Light Up Those Fence Posts


T he Pagan Book of Living and Dying: Practical Rituals, Prayers, Blessings, and Meditations on Crossing Over by Starhawk, M. Macha NightMare, and the Reclaiming Collective. HarperSanFrancisco, 353 Sacramento St., Suite 500, San Francisco, CA 94111, 1997; 350 pp., $17
Reviewed by Chas S. Clifton

[Originally published in Gnosis 47 (Spring 1998). Copyright 1998 by the Lumen Foundation.]


What began as Crossing Over, a self-published handbook of death ritual by the San Francisco Bay Area Wiccan group Reclaiming, has now grown into a true Book of the Dead. In The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, noted Witch and writer Starhawk and M. Macha NightMare, National First Officer of the Covenant of the Goddess, along with a group of writers mostly affiliated with Reclaiming, deal with death in terms of theology, magic, and practicality.

During the first years of the Pagan revival, the community mostly consisted of the young. Today, although young people continue to pour in, death has become significant as the movement's demographics begin to reflect those of the larger society. The Pagan Book of Living and Dying is addressed to this need.

"Pagans," the editors write, "have preserved understandings of death that can be helpful to Pagans and non-Pagans alike. Because our spirituality is rooted in the earth, we honor and embrace the natural cycles of birth and death. We are taught no distaste for bodily reality, no sense of corporeal life as somehow unclean or of matter as inferior to spirit. Our worldview includes layers of reality that go beyond the visible and quantifiable, and we do believe our connection to those we love extends beyond death."

The editors have divided this new edition into five sections: "Pagan Tradition," "The Pagan View of Death," "The Dying Process," "Death Has Many Faces", and "Carrying On." Each section blends personal writing, procedural suggestions, and, in most instances, chants, songs, prayers, and meditations.

In addition, the editors offer an appendix on mask-making for ritual use, a bibliography of books on death and dying for children and adults, and a sample text for a living will. Ritual baths for caregivers are treated frankly, as is the process of washing a corpse.

Reclaiming is known for ritual innovation, yet the editors realize that our near ones' deaths often make us crave the familiar and comfortable. Grieving, as Starhawk writes, is not a time for creation or innovation. We want someone to tell us what to do, and we want to know that the deceased will have had the right things done for them.

Starhawk (Miriam Simos) carries on a family tradition in this book: her mother, the late Los Angeles psychotherapist Bertha Simos, published her own book on loss and grieving in 1979.

For a number of years Starhawk's coeditor, M. Macha NightMare, helped organize the Bay Area's "Spiral Dance" public ritual at Samhain (the Pagan festival from which Halloween derives), which included a public acknowledgment of the community's dead. She also writes powerfully of her own experiences in the chapter "Sitting Vigil with the Dying."

Diana L. Paxson, better known as a fantasy novelist, has contributed a provocative chapter titled "Preliminary Thoughts toward Midwifing Your Own Passage," which strives to provide preparation for death as Lamaze training does for childbirth. Here, however, "one is giving birth to oneself," and the person who is to die - including you and me - must learn in advance to develop the story of what will happen after death. For while Paxson does no more than hint at it, some Witchcraft traditions teach that the Otherworld is a conscious group creation built up over time, a teaching that may parallel that of some ancient mystery cults. In this sense as well as others, this is also a book about how to live.

The Pagan Book of Living and Dying mixes "how-to" suggestions with naked personal experience. Some readers may find those passages too raw and personal, but I appreciate their honesty. Too many "spiritual" writers only present idealized experience without the messiness and fumbles of actual human life; the writers here have avoided that sugarcoated path.

Reclaiming's political focus is higher than average among Wiccan groups. Hence it is no surprise that this book jumps right from mythologies of dying gods into a chapter by a member from El Salvador on how the relatives of people who had "disappeared" at the hands of a repressive government developed ways to commemorate their dead and to protest the manner of their death. But overall The Pagan Book of Living and Dying strives to be inclusive, to offer choices, and to allow for individual interpretations of dying and the after-death experience.

There is one exception to this inclusiveness, however, for one important variety of dying was deliberately omitted. You will find almost no mention in this book of the deaths of those who serve their communities as police officers, firefighters, soldiers, or the like. These people collectively rate four sentences in the chapter "AIDS, Children, Violence, and Sudden Death." Reading between the lines of the introduction, it is clear that some influential voices within Reclaiming find such occupations distasteful, which is doubly odd, given the high percentage of military people and military veterans within the Pagan community.

Other significant but controversial forms of dying - suicide, deliberate removal of hospital life support, and abortion - are treated at much greater length, with compassion for the dead and guidance for the living. Organ donation, dealing with the possessions of the deceased, and, yes, even hauntings are discussed by various contributors.

You do not need to be officially Pagan to utilize The Pagan Book of Living and Dying. Many people who shun any sort of label could turn to it when the need arises to have something to say and do, something rooted in the cycles of life and in the most ancient human practices.

I experienced one small epiphany of my own when I read the chapter "Bo's Cremation" by Patricia Michael. "We cremated Bo because he had killed himself and we needed healing," she begins. The experience she describes requires special people and circumstances, not to mention the state of Texas's hands-off approach to people who want to build a funeral pyre on their own rural property. After the paying of last respects and the collective lighting of the pyre (old, well-seasoned fence posts and rails) came music, feasting, and what one mourner called "the best party he attended all year." Michael's account helped me understand how the old heroic cultures had their funeral games: what else do you do while passing the hours of waiting for the pyre to burn down to ash?

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