Seeking the Grail: Too Early A Death

Seeking the Grail: Too Early A Death September 7, 2015

Wednesday night I facilitated a memorial service for a Pagan community leader, David Quinn. I didn’t know David, but I had been scheduled to offer a chanting workshop for his group, Sacred Bridges CUUPs, in Des Moines, Iowa. Monday when I woke up I received a message that David had passed away Sunday night.

David was just 37.

a couple seated next to a roaring campfire
LaughingRaven /

Before I get into how I ended up working with a bunch of strangers in Des Moines for the purpose of chanting, singing, and howling grief and loss and love and joy into a grove of trees in the forest around the Unitarian Universalist church where their group is based, it might be useful to explain how I got there in the first place.

This past week I was on a teaching/book tour around the central Midwest. I’ve arranged a few grassroots tours like this when I’m invited to present workshops at an event like a Pagan Pride when that event was a few hours drive away. I arrange a few workshops on the way there, and on the way back, in order to break up the drive and make the trip more financially feasible. This also allows me to offer more workshops for local groups on a sliding scale fee structure. If I’m going to be traveling through anyways, the workshops become a bit more cost effective for both me, and for the attendees. One challenge I’ve had in offering workshops on Pagan leadership and ritual arts is simple math: there are only so many Pagans in any given area, and only a fraction of those who are interested in workshops on those topics. And, many of those who are interested don’t have the financial abundance to be able to pay a lot of money for a class.

My values have always been to support Pagan leaders interested in learning more skills regardless of their ability to pay–but, I’ve also been working to make my own life more financially sustainable in the past years. If I can’t do that, then I won’t have the time to devote to offering this kind of work, as I can’t offer this work if it’s costing me money to teach.

Travel is tiring for me. I know it energizes some people. Me, I’m an introvert. I love meeting new people and talking shop on ritual facilitation and Pagan leadership, but all the driving and the staying in spare rooms and dragging around a cooler of gluten free, dairy free food…that gets tiring. The 80-95 degree heat this past week didn’t help much, and my cooler would be more aptly called “warmer.” This trip I even broke my rule of not using air conditioning in my car when the heat went up to 95 degrees.

I began with a drive from Milwaukee to St. Louis to do workshops at Pathways bookstore, my first time teaching workshops there. Then, on to Columbia Missouri for a workshop at Good Nature bookstore, and then the next day, Sunday, I was the featured presenter at Mid Missouri Pagan Pride. Pagan Prides can be pretty exhausting; I was up late the night before talking shop with two of the organizers, and then up early to set up my vending booth, offer the opening ritual and then immediately after, a workshop on leadership. I had a little time in the afternoon to finish setting up, then I offered a workshop on chanting and did the closing ritual, then it was time to take down the booth.

I opted to drive the two hours to Kansas City that night. I had the option to stay in a hotel, but I wanted to get the drive over with, and I was looking forward to seeing my friend Steve. I managed to change my clothes in my car and power through the drive, and then Steven and I (and his cats) hung out til we couldn’t stay awake any longer.

Monday was my day to sleep in, but I awoke to unwelcome news. David’s wife Andrea had messaged me to let me know that David had crossed over the night before. He had some kidney issues, I later found out, so his illness was expected; him dying this young was not.

I’d never met David in person.

He and his wife Andrea had messaged me months before to invite me to be one of their guest presenters at their Pagan Jubilee, taking place at the church on October 17th. When I’d put out a call looking for places to host some weeknight workshops, David messaged me quickly and we arranged for a chanting workshop on Wednesday night. We thought it would be a great way to build interest in the workshops and ritual that I would be offering at the Jubilee. I told him that we could try out a few ritual techniques that I planned to use for the main ritual and he thought that was a great idea.

At first it seemed the most reasonable course of action would be to cancel the Wednesday workshop, but then Andrea said that she’d like to keep it as a memorial service. While there would be a viewing/wake on Thursday evening, and a formal funeral on Friday at the church, David loved drumming, he loved chanting, and he loved the little labyrinth he and others of his congregation had built together. She wanted a memorial where there could be the kind of drumming and chanting that he’d have loved.

I did my workshop in Kansas City, and then had a day “off” on Tuesday. By off, I mean I wasn’t teaching, but I had hundreds of emails and other work to catch up on. All the things I can’t keep up with when I’m on the road and teaching. By Wednesday I had a rough plan outlined with Zac, another organizer for Sacred Bridges CUUPs. He had been helping Andrea by coordinating with me. I asked Zac a bunch of questions about David; were there any deities he worked with, any particular path he followed, that sort of thing.

The truth is, I had no idea how to plan for this. I’ve been the celebrant for weddings. And I’ve led memorial services. And I’ve led chanting workshops and ecstatic rituals working with the beloved dead.

