Let’s talk about death

death1024Seriously.

We need to.

I just got back from Pagancon in Preston where my good Druid buddy Kristoffer Hughes gave a talk about death. I’ve featured a few of Kris’ talks on DruidCast over the years and some of those have taken this angle too. His talk wasn’t about the metaphysical aspects of death, but instead focussed on our attitudes towards death, and how the current western paradigm is probably not the healthiest way of dealing with loss and bereavement.

I agree with him.

We should talk about death.

We should make sure those around us know exactly what we want to happen to our bodies when we die. We should have written a will. When those we love are going through bereavement we should support them in that very real process, not try to shut them up, divert their conversation away from their feelings, but instead walk with them as they seek to make sense of the loss and change in their lives.

It isn’t right that some are prevented from being with their loved one who has passed away. Some are even completely prevented from seeing the body! Then embalming is not just offered as an option, but is encouraged as an important ‘must have’. When Kris spoke about the environmental impact of putting millions of gallons of embalming fluid into the earth within the bodies of those who have passed away it was shocking. Not to mention the tonnes of carbon dioxide that are pumped into the atmosphere by the countless Crematoriums all over the world. It makes my one visit to a Grand Prix pale into almost insignificance.

This really is a conversation we should be having. And we should be having it now, before it’s too late.

The thought of either burial or cremation makes me cringe. I’m an air sign who has suffered from asthma all my life so a dark box in the ground, or a dark box in flames doesn’t make me feel good. I know, I’ll be gone from this body, but I still care what happens to me. My choice would be a sky burial. This body is great nutrition, good protein. Put me out on a platform on a high hill and let the birds and animals have me. The Towers of Silence in the Zoroastrian tradition would suit me just fine, or the act of sky burial in Tibet. Lovely. Count me in. Sadly I don’t think sky burials are legal here in the UK – we might have a way to go before that happens.

So it looks like a simple shroud and put me in the ground, not embalmed, under a tree. That will do. To be at places I love, burn my Druid robe, and scatter that on the Long Man and the cliffs of Boscastle overlooking the Atlantic. I’ll be there too. I have a will but it needs updating. I’ll do that. I’ll talk to my Grove about what I want to happen at my funeral, and I hope they will tell me what they want at theirs.

Have the conversation.

I remember when I first came to Paganism there was a group called the Pagan Hospice and Funeral Trust. It didn’t get much support at the time to be honest. We were all too young, and of course, we were immortal. The Pagan community now has real elders. 25+ years on and some are passing away. We are all getting a little older so maybe it’s time to re-address those things we were just too young to consider back in the late 80s.

Let’s talk about death. Let’s acknowledge it as a part of life. A door we will all one day walk through. Hiding it is not helping us to be fully human.

18 Comments

  1. Hennie July 14, 2015 at 12:24 pm - Reply

    Here issomething, I wrote a few weeks ago:

    There are many tales about living people interacting with Goddesses and Gods. In almost all the tales it is clear that the Deity is a creature to be impressed by, to take as superior to man.
    In the stories about Death, there is often something funny. Death is like an enemy, who can be out-smarted. Or s/he is a wise old relative with whom you have some troubles but in who’s realm one in the end rests. And more along these lines.
    It is as if Death is a so all-day experience to us that S/He looses some of their divinity .
    Or perhaps Death is not really a deity, but simply a fact of existence all things must undergo.
    Death overtime looses their status as deity, but becomes part of the ritual in praise of another god, to whom a gift is given in the form of a sacrificed animal or plant.

    But the offer is to a god/dess who is thought to reign over life and death. It is like we somehow can’t address Death directly…

  2. Alec Chambers July 14, 2015 at 1:48 pm - Reply

    I wish I could fully articulate my feelings when I was faced with the decision to take my wife of life support. Even though we had made plans and talked about funerals, we still thought we had a couple of decades to go. It was like being thrown of a cliff without a parachute.

    Don’t hold back on grieving, ruin the carpet with your tears. Hold all the rites, rituals, and ceremonies you want, but ultimately, you have to stand up, move on, realize that you have faced the greatest of challenges and you ARE still standing. If death did not break you. You cannot be broken.

