Death as a rite of passage

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TWH – In the Northern Hemisphere, November is steeped in death. Among Pagans, Samhain on October 31 is the prelude to the month. Among Christians, November, the Month of the Dead, begins with All Saints and All Souls Days. Within the Mexican tradition, the month begins with the Día de los Muertos. In the spirit of the season, The Wild Hunt discussed death midwifery with the Rev. Angie Buchanan, a death midwife and Pagan minister.

Angie Buchanan – courtesy

Buchanan described death midwifery as providing “holistic, non-medical, emotional, spiritual, and practical support for the dying and their families.” Using gentle non-medical practices, death midwives or death doulas ease pain. They work with the emotional needs of the dying and their families and help people plan a good death. Buchanan described their role as helping “people reclaim their Final Rite of Passage.”

Buchanan states that death is “our Final Rite of Passage.” Regardless of someone’s beliefs, “there is always going to be that last exhale when whatever it is that animates us leaves, and we cease to be human. Our death is the last act we commit as a human being.”

Humans have many other rites of passage. She continued, “But when it comes to death rites, most people, and Pagans are no exception, are missing it. We’re missing one of our most sacred rites because we live in a death-denying culture. We’ve internalized the idea that if we don’t talk about death, it somehow won’t happen to us. (Spoiler alert – Nobody gets out alive!)”

The commonality of death and birth midwives

Death and birth, both rites of passage, have other things in common. According to Buchanan, “Death can look an awful lot like labor.” Their breathing patterns show similarities.

The birth midwife, working with the mother, draws up a birth plan. The birth midwife helps the mother as she is giving birth. Buchanan described it as bearing “witness as that being takes its first breath as a human.”

The death midwife and the dying person draw up a death plan. Death midwives attend dying people as they take their last breath “and cease to be human.” They make the space ready for the death vigil and conducive for last visits. Above all, they provide comfort. Buchanan stressed that death midwives ensure “that the dying person doesn’t have to die alone if they don’t want to.”

Birth midwives have medical training; death midwives do not. The latter relies more on their psycho-social and caregiving skills. A death midwife or end-of-life doula supports the needs of the dying person. They provide information and comfort and ensure that the dying person has the death that they want. According to Buchanan, death midwives bring back “family-directed choice at the end of life.”

Death midwifery in the pandemic

COVID-19 has changed the way people die. Buchanan said its difficulties have forced death midwives to become more creative. She praised Zoom for providing “opportunities for people to come together in ways that were not always possible even before the pandemic.”

That technology has allowed Buchanan to sit with someone with COVID-19 as they lay dying in quarantine. Funerals and memorial services now occur online. She said, “Nothing compares to in-person contact, but some of these events have been beautiful and poignant.”

Image credit: Pixabay

Pagans and death midwifery

In the dying process, Buchanan focuses on the person “putting the period on the end of the sentence of their life.” If she has learned about their personal spiritual affiliations, she can work with those deities or traditions. She can lead visualizations or guided meditations.

Buchanan said, “The most important parts of the dying process have little to do with religion and everything to do with compassionate care and humanity.”

She connects with her no-longer-living-client. She tells them that they are not alone. She tells them that they are loved and are valued. She tells them that she “will be with them through the dying process and beyond.”

After her client’s death, she continues to talk with them. She tells them that “they are dead. I assure them they are still not alone.” Depending on the belief system of the client, she “will sometimes petition their ancestors or their deities to come meet them.”

In Buchanan’s experience, “the moments immediately after death can be as important and poignant for the dead person and the family, as any process that came before.”

She feels that whisking the body off to the morgue or funeral home robs everyone of that poignancy.

Preparing for death

Buchanan stressed that this conversation has many complexities. She said that she could only give a brief outline of the issues involved.

Part of this process involves “normalizing” death and making plans. The plans include memorial services and body disposition.

Death plans also involve legal documents such as wills, living wills, and documents naming someone as having a durable power of attorney. A living will provides instructions about how much medical intervention is wanted. A durable power of attorney gives someone the ability to pay bills and make decisions in case of incapacitation.

The plans also have to include how to manage social media accounts. The person designated for this task should notify the deceased’s social media friends and eventually close out all social media accounts.

People may have objects in their homes that they would prefer others not to know about. These private things may include diaries, deeply personal writings and correspondence, magical tools and ritual objects, and other personal items. Someone trusted should be enlisted to remove them.

Pagans may want to design their Pagan “send off.” It could involve a formal offer to return the body to the elements, a ceremonial blessing with oil and a ritual bath, or any number of other options that can be specific to their particular path of practice and belief.

If no one knows where those planning documents are, they are useless. The people to be designated for specific duties should be informed and the death planners need to know if these designees are willing to do what is being asked of them. Surprises in this area do not end well.

Concentric circles on Isle of Skye – Image credit: David Mark via Pixabay

Some new, environmentally friendly alternatives to burials have recently become available. These environmentally friendly methods include flameless cremation or resomation, the infinity mushroom suit, and recomposting.

In flameless cremation, water replaces fire. According to Buchanan, it is 95% more eco-friendly than flame creation. In an infinity mushroom suit burial, the body is wrapped in a burial garment seeded with mushroom spores. Those mushrooms will consume skin, hair, and tissue. Actor Luke Perry was buried in an infinity mushroom suit. In recomposting, human remains are composted.

Buchanan said in closing, “The most important part of making any major choice in life is to know your options. We cannot make an informed decision if we don’t know what our options are! Death midwives can help you sort through available options and make choices that best serve the needs of your family.”

Buchanan has a website for those interested in learning more about death midwifery and has a forthcoming book due to be published in 2021.