. I was 13, perhaps. There was no traditional ritual that year, but instead a sort of haunted house… We wandered through the halls of a familiar place made strange, encountering forms we knew and personalities we did not. I can’t remember the things they said anymore, except for one.

I remember walking into the bedroom, lit in sensuous, dangerous red. A woman with wild auburn hair sits on the bed, dressed all in black. She smiles, and it’s Barb’s smile, but possessed by the spirit of the night. She curls a finger, beckoning me to come closer.

“Oh, Groucho,” she says. “I’ve been waiting all night for you…”

My mind fills with the echo of Barb’s voice, a voice never to be heard again.

For many of those around me, I am sure the pain of Barb’s death comes from the memory of their time together – the years of shared experience, inside and outside the ritual, that make up a friendship. It’s not quite the same for me, being younger, a child of the second generation of Sabbatsmeet. I loved Barb, but I knew her entirely from Sabbatsmeet. I knew of her life outside – that she was a foster mother and a social worker, for example – but I knew her from Wicca. And her death, the third loss our circle had suffered in as many years, forced me to confront an inescapable truth: our family was aging. Some day Madame Death would come to my elders. Someday I would call their names at Samhain.

When we are finished with the calling, my parents tell us to join hands and close our eyes. I take their hands, feel the bones of their fingers twined into mine.

I doubt it would do much good to describe my meditation-visions; they were largely darkness, a dance between night and the ritual fire. Sometimes I thought I could see some of those we had lost: Tom, or Kurt, or Image. Once I thought I saw Barb, dressed forever in the Samhain black of memory. But mostly I felt the heat of the fire, and the cold of the air, and the warmth of my family’s hands pressed to mine.

My father’s voice called me back to consciousness. “Look now,” he says, “Look upon the true gift of Death.”

Madame Death opens her black robe. Beneath her hood, she is a redheaded woman, smiling. In her lap sits a serene infant – little Julian.

Because Madame Death is also Madame Life, my father explains, because every act of destruction leads to space for creation to happen, because without loss there can be no magic – and to most Wiccans, all of this will, of course, be old hat. You will have heard this all before, in books and speeches and rituals. But it’s good to be reminded of it on Samhain, reminded of why, to Wiccans, this is the most important night of the year.

I appreciate that, but it’s what my father says next that strikes me clean to the heart.

“In twenty or thirty years, some of us will be gone, and it will be Julian standing here, saying our names.” He pauses. “And that is a good thing.”

The current narrative in the United States, at the moment I write this, is that the nation has begun to change, that the dominant culture of white suburban Protestantism has begun to give way towards something more diverse. I can’t say how true that is. Life here in Missouri still feels quite entrenched in the culture the media pundits tell me has begun dying away.

But still. I look at Julian, with the serious eyes and the inviting cheeks, Julian, who is the child of my brother in Coven Pleiades, Julian, whose father and father’s father have stood in this circle before him. I look at this child, and in him I see everything I have ever been given and everything I have it in me to give. I look at him, and I see the future of our religion. Even more important than our religion, I see the future of our family, of us.

Someday my parents will be dead. Someday I will, too. Someday Julian will be an old man, and if I am lucky, he will call my name at Samhain. Someday Julian himself will have taken the hand of Madame Death, and some other child, a child whose face I can barely imagine now, will be standing in the circle that her great-grandparents once knew.

We drink at last the second communion, the honey wine and delicious cakes, singing “Hoof and Horn” as we pass the cup and plate from hand to hand. We remember the dead, but we celebrate the living.

In the lap of Madame Death, the little baby stares at the ritual fire, and then lets out a sharp and vital shout.

It is a good thing.

Yesterday opening arguments were heard in the trial of New Age self-help guru James Arthur Ray, who’s charged with manslaughter after three people died during a sweat lodge ceremony led by Ray in late 2009.

Prosecutors claim Ray, 53, was reckless and that the lodge — made of willow trees and branches, and covered with tarpaulins and blankets — was heated to a perilously high temperature, causing the participants to suffer dehydration and heat stroke. [...] “Three vibrant, healthy adults … entered a sweat lodge at a retreat center in Sedona,” prosecutor Sheila Polk said during her opening statement. “Each one was eager to gain knowledge and each was looking for wisdom and personal insight. Instead of growth and enlightenment, Kirby, James and Liz found death.”

