Archives For Death

[Columnist Lisa Roling is one of our talented monthly columnists. Typically she writes our book reviews. However, this month she takes a break to share her personal experience as a care giver. If you enjoy reading Lisa’s work, consider donating to our Wild Hunt Fall Fund Drive. We are completely reader-funded, so it is you that makes it all possible! So, donate today and help keep The Wild Hunt going for another year. Thank You.]

I didn’t give it much thought when the staff psychologist called and asked me to perform a suicide assessment on Glen.* Since I worked in palliative medicine, it was not an everyday occurrence for me like it was for the psychiatry department. But it wasn’t my first assessment and, as time has proven, it would also not be my last.

It was, however, the most memorable.

Glen was an elderly gentleman who had lived with a slow-growing cancer for nearly a third of his life. Aside from his cancer, his life had been full and good. His marriage was deeply satisfying until his wife’s death a few years prior. Glen enjoyed being a father and a grandfather. He had been passionate about his career then equally passionate about his retirement. His cancer had not been very threatening, just a sort of background noise that he occasionally had to deal with and manage. That was until the week before I met him.

Public Domain / Pixabay

Public Domain / Pixabay

His health had begun to decline significantly over the previous year, a sign that his cancer had become worse. He put off going to the doctor as he already knew what the news would be. He focused his energy instead on getting his affairs in order – updating his will to include his grandchildren; cleaning out and packing up his house; travelling as best he could.

When he did finally go to the doctor and do all the follow-up testing, it was discovered that he was terribly malnourished, had a life-threatening infection, and that his primary tumor had grown substantially. His doctor, apparently choosing to err on the side of blunt honesty, informed Glen that because of the location of his tumor, his death would be by asphyxiation. The tumor was destined to close off his airway over the next several months even though he would remain otherwise relatively healthy and competent. He would likely be very much aware of his suffocation, much as a person drowning would experience theirs.

Naturally, Glen was a horrified by this nightmarish prognosis. He was admitted to the hospital to begin a regimen of IV antibiotics for his infection. In a moment of honest dialogue with his nurse, he admitted that he had decided to commit suicide.

It was at this point that I was asked to see him. For the first 30 minutes of our visit, I just sat at his bedside and listened to Glen. Listening to him talk about his fears, his joys, his plans, including his plan to end his own life before that tumor could strangle him. When he finally turned to me I could sense his anger and defensiveness, as though he was ready to fight with me. As though he was ready to tell me where I could shove my platitudes. But I sat quietly, allowing the silence to be.

He eventually asked indignantly if I was going to have him involuntarily committed. I shook my head and said I saw no reason for it. He looked perplexed. He repeated to me that he fully intended to commit suicide as soon as things got really bad. I nodded and acknowledged his plan. He said again, as though I didn’t believe him, that he would kill himself; that he had been stockpiling opiates and benzos; that he had given many of his possessions away; that he was serious.

I nodded and acknowledged it all. Eventually, nonplussed by my seeming lack of alarm, he asked how I could support him leaving the hospital in a few days with such a plan in place. It was a fair question. 

Taking a chance, I said to Glen, “You said you aren’t ready to do it yet. It sounds like it will take you a few more months to take care of the things you want to accomplish before you kill yourself, so this doesn’t seem terribly urgent.” He blinked and seemed genuinely mystified. I added, “Besides, you just want more control over how you die. Given your prognosis, that’s understandable.”

The next several minutes were spent listening to his anger about wanting to have physician-assisted suicide and it not being available. Perhaps he should move to Oregon. Perhaps he could pay someone to give him an overdose of insulin. Why doesn’t he have the right to control the circumstances of his inevitable death? Why doesn’t he have the right to avoid the suffering that was predicted for him? What does anyone have to gain by watching him suffocate rather than just go peacefully?

[Public Domain / Pixabay]

[Public Domain / Pixabay]

Glen was in most ways the opposite of another patient in the hospital at the same time. Jennifer was a young woman who had lived an impoverished life. Not only was she raised in a family that was frequently homeless and always hungry, she had been terribly abused and sexually exploited beginning in early childhood. Jennifer became a shut-in as an adult, terrified by the world and the people in it. She had no family. She had no friends. Because she lacked sound medical care for years, by the time it was discovered that she had cancer, it was quite advanced.

