This is the second of a three-part series written by Staff of Asclepius contributors on death and rebirth, in honor of the Samhain celebration.
In his post, Nornoriel discussed the many funeral rituals available to various Pagan groups and traditions, and the contrasting lack of rites for the dying. In college, I had the disastrous impulse to attempt a sociology minor. The only class I did well in was Sociology of Death and Dying. It gave me a perspective on rituals devoted to the dead, the dying, and the mourning. Also on the fact that societies seem to think it is okay to dictate who a person should grieve for, and how much they should do so.
I was thinking of creating a basic outline of a rite for the dying that could be tailored to any tradition. Instead, I think I will offer a list of components, or ideas, that participants can pick and choose from, to create their own. If something requires a tool, I’ll try to offer an easy alternative in case circumstances do not allow for Pagan altar tools or materials. These are in no particular order. Remember to take into account the wishes of the person for whom you do this rite.
1. Cleansing: Use holy water from your tradition, or sage mist, to prepare sacred space. Mist is safer than smoke, especially in a hospice, hospital, or in a situation where the individual may have a lung condition. If you need to improvise, touch the water and charge it with the purest light you can think of, whether that be white, silver, violet, black, or red, or whichever color makes most sense to you.
2. Deity: Acknowledge a god/goddess of death and dying through a simple icon, and their spoken name. An easy symbol could be a flat stone, a feather, or similar, as long as it is related to the deity as you understand them. If you need to improvise, a coin or a ring might be used.
3. Acknowledge a god/goddess of transformation, similar to above.
4. Acknowledge local or traditional spirits connected with the dying, such as Godmother Death (Mexico), the banshee (Ireland), or the ferryman. You could leave an offering for them, such as a coin or shell. Some traditions believe that such objects are payment for the transfer of the soul safely to the other side.
5. Acknowledge spirit guides and kindred animals associated with the individual, and those of his or her family line if any.
6. Share bread or some other form of food and drink with the individual who will be moving on. Let them know they are not waiting on this shore of the river alone. Offer the same food or libation to spirits present, like those listed above perhaps.
7. Once spirits and deities such as those listed above are present, allow them to remain, peacefully, with you, the family/friends, and the one waiting to pass on, until the event is over.
8. If they wish, an active blessing could be done. Use a wand or dagger to trace a chosen symbol above them, such as the pentagram, star of chaos, a rune, etc. If you need to improvise, a pocket knife, a twig, a plastic cafeteria knife, or a quartz point would do, though I would avoid plastic if possible.
9. Listen. Let them say what they feel they need to say. Have something on hand to write things down if it seems necessary.
10. Let them feel they have something left. If they fear drifting into darkness, a stone to anchor them may help. Guide them toward meditation on that stone as something they can take with them. They could even put into the stone anything they wish to remember in the afterlife/next life, and the stone they have created in their minds will act as a place to store that information. Obviously the physical stone will remain, but they have, with luck, created an astral version of it that can go with them into the next realm. Bury that stone with them.
The basic rite I would have in mind would go something like this:
Create sacred space
Take down what they need to say
Give them something to hold onto
Stay present so they have spiritual support
Release spirits quickly after they pass
You can pick or choose from these. I hope this helps someone.