Along with Liafal my partner, I have been officiating at Pagan Rites of Passage for decades. Typically the trend began with weddings, and we worked to develop Handfastings that one could present before family and co-workers. Baby-Blessings were really developed simultaneously with weddings, times being what they were.
In the past decade or so funeral rites have become more frequent. As functional clergy for a portion of our community we have found ourselves called upon to lead memorial and funeral rites. Some of these have been directly within our own kind of Pagan tradition (i.e. Neopagan Druidry, per A.D.F.), some within a general alternative-thought community, and some for grandma and the cousins.
Maturity precedes death. As the Pagan community, our movement, gains in solidity and wealth and depth Pagan groups and clergy will inevitably be called upon to organize and lead funeral services. This presents us with various practical and logistical questions, as well as theological and ritual ones. Having by this time been involved in a number of memorials, I have developed a set of scripts and invocations and may have some useful notes.
The Recent Dead in a Spirit-Based Paganism.
I write these notes from a mythic and spiritist perspective. I think that in order to think clearly about all this we must set aside any modern sense of materialism and cynicism about death and what comes after. We must operate from the assumption that some version of our consciousness survives and is aware in the time following our biological cessation
Of course we cannot know with any certainty what occurs immediately after death. It seems, from review of various sources, that classical Pagans expected to be greeted and guided by somebody or something. Perhaps the Ancestors are the most likely kind of spirit to meet us, though various mythologies propose various psychopomps, guides and challenges.
Ancient Pagan mysteries leave us with descriptions and a couple of actual maps of the proper road for the newly Dead to take into the deeps of the Otherworld. The newly dead person is instructed to take the right fork at the proper tree, to drink from one well but not another, etc. While most of us have not been initiated into such mysteries in our time we can still hope for the arrival of guides to lead us properly through the early stages of our next adventure.
From the standpoint of Pagan funerary rites I think we must assume that we will find reasons to stay near the places and people of our lives, and that we will be gratified by the attentions of the living. This leads me to categorically deny the modern cliché that “funerals are for the living”, implying that nothing the living do can matter to the Dead. Tradition teaches that it is precisely the actions of the living that help to give the Dead peace, blessing and an open path toward our fate.
So the funeral rites I have created have intended to open the hearts of the attendees to the beloved,
to draw the spirit of the beloved to the place of gathering and give it good welcome. Tradition tells us that the love, tears and offerings of the living are welcome to the Dead. It may be valuable for modern western people to consider the practice of public mourning
So we begin with the assumption that the spirits of the recent Dead are accessible to here, can here our words and know our deeds. We look to custom and tradition for guidance on what is best.
The Worship of the Dead
I might begin by reminding us of the Pagan liturgical definition of worship as ‘mutual acknowledgement of worth’. The spirits judge our offerings as worthy, and we receive worthy blessings in turn. In a fully-developed funeral I see us as creating this worship with the specific spirit of the deceased.
For me that has meant arranging an attractive picture of the dead as the ‘idol’ of the rite, making a specific invocation and invitation to the beloved to be present with the group, and making offerings of the deceased’s preferred food, drink, etc. In short the beloved’s spirit is treated as the deity of this rite done to their honor.
Some funeral communities want a chance for many people to speak. One place where ‘parts’ can be assigned is in this making of offerings, and each can be an opportunity for a memory of the beloved. The placing of food and drink before the image will be an unusual moment for non-Pagan attendees and it is the Clergy’s work to provide a mental setting that allows understanding.
Following this phase is also a good moment for musical or poetic insertions of a kind favored by the beloved. This could include the eulogies and reminiscences. My director’s mind suggests pre-arranging and limiting the number of speakers, unless that sort of longer community engagement is specifically desired. The chance for a family to commune together before the beloved’s images and offerings, perhaps sharing drink, could be a centerpiece for a longer work. Often the desire is to finish the ritual portion and retire to the pot-luck for further toasts and memories…
In what I see as the most directly theological bit of these notes, I have come to understand the magical work of funeral rites as the calling of the allies and guides of the beloved, and the commitment of the beloved’s spirit to their guidance.
Per the outline below these beings will have been invited to the funeral fire earlier in the rite. Now we create the moment both in the vision of the assembly and, we hope, in fact for the beloved, of the uniting of the spirit with their guides. One supposes that traditional cultures have traditional prayers and customs to accomplish this goal.
I can see this moment as a chance for the grieving to perceive their beloved as moving on in safety and blessing. For a fully-Pagan assembly one could go all the way to guided visualization. The moment in a rite may be fraught with that grief, but I might hope that it would be a step in the road of solace as well.
I was asked on line for a synthetic outline of my notion of Pagan funerary rites. Here’s one, based loosely in our Druidic Order of Ritual:
• The Hall is set with a shrine of the beloved where it can be seen by all. Pictures are arranged, and a space provided to receive plates, etc. for offerings. A Fire is prepared. This can be as simple as a candle or a full offering-fire for Druid High-Church rites, or any smaller size, perhaps even arranged directly before the image. A censer with capacity for lots of incense might also be provided.
• The company is gathered and seated. The rite is proclaimed, and the company is greeted.
• A short discourse on the intention of the work, the nature of Death and the person of the beloved can open.
• The company is led in a short attunement, settling or moment of silence.
• The space is blessed. This can be anything from a full ritual circle-casting or Sacred Center rite to the simple lighting of a single candle, establishing the place. The fire is lit or blessed, and asked to direct the spirit of the beloved to the work and welcome them. I like the turn of phrase that blesses the Fire as a ‘Fire of Welcome’ for the beloved and for all present.
• The ‘Constellation of the Worshiped’ of the beloved is called. This can be expanded or contracted according to the religious setting of the rite. I approach this through the Three Kindreds of spirits, as Our Druidry says.
• Calling the Ancestors of the beloved is utterly proper, if the social setting of the rite makes it acceptable. The beloved may have affection for or dealings with the Landspirits – were they gardeners? Hikers? The gods should be the gods of the beloved’s own home altars, if possible. Otherwise one can always call upon the guides and rulers of the Dead.
• The spirit of the beloved is specifically invited to the honor-seat of the rite. In Our Druidic Pagan rites, this includes making material offerings. These are best chosen as things loved by the Dead – food, drink, etc, but might always include flame or light, clear water, and incense.
• The Eulogies are given, perhaps with a musical or poetic performance.
• A prayer of love and memory might be given to the beloved. What blessings would a spirit like theirs offer?
• The Allies, as invoked above, are given the final sacrifice and charged to take the beloved gently to their next adventure, rest, whatever. This can be carefully tuned by the clergy, to good effect.
• This is a good place for a further musical performance, or a longer Prayer For the Road
• The work is declared successful and the intent reviewed
• The beloved is given a final farewell
• Other beings who have been called are thanked and bid farewell. This can be done en masse in a single prayer.
• The rite is declared concluded.
To do this work well is to offer a real sacrament of solace and support both to the living and the Dead. If we are to regain what was lost in ancient Paganism there seems no doubt that the bond between the living and the Dead must be a part of the work. We must abandon materialism, which pretends that there is nobody left to talk to, just as we abandon doctrines that commit the spirit to some final judgement. Instead, I think, we can offer a vision of a future open and unknown; a road into fate that we will all travel in our time, yet which need not be traveled alone.