Death – by Dave Bracey

We are a Dynamic force, a process wherein we use energy, convert it, and move on.

Death is a change of energy; it is a closure. Without death, Life would have no meaning. Death provides an impetus to live. If you were immortal, would you have reason to do anything now, or would you wait another thousand years and then maybe do it?

Death provides closure. The Wandering Jew was cursed by his immortality. All his friends and loved ones died but he lived on in grief and sorrow. If a piece of music has no ending but is played on forever, then it would no longer be a joyous experience.

Death isn’t what it used to be, and with so many end-of-life options to choose from it is never too soon to start contemplating your demise. Considering your own Death is good Mental Health, but dwelling on your death is not so clever. Would you forego having children in order to keep your parents alive?

“If you planted an apple tree in the ground where your mum had been composted, would you eat the apples?” It isn’t a question you hear every day.

But that’s the whole point, getting people to talk about something we typically choose to ignore.

We are all going to die, and we know it. Yet people don’t generally think about death, and won’t even discuss it. That might be because it is far removed from most of us. In the West, death is outsourced: the dying itself is medicalised, while the aftermath is sanitised and stage-managed.

Or it might be the result of deep-rooted fear.

According to the terror management theory, a desire to transcend death is the driving force behind all manner of human behaviours, from art to belief in the afterlife.

Either way, brushing it under the carpet isn’t doing us any good, “It tends to isolate people facing death or bereavement because nobody knows how to talk to them. It also makes it difficult for your relatives when the time comes, because in most cases, the family have never discussed what the dying person wants.”

Above all, our inability to confront death means we lose control over one of the most significant events we will face.

For instance, although some 70 per cent of people in the UK say they would prefer to die at home, only 24 per cent get that wish fulfilled. That might help explain the increasing demand for end-of-life doulas.

Until recently, there were just two main options: burial in a cemetery or cremation. Now, people are waking up to a world of possibilities. You can be made into a firework, a diamond or an artificial reef, for instance, or float gently towards space beneath a helium balloon.

Such alternatives are certainly flamboyant, but they’re mainly just about making stuff with your ashes. “Surely the most important change in recent years is the rise of green burials.”

Cremation comes with a big carbon footprint, while the toxic chemicals used in embalming eventually leach into the ground. People concerned about these impacts are increasingly choosing biodegradable coffins and woodland burials.

(A green burial)

The UK now has over 300 natural burial sites. Two years ago, Washington State, in the USA, made it legal to compost human bodies, with a process called re-composition.

You might even don a “mushroom shroud”, a body suit in which the threads are infused with spores of fungi that can barely wait to start digesting you to leave nothing but a pollutant-free compost.

Cyber funerals

I’m minded to ignore this. I don’t do much in the way of social media and none of my photos are stored in the cloud. “If you make no plans for your digital legacy, your next of kin might have no idea about the tranche of precious photographs on Facebook, for instance.”

 I think that Dying will be such an awfully big adventure.  (Said by Peter Pan)

Benjamin Franklin said that only Three things are certain in this Life. Birth, Death and Taxes. Now I was a scientist/engineer, not a bean counter, so I will not be addressing taxes but will offer a few views on Death.

What do you believe?

Do you hold to the myth of Summerland?

Do you have an immortal soul, which wings its way to Heaven when you die?

Does your soul continue to “learn lessons” and returns to Earth to continue its existence?

In other words, do you subscribe to the concept of that well-known milk product “Reincarnation”?

What are your thoughts about Karma? BTW it’s pronounced KHarma. The Buddha, when asked about the Afterlife, replied by stating that the question was unskilled.

We “die” each night, and then are reborn the next morning. Is that “true” throughout our whole life?  Are we Reborn?

Do you believe in Assisted Suicide? Witches lead their own lives, not dictated to by an Angry Father God. We lead a full life, unhindered by the guilt of others. We do not lose ourselves in dreams of an Afterlife. We get on with this Life. Witches happen to Life, not the other way around.