Like Glen, Jennifer also had a tumor that was cutting off her airway. Unlike Glen, she was taking every offer of life-saving medical care offered to her. It started with chemo and radiation. Then it was a tracheotomy. Then it was a ventilator. Then it was drilling a tunnel through the tumor to allow air into her lungs.

Jennifer lived in a bed in our hospital for 6 months. What began as medical care to extend and improve her quality of life moved into the realm of medical interventions designed simply to delay death. Jennifer’s day consisted of pointing at letters on a board to communicate her needs, having diapers changed, getting bed baths, getting tube feedings, having her tracheotomy cleaned out, being shifted in the bed every hour to prevent skin breakdown, and pushing a button for more morphine.

It baffled most of her doctors and nurses when she still refused to sign a Do Not Resuscitate order. Despite a quality of life most of us would consider dismal and unthinkable, it was the first time in her life that her basic needs were met. It was the first time in her life that she felt safe and cared for. She went into cardiac arrest several times during her last week of life and each time her medical team helped her put her death off a little longer so she could enjoy this, the best time of her life.

I don’t think I would make the same decisions in the end of my life, but I understand how she came to value the life she had in the end, as much as I can understand it from my relatively privileged point of view. After her death, I grieved Jennifer’s life deeply, carrying the burden of her story in each chamber of my heart. I still think of her every Samhain, sending my love and care for her into the ethers.

I think of Glen each time I hear about the right-to-die movement. I think of his righteous anger, about his justified terror, about how cornered he felt to make a decision that did not fit in with his values because the options available to him were terribly inadequate. I think about the relief he expressed when I explained to him the potential option of a rarely used intervention called palliative sedation – the use of medications to reduce or remove conscious awareness of intolerable suffering at the end of life. I think about the strings I pulled to find a hospice that would consider providing this type of care, as it was (and still is) highly controversial.

Samhain Altar [Wilhelmine, DeviantArt]

Samhain Altar [Wilhelmine, DeviantArt]

But I mostly remember his smile and the immediate change in energy when he realized that he would not have to end his own life to avoid his doctor’s grim but accurate prediction. His change in plans when he realized he had a choice other than suicide. He went home the following week with my office number in his discharge paperwork.

I received a call from him several months later saying that he was ready to go on hospice care. His breathing had become difficult and he was too weak to care for himself at home. He moved into a hospice unit and, for a few weeks, moderate doses of morphine helped to ease the difficulty he experienced with his breathing. He spent those weeks sharing his most cherished memories with his family, laughing with the hospice staff, and enjoying his favorite foods for the last time.

When the morphine no longer sufficed and his gasping for whatever scraps of oxygen he could manage to inhale became too unbearable, palliative sedation protocols were implemented and he spent his last several days sleeping as comfortable as he possibly could. His dying process was peaceful as he wished for it to be. I also think about Glen each Samhain, grateful for the opportunity to sit at his bedside and help him plan the death he wished for himself.

I have no doubt that people will read Jennifer and Glen’s stories and have strong reactions. Death does that, but especially these sorts of deaths – the ones that are prolonged and full of difficult decision-making. It’s rare for me to find people who want to know they are dying. Most of us would rather die in our sleep or have a sudden aneurysm or stroke and die instantly, never knowing it was coming.

I also hear many people say vehemently that they would not accept any “life support,” having no awareness of how remarkably complex those decisions can be. There is no simple equation, after all, that can be implemented to determine the “best” course of action for any given person. Every person comes to death with unique life experiences, values, beliefs, and hopes and every person comes with different pain thresholds, physical abilities, and responses to medical intervention. All of these considerations (and so many more) contribute to the decisions made about how one will move toward their death. This is why I was able to sit with two different people going through nearly the same medical problem and be able to view each of their very different deaths as “good,” or at least as good as possible given the choices available.

Choice is the impetus behind support for physician-assisted suicide, and this desire for choice is leading to a growth in legislation securing terminally ill people access to medications that will hasten their dying. Though there are few states that allow for this, public support in the United States is strong and growing, with younger generations overwhelming in favor of this option being available. In some cases, just having the option is enough. It’s a comfort to know that there is a way out even if we choose not to take it.

