I have several posts I’d like to do over the next few days that may or may not end up being “controversial” (though nowhere near the extent that certain other posts have been over the last few weeks), but I decided to go with the present one out of the three I currently have planned (the other two are on child sacrifice and consuming offerings) because it is sort of the “least controversial.” Oh well.
While I’ve considered discussing this issue for a while, what really brought home its importance is my visit to the Peru exhibit the other day.
And, just because it seems that such things are more necessary now than ever in the pagan blogosphere, I’ll say this as well before I get into my discussion: if the main items in the discussion below don’t appeal to you and aren’t a part of your “belief system,” there is no need for you to comment and tell me how wrong I am or what a waste of time it is to discuss these things, or that I’m dismissing your viewpoint for not mentioning alternatives. I shouldn’t have to make those sorts of caveats, but this is the new reality we live in, I guess. Onward, so…
There is a myth (and not the good, “meaningful narrative” type!) that I’ve heard far too often over the last twenty years: namely, that funerals are “for the living,” and thus what gets done at them and how these may or may not be within the wishes of a given dead person, nor might they comport with their own religious views or their identity, isn’t important. There are cases in which this kind of thing is actively and willfully detrimental to the memory of the dead person: trans* individuals who were “not fully transitioned” who get portrayed as their birth-assigned gender, or queer individuals who have their lives and loved ones dismissed and ignored by their biological family are examples that come to mind, and while these may not happen as often as they used to, I’m sure they still happen far more often than they should (and if it only happens once a year, that’s more often than it should!).
The myth that funerals are “for the living” is a myth of a materialist, atheist-leaning overculture, and it is amazing how often this opinion even surfaces amongst religious people. And yet, there may even be elements in certain creedal monotheistic religions that lend themselves to contributing to the overculture that allows people to die and their remains to be disposed of in various fashions without much (if any) ceremony involved. The idea that the fate of the individual’s soul (and because the overculture, if it acknowledges souls at all, only sees people as having one soul) is pretty much set at the time they die based on their actions and their relationships (if any) with their deities, and what the person’s surviving friends and family do for them afterwards is therefore moot, is an idea from (ultimately Zoroastrian-influenced) creedal monotheisms, and is a real tragedy and a cause for worry, to say the least.
Part of the reason that I’m making this post now is because I just saw a death announcement that highly disturbed me: it said of the individual involved (who I encountered a few times, but never properly “met”–the individual concerned worked at the cafe at college when there still was one) that there would not be a funeral, but there would be a memorial service. I understand that these are the secular counterparts to funerals, and they often involve the friends and family assembling a display of pictures (or a video or slide show) and offering words to the person’s memory, but there is no ceremony, no ritual, and often no prayers of any sort involved at all.
Another part of me is making this post because I’ve seen the ways in which the lack of a proper funeral can be detrimental to a dead person’s passage onwards. I’ve got several grandparents who, for various reasons, didn’t quite have the right sorts of funeral when they died, and guess what? They’re still hanging about, often in very blatant and physical ways. The ancient Greeks and Romans (and many other cultures) would not have tolerated such wandering spirits (not out of resentment for the dead person, but because “it’s not right” on an existential level), and actually the same is true for medieval Christianity as well, where there are a multitude of stories involving people who did not get a proper requiem mass said for them after their deaths, and their spirits continue to haunt the living and cause trouble for them. Note well that word: requiem, the mass that “lays to rest” a person’s soul. That’s actually what funerals are supposed to do: they are rituals not for the living to “say goodbye” to the person, they’re rituals to assist the person’s passing over and transition into whatever afterlife they might be destined for, and they do so by breaking or removing the person’s bonds to this world. Irish wakes, keenings, and other such practices, likewise, do the same thing in a different manner, and the appropriation of these into modern Euro-American culture as great piss-up parties at or in place of funerals (without the essential games and other actual ritual utterances and practices) entirely misses the point of what these rituals are designed to do.