The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics tells us that Entropy is the flow from a Higher to a Lower Energy State.  That the Cosmic Flow is from Order to Disorder. Or, in the Buddha’s last words, said 2500 years ago – “All created things shall pass”

Death is Inevitable, but it need not be a Life Stopper. It is Death that lends colour and meaning to Life. If we did not die then there would be no imperative to do anything now, since we would have Eternity to complete it. Life would not be worth getting out of bed for.

Heidegger said, “Death is probably what encouraged us to develop ‘Culture’ as a sop to Eternal Life”. The awareness of our demise is what caused us to invent things so as to intellectually extend our lifespan. Without death, we would have no imperative to live in the Now and leave it for 1000 years.

Socrates suggested that much of what men do can be understood to be a desperate attempt at Immortality, whereas women do it more directly by having children. Epicurus said, “Death is Nothing. No pain, No Loss. You are Alive, you have experiences then suddenly you have nothing. You are Dead”.

What most people are afraid of is not Death, but Dying. Of being alone, of being in pain, of having no meaning, of having no pleasures. John Paul Sartre said, “You have your life, what you do with is important, but once you are dead, then, you are gone”. This leads us to the idea of having a “Good Death”.

Dion Fortune in Moon Magic says “There are two deaths by which men die, the greater and the lesser. The Death of the Body and the Death of Initiation, and of these two, the death of the body is the lesser. The man who looks upon the face of Isis dies, for the Goddess take him.”

Cowards die many deaths, but the Hero only dies once.

As Witches, we may be asked by other Pagans, about Death and Dying. 

Death is more than the “loss” or demise of a loved one. The end of a Life is similar in most ways to the end of a Relationship, a Career, a Project or a Phase of Life. We need to treat these as a loss, learn to grieve appropriately, and let go. People grow a lot when they are faced with their own mortality. Never underestimate someone’s capacity for growth. Each experienced a variety of emotions, as expected, denial, fear, anger, remorse, and eventually acceptance.

When questioned about any regrets people had or anything they would do differently, common themes surfaced again and again.

Here are the most common five:

 1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. This is the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.

From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late to honour at least some of your dreams. Health brings a freedom very few realise until they no longer have it.

  1. I wish I didn’t work so hard. People, particularly men, missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Many men deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence, whilst some ladies regret not having a career. By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. By creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.

3.  I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. Many people suppress their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never become who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.

We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly. In the end, it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship. from your life. Either way, you win.

 4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. Often, people do not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their last few weeks. Many become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years, then it is not always possible to track them down.

It is common for anyone with a busy lifestyle to let friendships slip. But when you are faced with your approaching death, the physical details of life fall away all you want to get things more in order for the benefit of those you love. Usually, though, they are too ill and weary to ever manage this task. It all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.

  1. I wish that I had let myself be happier. Many did not realise, until the end, that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits.

The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, but deep within they longed to laugh properly, and have silliness in their life again.

When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. How wonderful to be able to let go and smile again, long before you are dying. And if you have “lost” a loved one, it is so important to Grieve.

Mourning is a social event where we revise our Life after the Loss. Grief is not ignoring or “getting over” your loss, but coming to terms with it and getting on with the rest of your life, so giving meaning and value to the life of the lost loved one. It is better “to have Loved and Lost than never to have Loved at all”. Mourning is the continuation of your Love, not its end, it’s just a different way of loving.

Have you noticed the euphemisms that people use to avoid the word Dead or Dying? Passed over, Lost, Gone-away, and Passed-away are just some in common parlance. In certain instances, it may be kinder to use these, but when talking to other witches just stick to the facts. We Die!!

Grief is the price we pay for Love.

What are your views on Assisted dying? And Advance Directives.

Plan your funeral, and let others know your wishes.

If you are asked to conduct a funeral…REMEMBER that it is a ritual for the survivors not for the deceased.

I am not going to have a funeral, since I am leaving my corpse to ‘Cambridge Medical School’.

So, what can we do about it?  Steps we can take NOW

  • Think regularly about Death, but do not dwell on it. It is a part of Life.