[Public Domain / Pixabay]

[Public Domain / Pixabay]

I am grateful for the work being done to make this option available to people with terminal illness, who are facing unfathomable suffering in their bodies, minds, or spirits. I am grateful to people like Brittany Maynard for helping us put aside the political rhetoric of the “Obamacare death panels” and to see a real person attached to these issues. I am grateful to the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have welcomed me into their homes and hospital rooms and helped me understand better what dying is and what it can be.  

This Samhain, I raise my chalice in toast to the people working to ensure we have a right to the best options medicine has to offer us at the end of our lives. I raise my chalice to the doctors, nurses, social workers, and countless others who sit at our bedsides with caring hearts and listening ears. And I raise my chalice to Jennifer, Glen, and Brittany to celebrate their courage, their lives, and their deaths. May they never thirst.

[Author’s Note: The names and identifying information have been changed or withheld to protect the privacy of my former patients and colleagues.]

Support The Wild Hunt. Donate Today!


[We love to capture the local stories that come from our collective communities, like the one below. They reflect the heart and spirit of what we all do every day. This type of writing takes time, research and money. If you enjoy our work and want to help us continue to share these touching stories, donate to our fall fundraiser today and share our link in social media. It is your wonderful and dedicated support that has makes it all possible. Thank you very much.] 

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn – It is all to common to read only about the death of someone well known. The obituary is a write up of their accolades containing quotes about them from other famous Pagans. While it is newsworthy to cover influential Pagans, it’s equally important to note the building of religious rituals emerging from the lives and deaths of the rest of us.

Lola Moffat wasn’t well-known. She wasn’t an author or a speaker. She didn’t start a Tradition. She was, in fact, a private person who shunned the spotlight while still staying actively involved in her religious community. When she was diagnosed with cancer, her community came together to support her. Then, in her final days and hours, several members sat vigil with her in a way that is shaping up to be the norm for Pagan death rites. They chanted. They sang. They told stories. And, after Lola crossed the veil, they washed her body and said goodbye. For PNC Minnesota, Raven Moon wrote:

On the evening of Friday September 18, 2015, Lola Moffat passed away less than a year after being diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma. She was only 37, and is survived by her sister, Katie Daly, and a niece and nephew. She was a talented massage therapist, graduating from Centerpoint School of Massage this year. She was an active and beloved member of the Paganistan community. A member of the Wiccan Church of Minnesota, and regular attendee of the Earth House Midsummer Gather, she touched the lives of many Twin Cities and upper Midwest Pagans. Known for being a kind and loving person, the community was able to come to her aid after her diagnosis with an [ongoing] fundraiser

Several friends, who sat with Lola in her final hours, spoke with The Wild Hunt about her and about the ritual that they performed.

Ruth Burke met Lola 8 years ago at a public event. She said that Lola never stopped living life to the fullest. Even after doctors told her that the cancer was terminal, Lola went on a vacation with her sister and spent her last summer attending various Pagan festivals. She also didn’t give up on her dream of becoming a massage therapist, eventually earning her certification.

Board of Sacred paths Center. Lola is second from left [Courtesy Photo]

Board of Sacred Paths Center. Lola is second from left [Courtesy Photo]

Burke said, “Our final vigil for Lola was indeed a mash-up of chants, songs and stories. We had people call in on cell phones to sing for Lola, and of course we all sang and chanted for her as well. Everyone contributed something personal, songs from Spiral Rhythm or from their personal covens, or ethnic chants from their childhoods. I’m not much of a singer and I don’t know many songs, but I’m an avid reader and one of my favorite stories is that of a young boy’s transformation into the wind when he realized that we are all connected and we are all part of the universal spirit. The story is a part of the book The Alchemist by Paulo Cohelo. I read the story aloud to everyone in the room, and especially Lola, as a gentle reminder that we are but temporary vessels for energy.”

Nikki Wakal served with Lola on a non-profit board for a Pagan community center. She most remembers Lola’s smile but also how Lola would get giddy when someone did a something nice for her or her overuse of exclamation points in emails and texts. Wakal said, “At one point [during Lola’s passing] there were 7 or 8 of us standing bedside and singing to her. And you could tell it soothed her. It was a magical thing that I will remember forever.”

