Amici Mortem: Transforming Our Cultural Experiences with Death

Amici Mortem: Transforming Our Cultural Experiences with Death February 24, 2019

Amici Mortem (Friends of Death) is an emerging interdisciplinary alliance of healers, ritualists, artists, activists and writers working together to transform our cultural practices and theory surrounding Death in this unprecedented time.

Amici Mortem feels the urgent need to reorient ourselves towards a sacred, intimate and complex understanding and relationship with death, dying, the dead, extinction and climate change in this new epoch called the Anthropocene. Strategically embracing the strong potential for grief, art, mutual aid and collectivized ritual practices to strengthen the web of connections that will sustain us through the beautiful storm that is our shared mortality, they endeavor to stay with the trouble as we explore the unknown.

I met Amici Mortem at PantheaCon 2019 last week and was blown away by the work that they are doing. I asked one of the members, and co-founder Aja a few questions in order to help spread the word about their mission.

I know we talked a bit about it before, but why the name ‘Amici Mortem’?

It just seemed right and I liked the sound of it. It is Latin for “friends of death”. It was honestly just part of the initial inspiration download that struck me like lightning all at once, it didn’t really seem like a choice.

When we spoke at PantheaCon, you let me know that Amici Mortem actually found its roots at that convention. Could you tell us a little more about that?

My first 2 years at Pantheacon, 2017 and 2018, I went to see Kristoffer Hughes speak (for those who don’t know, Kristoffer Hughes is a very charming Druid, Drag Queen, Mortician from Wales). The presentations were both about death, about the crisis we face around how our culture does death, how we can do it differently etc. and at the end of the 2nd presentation, he implored us to “become the friends of death, become Amicus Mortus”. I felt him speaking straight to my spirit and I just said, “Yes, yes I will.”

All throughout the conference my friends and I had been talking about what we would do if we had a hospitality suite, half joking about starting a compost death cult, the kinds of wild imaginings that this kind of event can bring about. About a week after the con, my now-collaborator, Lauren, called me up and said, “I hope you’re serious about this Death Collective thing because it’s what I want to do with my life.” We spent the last year working towards it and made it happen!

The space that you are learning to hold for death and grief is beautiful, how long have you felt called to do this?

I think it has been forming over the last few years, though there are some parts of it that I may have been preparing for my whole life. In 2016 I left my home of 15 years and moved to California within weeks of a dear friend dying of cancer. I was honored to be one of the people by her bedside for the days before her death and it changed me on a deep level. I saw the ways that, despite the tragedy and heartbreak, her death was somehow a healing experience for me and many others. I have been wondering since then about how sometimes death can tear communities apart and sometimes can bring people closer together. I have been feeling the urge to understand what makes that difference and to learn how to do it more intentionally, not just on an interpersonal level, but on social and ecological levels as well.

The altars and the energetic container that you built for PantheaCon truly blew me away. It was such a safe and comforting place to commune with and help tend to the dead. Could you tell me a little about each of the three main altar/shrine spaces that were created?

The main altar was to death and grief. We wanted this to be the focus of our magical work and so made it central and larger than the others. On either side, we had altars to ancestors/descendants and the web of life/whole time. We wanted these smaller altars to be resourcing or places where people felt like they could draw strength for the grief work they needed to do, but they also served to help us to go deeper emotionally because there are ways that our connection to ancestors, descendants, the web of life and whole time bring us closer to our grief.

The compost and elemental offerings to the compost were on the balcony. The compost didn’t get accessed as consistently as the other altars, but I think it was a very important aspect of the whole feeling of the space. We tried to maintain a clear energetic flow in through the main door and out through the balcony. The energy that needed to move on went into the compost. We cleansed the space constantly and emphatically encouraged people to cleanse upon entering and leaving the space. It was a lot of work but we have gotten so much good feedback that it seems to have been effective – we went deep and did intense work, but it remained a positive space that people left feeling grounded and good.

During the construction and dismantling of this sacred space, you called upon several deities. Are these deities a focus for the work that you are doing in Amici Mortem?

The closing ritual was a place for people who had been involved in the space (whether they were part of organizing or not) to acknowledge some of the energies they had worked with over the weekend. One of the deities was being honored by our neighbors which we had felt in a strong way and some of the others had popped up over the course of our time together. Only 2 of the above were invoked as part of the initial magical container, which was created by me and my partner, Gobble. We called on the beings we personally work with, who we felt were well suited to the work, or who had called us to the work in the first place.