Think about it, accept it, and then get on with the rest of your Life.

2          Do not be frightened, since Death is now accepted, and familiar

3          Accept no comfort from the idea of an AfterLife

4          We are not used, in these times, to see dead people.

5          Everything ends, even mountains wear down.

6          Be aware of the Sense of Loss of Relationships (by others).

7          Lead a Full Life.  Then you will have no regrets.

8          At Life’s end, tying up loose ends can lead to a “Good Death”

9          Give yourself, and more important others, permission to die.

10        If attending someone near Death, listen to the dying person, give value to their wishes and pay attention to the small things they talk about, whether they are physically comfortable, etc.

11        After Death kiss the cadaver on the cheek or forehead. That way you cannot kid yourself that they are sleeping.

12       Maybe get together a scrapbook of Memories

There are 5 stages to grieving

Denial

Anger

Bargaining

Depression

Acceptance

Failure to go through each stage of grief will stop you from Living. You may go visit some phases more than once. Everyone’s journey is different.

Some people who are grieving want to talk to you about what they are experiencing. We once had a grieving covener who talked for 38 hrs continuously, Tricia and I took turns in listening, but that is the role of a witch HP and HPS. When you suffer a Loss, it is paramount that you grieve fully, and then let go. There may be guilt, guilt through relief that the dead person is no longer suffering.

There is Survivor’s Guilt, why them? I should have done more to keep them alive. Perfectly normal. Sometimes the survivors’ mental state may oscillate between Joy and Grief, tell the survivor it’s OK to both grieve and smile.

The latest from America is Complicated or Prolonged Grieving, which is where the grief does not subside, and the person is not adapting to their new status. They need to learn to live in the Present, not the Past. They need to let go, but they feel lost in doing so. Maybe they could keep a diary noting what thing they have done and how they feel about it, it’s a bit like CBT. Maybe start gardening, or join a grief Group to share. Undertakers often run these, there they can empathise with others and see that they are not alone. Otherwise, prolonged grieving can become addictive and be used as an excuse not to live.

ENJOY LIFE, WHILE YOU HAVE IT.  THIS IS NOT A REHEARSAL.

Listen to the words of the Dark Lord:

    I Am the God who waits in the dead of year,
      In the dark of life.
     At the end of the lane, where no birds sing.
     There, will you rest in my hand.

 Be fearless to look upon my death’s head,
      For I have other faces;
      And another hand to give again,
      That which I take.

(excerpt from ‘The Dolmen’ by Reg Hinchcliffe)

Do “you” continue to exist after Death? If so, what is the “You” that continues? Is clinging to the idea of Reincarnation, or Resurrection, merely a sop to the fear of personal extinction?

Have you made Living Wills (Advance Directives)? Now legal and enforceable. Do you believe in organ donation? Or have you opted out?

Do you want others to live after your death? – If not, why not

Do you want to be buried or cremated? Why?

Have you told your relatives where you would prefer to Die? At home or in a hospital?

Have you planned your funeral, and told others of your wishes? If not, why not?

Maybe you will attend to someone who is dying.

Don’t be afraid. It’s a natural process Try to find out what they want in terms of Funeral Rites, people, music etc. Maybe give the dying person permission to die. People often hang on for anniversaries etc.

One of the best things, and maybe one of the last things, is to help Lay Them Out. It’s a final act of Love. Always consult relatives when arranging a funeral, after all, it is for the survivors not the deceased.

Having worked out what you want, you will be aware of what steps are required. Death is our friend. Death is an end to physical Suffering. Death is an end to mortal Pain. Death may be tragic and painful to those who survive and may be profoundly regretted, there is nothing in death to fear, any more than one fears sleeping.

Death is the demise of the Ego, and as witches, we are trying to rid ourselves of the Ego whilst we are alive. The Ego struggles to survive and it is this that we experience as the deathbed struggle.

Death is an end to Loneliness. Death is Turning the Pages of Life. The Mystical Experience shows the “Way to Live” with Death.

