Rites of Passage Circle Around Death

FireHeart 2 Cover for EarthSpiritRites of Passage
Circle Around Death
by Sue Curewitz Arthen ©1988

Death dances around us constantly. Watching the seasons change, mourning the loss of a familiar four-footed or winged friend, aching for the Maypole tree that once stood tall and green, we honor the death of all living things as part of the wheel of life. Losing a parent, love, child or friend is different. Our sensitivity to human death is heightened by our connection to human energy. And energy, transformation, and life are what we dance with as we circle around death.

Our concept of death reveals the profound wish that we may all “fly like eagles,” that we are “drops of rain returning to the ocean,” and that we will die in a circle of candles and chanting friends. This perspective of death is very pretty, and at first it was appalling to think that we, as Pagans, are denying some of the grimmer realities, like the reality that many of us will die in hospitals, in pain, with “work” undone. Although we do have aesthetic, hopeful images of the process of transformation from matter to spirit, it is not because we are evading unpleasant truths, but rather that we are in a relationship with energies we are just beginning to “know” and as yet have no better way to describe.

Many Pagans believe quite firmly that death is a part of the wheel of life, a form of transformation, and that they share this belief with other Pagans. Those who have experienced personal loss felt that those who have not yet experienced grief see both dying and loss as more an intellectual concept than a profound reality.

Air. An element of beginning. Our initiation into adulthood often takes place when a parent dies, and you can no longer be “one of the kids,” no matter how old you are. One woman expressed herself most emphatically, saying, “In a symbolic way, the loss of my mother has never ended. When she died, I had to learn to mother myself. There was no one else to do it.” Other people referred to this aspect of growing up, and agreed that quite often the “mothering” that they needed and had to learn to do for themselves, was not necessarily anything their real mothers would have done. Beneath the grief for one’s parent a child is revealed, crying into its pillow, desperate for someone, anyone to make it all better — the need to not be responsible and mature when bad things happen. One man told me, “The day my mother died, my High Priestess said to me ‘today you are really a man,’ for I could no longer base my actions around her approval or disapproval. I was now responsible for my own life, my successes and failures, in a new and frightening way.” Another man felt that the death of his father affected him similarly, as he had used his dad as a measure of his own growth and success.

And so in dancing with death, we grow up.

Fire. All aspects of death are a challenge. Most people expressed the need to meet the challenge of dying with courage, facing fears of old age, illness, and AIDS. As yet, we as a community have not created networks experienced in supporting this process, but as we begin to deal with death more often in our community, the experience in being supportive will come.

To many, the challenge of death is acceptable. One woman, “the survivor,” as she phrased it, of a near-death experience, related that her feeling of joy as she was temporarily out-of-body eliminated any fear of death she might have had. She was quick to point out that dying, and what she may have to go through, is different from being dead. Another friend related an experience with his dead brother. When questioning, in a dream, his brother’s ability to participate in the dream, his brother replied, “I know more about being dead than you do.” And it is true. Although speculations fill books on many shelves, we simply do not know, and therefore cannot control, what death is. That is our biggest challenge.

Another challenge is facing the total revision of one’s life when a friend or lover is dying. Some of this challenge manifests in a practical way, as older widows enter a hostile job market, widowers learn to cook, and traditional roles are reversed so quickly that it is difficult to adjust emotionally.

One man, now in his seventies, at one time barely knew the can-opener from the blender. This domestic “incompetent” nursed, fed, cleaned, and — most of all — helped afford a sense of dignity to his mate as she did the work of dying. It takes courage of the highest degree, loyalty, commitment, and no small amount of compassion to help a friend or lover die — to face, in some cases, the fact that when they are gone, a part of your soul dies as well. Transformation is required of those who remain alive, as well as those who die.

Thus, we face the changes, accept the challenges, and so in dancing with death, we grow strong.

Water. The place of feelings, wants, and needs. Without exception, most of us placed fear as the primary emotion elicited by thoughts of our own death. Some fear what death is, as a state of being or nonbeing, but more fear dying itself. Will my work be done? Will I be alone? Will my final days be healthy, dignified, gracious — or painful, drugged, unconscious? There was no consensus on the issue of “pulling the plug,” but only because no one agreed about how to make the decision that enough was enough. What if, although drugged and unconscious, you were not yet “done” with your work, and some well-meaning friend or physician “helped you over the edge?” Do we trust anyone else to know us well enough to make that decision? It may be that our spiritual “self” is a manifestation of energy that is attached to our physical “self.” If the work the spirit is doing is not done when the body dies, the work will be finished anyway.