Defense attorney Luis Li seeks to prove that these deaths were nothing more than “a tragic accident,” even implying that poisoned building materials might be to blame, while prosecution are painting a portrait of a power-driven and negligent egomaniac. They plan to call around 50 witnesses during the length of the trial. Meanwhile, CNN profiles the voices of Native Americans frustrated at how their cultural and religious traditions have been abused and tainted by figures like Ray.

The Ray case highlights an outrage that’s long existed for many Native Americans. They are tired of their traditions being co-opted by others and exploited for capital gain. They resent that a ceremony they view as sacred is now being tied to terms like “death trap.” They don’t want their ancient ways to be deemed fashionable or inspire impersonators. [...]  Autumn Two Bulls, 29, also lives on Pine Ridge, and just thinking about the dream catchers that hang in trendy gift shops, the non-Native Americans who make money off her people’s artifacts, makes her cry “rape.” “Haven’t native people been through enough?” says Two Bulls, a writer who created Reservation H.E.L.P. (Helping Every Lakota Person), an organization to help impoverished families. “It’s a fad to be Indian today. … They envision us like a fantasy culture,” but the harsh reality is one they helped create and won’t face, she suggests.

Despite the negative publicity surrounding Ray, that hasn’t slowed down other New Age personalities from making blatantly false claims of spiritual authority relating to American Indian tribes, and misusing their spiritual technologies. Recently Native American activists rallied to protest an appearance by Kiesha “Little Grandmother” Crowther, who makes the audacious claim of being “made shaman of the Sioux and Salish tribes” (a claim both tribes deny, and one she has since modified to a more generic “Native American elder”).

As modern Pagans, these issues affect us in a number of different ways, and no doubt this case will trigger some soul-searching about how we market and utilize our own practices. We should show solidarity with those who are trying to prevent the fiscal exploitation of Native American religions and culture, we can utilize our own overlap with various New Age communities to emphasize that the actions of Ray is something more than a tragic isolated incident to be glossed over, and we can work to engage in greater awareness of how the misuse of spiritual technologies can often result in tragedy. I will be covering this case as it progresses, and looking at the long-term ramifications for all involved.

As the increasingly grim and tragic suicide numbers continue to climb, as children suspected of being gay have their arms broken, and upstanding gay college students are bizarrely singled out by city officials, we inevitably have to ask, again, where is all this hate and fear coming from? Why do we have to start a campaign to remind young people that there will come a time when the hell and torments of their youth will end? Why is our culture killing these kids? Baptist minister Cody J. Sanders thinks he has the answer, the root of this hateful and tragic crop.

Anti-gay bullying is a theological issue because it has a theological base. I find it difficult to believe that even those among us with a vibrant imagination can muster the creative energy to picture a reality in which anti-gay violence and bullying exist without the anti-gay religious messages that support them.

These messages come in many forms, degrees of virulence, and volumes of expression. The most insidious forms, however, are not those from groups like Westboro Baptist Church. Most people quickly dismiss this fanaticism as the red-faced ranting of a fringe religious leader and his small band of followers.

More difficult to address are the myriad ways in which everyday churches that do a lot of good in the world also perpetuate theologies that undergird and legitimate instrumental violence. The simplistic, black and white lines that are drawn between conceptions of good and evil make it all-too-easy to apply these dualisms to groups of people. When theologies leave no room for ambiguity, mystery and uncertainty, it becomes very easy to identify an “us” (good, heterosexual) versus a “them” (evil, gay).”

In the end, it comes down to theology. Not, as Sanders points out, the easily defeated cartoon hatred of Westboro, but the more subtle belief systems that make even “accepted” GLBTQ individuals the “other”. A theology that, even if unspoken, privileges a certain kind of person over another.

“Additionally, hierarchical conceptions of value and worth are implicit in many of our theological notions. Needless to say, value and worth are not distributed equally in these hierarchies. God is at the top, (white, heterosexual) men come soon after and all those less valued by the culture (women, children, LGBT people, the poor, racial minorities, etc.) fall somewhere down below. And it all makes perfect sense if you support it with a few appropriately (mis)quoted verses from the Bible.

With dualistic conceptions of good and evil and hierarchical notions of value and worth, it becomes easy to know who it is okay to hate or to bully or, seemingly more benignly, to ignore. And no institutions have done more to create and perpetuate the public disapproval of gay and lesbian people than churches.”