Life is a choice. It is YOUR life. Choose consciously; Choose wisely; Choose honestly. But most of all, Choose happiness.

Remember the story of Gilgamesh who when hunting for immortality is told “That whilst it is the Gift of the Gods, you live on through your deeds, not your words.

I end with something Tricia, my late wife, said to me just before she died.“I am not afraid of dying, I am a witch, and have seen the bigger picture.

I have Lived, Loved and been loved in return. You can’t ask for anything more than that.”

Goodbye to Steve

Steve, an American Witch stationed at RAF Lakenheath, Suffolk, died unexpectedly from a coronary occlusion in January 2000, aged 36.  Steve was a well-known and popular figure in the East Anglian pagan community.

To say that Steve’s death was a shock was an understatement since he was a member of the USAF, active in the official keep-fit programme as well as a keen jogger and walker, but in his death, he was as influential regarding his belief system as he was in life.

Steve, and Vicky his wife, as part of their training as witches, had explored much of the “dark side” of Life and had not only discussed death and its implications but also had planned, in outline, the type of funeral that they both wanted. This sensitisation relieved Vicky of much of the anxiety that can arise regarding decisions that have to be made upon the demise of a loved one.

Steve has opted for a “green” funeral with interment at the Wrabness site run by the Essex Wildlife Trust.

The burial etc. did not present a problem, once the services of a local undertaker were engaged since these days most local undertakers are familiar with the requirements of green funerals. The main issue confronting Vicky was Steve’s family, who were Pentecostal Christian Fundamentalists, and who had opted to fly to England for the funeral.  Vicky, amongst others, felt that she and Steve had no right to upset his family in their belief system by insisting on a strictly pagan undertaking. The family would have been shattered to even consider that their dear son had departed from the “true way as they would see it”.

This was not the only obstacle since the USAF wanted to hold a Memorial Service, with its concomitant dirges and sadness, as a closure for one of their own. This dilemma was discussed with the USAF Chaplain (a Southern Baptist) who commented that she had her duty to do to the individuals concerned, to the USAF, and to her conscience. She stated that while she respected Steve’s beliefs, she could not participate in any event that would compromise her understanding of God and the Christian message.

Information on Crafte and an outline of Witch’s beliefs were given to her along with the wish not to compromise anyone’s integrity, whilst at the same time requesting due recognition of Steve’s view of Life.  This open and considerate point of view, from Vicky and the local witches, “won over” the chaplain who stated, “that any group who had so much sensitivity and consideration for others had her support, and deserve respect.” The chaplain was in constant support of the family but was amazed by their attitude to death and their ability to literally laugh in the face of adversity. (Kudos to Crafte training).

It was explained that Steve’s wishes would not present a problem to any open-minded person and that he did not want a Memorial Service but would prefer a Celebration of Life. This was something new to the USAF, but they took it on board, and an outline service was made in association with our coven, who was given full editorial control over the contents and format.

During the preparation for the Celebration Service, the chaplain remarked that she had not done anything like this before, but it was fun and she would take notes to pass on the information to her peers.

The day before the service, during the final walk-through in the Base Chapel, it was stated that the Altar cloth would be replaced, this was queried, as the green mantle embroidered with a red and silver solar cross embellished with three ears of barley was particularly significant in light of Steve’s Crafte-name, Barley. When the cross-cultural significance of these symbols was explained to the chaplain she deferred, saying that the white cloth that she had intended to use needed ironing anyway (see how the Gods work).  The altar was also decorated with photos of Steve’s North American Indian forebears as well as one from the Civil War, his favourite coffee mug and sweater also represented the “essence of Steve”.

That evening Vicky and Steve’s family went to the Funeral Parlour, for final viewing. By prior arrangement with the undertaker, Vicky had a few minutes alone with Steve, after his family has said their farewells, in order that she could refit Steve’s earrings and position his athame in his hand, so allowing Vicky to bury Steve with due deference to his belief system without upsetting the family.