Pagans and Witches experience the same emotional process around grief that everyone does. We deny. We rage. We think of bargains. Eventually, we accept. Our anger blasts at the “death is only transformation” belief. Yet, after a profound and personal confrontation, most of us return to that belief with a deeper sense of commitment to it. One friend said that, at first, he was so enraged that he hated it when people tried to comfort him with notions that his mother would be “around, but in another form,” or would return “but in another shape”. In our grief, we just don’t care. We want our physical friend — the one we laughed with, yelled at, hugged. Nothing, no energy, no life form, will provide us with our friend again. We cannot imagine how life will feel with this person gone. We turn inward with a personal, private agony, wondering how anyone can assimilate this much intensity. And we surprise ourselves. Slowly, over days, over years, we change our shape, not only accepting our loss, but using the catalyst of our own grief to transform while living, reaffirmed in the idea of transformation by death.

And so in dancing with death, we grow deep.

Earth. Someone told me that he thought death is the force that puts everything into perspective. It says what is real. As we become more experienced in facing our own death, we find that death is an affirmation of life. One Pagan from Boston’s North Shore believes that this life is the only thing there is — all the while accepting the apparently contradictory experience of past life memories. Whether our present life is “all there is” or not, most of us agree that it is what we all have to work with; that how we live is a measure of who we are; that evolving, growing and being conscious is for our present life and the life of this planet, not something we do for later reward. For many, karma and other spiritual concepts are equally valid and seem to present little conflict with whatever else they might believe. Pagans seem to adjust to the idea that seemingly paradoxical concepts can co-exist.

Given the reality of death, have many of us invested in “a piece of the rock?” Very few of those with whom I spoke have life insurance or wills. “Estate planning” is not in our vocabulary. Yet. Those who have these mundane but valuable items either have life insurance as part of an employee benefits package, have families, which make these things a necessity, or come from a generation where the belief in these things, combined with job and family, made them automatic. It is not, however, that Pagans do not believe in wills or insurance; it is that we are primarily a young community for whom death seems half a lifetime away. Part of the realization of the necessity of a will is in response to the fact that, as a Pagan or Witch (especially a closeted one), if you die before your parents, it is very likely that you will be waked in the church of your youth, or your family will sit shiva for you in the chapel back home, while your spiritual family suffers a certain incompleteness in their grieving. And although few of us have accumulated massive estates of which to dispose, we do have an abundance of magical tools. Not providing for their disposal is irresponsible.

Cremation, with the scattering of ashes in a loved and sacred place, was the method most people mentioned when asked about funeral rites. Some people said they did not care what happened to their bodies, as the important part of them would be gone. A few people expressed interest in more unusual rites — a huge pyre, for example. No one knew of a Pagan or sympathetic undertaker, and mainstreaming our death rites is a topic that cannot be discussed too soon.

After the grief, after the growth, there comes a serenity, and a kind of security: establishing the pattern of this life, knowing that the adventure of “being” will not end with death, and especially owning, in a magical way, the idea that the only measure of your words and deeds is the love you leave behind.

And so in dancing with death, we grow wise.

Spirit. My brother and I stayed up late the night after Lammas. We talked about death and about the relationship between matter and spirit. He expressed something that I understood instantly to be a coherent version of what many other voices had struggled to say. If we are, in fact, matter in a relationship with energy, then there was a time when we were not. There was a point when energy, or spirit, agreed to manifest as matter. Energy cannot be destroyed, so when it is time for that agreement to end, if we could only remember that it was an agreement to begin with, then perhaps when transformation takes place, it can happen in an intentional way rather than a scattered way. Perhaps then, some flavor, some essence of who we are as matter will stay with the energy through the change. Life is a dance. There is a trick to learning to change partners gracefully, to note when the rhythm changes, and to know when the dance is over.

And so in dancing with death, we truly live.

SUE CUREWITZ ARTHEN was not a writer when my asked her to undertake the Rites of Passage series. Priestess, Healer and Elder, Sue worked with EarthSpirit Community’s Mooncircle and is the mother of two Pagan children.