If you create no space in our most primal belief systems for nuance, for difference, for multiple understandings of sacred, you end up creating classes of people who are lesser, who are ripe for torments and persecution. While defenders of these theologies talk of tradition and incremental change, more die, and are harassed, every day. It is for this reason, among many others, that I think we not only have to reassure kids that “it gets better”, but we also have to reject theologies that empower hatreds of this kind and replace them with something else.

“I don’t think it takes Sherlock Holmes to parse out why all of these things are taking place. It is because certain religions not only tolerate these negative opinions of LGBTQ people, they propagate them; they enshrine them in their sacred texts (even though some of those texts can be interpreted in other ways); they preach them from their pulpits.”P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, founder of the Ekklesía Antínoou

My “something else” is the modern Pagan movement, but it isn’t the only “something else” out there. These alternatives to a norm that pushes “others” to the margins, despite how small they are, are seen as a threat to the stability of the dominant faiths. Which is why the fringes of those dominant faiths are so obsessed with the supposed evils we commit.

“While the lukewarm and ignorant think of these customs as “just harmless fun,” the vortexes of hell are releasing new assignments against souls. Witches take pride in laughing at the ignorance of natural men (those who ignore the spirit realm).”

The faiths that are more refined simply mock us, though even they are showing signs of concern at our growth and acceptance. Despite these obstacles, it is more important than ever for us to make it known that our alternatives exist. To be visible and to make common cause with those who are told to hate themselves by the dominant faith lens. For no other reason than, in the word of Harvey Milk, to “give ‘em hope”.

The culture of suicide and self-hate has to end. The culture of violence and oppression towards an imagined other has to end. It must. Those who oppose the dismantling of these theologies, of these understandings, can’t be allowed to enable the bullies, the ostracization, the enshrining of prejudice into law. When Matthew Shephard happened, we all vowed never again, yet here we are, with Matthew’s mother once more calling for the deaths to stop. We, as Pagans, must work harder than ever to change culture, and stop this senseless death in the name of enforcing the boundaries of tradition.

How We Deal With Death

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  September 6, 2010 — 10 Comments

Maybe it’s the end of Summer, the recent high-profile passings in our community, or maybe my own recent week-long sojourn to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, but I’ve noticed a decent number of news articles focusing on death, how we deal with it, and what we believe comes after it (if anything). The New York Times recently did a piece on reincarnation, and how that belief in multiple lives has been growing in popularity lately.

“According to data released last year by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a quarter of Americans now believe in reincarnation. (Women are more likely to believe than men; Democrats more likely than Republicans.) Julia Roberts recently told Elle magazine that though she was raised Christian, she had become “very Hindu.” Ms. Roberts believes that in her past life she was a “peasant revolutionary,” and said that when her daughter sits in a certain way she knows “there’s someone there I didn’t get the benefit of knowing … It’s an honor for me to continue to shepherd that.” At Cannes in May, a Thai film about reincarnation, “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” won the highest prize. In it, an old man on his deathbed sees the dead as vividly as the living, and his past life as an ox is as clear as his present one.”

The article talks about regression therapy, and interviews reincarnation superstar Dr. Brian Weiss, author of “Many Lives, Many Masters”, along with religion professor Stephen Prothero, who thinks this trend is tied to our relative affluence (“Reincarnation means never having to say you’re dead.”). Others, like Clare Stein at The Kenyon Review, reacting to the NYT piece, wonder if reincarnation is our misunderstanding of another phenomenon.

In Joyce’s Ulysses, Molly Bloom mispronounces metempsychosis as “met him pike hoses.” In some cases, this is what the eagerness to believe in reincarnation strikes me as: a mispronunciation of the Collective Unconscious, or something like it. The wealth of history inhabiting the places we like to claim as exclusively ours– mistaken for immortality.

I’m somewhat agnostic on the question of if we have lived past lives, or if those memories are part of a collective unconscious, but I do believe that Reclaiming and other modern Pagan traditions are on the right path when they say: “What is remembered, lives”. A look at ancestor reverence and worship in many cultures will show a common thread of keeping those who have passed among us, of involving the dead in our lives.