Wakal explained that the group sang and told stories because even when all the other senses are gone, a person can still hear. “We wanted her to hear our voices and know that she was not alone. We sang We are Light, We all come from the Goddess, I walk with the Goddess … Even her sister came in and sang a song for her. It was a nice way for us to remind her we loved her and were there. If someone wanted to sing or play a song they did.”

Heather Roan Robbins met Lola four years ago during an astrology class at Paganicon and then again at more classes at the Sacred Paths Center and Eye of Horus. Robbins said, “I was always impressed by her big heart, her warmth and enthusiasm, her bright mind and understanding, and her relentlessly positive attitude. She could find the beauty and hope in just about anything and anybody. I encouraged her when she thought about fulfilling her long-term dream of going to massage school, and had the joy of being one of her guinea pigs as she practiced her massage techniques.”

Robbins added that, after Lola received her diagnosis, many of her friends gathered for a special ritual. It was a Blessing Way for a different kind of birth and also a fundraiser to support her and her sister so they could attend to the work of dying. Nearly 70 people attended that ritual.

Recently, when these same friends knew that Lola’s time was near, they asked Robbins to sit with them. “I gather Thursday night was exhausting for Nikki and Ruth, Lola was very restless and they took good care of her. When I got there Friday they needed a nap desperately. Lola was already only slightly responsive, still moving around but less and less during the day. We cleaned the room and cleared the altar. I brought a large feather and with water and a dash of orange oil used it to smudge the room and clear the place without any smoke that would have bothered Lola. We lit a candle, called in the directions, set up the circle, sang when we could and … shared stories.”

Robbins read from Hafiz, a book called Continuum, an exploration of the continuation of consciousness, from Dreaming the Dark, and from some old Druid poetry. During the multiple singing circles, they sang Ojibwa songs and Pagan festival songs, including She Changes, The River Keeps Flowing,and Mother Carry Me Down By The Sea. Robbins said, “At around 7pm we called in the directions again … called in all her guides and guardians. I called in Frigga because I work with her, most of us called in our familiar deities. We also called in the spirits of all the cats Lola had ever had … to escort her over. We sang many rounds and left the circle open … By 9:30 we sang quietly on and off. We were sending her love and support as her breath started to slow down, and finally stopped, at 10:22.”

At the point, as Robbins explained, Lola’s closest family and friends “needed room to just feel their feelings.” Others present called hospice, washed her down, laid her out, cleared away the medical clutter away, and smudged the room with Sage. Robbins added, “By the time the funeral director came at 1 am, we were ready. We stripped the bed, hugged one another one last time and went to get some rest.”

lola moffat

Another close friend Carol Solitary said that everything that was done that night was what they felt would be comforting to Lola. “Heather cast a circle earlier in the day, and as we arrived we all took turns holding space so she was never alone. Once everyone arrived we sang We are Light. Sheila sang a beautiful song over the phone called The Weaver Song

Weaver, Weaver weave her thread,
Whole and strong into your web
Healer, Healer, heal her pain,
In love may she return again

At the end, there were 8 people surrounding Lola with song, with stories, with love emanating the joy that her life brought to them. Wakkal said, “It really was a very beautiful moment and made me so proud of the community I was in. Lola was my best friend. Her smile and warmth will be missed. I will miss her saying ‘love you Nikki girl.’ But she is smiling where she is, that I know. And as a community we will not forget.”

What is remembered, lives.

Sometimes you only walk away with scratches.

A photo posted by Eric Scott (@lofrothepirate) on

[Warning: The following column involves a description of a serious car accident.]

Two sounds in quick succession, so close together that, as I remember them now, I cannot tell which came first – the sound of the front right tire digging into the mud and gravel shoulder of the two-lane highway, or the sound of my wife seizing up in anticipation. I am driving, for the next few seconds, anyway. I turn the wheel, only thinking to escape the shoulder, but my turn is too hard. I try another. Too hard, but in the other direction. We leave the road; our ascent is brief, but dramatic. We land in the grass hard on the driver’s side, and the momentum carries us tumbling, onto the side, onto the roof, onto the side, onto the roof again.