  3. Chris July 14, 2015 at 2:29 pm - Reply

    It is difficult helping someone who is going through bereavement, I think most of us feel we are pretty useless at it, all we can do is listen and be there for them, it’s hard.
    All my grandparents we’re cremated and so I have nowhere to go and visit, and I have needed that in the past. I like the idea of tree/woodland burials, there is something beautiful knowing your body will help a tree grow.

    “Normally we do not like to think about death. We would rather think about life. Why reflect on death? When you start preparing for death you soon realize that you must look into your life … now … and come to face the truth of your self. Death is like a mirror in which the true meaning of life is reflected.” Sogyal Rinpoche

  4. Erin July 14, 2015 at 3:18 pm - Reply

    I wish I had read Kris’s book before my mom died in 2010. I’m working my way through it now. It’s very hard to read, but one of the most important books I’ll ever read. I chose to take care of my grieving brother rather than make him let me see her body. I regret not seeing her, but know that she would have approved of my choice. Flowers to the living, as she always said.

    I have known for a very long time exactly what I want done with my body when I die, and at least some of the important people know my wishes. I’ve actually been using this as part of my meditations for some years now, working on the premise that by looking back on how I got to lying in the ground, my body feeding that fruit tree that feeds the people I have left behind, then the life I’m envisioning has on the magical level already happened.

    I hope you get your sky burial. Edward Abbey’s friends had a huge party and drove out into the desert with his body in a pickup truck. They came back without it. That was all that anyone knows about it.

  5. Jackie Rainbow July 14, 2015 at 3:37 pm - Reply

    Re hospice, I have been thinking along these lines a lot recently. Probably because my father, now 80, a pagan for most of those years would hate to be in a home or such visited by the vicar and Christian do- Gooders, as would I!
    But a nice Pagan hospice, with outside space, rituals celebrated, different story.
    At the moment I am still dreaming, but I am being pushed, and soon I will have to stop ignoring the pushing and DO.
    Thanks, for raising this , it is not comfortable , but important.

  6. Hennie July 14, 2015 at 4:00 pm - Reply

    There is an other way to look at your burial, I think. When I am dead it is up to my loved ones to dispose of my remains. I won’t be there any more, so I think it is reasonable that they may decide how to say goodbye to me; decide on the rites, grave or no grove and the rest.

    Another thing is, that I myself, have to come clean with death, in general, and to my own way of leaving life. In my country, many people are sedated to coma during their last hours, days. And of course when suffering is unbearable there is the option of euthanasia. Of course these things I should talk over with with my loved ones.

  7. Carrie Viscome Skinner July 14, 2015 at 10:18 pm - Reply

    I am grieving the death of my father at this time so this is a fresh open wound. It has made me face my own mortality and I have been writing about some of my experiences on my own blog. The thing that has come up among many grieving people is the fact that society says we are supposed to do it in a curtain way and for a specified amount of time. We all feel that notion to be hog wash. Just like everything else in this fast paced world we live in grieving has taken on a semblance of speed. We are told by some that we have grieved long enough after a given amount of time and that it’s time to move on. I am finding that the kind of pressure this puts on a grief stricken survivor leads to the kind of anxiety that makes the whole process even harder to bear. I am out to make a change in this process. Just like the slow movements in cooking, eating and living we should take our time grieving as well. Don’t hurry it. Stop and savor the memories. “Ruin the carpet with your tears”, as Alec suggests, as many as it takes to give you relief. Do what ever makes you feel closer to wholeness during the process for as long as it takes. Don’t rush it just because someone says you should be over it by now.

    As for my own wishes, I have made them known to my whole family and those who didn’t know before my dad’s death do know now. The death of a loved one is the perfect opportunity to bring up the subject with others especially when there has been a problem with the current arrangements. You quickly find out how many things can go wrong when there hasn’t been enough forethought put into it.

  8. Gordon Cooper July 15, 2015 at 12:46 am - Reply

    I agree Damh. I have lost some very close friends and my Beloved in the past four years. Part of talking about death is also about supporting those in their last, uncertain days, along with their family and friends. All that I can offer here is to try to stay in the moment with them, comfort as possible, and it is certainly normal for the dying person or their relatives or friends to be angry. Not at a person, but angry at Death. That it has intruded into one’s plans or schedule. Grief takes as long as it takes, and with some luck and a bit of Druidic Grace, it can be survived. What else I’ve learned is to take pictures, if the person allows it. In ten, twenty years their children will have children of their own who will want to know what Gran looked like and was like. Write it down, if it helps. The funny, the usual, even the sad. Then archive it.