The next day, the Chapel, which holds 300 people was overflowing and even with extra seating, some had to stand. Before the actual ceremony, the chaplain explained to all present that the ritual was going to be different, that it was going to be a celebration, not a mournful dirge, no weeping and wailing Hollywood style, but the whole ceremony was geared toward putting the fun back into a funeral, that despite feeling personal loss, that it was OK to laugh, and that was no disrespect since that was how Steve saw death. This put everyone at ease and set the scene for what was to come.

Being a military event, the “show” was opened by the flags of America, and Great Britain, together with that of the Air Force being paraded by the Guard of Honour, and positioned alongside the altar. A short invocation was given and a responsive reading of the 23rd Psalm (American style) was made. The sacred space was opened by the singing of the first two verses of “How Great Thou Art”. This “old time” hymn greatly pleased Steve’s parents and presented no difficulty to the pagans present, since who was to say that the “Lord” referred to was not necessarily the Semitic Jehovah, but could have referred to the Dark or Light Lords of Crafte. Then followed personal eulogies from friends and colleagues including a “trip down memory lane” by the chaplain joyfully retelling some of the daft things that Steve did, as well as his personal accomplishments.  There was a reading from a much-attenuated Psalm 30, I read the poem “The Answer” and then we closed sacred space by singing “The Lord of the Dance”. The ceremony ended with the playing “of the Last Post”, and after the flags were removed, people gave their condolences to the families.

The interment took place that afternoon at the Green Burial site at Wrabness near Harwich with attendance being restricted to family and close friends, (funny, but the 13 witches present outnumbered the family). The sky was overcast with a stiff wind blowing, but my weather magic soon settled that, and a calm fell over the area.

Steve’s body, enclosed in a wicker basket, which was draped with Old Glory, was brought to the site by the undertaker’s hearse and then carried to the graveside by the USAF Guard of Honour. The procession was jointly led by the military chaplain and by myself since it had been agreed that it was to be a joint ceremony with words and actions which would give comfort and peace to all without compromising either Pagan or Christian sensibilities.

I had previously briefed Cheri to stand up-wind so that our words would carry to the other celebrants. (It was explained to her “the open air is our territory, here we have the experience”).  The chaplain opened with a reading from the Old Testament – “There is a time to live and a time to die, a time to laugh and a time to cry”, which was a comment on Polarity at Play.  As this was being read a shaft of sunlight broke through and bathed the site in its warm glow. The Honour Guard in full uniform, but without firearms (as requested), then moved to ceremonially fold the flag and present it to the widow. As they did this a bag-piper, in the dress uniform of the Scots Guards, played “Amazing Grace”, which was followed by the lowering of the basket into the grave.

Originally the piper was meant to give his rendering during the descent (to mask the creaking of the wicker basket) but he miscued and so a silence eventuated at the actual moment of interment, which allowed everyone present to hear a skylark sing as it hovered over the site. Magic indeed, since money can’t buy that sort of thing.

I closed the ritual with “Do not stand at my grave and weep”; a final ecumenical blessing and dismissal, allowing most to turn and so leave the family a few moments alone to say their last goodbyes.  As we trooped down the hill the sun went in and the wind blew (well all good magic should have a “spell by time”), silhouetting the lone piper on the skyline.  Donations to Life-Rites and the Essex Wild Life Trust were made in lieu of floral tributes.

The next day there was a plethora of positive comments from the military who “like what they saw” and after the initial shock came to realise that funerals can be fun. Many also appreciated the value of “green funerals”.  This was for many young airmen their first experience of Death and Death Rituals and hopefully, we presented an alternative to the denial that usually marks the American Way of Death.

Later in the year was a “witchy” celebration at the grave involving much beer, etc. and even more laughter.

The whole exercise was a triumph in demonstrating that kindness and consideration of other people’s points of view, coupled with common sense and courtesy, will generate positive results, and can win over those who may be expected to be resistant, whilst at the same time holding true to one’s own belief system. Openness to the professionals involved, including the undertaker, allowed for a compromise, which accommodated personal wishes without upsetting others.

 

Images: 

Whose Green Burial is it Anyway?

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