And there we stop. The fury of the ten seconds past rises out of us, like mist against the dawn. We unbuckle our seatbelts, drop onto the floor that was so recently a ceiling, and crawl out through the windows of the set-piece that was our car. Air hisses from a tire. My wife’s duffel bag sits out on the wet turf right side up, as though she had set it there on purpose. Her forehead is bloody – a gash, right on her hairline. Neither of us have our glasses – they were thrown off while we spun against the earth, and we never do find them again.

So we wait, bloody and half-blind, until an ambulance and an Appanoose County sheriff’s deputy appear. They fit my wife with a backboard and a neck brace; me, they leave alone. We ride to a tiny hospital that’s little more than a garage for the ambulance to pull into. They put us in separate rooms – they want to run a CT scan on her, to make sure she hasn’t injured her spine or skull. They insist I stay in the room next door, able to hear but not see her, so that they can occasionally check on my blood pressure. The deputy comes by. Where were you going?, he asks.

To a wedding, I tell him. Up in Chaska, Minnesota.

Are you still planning to get up there today? he asks, and I wonder if that question sounds as insane to him as it does to me.

He writes me a ticket for failure to maintain control, then hands me a bag of soggy documents from the glove compartment and a note saying where we can pick through the car. He leaves, and again I am alone in the room with the blood pressure cuff and the sound of doctors talking to my wife in the other room. The adrenaline has mostly worn off; in the ongoing critique of consciousness that is my inner monologue, I note how quickly shock and fear has turned into irritated boredom.

The CT scan eventually comes back: clean. My wife has a pulled muscle in her neck and some bruises, but is otherwise unharmed. I have some scrapes on my hands from the broken glass where I crawled through the window, and, as I will discover two days later, a half-dozen wicked patches of poison ivy – but that’s all. We walk out of the ER with our friends and, after making three complete passes through the town of Centerville, Iowa, we locate the lot where our car was towed. It’s more like an eight-slot driveway than anything; the cars sit out in front of a garage next to the tow driver’s home, only a few dozen yards away from his flower garden.

I stop for a moment while we are picking through the husk. The car’s roof folds down into a sharp crease that runs the entire length of it, an indented line in the metal that marks the point of collapse. The sharp edge of that point is about three inches away from where my skull would have been. I run my fingers across the bent angle, caked with mud. Three inches.

We eat sandwiches pulled from the wreck for dinner. My wife finds a forgotten set of glasses hidden in the car. We report it to the insurance, and we sleep in our own bed that night.

That was on Sunday. It’s three days later now – Wednesday, prayer night – and I am sitting on the sheepskin prayer rug set out in front of my altar and wondering what to say. When I think back to the moment of the crash – what I remember feeling as the tidal forces in my gut jerked against the pitch and yaw of the rolling car – I do not remember any thought of religion. I didn’t see the face of Odin, nor did I hear any Valkyrie songs. I didn’t see my life flash before my eyes. I remember distance, and annoyance, and no real fear of death. Mostly, I remember rolling, and crawling out, and wishing that I had my glasses. It was only later, lying in bed next to wife, my wife, with nothing but a pulled muscle in her neck, that the enormity of it came to me.

What does a person say to the gods – these personal saviors, these mythic undercurrents, these names we give to the wind and the sea and the rolls of the dice that make up reality – what does one say to them in a moment like this?

I pour a glass of aquavit for myself and for them. I feel it burn its way down my throat, into my stomach. I think of my uncle, who died in a car accident not much different from mine. I think of the three inches between my head and the bend in the steel. I think of my wife, with whom I was angry the night before the wreck, who was strapped to a backboard out of my sight in the hospital. I think – I think of fear, hope, gratitude, wonder, the troubling revelation of life, life, life.

But I don’t say anything. If the gods can understand our tongues, they can understand their inadequacy; if the gods can hear at all, they can hear the breadth of our silence.

“Now that’s what I call magic—seein’ all that, dealin’ with all that, and still goin’ on. It’s sittin’ up all night with some poor old man who’s leavin’ the world, taking away such pain as you can, comfortin’ their terror, seein’ ‘em safely on their way…and then cleanin’ ‘em up, layin’ ‘em out, making ‘em neat for the funeral, and helpin’ the weeping widow strip the bed and wash the sheets—which is, let me tell you, no errand for the fainthearted—and stayin’ up the next night to watch over the coffin before the funeral, and then going home and sitting down for five minutes before some shouting angry man comes bangin’ on your door ‘cuz his wife’s havin’ difficulty givin’ birth to their first child and the midwife’s at her wits’ end and then getting up and fetching your bag and going out again…We all do that, in our own way, and she does it better’n me, if I was to put my hand on my heart. That is the root and heart and soul and center of witchcraft, that is. The soul and center!”Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky (Discworld, #32)

Modern culture has done its best to separate humans from the cycles of life. Once inside our homes we can’t tell if it is January or July, night or day. Our meat comes in tidy packages and we buy asparagus year round. Birth and death happen elsewhere, out of sight.