While, on the one hand, I’m for being interested in and invested in this living material world, there comes a time when investment and involvement in it is no longer appropriate to a person, and that time is when they are dead. The time to be completely and utterly interested in otherworlds and transcendent realities is when one should rightfully be in those places. In the rush for modern pagans to embrace materiality and embodiment as a good thing (and I do think it’s a good thing!), there has been a consequent rejection of transcendence and other less-material realities, and even a de-ritualization (and, if anything, modern pagans should be better at re-ritualization!) around some of these things. It isn’t enough to say “what is remembered, lives” when someone dies, I don’t think (and even that phrase ends up being kind of disrespectful, I think–aren’t the “things” remembered in these cases not things at all, but people, and thus “who” might be the better phrase to use?–we can debate all we want about the personhood of the gods, or of the natural environment, but shouldn’t we be pretty well agreed across the spectrum of belief systems that “people” are “persons”?!?); something must be done, and done ritually, in a manner that is spiritually effective rather than just being spiritually meaningful for the living individuals involved.
While this matter has been on my mind for many months now, this point was brought home to me especially vividly and effectively as a result of the Peru exhibit, because it was made clear therein that not everyone who died became an Ancestor. It took specific rituals and recognitions to carry them over and foster the transformation into an Ancestor, and if those things didn’t happen, then the person was just another dead person (though not permanently so, and still existent and accessible in various ways).
And, given that I’m involved with the cultus of Antinous, and with a variety of other heroes of the ancient Greek, Roman, Irish, and other cultures, this is also a matter of concern for me. Certain upset and wandering spirits, like Eunostos of Tanagra for example, were only able to be laid to rest and to stop being a major problem for the health and safety of their communities by being honored as heroes, with the attendant rituals and observances accompanying that status. One can view human deification–whether that is having the proper funeral rituals in order to become Ancestors (which EVERYONE should have), being accorded the status of a hero, becoming a Divus/Diva through the apotheosis ritual, or even becoming deified (and thus becoming a “hyper-elevated Ancestor,” one might say!)–as a natural outgrowth of these matters. Thus, in cultures where these matters are observed properly and are given due attention and reverence, the ultimate fate of humans is to become divine in some fashion or other, whether one likes it or not, or thought the given individual deserved it or not. The “settling of the soul” rituals that occur in Shinto to join a person to the kami is the “Ancestor elevation” equivalent for Shinto, but it is also perfectly possible for a person to become recognized and enshrined as a kami if their accomplishments and status were enough to merit such.
As various modern ancestor-work practitioners have emphasized, it is difficult to do a lot of things in life if one doesn’t have a connection to one’s Ancestors. Almost all of us have dead people that we know, and with whom we interact or have interacted to some degree or another, and I certainly do; but, not all of us have connected with our Ancestors, and we may not even have them as easily recognized or accessible for the last several hundred years (very likely a far more prevalent problem for people of European descent since the Protestant reformation–it seems that for any of its other faults, Catholicism was pretty good at doing this kind of thing!) of our lineages because the rituals involved have not been carried out, or even considered of any importance whatsoever. That doesn’t mean we can’t do that work now, of course, and I hope to be able to start doing some more of it in better and more informed ways in the months and years to come.
Let me put this out there, therefore, for anyone and everyone to read: when I actually die, you all have my permission to carry out these rituals for me in your own groups and individually and within your specific traditions to make sure that I’m not an annoying wandering ghost, because if you think my blog posts are frequent and upsetting now, you have no idea how bad they’ll be when I have the ability to transcend the physical limitations of the internet and computer technology. Trust me, no one will be safe! I expect that those who are around me when I do die will know this and will diligently carry out my wishes in this regard, but I just want to put this out there so that everyone knows it. (And, in case you were wondering: no, I don’t “plan” on dying anytime soon, but one never knows when the 18-wheeler with a front grill that has my name on it will finally meet me up-close and personal while I’m trying to cross the street to get a chocolate orange.)
What the mechanisms involved are, and what all of this should look like, is still not entirely clear to me, but I hope it will become clearer as I learn more, do more research, talk to colleagues about this, and find out about the various techniques that are used. The matter is complicated further by the issue of there being multiple soul-parts, and how each of these has a purpose and a destination after death, but I won’t get into that further at this point. And, certainly, the individual does have a role and a responsibility for insuring their own safety and (don’t misunderstand the use of this word in a creedal monotheistic fashion) salvation after death; but, to ignore that we are part of and connected to this world through our families, friends, communities, and myriad other very tangible and real connections, and our salvation in life and death doesn’t just depend on our own individual efforts (and that myth is the pernicious aspect of this whole situation for modern people and why these rituals are not carried out nor taken seriously too often these days), is a serious problem, and one that modern pagans and polytheists should be especially aware of and should be working towards addressing whenever and wherever possible.