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Among UK Pagans, everyone has heard of the Pagan Federation. It’s been with us forever: a bit staid and not always terribly exciting or visible. It’s the body that deals with officialdom; gives information on paganism to civil servants in government bodies; and provides balanced quotes when news stories come up. Most university chaplains, registrars and news journalists know the basics nowadays.
This is unexciting work, but it is worthy beyond measure. When a dramatic event occurs associated with a pagan, such as a crime, the Pagan Federation helps the news media separate the crime from the religion, and lets them know that our community will not tolerate otherwise.
But the Pagan Federation’s work is invaluable, too, in times when pagans meet officialdom in the daily business of life. My experience of the past week has shown that more clearly than I ever imagined.I live in London, but nine days ago I raced to Heathrow airport to catch the first flight to Toronto. My father, a Canadian, was in the hospital; his health failing him. On arrival I learned quickly that he was dying. And I, his eldest child, faced the unimaginably painful task of asking for his extra oxygen to be removed, as Dad had wanted. It was the equivalent of switching off the life support.
It felt too much for me at that moment, so I asked for the nurse to send for the chaplain. I knew the chaplain would not be Pagan, but I had to have someone. To the hospital bedside came a loving and experienced man named Jason. He was a Christian of course, but we met as human beings. He did not bring any agenda; he brought his insight and care. Our two hours together at my father’s bedside helped me greatly, and I did what I needed to do.
Hours later, dad died. Almost immediately my relatives took me to the funeral home where we had to plan the funeral. With no sleep and still in shock, we had to negotiate religious differences. Dad was atheist, but came from a committed Presbyterian family. He had in me a pagan daughter and two spiritual, but not religious, other adult children.
A minister we’d never met would take us through the ceremony. In he walked to my aunt’s formal living room. His name was Darrow. Dad’s atheism was acknowledged with kindness, and he fit these facts into the way he guided us to choosing readings for a service which was framed in the Christian structure so important to my father’s sister. He noticed and understood my tiny silver pentagram pendant with a gentle smile, and we agreed on a reading about nature.
Somewhere, somehow, both the chaplain and this minister had learned a bit about paganism. They didn’t know much, but it was enough. They were neither confused nor disturbed by me, and I could be open with them. It was clear that pagans had been part of their interfaith education. To those nameless Canadian pagans who showed up to a seminary, a meeting, or a conference years ago, I say ‘thank you.’ Because of those pagan, at a time of great vulnerability, a bereaved pagan daughter thousands of miles from home could speak from her heart and hear words of consolation.Pagans often express a healthy disregard for the bounds of convention. We pride ourselves on being on the edges and challenging restrictive norms. I love this about us, but there are times when we simply need our faith to be understood; so we can get through, without fuss or fight, those difficult times of death, suffering or despair.
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In the UK, when a person dies, the funeral normally takes place a week or two afterward. This gap allows time to plan a personalised ceremony. Most pagans are situated in a wider family who are not of their own faith, so they will have a balancing act similar to that of my own family. Some of us, however, do leave a majority of family and friends of our own faith.
Wiccan priestess Doreen Valiente (1922-1999) asked to have a pagan funeral and her friends accorded her one in the crematorium’s non-denominational chapel, with friends she had chosen in advance standing in the four quarters. Priestess Madge Worthington (d. 2004) of the Whitecroft line of Wicca had the Charge of the Goddess read at her funeral. Here in Britain, crematoria chapels are where most non-religious funerals take place and the staff are beginning to be less surprised when pagan rites are done in them.
When I opened the newspaper this summer to read of ‘Britain’s First Pagan Funeral’ I knew it was not true. The event for the death of Cornwall’s ‘Eron the Wizard’ was colourful, hippy, gothic pagan, with the press invited. Everyone who reads the papers in the UK now knows that pagans die too, and that we can have outlandish funerals. This is to be welcomed.
Some prefer a more sober style of funeral. But at the end of life, we need our spirituality there with us, just as do all people of faith. When we can receive an understanding smile from a crematorium porter, a funeral director, or a chaplain at this time, it means the world. The unglamourous work of interfaith education pays all of its dividends at those very moments.