[Art by Xiaomei23 / Deviant Art / cc. lic]

[Art by Xiaomei23 / Deviant Art / cc. lic]

Pagan culture often seeks to do the opposite, to reconnect humans with the cycles of life. To understand and explore the seasons, the cycles of the moon, and life and death. This isn’t a repudiation of science or comfort, it’s not a step backwards or romanticizing the past. It’s about bringing the best of our ancestors’ cultural values into the modern age to live a more connected and fulfilling life.

The Wild Hunt spoke with several Pagans and Polytheists about the work they do in helping others, Pagan or not, reconnect with the cycles of life.

While birth is now much safer for American women, they have also lost more of their personal agency. Hospitals can be a birthing factory where women lay on their backs in unfamiliar surroundings. The birth process itself is no longer a Mystery where women experience a deep and profound power. It’s a medical process. While many hospitals are trying to improve the experience and involve the entire family by creating birthing suites, they are unequipped to add back in the power.

Which is why women are once again turning to midwives and giving birth at home, surrounded by family or friends.

A midwife is a person who is trained to give care and advice to women during pregnancy, labor, and the post-birth period. Melanie Moore is an atheist witch and a Certified Professional Midwife in the state of Iowa. She wants to help women regain the mysteries that are experienced during childbirth while also ensuring the health and safety of both mother and child.

“I always loved pregnancy and birth. When I was five and my mother was pregnant with my brother, I wrote and illustrated a pregnancy exercise book. In school reproduction and birth was always fascinating to me,” said Moore.

She said reading Ariadne’s Thread by Shekhinah Mountainwater as a teen also had an impact on wanting to become a midwife. The book uses the Goddess Ariadne as a basis for a women-centered spirituality.

It was during her own second pregnancy when Moore met a midwife and discovered the Traditional Homebirth Midwives of Iowa. After that, she committed to becoming a midwife and giving women birth alternatives.

Hospital births take place in a sterile environment and the birthing mother is given an IV while fetal monitors are attached. The mother is usually confined to bed and isn’t allowed to take in anything other than ice chips. There’s also a limit to the number of family or friends surrounding, usually 2 or three adults. Drugs can also be administered, either for pain or to speed up contractions.

Melanie Moore, background, looks on at a new mother, baby, and family after a birth.

Melanie Moore, background, looks on at a new mother, baby, and family after a birth.

A home birth with a midwife is very different. It can a private and quiet experience or it can be a noisy celebration in a house filled with family and friends. The midwife focuses on helping the mother tolerate the contractions and keeping her comfortable. The mother can walk around, eat or drink. Time isn’t a factor, the birth unfolds on the time schedule nature dictates.

Moore said that birth isn’t a scary mystery you need to pay someone else to do, but if you do pay someone, remember they are working for you. “I know it seems scary to accept that kind of responsibility,” said Moore, but she added that, “You are descended from millions of women that gave birth successfully. You are powerful and strong.” She also said that women should not allow themselves to be talked into an induction, the baby comes when it and the mother’s body is ready.

In Iowa, only Certified Nurse Midwives are licensed to attend births and the majority of them work in hospitals. Moore’s certification, while a accepted in surrounding states, isn’t accepted in Iowa. She, and a group of midwives and other supporters, are working to change that. Women in the group have registered as lobbyists and have worked with Rep. Bobby Kaufmann (R) to introduce legislation to define “the terms “midwife” and “midwifery” and states that anyone acting or holding oneself out as a midwife or practicing midwifery shall not have committed a public offense by doing so.”

Moore has been working for 15 years to make midwifery more accessible to women in Iowa and to help women reclaim their power. She said, “I believe in women. I believe women’s strength. I know that midwifery is its own type of magick. Maybe not in a supernatural way, but magick just the same.”