With fanfare befitting a parade, the shrouded remains of 17 bodies were removed from the family crypt, some sprayed with expensive perfume, others splashed with sparkling wine. Five brass bands took turns belting out cheerful melodies, and each emerging corpse was lifted onto the shoulders of its own set of revelers. The celebrators then joyously trotted about, dancing with the bones of the dead. “It is good to thank the ancestors in person because we owe them everything,” said Rakotonarivo Henri, 52, an out-of-breath farmer who had just set down his dead grandfather and was moving toward the remains of his aunt. “We do not come from mud; we come from these bodies.”

Ancestor veneration, as our movement has matured, has become a larger topic of discussion. We are also more concerned about our rites of burial, how we are buried, and seeing that our dead are properly honored. I feel that as we continue, you’ll see more emphasis placed on our “mighty dead”, and that our rituals and traditions will start to mirror existing indigenous beliefs regarding the ancestors. But even in a secular context, I think the idea of memory, or being remembered, is growing.

“Music lovers can now be immortalised when they die by having their ashes baked into vinyl records to leave behind for loved ones. A UK company called And Vinyly is offering people the chance to press their ashes in a vinyl recording of their own voice, their favourite tunes or their last will and testament. Minimalist audiophiles might want to go for the simple option of having no tunes or voiceover, and simply pressing the ashes into the vinyl to result in pops and crackles.”

For the record, if I’m cremated, I’d like to be made into a copy of the The Cure’s “Disintegration”.


A statue of the Mayo brothers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
A prime example of ancestor veneration in all but name.

Why the increased interest in reincarnation, in ancestor veneration, in being remembered? I think it has partially to do with an impulse that has always been with us. One that, to certain extents, has been discouraged by our post-Enlightenment culture, or only approved in special contexts (saints, national heroes). For so long we have been afraid to acknowledge that we long to make the dead a part of our lives. To not simply “move on”, but to continue to weave them into the tapestry of our existence. That it isn’t morbid, but loving. As we approach Samhain, Day of the Dead, and other Winter holidays of remembrance and ancestor veneration, let us focus on how we integrate those who are no longer with us, but are still very much with us.

My mother died early last Friday morning.  She was 97.  Her body was worn out, but not her spirit.  I’ve had the privilege of sitting vigil with the dying in the past, and I was with my father during his dying days in a hospital 19 years ago, but this was the first time I’d ever been with someone dying of old age.  Besides, one’s relationship with one’s mother is the closets and in most cases the most complicated.  It certainly was in our case.