    To your other point on … disposal. There are groups such as the Manchester Odd Fellows and others who have a simple burial plan. No coffin, just a wicker basket with a simple cotton or linen shroud, burying the person with a sapling near their head or feet.

    Write out a will and disposal instructions NOW. Not later. Post them with your Barrister, your mates, and anyone else close to you. Regardless of how healthy you may be, something unfortunate may happen. Relatives and friends should not be put in the awkward position of having to guess, and make all of these decisions in a few minutes at the very beginning of the mourning process.

    It has been my experience that those we lose sometimes leave behind a parting gift of Spirit, something profoundly wonderful and unmistakably from the “Thin Places”. Or, if you prefer. “Beyond The Fields We Know”.

    For some of us, this Gift is all that makes living meaningful and bearable while time, (that other often abused and under-used Gift) provides perspective if not distance. Some years ago Macha Nightmare assembled a book of Pagan essays on Death and Dying.

    Ironically enough, she has just returned home from a stroke that could have ended her life. She is healthy, and I suspect a minor revision to the book, or something new on this topic. She was deemed too healthy to need in-hospital rehabilitation. (Maybe in a few months you could interview her around this subject?).

    It is certainly past the time we need to form burial societies, research the laws, and sock away a few quid that otherwise would be spent at the pub or looking at pictures of druidic cats online to look after our shells as we dance through the earth and elsewhere.

    Green Forests and Blue Skies!

    Gordon Cooper
    Northwest Lorax
    OBODie, AODA etc. etc.

  9. Gordon Cooper July 15, 2015 at 1:10 am - Reply

    Sorry, I forgot to include the address of my open blog where we write and share stories about those who have passed, using the oldest human technology we have-memory, dreams and aspirations coded into words. Posts are “vetted” but certainly welcome!’

  10. Bronzewing July 15, 2015 at 6:34 am - Reply

    So much wisdom here in these comments. Thank you everyone.

    Sometimes I wonder if we fear death at all, or only *how* we will die. Hennie, you are lucky to have the opportunity of euthanasia. I resent that a religion not my own has made that choice impossible for me. My gods don’t care if I choose to step out early. 🙂

    Maybe it’s just me, as long illness made me face the fact of my mortality early, and even at times, wish for death. I’m kind of practical about it now, when it comes to myself anyway. Hubby and I have updated wills, we have our wishes for post death in the wills as well. That saves arguments in a grieving family. Far better to do a will when you feel healthy and far from death, than to be trying to make one up while deathly ill, as my dear mother in law had to do. It’s all too real then, and maybe you won’t even get the chance.

    I don’t mind too much what they do with my body, but since it takes up less space ( and perhaps as a slight link to a viking burial!) cremation is what I’ve chosen. I want my ashes and those of hubby and our beloved dogs to be in the same place. I think if you know where ashes were scattered, that can become the place to visit to connect to the person, especially if they loved that place.

    When the sudden death of a young dog made me grieve and grieve, not seeming to be able to get over it, I got a book on handling death and it said there are no rules in grieving. I keep that in my mind when needed for myself or others. There are no rules. You can feel what you feel as long as you feel it. You do what you must do or need to do.

  11. The History Anorak July 15, 2015 at 12:43 pm - Reply

    Don’t forget to include the instruction that the medics can use any bits of you that might be useful. We allowed some of Dad’s skin to go to a burns victim (the rest of his organs were pretty much shot ) and it felt a great relief to know he’d continued caring for people after he died.

    A friend died while waiting for a heart-lung transplant. Please make those instructions clear too, and ask your relations not to block it when the time comes.

  12. Robert Messier July 15, 2015 at 3:53 pm - Reply

    In my will, I stated that I wished to be cremated and my ashes placed around the roots of a young birch or willow tree in my brother’s field in ceremony. I like the idea of becoming part of a tree and being a home to birds and wildlife. Was this not once part of Druid beliefs?