“I have always believed that the moment someone passes over is a sacred moment. A doorway between two worlds and a time of magic and possibility. To be present and help to facilitate that time with beauty and dignity is a sacred trust and an honor.” – Michele Morris

Advertisements for products that claim to help you keep a more youthful appearance are everywhere. Life insurance salespersons take seminars on how to break through clients’ denial that they will eventually die. Older persons are no longer cared for by family and die in their own beds surrounded by loved ones. We send them to facilities and visit occasionally. Then when they die, we send their body off to professionals who stuff them, dress them, and paint them to more closely resemble a living person. Current culture leaves us ill prepared for death and the process of dying. Not for our own and not for our loved ones.

Kris Bradley, who recently completed a course on for death midwives and home funeral guides, said, “We, as a whole, are a very death denying culture. Death is almost a taboo subject – like if we speak about it, we might catch it.”

Similar to birthing midwifes, death midwifes help persons through this transition. They may come to a hospital or assisted care setting or they may come to the home. Death midwifes aren’t new, but the resurgence of death midwifes as a career is.

Rev. H. Byron Ballard is a Priestess of Mother Grove Goddess Temple and has helped the dying and their families for just over 20 years. She said “Just like a midwife at the other portal of life, someone not in the family can do things the family might feel too close to do.” She said that she helps families understand that this process is another rite of passage, and can be natural, participatory, and beautiful.

Michelle Morris started working with the dying while she was a nursing student. She was one of the few students who didn’t mind holding someone’s hand while they took their last breath. Now that she’s also a minister and a counselor, her work with the dying continues at a local hospice with both Pagan and non-Pagan families.

Morris said that Western society in general has no specific death rituals, other than an unofficial but deep seated tradition of avoidance. “People with a terminal diagnosis are often treated as though they are already gone by everyone around them, often including their own family. Because we have no traditions, people often are at a loss as to what they should be doing when they truly want to help,” said Morris. She noted that people will often do nothing rather than possibly do something wrong. She helps provide a framework the dying person and their family can use to say goodbye.

Morris said that, while she doesn’t share her beliefs with the families she’s working with, the fact that, as a Pagan, she’s has a comfortable relationship with death helps create safe place for them to find their comfort, in whatever form that may be.

Rev. Selena Fox presides over a green burial at Circle Sanctuary

Rev. Selena Fox presides over a green burial at Circle Sanctuary

Bradley is following a different path and is working to become a death midwife. After volunteering Reiki sessions at a senior center she said that she was touched by how much the seniors enjoyed the sessions. She found out many of the seniors lived alone and the Reiki sessions were probably the only physical contact they had. “This got me thinking about what it would be like for them when their time came. Would they be alone?” wondered Bradley.

Bradley decided she wanted to be a death midwife and created a Kickstarter campaign to fund half the costs for an 88-hour training program for death midwives and home funeral guides. Within just a few days, the campaign was funded and Bradley completed her training in August of 2014.

Bradley said that one of the greatest contributions a death midwife can offer is information and support before the active dying process starts. Bradley added that people can make the process easier on everyone if they get all of their important papers in order, such as living wills, advance directives and medical power of attorneys. They should also create a plan for how they want their death to play out as far as how their spiritual needs should be addressed, and even pre-plan their memorial service and/or funeral.

While many Americans say they wish to die at home, few actually do. The reasons can range from not having someone at home who can care for them, not having family nearby, or confusion about what is the best possible care, or relatives not knowing the person’s wishes and defaulting to hospital care.  Having a death midwife helps simplify these challenges. “Being a person who can take a shift being in the room, giving the dying’s caregiver a much needed respite so they can continue to care for their loved one. [A death midwife] can act as a coordinator to get family and friends involved in care, and at the same time keep a calm, spiritual space for the dying. It’s much easier for a death midwife to tell loud Uncle John he needs to leave the room for a while then it is a family member,” said Bradley.

Bradley said that even Pagans, with their focus on connecting to cycles and their positive view of what happens after death, still fear death when the time comes. “As much as our faith might mean to us and as much as we hold our beliefs to be true, death is still the great unknown.”

She said her biggest comforts on dying is knowing that she has made plans to be buried in a green cemetery in a simple shroud, “I will literally go back to the earth and help the wheel keep turning.”