It is a really new project and as people come and go I am sure it will change who we are working with magically. There may be iterations of the project that I won’t be part of and so the Godds I work with may not be called on to be involved. It’s too soon to tell whether there is a particular group of beings who will be part of the project consistently over the long-term. That is just a (partial) list of who showed up this time.

One of my favorite things about your hospitality suite (aside from the beautiful altars) was that you brought a compost! How does composting work into death magic for you?

Composting has become a core part of my spiritual practice in recent years. A lot of people do it, but many are not aware of the potential compost has for actually healing and restoring depleted, toxified soil. For me, the compost pile is a liminal space between the living, the non-living and the dead. There are literally billions of creatures working together in a compost pile. Learning how to work with those beings, with the relationships in what’s called the soil food web, can be hugely impactful in terms of personal healing and also helping facilitate healing for the land and the spirit world.

Many pagans, witches and the like talk a really good game in terms of being into the whole life-death-rebirth thing. But most of us still fear death and avoid it to our detriment. The compost pile is a place where I have found I am able to really embody the deep understanding that death and regeneration are integrally connected. I can release things into the compost pile, knowing that it is food for someone there and that incredible things are possible in that letting go. It will be the same for my body when I die, but in the meantime, I do it as practice and it has been really amazing what’s come through as a result.

I’ve always said that my apartment was too small to compost, so I felt called way out when I saw you all making it work in a hotel room. What are some suggestions for working with composting for people who live in small living spaces?

Willow Munger is a person I met at Pcon who hosted a workshop called Worm Bin Spirit Helpers and Metaphysical Composting. We ended up collaborating for the Compost Devotional ritual we did at our suite. Worm composting (or Vermiculture) is a really great alternative to composting because the scale on which it happens is a lot smaller. They require a lot less food (and are picky, at that) and they can even be inside your kitchen.

The compost I brought to the hotel was in a rotating barrel, which is pretty compact and would definitely fit on a balcony. There are limitations to what kinds of compost you can make on a small scale, but it’s all good and worth doing. Getting familiar with the basics of composting is SO helpful in terms of avoiding bad smells and pests, which I think is a deterrent for many people. There are tons of resources for composting online and the benefits are so worthwhile, even without the magical practice!

You describe Amici Mortem as an interdisciplinary alliance of healers, ritualists, artists, activists, and writers. What is your dream for this alliance?

My dream is that people from different fields come together to do research and experimental practice at the edges of where our work meets and in doing so, create new cultural practices with which to engage this unprecedented time of ecological crisis and drastic upheaval. I would love to see these different ways of knowing (from backgrounds of art, science, magic, theory, health etc.) informing each other and creating a rich and diverse foundation for adaptation and evolution. I am very inspired by interdisciplinary research and feel that it is perhaps one of the few hopes we have for discovering bold new approaches to the complex situations we are finding ourselves in.

What was your biggest takeaway from holding this space at PantheaCon 2019?

It seems the message is that this work is needed, timely and people are really hungry for it. It felt risky and even dangerous at times but whether it was beginner’s luck or that we had a lot of help on all levels or both, we pulled it off. I am so grateful for the trust people put in us (whether it was deserved or not) – it happened in such a good way in huge part because people were willing to be vulnerable and to bring their whole selves. What an honor it has been to witness and be of service! It seemed like all the people we were supposed to meet came through the doors. Thanks so much to everyone who helped make it happen!

Any projects, events or books/essays we can look forward to in the future?

It seems like there is a lot of will to make grief rituals happen on a monthly/moonly basis here in Santa Cruz/the SF Bay Area where we are based, so that’s something to look forward to. The 3 essays/zines I had at the conference are part of a larger series. Some say it is a book but I am just taking it one essay at a time… so yes, more writing on death in the coming year.

I am hoping to expand the website to include all the great resources that were shared with us over Pantheacon and to start writing for the blog, including a book review column called Book Worm – I am reading ferociously as research for this project and I am so passionate about books I just have to share! Building out the online side of the project so that it can be useful to people all over the place is a big priority for me. There are a few events we are considering later in the year but nothing confirmed. That’s what I see as the next steps but who knows. I am dreaming of starting a green burial land project. If anyone has land they want to donate, be in touch!

Where can people learn more about Amici Mortem? IG:@amicimortem

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