Named Elizabeth, called Betty by our father and her friends, our mother tended towards formality. She was a woman who knew her own mind, held strong opinions, and believed that women should have equal educational and professional opportunities with men.  Unfortunately, she didn’t live in an era when this was the case.  So instead of being an executive, a role I think would have suited her temperament and talents perfectly, she became a homemaker.
She came from a line of Methodist ministers.  Her maternal grandfather, Alpha Gilruth Kynett, preached a conservative form of Protestantism, more conservative than most Methodists today are known to be.  Mother saw life in black and white, right and wrong, good and bad.  There was only one way to look at anything, the one dictated by the King James Bible and middle class Euro-American society.  She believed in Heaven and Hell, in salvation and atonement and reunion in God’s Heaven with those who’ve gone before. 
I’m a Pagan, with a less certain but more holistic view of the world and how it operates.  I also consider myself to be a Priestess of the Dark Mother, a death priestess, a midwife of souls.
For as long as the human race — the one race, that comes in different sizes, shapes and colors, like birds and fishes, dogs and cats — has been around, people have contemplated the puzzlement of death.  When we can clearly see that the mysterious energy that animated our loved one has left a body and an empty husk remains, we have wondered where that soul has gone.
A few people have had a glimpse of that place.  They’ve survived NDEs (near death experiences).  Their descriptions after they return to this plane of existence vary, but most commonly they speak of white light or a bright tunnel. Some speak of seeing departed loved ones, seeing Jesus with open arms, or even, for a small percentage, seeing horrors.
I don’t believe anyone, other than someone who’s undergone an NDE, who tells me she or he knows what happens when life leaves.  We just don’t know.  Or maybe we don’t remember.  Some of us may claim with “crippling certainty” to know.  Some of us have stories of the worlds beyond the veil of the world of the living.  We often speak in metaphors.  The question remains:  Where do we go?  Another question is:  Does it really matter?  I don’t know if it does not not, but I know people will continue to contemplate this.
When our mother took a bad fall in her early 90s, the hospital released her to a “convalescent hospital,”  For the first week or two she was pretty out of it.  I brought a painting from her house to hang on the wall at the foot of the bed.  It’s a large oil of Jesus as fisher of men casting a net from a boat on the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus is oddly alone in the boat.  She and our father bought this painting in their retirement years from an artist on the Ocean City, NJ boardwalk.  Mom loved it.  She proudly displayed it over the living room couch.  So I thought that since she couldn’t walk without aid and would probably be spending a lot of time in bed, and she couldn’t see all that well either, having this familiar painting to view would give her comfort.  She had been declining both physically and mentally for some years at this point.  She believed in Jesus and the resurrection of the soul after death.
When my former husband, Rod, was dying of cancer, we hung a painting of Kurukulla (Red Tara) at the foot of his bed, in the West, the direction towards which many Pagans understand the soul to travel.  West is where the Sun sets.  Our daughter, then 12, stood at the foot of the bed to keep her father from leaving.
My friend John McClimans envisioned the place where he was headed as he approached his death as the yoni of his matron, Hekate, dark and mysterious and ablaze with glistening stars.
When I helped my friend Raven Moonshadow to die, I went with him to a place where he was taken into the lap of Kali Ma.  I went as far as I could while he went all the way.  I saw her jeweled toenails.
I have a painting (actually a fine print of an acrylic I watched the artist working on at CoG‘s MerryMeet in Minnesota in 1997) of Kali Ma done by visionary artist Paul Rucker.  This painting evokes for me the encounter I had when I traveled with Raven towards the Other Side.  I think I would find it a comforting sight when I am facing my own demise.
I phoned my cousin John in Honolulu this week to tell him of his Aunt Elizabeth’s passing.  He’s been writing to her all his life, and continued to write even after she no longer understood the words in his letters.  John has been a Quaker all his adult life and possesses a doctorate in religion and ecology.  We talked for more than two hours, about all manner of things, including this painting that hung on the wall of Mom’s room.  He suggests that each of us has a different conception of where we’re headed when we die, and that whatever image gives one comfort during the dying process is the one to use, religion aside.  I think he’s right.
My sister Catherine and I are giving the painting to Mother’s Methodist Church to hang in her memory.  I think she’d have liked that a lot.
~ Guest posted by M. Macha NightMare at Broomstick Chronicles.  Thanks, Jason.  I’m honored.

The Wilmington News-Journal reports on a tragedy often feared by those who choose a different religious path than their parents. In 2006, Jeanea Irvin and Timothy A. Boyer were married in the Islamic tradition. Irvin had converted to Islam eight years ago, and when she died her wishes were to be buried in the Islamic tradition. But because she never obtained a civil marriage alongside the religious one, or left a living will, her Christian parents took control of the body and are burying her in the Christian tradition.

“Irvin’s husband, Timothy A. Boyer, asked the court Thursday night to stop the funeral, stating he wanted her to be buried according to the Islamic faith. The request was contrary to the wishes of Irvin’s family, who wanted to give her a Christian burial. Friday morning, Chancery Court Vice Chancellor John W. Noble denied Boyer’s request, because he was not legally married to Irvin, Noble ruled. The couple did not obtain a government-issued license but were married in a religious ceremony April 23, 2006. According to Boyer’s petition, Irvin’s father, James Washington, refused to recognize his daughter’s marriage to Boyer because it was not a legal union.”

One wonders how many modern Pagans this has happened to because they didn’t seek a civil marriage alongside a handfasting, or expressed their burial preferences in a will. Even if you are legally married, avoiding advance directives and wills can lead to serious problems if your family holds different ethical or religious views. One look at the Terri Schiavo controversy is proof enough for that.

In our secular society, no religious law or tradition supersedes civil or criminal law, which is why Pagans can’t perform legal gay marriages (outside Massachusetts), or claim burial rights over a fellow co-religionist/adherent. Until such time as a worthwhile compromise is made between religious and civil conceptions of marriage, life decisions, and death, we should all take the proper legal precautions. File an advanced directive stating your ethical, medical, and religious preferences, file a last will and testament naming an executor and explaining your post-death preferences, and finally, give Power of Attorney to a trusted spouse or loved one who will honor your wishes should you become unable to advocate for yourself.

If you wish to die as you lived, take steps now to avoid being dishonored by post-mortem religious ceremonies not of your choosing, and spare your family and loved ones a legal struggle over your perceived wishes.