  13. Jasmine July 15, 2015 at 10:17 pm - Reply

    Thank you Damh, this comes at a very difficult time in my life with the sudden illness of my beloved cat. I found him on the streets as a kitten when I was about 10 years old, and I sort of saw him like the younger brother I never had. I’m 21 now. It is sad how our pets have much shorter lives than we do, but I am thankful that he is still alive, at the moment. Many times I thought he had no hope left, and he’s still not improving as much as I had hoped. Even if he does make it through this illness, I don’t know how much longer he’ll be around, considering his age. This whole ordeal has made me think about my own mortality, my parents, and my 2 other cats, who are a few years older than he is. I’ve always been very close to my cats. I grew up with them, and they are like family to me. The oldest one, a mother who had kittens of her own, even watched over me when I was little, and she still does to this day. Whenever I cry, she comes to comfort me. The other one is actually her daughter, who is just so sweet and innocent. My parents aren’t that young either (but don’t tell them I said that!). I don’t even want to think about what will eventually happen to them, as inevitable as it may be. Death needs to be talked about more, as difficult as it is. The cycle of life and death needs to be accepted, and even celebrated (as many Pagans already know). Western culture often looks at death as a terrible, mysterious anomaly that shouldn’t happen, rather than an unavoidable part of life, and it’s difficult to avoid thinking of it like we’ve been conditioned to think. That said, there is no way to make loss any better. It is what it is, and grieving is needed to move through and beyond the pain, and into understanding.

  14. Richard July 15, 2015 at 11:00 pm - Reply

    I think animal deaths are possibly harder to accept than human deaths. In the last couple of years both my father and my dog died. And I grieved more for my dog than my father. But why ? When I reflect on it I had my dog for 13 years. He was adopted as a rescue by me and my ex partner. We went through a divorce (I kept the dog), I found a new partner (she was never a dog person but was converted by my dog), we got married (the dog was present at the ceremony as was my father who met the dog for the first time), I got a puppy with my new partner (which the old dog accepted and they were best of friends). So in effect the dog has been with me through nearly all of the major events in my life. And at the end I was present at the death of my dog (he was quite ill so had to be pts) but my father died in a foreign country the last I saw of him was a coffin and the ashes so his death was very remote. And now the dogs ashes are on our mantelpiece and my fathers ashes are scattered in the garden in France (your not allowed to keep them). But the dogs death wasn’t in vain. Since he died we’ve adopted a new rescue dog (the old dog was a rescue) so through his death another dog now will now have a very nice life with a loving family and he is very like the old dog so much so that when I have cuddles with him it brings tears to my eyes (as the old dog was a cuddle monster as is this one).

  15. Keith C July 15, 2015 at 11:13 pm - Reply

    “The thought of either burial or cremation makes me cringe. I’m an air sign who has suffered from asthma all my life so a dark box in the ground, or a dark box in flames doesn’t make me feel good”

    I’m with you on that all the way, it is a frequent nightmare of mine. I’ve been an asthmatic for 45 years, I should have been an air sign but was born a month premature. I would like a sky burial too, but as you say it is illegal. Is it not time that we say to our allegedly right honourable gentlemen/women that things are changing?

  16. Garry Watts July 16, 2015 at 7:08 pm - Reply

    I like the idea of a sky burial too. I’m not sure if Hindu style funeral pyres are permitted though. If so, that would suit me and any bones buried in a clay pot under a small cairn or tree also. Six years ago today at this exact moment my Mother died, I got to the hospital just as she gasped her last breath. I never thought of the embalming processes but the thought of all that chemical in the ground(water table) I find un-nerving and a survey ought to be carried out on its dangers. I think as Druids we should always lean toward the natural and promote that way, protest if necessary.

  17. Damh the Bard July 17, 2015 at 2:50 pm - Reply

    I just want to thank everyone for your comments on this article. To read such open and heartfelt responses on the internet has been a joy, particularly as the topic can be hard to talk about. So thank you xxx

  18. Nick Rowan July 15, 2017 at 6:17 am - Reply

    I had shared this when it came out. Mom crossed in Dec 2014 and my beloved in Sept 2015. Mom was expected, leukemia, my love was murdered. Mom was very Christian, and I had a good working relationship with her pastor during the end of her life. She made her wishes clear and known, going quickly when the time came. My sister and I did it the way she wanted it. (Her ashes are still on my sister’s dresser)

    As I approach 50, I keep making my own wishes known, although my husband and kids don’t want to listen yet. As pagans, we need to be talking and standing up for our siblings who need our strength.

    Thank you for this. I’ve filed it in my Elder folder on Pinterest

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