Druid studying Pagan views on death

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DURHAM, England — A graduate student at Durham University has launched a survey aimed at better understanding Pagan attitudes to death, funerals, and ancestors. Thus far, Jenny Uzzell reports, the participation has been much more widespread than she might have hoped, meaning it could lay a foundation for more scholarship around these areas in the future.

ancestor altar [courtesy]

Uzzell is herself a Druid, and the bulk of her scholarship has been focused on British Druidry specifically. However, she’s looking for broader participation in this survey.

“I am interested in building up as complete a body of research as possible, into the attitudes of Pagans to a range of subjects related to death and memorialisation, as well as beliefs about what happens to a person when they die,” Uzzell explained.

“For the purposes of this research, anyone who self-identifies as Pagan or Druid (with an understanding that not all Druids identify as Pagan) is all that I need.”

The fact that Druidry is Uzzell’s primary area of study does show in a few of the survey questions.

No matter what path is followed by the respondent, there are plenty of open-ended questions through which practices and beliefs can be explained in detail.

In the journalistic tradition, as she said, “there is also a question at the end where I ask people to tell me about anything they thought was important that I had not asked, as I wanted to make the research as broad as possible. That section is proving to be very interesting indeed.”

In one sense, this survey represents a culmination of much of Uzzell’s own life path. “As a teenager, I had a sudden realisation that one day I was going to die,” she recalled.

“This was something I already knew on an intellectual level, of course, but this was a real understanding and to say that it terrified me would be an understatement. It left me with a deep and abiding fear of death and a need to find answers that has shaped many of my decisions since.”

One form that shaping has taken was in getting her interested in Paganism and Druidry, in particular. In addition, “I became romantically involved with a funeral director,” with whom she now owns a funeral home in northern England.

At the same time, she was pursuing a master’s degree in world religion, the work for which “had a very strong focus on death.”

In crafting the survey questions, Uzzell said, “I am interested in what matters to people about the way their body is treated after death, including attitudes to burial and cremation.”

Practices around ancestor veneration are also being gathered.

Uzzell thinks this is the right time to look at these issues among contemporary Pagans, because the religions grew considerably in the 1970 and 1980s. And, in many Pagan organizations, “mortality is starting to become a major issue.”

She sees more resources being developed, such as a funeral celebrancy course offered through the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids.

There are also shifts in how funerals are managed in the U.K., and likely elsewhere.

“In particular, the use of civil celebrants has expanded massively and there are now several movements providing advice and support for home funerals (where there is no funeral director involved and the family take full responsibility for the funeral),” she explained.

“Direct cremation has become much more popular (I suspect this is not unrelated to David Bowie) and there has been a huge explosion in the popularity and availability of natural or woodland burial since its inception in the mid-’90s. Many of these innovations appeal to Pagans and so are having an impact on their decisions.”

To Uzzell’s understanding, “this is the first major piece of research that looks specifically into attitudes to mortality” among Pagans and Druids. While her doctoral thesis will focus on Druidry in the U.K., “for the survey, I wanted to go wider than this, as a way of getting a bigger picture and being able to do some comparative work.”

Overall, she has found “surprisingly little research . . . that focuses specifically on religious or spiritual needs and preferences.”

She said, “I very much hope that this research becomes a major resource for Pagan communities and provides some data, other than anecdotal, that can be used when approaching local and national government with regards to the needs and preferences of Pagans.”

As an example, she added, “One thing that is becoming very clear is that natural burial grounds are going to be a very important resource for Paganism in the future.”

“One thing that I did not particularly set out to research, but which is coming out of the survey, is information about cultural differences, in particular between Britain and America, and this is something that I would like to pursue further in the future,”

That’s because far more of the roughly 700 responses provided to date have come from the United States.

Regardless of where the respondents live, that high rate of participation is a big deal for Uzzell.

“This means that the final result will be a substantial body of research with statistically significant impact. Given that it is notoriously difficult to obtain statistically significant data through surveys I am delighted with this. It is clear that the old adage that people do not like talking about death is not true, at least for Pagans! I am also extremely grateful for the detailed and thoughtful responses from so many!”

To date most respondents have been Druids, largely because it was in Druid Facebook groups that she first posted the survey link. However, “I have had replies from all sorts of Pagans, including Sumerian reconstructionists and Eastern European native faith movements, adding real variety to the responses.”

Nevertheless, this is a self-selected group: Pagans who are active on the internet.

At this point, “The vast majority of respondents have been between about 40 and 65. Only three have been above 75, although this may be due to the fact that it is available exclusively on the internet and many of this age group may be less active online.”

She added, “The gender split is fairly even, which is very encouraging as the received wisdom is that women find it easier to talk about death than men do.”

While she acknowledges these biases as implicit to an internet survey, Uzzell is hoping that she won’t have others to manage. “I think I would like to emphasise, because I have been asked a few times, that I am really happy for anyone to complete the survey who identifies as Druid or Pagan, regardless of where they are based.”

Collecting these data has been instructive to Uzzell in other ways. She’s been asked if she’s doing this for some commercial purpose or ulterior motive.  She she isn’t, she said; just research for it’s own sake.

She’s also been told by more than one respondent that “completing the survey has allowed them to collect and consolidate their own thoughts, raise the issue with their friends and families, and even to make some decisions about their wishes.”

Perhaps there is a craving for this kind of conversation among Pagans, Heathens, and polytheists, or perhaps Uzzell had the foresight to release this survey when the veil is thin. In any case, she will continue collecting responses through Apr. 30.

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