I’ve never offered a chanting/drumming/ecstatic memorial service. My further challenge was that I didn’t know David personally, other than working to plan with him for the Jubilee. And I didn’t know his group.

I resolved to just go in and do what I do well; make space for ecstasis and catharsis. I’d get people chanting and get out of the way. I’d let them tell stories, if they wanted to. Or just sing. Or just drum. Or make sounds. Whatever it was they needed, I’d make space for it somehow.

When I arrived, Zac gave me a tour of the church and grounds. It turns out that the church Sacred Bridges CUUPs is connected to is situated in a small forest with a creek. David had spearheaded creating a sacred grove in the woods for their group to gather, and a labyrinth to walk. Andrea told me that they first had to clear heavy brush, then level the area to make it able to be walked, and only then could they lay the bricks for the labyrinth.

I’ve built outdoor shrines; this was an awe-inspiring amount of work. This was his baby, she told me. This was his love.

Slowly, community members began to gather. They brought chairs, they brought drums. I set up a small cauldron fire in the center so that, once the sun began to set, we would have firelight. People hugged each other and spoke quietly. Someone offered me bug spray after I had four huge welts on my arms in the span of five minutes.

We began together with some drumming, and then Zac introduced me. I admit it, I felt pretty awkward at first. Here I am, with a bunch of folks I don’t know, offering a memorial for a man I never met. I let spirit guide me in what chant to begin with. It’s one I call the “Aaa Ooo” chant, it’s a soft two-note chant in a minor key. It’s really simple, and great for holding a solemn space. And after a few moments of singing that, people began to weep. At a memorial or funeral, you’re usually working to offer space for two things; grief and joy. Grief at the loss, joy at remembering this person in your life.

We alternated; I’d anchor a chant for a while, and then we’d switch over to drumming. Some other people stood up and told stories or offered a song. One chant that I offered up was about ancestors and descendants–the ancestors, those who have gone before, and the descendants, those who are yet to come, those who we are building all of this for. And then people told stories about how that’s what David was all about–that he wanted to build something for the next generation, leave something positive for the Pagans to come after us.

By the end of the memorial, I felt that I knew David. Zac had told me that David had just gotten a tattoo of Cernunnos, so I sang a completely impromptu invocation to the Horned One. During the drumming and chanting, I almost felt that I could see David dancing amongst us, antlers on his head. Later, I was told that he would have done exactly that, and he had antlers for that purpose. As people told stories about him–his love of Venn diagrams, how he lovingly laid out the brick labyrinth with a massive compass and other tools to get the angles and spacing right, to get the curves perfect. He was a geek for sacred geometry, and he loved drumming and chanting.

As we gathered in close around the fire, people kept saying, “He would have loved this. This was exactly what he wanted to see more of.” We ended with a joyful rendition of “The Ocean Refuses No River” and then people seemed content to hold one another, to drift into soft conversation remembering David’s life while others packed up and took their leave.

During my time there in the labyrinth, in this little grove of trees, I felt David’s work there in the stones beneath my feet, in every brick lovingly laid into arcs set into the ground. I’ve built outdoor shrines and I know the backbreaking work that it takes. I never met this man, but I know the love, the fuel, the drive. I felt it in every brick, every single one.

David’s death is a loss for our community, and especially for his local community. He had a lot of work before him, a lot of things he had planned to do in order to lay strong foundations for the Sacred Bridges CUUPs group to serve the Pagans in Des Moines.

And at only 37, David was just a year younger than me, and I have to admit it; that kind of terrified me to hear. I thought, “What happen if I died right now? What would happen if I died with so much of my work unfinished?”

I’m reminded of what my father told me after he died. Or at least, what I think he told me. My dad died back in 2011, and the message I heard from him then was, don’t wait. Do not wait, don’t wait to live your life, don’t wait for it to be safe, don’t wait for approval, don’t wait til everything’s perfectly lined up to go do that thing you always dreamed of. Don’t wait to follow the call. Don’t wait.

I miss David. I never met him, and I miss him. He was one of the many Pagan leaders out there working to do good work for his community, and he died way too soon. Helping his community to sing and grieve and celebrate is one of the most intense things I’ve ever had the honor to do. I’m the better for it, as I got to know them, and I got to know David a lot better too.

The Grail is life and life force, it’s inspiration, it’s the call. It’s service, and it’s blood and sweat and tears.

And it’s the day that the cup is poured out, empty. It’s the day that we return to the earth, to the ground beneath our feet. David’s ashes are, by now, now buried beneath the bricks he laid; he’s in that ground already hallowed by his own love and service to his community. Blessed be  those who serve. Blessed be those who love. Blessed be those who follow the call. And blessed be all those who will miss David; what is remembered, lives.

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