Note: this post contains spoilers for all four seasons of The Good Place. If you haven’t watched the show but intend to, or think you’ll ever want to, and you don’t want to be spoilered, maybe give this one a miss.
Content note: death denial, ageism, television
Well, I finally got to see the end of NBC’s The Good Place. I’d expected that I would cry; I just hadn’t anticipated how much.
TGP ranks in my top ten TV shows I’ve ever seen, maybe even top five. It’s smart, funny, full of heart, and visually saturated, all things I look for in TV. It also fascinates me as a deathworker because it’s one of those places where US overcultural death denialism smacks right into US overcultural obsession with youth.
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.
In September, I helped a friend build a toolkit to prepare for the death of a family member that they wouldn’t be able to be physically present for. That toolkit included a prayer to offer upon first learning of the death. In this time when so many of us will experience that same physically isolated loss, I thought it might be helpful to others, and my friend graciously agreed to let me share it.
In a time when we are barred from many of the conventional rituals of death, spontaneity and organic growth of ritual can be the best way to go – individualized rituals of the heart that truly reflect who your beloved was and who you are. But I find that in that moment when you first hear that someone close to you has died, a shocked numbness often descends. You know you want to do something, but your brain can’t quite get together the what. Having a set prayer or action you can call on every time helps your voice and body keep moving while your brain catches up. If your religion or culture doesn’t have something like this, I humbly invite you to use these words.
A Prayer Upon Learning of a Death
[NAME], I honor the body that you were The words you spoke The passions that moved you The love you shared The life you lived.
These were not always easy to live Or to live with But they were always you, And I honor you in that wholeness.
I grieve that you are no longer a living presence in my life I regret that I could not be with you at the end I allow myself to hurt and to heal Whatever form that takes However long it takes
Whole and holy Earth, take back the body of [NAME] that was formed from you Make new forms and lives from it May a piece of [NAME]’s life infuse the new lives that grow from it. May the passing forms of this life and the tears of our grief sustain the web of your creation.
Just over a year ago, I was in Olathe, Kansas, for the Midwest Dramatists’ Center fall conference. It was a terrific weekend full of cool people, useful learning, and a lot of great theater. I came home fired up about kicking my theater career in the butt. This website exists in large part because of that conference, and my reflections on it formed my first blog post here. I am ever grateful for the experience.
After a great deal of discussion, I committed to being the anchor for our household while Leora completes their MSW. The “stable one.” But I was equally determined that “stable” would not equal “stagnant.” So, as is my witchy way, I went on a lot of trance journeys, read a lot of tarot spreads, and made a lot of lists in sacred space to determine what I wanted to be doing with myself for the next two years.
I was quite startled when the answer that came back, time after time after time, was deathwork, not theater.
And so was born the deathication, a twoish-year-long exploration of my desires and options around “how to make a living at dying without killing what I live for.” It will involve everything from industry research and interviews with professionals to meditation, tarot spreads, and liturgical development. If everything goes according to plan, or at least doesn’t blow up too spectacularly, I’ll come through it with a solid understanding of where I fit in the alternative deathcare world.
I’m not turning my back on playwriting forever. If nothing else, I have six more plays to write in the Wheel of the Year cycle, because I want to know what else happens to these chuckleheads. I’ll probably never stop writing plays and attempting, at least desultorily, to get them onto stages. But when I think about the amount of time, energy, and perseverance required to really make it in either of these fields, deathwork is the one where I most feel willing—nay, eager to make that commitment.
So last weekend, I was in Chaska, Minnesota, for the National Home Funeral Alliance biennial national conference. It wasn’t perfect: the alternative deathcare movement as a whole struggles around issues of accessibility and diversity, and this conference was definitely a microcosm of those struggles. I loved every wonderful, challenging, frustrating, enriching minute of it. Even when I was pissed off, I was so engaged. I’m so fired up to keep having the vital, difficult conversations and do the vital, difficult work of making it better. That’s how I know my love is real.