by Jennifer Harvilak
Everyone always has questions about life, death, and where we go after we die. For every religion of the world, there are myths and stories, ideas and beliefs that go along with this topic. Some religions believe in a Heaven, where followers will take their place next to God, and spend the rest of eternity in profound joy, for having been good people in their lives on earth. These religions, also see an opposite, or mirror place for those who have been bad people in life. A place where those damned will find themselves in darkness and without God.
There are other religions, that believe that when we die, we are given a choice on whether to go on to a much better place, or to return to the earth in a different incarnation. The reasons for this are many...some may feel that we return to continue lessons that enable our spirit to grow, in such a way that it may not be able to in only one life. Others feel that since life itself can be seen as cylindrical, so too is death, causing reincarnation as a matter of course.
Other people in the world, may see death as the absolute end.
still others may see it as a transformation from one state of being to another.
Then others may believe that we will ultmately become alien or machine food (these are the hardcore matrix fans ::Smiles:::)
regardless of what each of the religions and people of the world believe, we all seek answers to our ultimate destination when we die.
most pagans believe in some form of afterlife. The Asatru call their afterlife "Valhalla". Christopagans may retain their belief in Heaven and hell. Some, but not all pagans believe in reincarnation.
Unfortuneately for many of us, society has created a sort of fear in death. there is often fear in that which we do not understand...and so we contemplate this mystery, and come to certain beliefs and ideals in our lives about what actually happens. Are any of the stories, myths and beliefs true? Are any of our ideas the true and correct way of thinking? Nobody knows for certain and we won't know until we die, BUT, the thing to remember is that death is a natural phenomena. All of us will one day be embraced by death, just as the flower bends to the coming of winter. Even though it is a mystery, it is natural and right that our bodies will one day go back to the earth. We need to come away from the fear that goes along with the unknowable, and instead concentrate on giving ourselves beliefs and ideals that will help us to understand that death is natural and that one need not be afraid of it, because of this.
So, with earth religions, we look to nature for answers to our questions about this natural process.
When you think of our lives, everything that we deal with can be thought of as the ebb and flow of life and death. You have ups and downs and all things tend to come back around, time and again. The seasons come and go, then return again. flowers die, only to come back the following year. When one looks at this, and then looks at the life of a human, you can see similarities. A human is born frail, and must learn things to grow up. Then through life, you are still learning and reach a point in your life where you are at the height of living. Once you reach that point, your life starts to naturally wind down. Your childhood is spent gaining knowledge and strength, and then as you age, you begin to grow weaker as your body grows tired. It is the ebb and flow of life. A plant or animal has the same process. A plant begins to grow from a seed, into a fragile little plant, then grows tall and strong then begins to grow smaller and eventually dies to go back into the ground.
BUT, the following year, in the same exact spot, one may see that another flower may grow to repeat the process. Or else, a flower may die and never return..giving the idea that it's spirit has simply moved on to reconnect with the divine.
Everywhere you look in nature, in the forest or a garden,life and death is happening at every second. As soon as the plant dies, or the butterfly ceases it's fluttering, decay begins. The scent of death calls out to all the things that feed on death. Microscopic bacteria takes it's place, along with fungi and beatles, vultures and wolves. The dead return to the earth through a thousand mouths, each reducing the dead back to their common and most basic element. This basic element feeds the living, though animals and the roots of plants. It is through death that growth arises. That growth is in the form of the physical and the spiritual. this cycle of birth, growth, death, decay, and regeneration is the basic life sustaining process that keeps the planet going. Our wheel of the year is yet another look at this process of life, growth and death. New life comes with the Spring, and then with winter it dies, only to come again in the Spring. The story of the God and Goddess through the wheel of the year gives you a good look into the idea that life begins and in death, promotes new life.
So, with all of this in mind, when we look at the human spirit, it is possible and very probable, that when we die, our spirit lives on, and is reborn at some later time. BUT, if we do not return, such a spirit simply just does not seem to wink out. NO, I tend to feel very strongly that if the human spirit chooses not to come back that it reconnects with the rest of the universe, lending it's energies to the continuation of the cosmos. As the spirit soars into it's interconnectedness and potential rebirth, it's earthly shell goes back to the earth to help the continuation of life on earth. It is then that the spirit may choose a new shell if it wishes.
For those who follow earth based paths, if a spirit chooses to move on, either forever or for a short resting time...that spirit is often believed to go to another place where it can reconnect with the highest power. As humans, with human minds...we need to have words and language for everything so that we understand it in human terms...so we call this place of reconnection the Summerland. This basically is thought of as a place of rest and rejuvenation, where the spirit is healed from any past pains or deseases, and where it will become whole again, enough to return in the form of a new life at some later time, if it chooses.
***read pages 4 - 7 in "The Pagan Book of Living and Dying" for more information on this***
Death as a teacher:
1. It teaches us to appreciate and savor life. the knowledge that everything eventually dies, enfuses each of us with the ability to NOT take beauty and life for granted. We hug our children closer, whereas if we didn't have the potential for loss, life would be taken completely for granted and we would not enjoy our blessings. Without death and it's possibilities, life would not be as sweet.
2. It gives us perspective into our own lives and makes us realize that we must get things done. We can't just float along doing nothing throughout our lives. We accomplish things that we otherwise may not feel inclined to accomplish if we always thought we had more time. Whenever we face death, it makes us reevaluate our own lives, and at least for awhile we make changes that help us to live better, and to live with more lust for each breath.
