photo by me
deathwork, Witchy

Samhain 2020: Wholeness

As a Pagan in Minnesota, one of the first lessons I learned—and continue to relearn—is how to adapt rituals on the fly, especially those planned for outside. Spending an hour toasting the Ancestors in the cemetery where Leora’s grandmother is buried seemed like a great idea as I planned these rituals in August when it was humid and in the upper 80s (F). It seemed like a crummy idea when the actual day arrived with a predicted high of 31 (0 C) and a windchill of 24 (-4 C).

We adapted. We set up a small altar in our living room and settled on the couch. We drank apple cider mulled with cinnamon, cardamom, and orange peel and traded memories of our beloved dead, beginning with the most recent (Kiara Madison-Cook. What is remembered, lives) and then meandering generally backward to our hazy earliest losses. We shared the memories however they came and let ourselves remember the difficult times as well as the good. Although we missed being at Nanny’s grave, this felt intimate and moving in a way that standing more formally in the cemetery might not have.

Once we’d said everything we needed to, we sang the marvelous “Bone by Bone” to honor and remember all the lives and deaths that have shaped us, spoken and unspoken, known and unknown. We wrote a few words or drew symbols representing characteristics of our beloved dead that we want to embody more in the months ahead. One of the most profound ways the dead live on is through us; if we admire something about the way they lived their lives, why not endeavor to bring that quality into our own lives? Those papers will sit on our main altar until at least Imbolc, to remind us of the work we’re carrying forward.

We bundled up and made our way to the back yard. We each cut a lock of hair and and buried it, speaking the words of the Earth-Dweller’s Creed:

To Earth all life returns;
From Earth all life rises up.

We don’t believe in a personal afterlife, but we believe—we know—that when we die, the Earth will take our bodies back and make new forms from them. It is a promise we all receive, and one we make in return (and the main reason I’m so adamant about green burial). It is the most sacred rebirth I can imagine. We give a bit back now, to remind ourselves of the greater return to come.

And that was the end of the ritual proper.

We’re revisiting our Equinox list to make sure we’re making progress on preparing for Winter. And I’ll be revising one of my end-of-life planning documents, in the spirit of the season (Leora gets a pass this year, because grad school). I like my rituals to have after-work.

So why “wholeness”? Why is that the value I chose to associate with a holiday so often focused on death, grief, and loss? Precisely because of that focus. I’m a deathworker. I’ve seen far too many times the impacts of rampant overcultural death denial and truncated and disenfranchised grief on our lives and communities, especially those of us of marginalized identities. To be whole, I believe we must accept all aspects of life, even its end. We don’t have to like it, but we do have to acknowledge and accept it. The more we show up for death, the more we can show up in life.

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