Samhain draws closer and the witching season is in full, cackling flight. There are full moons to howl, parties to prowl, pumpkins to carve, costumes to sew, sabbats to dance, festivals to vend and initiations to attend–and that is just the next two weeks. There will be shenanigans! But that is only the mirthful half of the the magick that is afoot. There is much reverence on our minds as well.
For our rites, we’ve been asked by the priestesses in charge to prepare an offering in veneration of death–a poem, a song, anything we feel is appropriate. We also will honor our beloved family members who’ve died, and so my mother haunts my thoughts again as she always does this time of year. Right on cue, my father sends me this old photo of her. It is one I’ve never seen before and far more artistic than I’m used to. This is how the messages work between us these days. With this one, I hear her reminding me that she was once young and beautiful, fashionable and adorable. At this time in her life, she was a reasonable, intelligent, Lutheran woman, newly married.
By the time she was 59 years old, she’d become more of the holy-rolling, bible-thumping, fundamentalist variety of evangelical Christian and basically the polar opposite from my liberal, feminist, witchy self. Needless to say, I didn’t talk about those things with my mother because I loved her, and I was too chicken to drop the “W” bomb. Even though she drove me absolutely bonkers, I craved her acceptance. Her love was unconditional, but the peace between us was not.
When she passed through the veil suddenly and unexpectedly in 2007, I rushed home to Kentucky to help with her funeral.¹ It was important to me, as a newly initiated Witch and aspiring priestess, that I give my extremely religious mother the ritual send-off that she wanted. That was how I needed to love her at that moment, by respecting her wishes and who she was as a person. Not because she would have done the same for me, but because it is how I would want to be treated. I know this because I once mentioned that I wanted to be cremated when I died, and she recoiled in horror. She told me in no uncertain terms that if there was an ounce of life left in her body, she would use it to make sure I had a “proper” christian burial, whether I liked it or not. I think the exact quote was, “You’ll be dead so there will be nothing you can do to stop me.”
Uh huh. She could be a special sort of boundary-violating jerk, she carried her soapbox with her everywhere she went, and the message was clear: there was only one right way, her way. As you can imagine, we had a very difficult relationship, but because she was so entrenched and vocal about her opinions–on everything, without ceasing–planning her funeral was a no-brainer.
Now, I expected her spirit to rush gleefully into the light, because she fully believed that the arms of Jesus and all her loved ones awaited her on the other side of death. She was well prepared to meet her maker and looking forward to her one-way ticket to heaven so that she could spend eternity singing god’s praises in her own private mansion on a street paved with gold. Preparing for the afterlife was just about all I remember her talking about, well, that and her very fine cooking…and the grandbabies…and whatever Pat Robertson just said.
You might think I’m exaggerating, but she was so convinced that she would skip the whole death thing and be taken directly “in the second coming of Christ” that the words “in case of rapture” actually appear in her last will and testament. Guess who she named as executor of her estate when the four horsemen of the apocalypse came to town? Yup. Me! Because we all knew I’d be left behind. That shouldn’t be funny, but I’m kinda proud of that particular milestone between us. **For the record, in the unlikely event that it all goes down like it says in the book of revelations, I will admit my error and accept those consequences with all due contrition. <snicker>**
Ironically, after her sudden death she did NOT go into the light, she stuck around, and basically dragged me around by the third-eye chakra from the moment they cut life support, to the moment they lowered her into the grave–and then haunted me for another 4 years (that is a story for another day.) She kept me awake for days with a constant stream of memories, visions, and a rush of explanations about how she wanted to be remembered. There was a sense of urgent apology in there, too. Now that she was in Spirit, there could be no secrets between us.
Like a woman possessed I heard myself, as if from a distance, telling her minister that I would deliver the eulogy, and exactly which hymns were to be sung during the service. Perhaps I was just suffering from grief-induced insanity, but there were things that had to be said, and I was the one that had to say them, apparently. I did manage to deliver the eulogy without bawling, and without being struck down by lightening in the pulpit of her church, as my sister was just SURE would happen. Never fear, I’m pretty tight with several gods of lightening, so I had that part covered. (This story can be found in detail in my Death Toll Series)
Then we all followed her to the graveside, and gathered around her coffin we sang the chorus several times to the christian hymn, “Will the Circle be Unbroken;” a final benediction to close the service before the workmen came to close the grave. It worked well enough because most all her mourners knew the tune and lyrics already.
Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, Lord, by and by
There’s a better home a-waiting
In the sky, Lord, in the sky
The ritualist in me saw it as the power raising and release to send her spirit into the beyond with our wishes for reunion. Although the original lyrics don’t do much for me, seeing as I’m pagan, the familiar tune gave me some comfort when I needed it most. Anyway, I’m confident that it was what she wanted, and that was the important thing at the time.
That got me thinking that I really wouldn’t know what songs to sing at a pagan funeral if I had to officiate one, and what instructions would *I* leave for my loved ones beyond, “cremate me.” That is both a drawback and a benefit when you leave behind the religion or culture of your upbringing; you may not have traditional ways to fall back on, but you DO have the opportunity to create something new that speaks to your own, personal truths.
What I can tell you from my intimate experience with funeral planning, is that their purpose must be two-fold: To honor the dearly departed in accordance to their spiritual beliefs, and most importantly, to give the mourners a way to process their emotions while fully releasing their loved one to the Next Big Thing.
So for my Samhain work, I’ve been thinking about my own passing, and also what rituals may have better helped me to release my own mother. I guess I’m directing this wish to my children, though I hope they are sage and crone when I pass on.
My Wish Upon Dying
By Fire, surrender what remains of my dense matter so that it may be transformed into light and warmth. I have this romantic wish that an open funeral pyre was legal, and it would be just like Luke Skywalker cremating Darth Vader, but alas…I’m not sure modern people could handle ye olde barbecue method. So, you can use your imaginations while the crematorium takes care of the grisly bits. Perhaps in circle you can burn my wand and ritual robes in the bonfire.
By Water, take some ashes to where natural water flows. Find where the great blue herons like to hang out, then stand in the liminal, one foot on land and the other in the water, and allow the emotional connections we held to flow. Dare to let yourself weep, laugh, sing without shame…let the cup run over as long as you need…then accept that nothing ever truly ends.
By Air, take some ashes to a high windy place where the view of the horizon is long and beautiful to the East, think on the memories we shared, the ideals I lived, what dreams I chased and caught. Read some poem of mine, or sing my pagan song Unbroken Circle …let it ring out on the breath one more time.
By Earth, scatter what ashes are left on the roots of a big, gnarly tree in some wild forest that you like. With just your finger, draw my name in the dirt to announce my entry there, but let it fade away with the wind and rain. Make no permanent marker on the earth, because I will not remain. I have been many people, and there are many yet to come. This body was merely a temporary lay over, I was just a sojourner here, and I do not intend to linger long in any one place.
1. As a process of mourning, I blogged the story of her Passing Away, the funeral and the wonders that unfolded through the organ donation process, and my subsequent revelations as she worked with me through Spirit. (back)
2. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” is a popular Christian hymn written in 1907 by Ada R. Habershon with music by Charles H. Gabriel. The song is often recorded unattributed and, because of its age, has lapsed into the public domain. en.wikipedia.org. Text under CC-BY-SA license. Composers: Ada R. Habershon, Charles H. Gabriel. (back)