3. Death also teaches us how to love and show compassion and forgiveness. With birth, we are called on within our own spirits to pour out our love to the newborn. Death too helps us to pour out love, often even if life had brought rifts between ourselves and the dying. Death helps us to find the ability to forgive...to clear the slates of the past.
4. death also allows for change, where things could otherwise become stagnant. It makes room for new life. My mother used to say that everytime someone died, someone new was born...making room for other people to live a full life, and know joy. She often said that death was the Mother nature's way of making sure that all of her children had a chance to know beauty on such a small planet. death allows nature to try new things, to test new stratagies and experiments. If there was no death in the way it happens now, any change in the environment would mean catastrophic extinction of all living things. everything that dies, decays and in that decay is the fertility of new life.
For many, the fear in death, is the fear that our souls or our thoughts and memories will cease to be. As pagans, we think of the universe as an organism instead of a mechanism, and so, to us, death is NOT the end but a transformation. It can be said that to us, all of our thoughts and memories become one with the living cosmos, and that as we grow and learn in life, that collective mind also grows and learns. With this in mind, it is plausible to think that everything we learn, every moment of growth in compassion, love, and life...makes those experences easier for others, who will come later, to achieve.
So, if we try to come to terms with our deaths, knowing they are natural processes, we will more fully be able to enjoy life and live fully and without fear.
***Guided meditation on the Isle of summerland, page 83 of the pagan book of living and dying***
The stages of grief:
2. denial or disbelief
3. active emotional mourning
4. guilt or blame
Different types of death that we may experience:
1. loss of a friend
2. loss of a pet
3. loss of a parent
4. loss of a sibling
5. loss of a grandparent
6. loss of an unborn child
7. loss of a child
8. loss of an adult child
9. loss of a spouse
10. loss of someone to a suicide or violent death
****read chapter on Suicide, page 262****
Some festivals of death and the honoring of loved ones who have departed this life:
January 7, is the feast of Sekhmet. this is an egyptian festival which is based on the Goddess Sekhmet and the commemoration of the deliverance of humanity from death. The story goes that the goddess was displeased with humanity and decided to destroy all life. The sun god ra, tricked her into drinking 7 thousand vats of red beer and fruit juice instead. The poor goddess got thouroughly wasted, and upon coming out of her drunken stupor, forgot all about her wish to stamp out humanity.
February 18 - 20 brings the Roman Feast of Manes. Manes are benevolent spirit guardians who take care of burial grounds. At this time of year, it is thought to be a good time to ask these spirits to protect loved ones in their final resting places. This is a good time to leave gifts at cemetaries for these spirit guardians.
March 22 - 24 is the feast of Cybele. Cybel who is a Goddess of vegetaton, is called to now and asked to ensure the fertility of the land. The them is of life springing forth from death. At the end of the celebration, the community celebrates the birth of cybele's son Attis.
April 24th brings St. Mark's eve... a festival of a Christian St. in which divinations are said to show who will die in the up and coming year.
The Full moon of May is marked by the Feast of Lemurs. Lemurs are those spirits who have passed over with no remaining descendants. They got a feast day all to themselves because of their lonely sate. it is on this night that the lemurs were thought to walk the earth, and the community was expected to honor them as they would their own ancestors. This is a good time for us to pay homage to lost or forgotten spirits.
September 14 brings with it the Egyptian feast of lights in which families carry great feasts to the local cemetaries. When darkness falls, thousands of candles are lit to guide the spirits back to enjoy a fest with their former community.
October 31st is Samhain, a day of remembering and honoring lost loved ones and pets. It is believed that the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is at it's thinnest.
The first full moon after the winter solstice is the snake festival of india. India's snake mother is the guardian of souls who have crossed over, and it is this time of year that a priestess will lead worshippers in a wild dance, before falling into a trance. Once in this trance, the sanke mother may speak through the priestess to offer words of comfort to those who are left behind.
Thre are many symbols of death and transition that can be utilized in honoring those who have passed over. Apples, fire, White roses, water, willow branches.
There are also symbols of rebirth that can be utilized in rituals for those who have crossed over. Acorns, Seeds, eggs, lilies, spirals, and water are but a few.
Some of the deities that are associated with death and the summerland that may be called on to assist n rites are as follows...
Anubis of Egypt who escorts the dead to the underworld, and who judges their deeds by the weighing of their hearts
Belanos of Celtic mythos who is a God of rebirth
Varuna, a hindu God of the dead
Cerridwen, a Welsh goddess of grain and death.
Freya, the Norse Ruler of death
Ereshkigal, of Sumeria wh patrols the boundries between the lands of the living and the dead while atop her spectral horse.
Hecate, a crone Goddess of death and crossroads
The purpose of this lecture is to show you that death and dying are normal rites of passage for everyone, both those of the past from which we come, for us of the present, and for those who will come after us and who will be given their own destinies with our passing.
Questions for group discussion:
Death itself teaches us so much. What kinds of things can we learn from death?
I currently believe the following about death and the afterlife..
The origin of my beliefs about death and afterlife are from:
How is this similar or different from your beliefs as a child or young adult?
does what I believe about death and the afterlife make any difference in the sort of person I am or how I choose to act in life? Why or why not?
What can we do to help ourselves be more accepting of death and not so fearful when I am confronted with it?
what things can we suggest for dealing with grief and the loss of loved ones and pets?
Any further questions that were not touched on in this lecture?
***********information was researched online, and in the following books************************
"The pagan Book of Living and Dying" by Starhawk
"Entering the Summerland" by Edain McCoy
"Rites of Passage" by Pauline Campanelli