To Her We Shall Return: Death and Dying in the Pagan Faith

Paganism is a largely not well known or understood faith and like a lot of minority faith groups is subject to discrimination. It is not unusual to receive abuse or even be assaulted because of people’s perceptions of our beliefs.

Unfortunately those perceptions and misunderstandings pervade into death, dying and grief and as a result pagans are sometimes not well served.  I choose to be very open about my faith and always willing to share with anyone who asks me about it. However not all of my pagan kin feel the same way and many hide or play down their beliefs.

If you believe the census figures of 2011 there were 56,620 pagans in the UK, add in druid, wicca and witchcraft and we get up to 73,851. But even so, we know that many of the pagan community don’t declare on the census, mainly out of fear.  Other estimates range from 250,000 up to 1 million. The reality is probably somewhere between the two.  Those people who hide it in life, will often hide it at death too.

So what is paganism? The Pagan Federation, which is the supporting body for pagans in the UK defines it as “A polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshipping religion.”  The word ‘pagan’ itself comes to us from the Roman era of history and the word ‘paganus’ which meant country dweller.  It was in reference to those folk who lived away from those in the city who were ‘civitas’ that is to say civilised and latterly in history Christian.  Those outside folk lived on the land and followed folklore and older ceremonial traditions.  If we’re going to be historically accurate, those of us who call ourselves pagan now, should rightly call ourselves ‘neo-pagan’.  Paganism as it is now, has its roots in the past but is definitely a modern faith being lived by modern people.

The Pagan Federation definition of paganism is understandably broad, because the truth is, pagans are rather like liquorice allsorts.  Line up ten pagans and you will find variance in our beliefs, but even within that variance there is recognition, understanding and kinship.  We inherently understand that we are an eclectic and diverse bunch, in fact we are proud of our lack of dogma and the freedom to pursue our own experience of our Gods.  We fiercely defend each others right to that freedom and diversity.

Much like there are different churches within the Christian faith, there are different paths in paganism.  The most common being Wicca & Witchcraft, Druidry, Heathenry or Asatru, Shamanism and Womens Mysteries but there are more. However many of us, myself included would classify ourselves as ‘Eclectic’ pagans.  We walk and follow a path of our own making, gleaned from years of reading, study and personal gnosis or experience with our Gods.  All the paths have places of crossover, hence the common recognition between us all. You may hear it said that paganism is less of a religion and more a way of living and being.  Most of our worship takes place out in nature or in the case of poor weather in village halls or other secular buildings that we hire.

So what are some of the things we believe?  Some of us believe that there are multiple gods and goddesses, all with their own agency and influence on different aspects of the world.  Some of us believe in a singular Great Mother Goddess who influences the world in balance with her male God Consort.  Some don’t believe there are Gods at all!

Nearly all of us believe in the spirit of place, in the power of nature, that everything in nature has sentience and as much right to life as we do. We do not see ourselves as separate from the natural world.  Some of us believe that everything is, at core, simply energy and as such is all connected.  That everything we do has an effect on something in the world.

Most of us believe, that when we die, we return to the Goddess.  That our energy transmutates and becomes part of the oneness of everything.  Some of us believe in reincarnation and that we have lived many lives throughout the history of this world and will come back for another.  Some of us believe in the Summerlands, a place our souls go to rest.  Some of us believe that we rise to be ancestors, watching over those who come after us, standing at their backs and giving them strength.  Some believe that we are in an endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth, sometimes human, sometimes animal, sometimes elemental.

We have no concept of sin, we have no concept of hell or purgatory or the devil.  Pagans are frequently mistaken for devil or satan worshippers. They are in fact a whole other religious group and not usually considered to be under the pagan umbrella.

For the most part, we have quite a different outlook on death and dying.  We see death as a normal and also sacred part of the life of being human.  We honour the body as a sacred vessel in which our soul resides during this human lifetime.
We grieve, of course we do, we are still human.  Grief means we have loved, and we love and grieve just like everyone else.  But most of us see death as the next adventure or a freedom or release from human suffering and pain.  We desperately miss those who leave us, but we see them as returned to the oneness and we venerate them as beloved dead, beloved ancestors.

The problem then, for pagans, in death and dying. Is other people’s lack of understanding. Paganism isn’t well recognised as a religion in this country, for example you will rarely see it listed as an option on diversity forms etc. There is an ongoing work in progress by the Pagan Federation trying to change this. It isn’t taught on the national curriculum and because so many of my kin hide their beliefs away, people don’t know who we are, what we believe or what we need at the end of life.

My experience is that if you don’t identify as one of the six major faiths of the world, that is to say, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddism, Sikhism or Judaism.  You get lumped into the category of ‘non-religious’or ‘aetheist’ and if we’re really lucky – ‘weird hippies’.  My experience and that of many of my kin, is that as a result, no effort is made to find a priest of our faith, to find someone like me.  We get offered the hospital chaplain, with a shrugging apology. There are a smattering of pagan chaplains, paid and voluntary around the country but we don’t always get access to them. Many hospital chaplains are wonderful people, I’m proud to work alongside them when I can get through the door, but they often don’t understand our faith and at worst there are those who will try and turn us to the Christian God even on our death beds, because the nature of their faith means they believe we need to be saved.

When our families turn up at the funeral directors, we may be lucky enough to be offered a pagan priest, but more often we get offered the local civil or humanist celebrant.  It’s wonderful that these options are available.  But you wouldn’t dream of not trying to find the appropriate priest for a Catholic, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist, A Sikh or a Jew so why would you not offer the same regard for those of a pagan faith?  Pagan folk will often have a civil funeral and then hold a pagan memorial at a later point, but that has more to do with a lack of knowledge and access than it being an active choice.

Admittedly pagan priests like me are few and far between, but we do exist and many of us, myself included are willing to travel, to give our kin their end of life or funeral rites.  There is an online website available called Pagan Transitions, voluntarily run by a pagan elder for the pagan community, where there are pagan priests and celebrants listed by geography. I have recently begun a project that I have titled Weaving the End which aims to raise awareness within the Pagan community of their options and choices at the end of life but also to raise awareness within the medical community and funeral industry.

There are some small things that could be done, small efforts that could be made that would make a world of difference to the pagan community through death, dying and grief. There must be an onus on professionals, to raise their awareness and to make the same level of effort for pagans as they do for other faith groups.  We shouldn’t have to beg for what we need when we are dying or grieving.

The following are a few of those small things:

Making the effort to find a pagan priest or chaplain when a person known to be pagan is dying or when their funeral is being arranged.

Offering families the option to be involved in the physical care of the person’s body.  We see our bodies as sacred vessels.  To have the choice to be able to cleanse, bless and anoint our loved ones would be precious.  Not everyone will choose it, but having the choice, matters.

To be given the choice to hold our funeral ceremonies away from the crematorium.  Whilst many of us may choose to be cremated, our final rites could be taking place outside in the natural world that is at the core of our faith. The surge in natural burial grounds in recent years has gone a long way to providing us with an alternative, but there could still be more choice. Leading our funerals inside buildings can feel stifling and disconnected and hinder our grieving.

That if we do choose to have our ceremonies in crematoria that they could provide the option of a pagan symbol, such as the pentacle, the five pointed star within a circle to decorate the chapel.

The Pagan community works very hard to be tolerant and respectful of other faiths and would fight for your right to receive what you need during times of death and grief. Please would you consider doing the same for us.

Originally posted 29/04/2019

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