Her advice to others is that there is no right or wrong way to die, only what’s right for you. She stresses the importance of putting your wishes in writing and making those wishes known to family and friends, “If you aren’t sure where to start, contact a death midwife or a home funeral guide and ask them for advice where to start.”

“The themes of life and death and rebirth are deep in the human psyche. They have been played out in the mythic poetry, pageantry, ritual theater, music, and dance of deep human culture across the globe. So how has modern humanity lost touch with these myths and the important rites of passage that surround them?” – Kari Tauring

The ideas of rebirth, reincarnation, or even an afterlife where you retain your sense of self are no longer as accepted as they appear to have been in the past. Kari Tauring, an author, performer, and Völva, noted that even the dominant religious rebirth story in the US, the rebirth of Jesus, is starting to be being rejected in modern times. Since Christianity supplanted and replaced all other previous rebirth stories and now that tale has also started to lose its appeal, the wider U.S. culture is left with no stories to help us make sense of our own mortality and hopes for rebirth.

“Perhaps that explains the modern fascination with zombies and television vampires,” said Tauring. She added, “I think it is psychologically dangerous to live without a mythic connection to nature and to our ancestors and to the cycles of life. It’s a human need.”

 Lynette Reini-Grandell (left) and Kari Tauring (right)

Lynette Reini-Grandell (left) and Kari Tauring (right)

Tauring is using song and dance to bring stories of birth, marriage, death, and rebirth back into modern culture. She, along with Lynette Reini-Grandell, have been performing “Waking the Bear” at a theatre in Minnesota for the public. Those in attendance include those of all, or no, religion.

In the performance Tauring and Reini-Grandell explore the folk songs and stories of Finno-Ugric, Scandinavian, German and American bear lore. Through song, poetry, and dance they first tell the the Finnish story of how the forest goddess created a bear from wool fluff tossed into the waters of the world by the spinner in the sky. Tauring said, “In a way, this is how all life is created, from the dust of the stars. This section of Runo 46 from the Kalevala is so beautiful that I could not help setting it to music and dance.”

In the show, the bear goes into hibernation which is like a little death, and in spring, emerges with a cub. Tauring and Reini-Grandell then present three stories of shape shifting with the bear form, one from the Norwegian people, one from the Mansi people (Tyumen Oblast area of Russia) and one from the Ute people (Colorado into Utah, USA). In the third part of the performance they kill the bear and ritualize its death not as a funeral but as a wedding, which comes from a Finnic tradition. By marrying what they killed, the bear transcends death. Tauring explained, “In some way, we agree to become that which we kill, that which we eat, in the deepest of ways. This is the deepest sense of shape shifting and marriage. We make an agreement with the bear to let it wear our shape as we have worn its shape.”

During the performance, the audience often appears moved while a few appear disturbed or uncomfortable. Talking to one attendee named Angela, she said the experience, “…shook me to my core. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m not sure if I feel more comforted or less [about death] but I feel like it’s something I’ve avoided.” Her friend Melissa added that she felt this was something she’s been missing, “This filled in a profound hole I didn’t know I was missing. There has to be something, I don’t know, something more after you die. That can’t be the end.” Both women said they were raised Christian, but now consider themselves atheist or agnostic.

Tauring agrees that her performance may stir up a deep ancestral memory in modern humans. “That’s why it is intense and might make many people uncomfortable. It takes us to a place at once universal and deeply personal, an ancient place where we must experience the emotions of life and death and rebirth and shows us a way to transcend our fears around the inevitable. The new modern society seems to be looking for this, hungering and longing for this. It is my intention to continue providing workshops and performances that feed this deep need.”

Author’s note: This article was written in honor of a very young Heathen child in my local community who has been battling cancer for several years. Sadly, all treatments have failed to halt the spread, and this bright and brave 7 year old boy has only a matter of weeks before he joins his forefathers on the other side.


Addendum 3/16/15 10:00 am: We are very sad to hear of the passing of author Terry Pratchett, who was quoted at the beginning of the article. Pratchett was much beloved in the Pagan community because he understood the “root and heart and soul and center of witchcraft.”  We extend our condolences to his family and friends. 

What is remembered, lives.

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.