This segment I wanted to focus on rituals surrounding the final passage, but realized late into the series that these death rituals came in two forms, one that may be done while a person is alive and one done afterwards. So, Iím actually going to do both here, but separate them.
Titled: Last Rites, Final Passage, Passing Through the Veil, Crossing Over
When: Last rites is a ritual done with a person who is about to travel the path of the unknown into death. A ritual of this nature is somewhat rare in that few people can predict when they are going to die or have the resources to arrange such a ritual when they do know that the time is near, but in the case of an illness or advanced age, arrangements can be made to prepare such a ritual for when a person knows it is time.
Why: This is a living farewell to the person, but more so it can be a time for a person to make their peace with life, death and their spirituality. It can also be major part of the process of crossing over. It can be a time to celebrate life and the coming passage into death. Last rites of passage were noted among pre-Christian pagans, however its history or lack thereof in a pagan context doesnít change the impact much for me. I know I personally see the value and richness in a ritual for a person just prior to death. While I know that all sorts of undignified things happen to the body during the death process, I do believe that a person should be allowed to die with spiritual, mental and social dignity and this is one way of acknowledging the dignity of a dying person.
These rituals may need to be simple due to the failing health of the person and the possible limitations of the personís location such as a hospital or hospice. It may be as simple as a short prayer spoken by or on behalf of the person. There may be an accounting of sorrows and joys of the personís life, final apologies for any wrongdoing may be offered and an extension of wishes or blessings for those left behind. A discussion of the traditional myths about the afterlife may take place and deities or guides may be asked to help with the passing of the person. A cleansing ritual and an anointment may also be enacted to prepare the body and spirit for the transition. Trance work may be done by those skilled in the art of death walking to help guide the person across the veil.
What are the general themes?
Clearing away the debris of a life, making final wishes or gifts, forgiving or being forgiven for regrets, joining the ancestors and the deities, moving beyond the veil, completing the cycle of life
A person may chose that time to distribute any bequests to their loved ones, especially passing on magickal items such as a book of shadows, favorite jewelry, or a wand.
Some items, such as pages from a journal, a list of past accomplishments or regrets or private wishes may be burned or taken away to be burned later, possibly at the personís funeral.
Holy water, such as blessed water, rainwater, water from a spring or sacred well, may be sprinkled upon the dying and essential oils may be used to anoint them. If incense smoke is permissible in the vicinity, a smudging may be done as well.
Deities of death or the personís patrons may be invoked and their ancestors called upon to make the passing go smoothly for the person. There are some people who are seen as having a gift of helping a soul as it passes and such a person may be invited to this ritual, especially if death is particularly imminent. They are sometimes called deathwalkers and it is their place to work with the dying to help guide their souls while passing.
How is the personís life changed after the rite?
Death is not often predictable, and even in cases where we have some idea that a death will take place within hours or days, we may find ourselves surprised by a recovery or an otherwise prolonged life, however, this ritual can serve to comfort the dying and their loved ones and help the person let go of those thoughts and feelings that cause them to cling to a difficult life and may help them move on and greet death in a state of peace and with their will and dignity relatively intact.
Titled: Funeral, Burial, Goodbye ritual
When: A funeral rite can take place at any time after a person has died, thought usually the timing is somewhat dependent on the practical measures being taken to deal with the persons remains and the amount of planning a ritual will take. The options for what can be done to a body after death range from traditional methods such as burial or cremation to modern methods such as some of the ecological treatments gaining popularity in Europe or donation to various scientific or educational institutions to even more traditional methods such as mummification or bone retrieval which can take a rather long time and may require several different funerary rituals over time. Since last rites can be difficult to arrange as many deaths are unpredictable, some of the aspects of last rites may need to be performed at this time as well.
Why: It is my opinion that funeral rituals are more or less a part of the grieving process of those who remain living on behalf of the deceased, but there are many elements and beliefs about the importance of certain provisions being made to assure that the spirit of the deceased passes smoothly into the afterlife and/or does not remain to haunt the living. Dealing with the remains and belongings of the deceased is often an important part of funerary rituals, but funerals can easily take place without a body or other object as it is the spirit and memory of the deceased being recognized and honored as an ancestor.
Funeral rituals can range from a highly complex series of actions spanning over several days or even years to a small gathering where a simple prayer is offered.
Often there is poetry, prayers and speechmaking about the life and beliefs of the deceased, the gifts and lessons they taught and the love they shared with those in attendance.
Final wishes are played out and goodbyes or well wishes for the next life are said.
What are the general themes? The afterlife is one theme, but more than that, often it is the personís life in remembrance that is the primary theme. Themes for decoration may be based on white, black or purple as these are all colors that have meanings of death and rebirth or the spirit world in them.
Some traditions require that the body be held vigil over and guarded from outside attack or loneliness. I am sure this practice dates back to earlier times when the bodies of loved ones needed to be protected from scavengers prior to proper burial. Some traditions call for a series of shamanic journeys, repetitive ritual actions like dancing, singing and drumming to aid the person along and divinations performed to measure when the soul has passed fully beyond the living sphere.
Personal objects of the deceased such as things given up at a Last Rites ceremony, a favorite flower, a photo or other personal object may be burned, perhaps in a cauldron symbolizing rebirth. Grave goods, or items that mourners wish to have buried with the body (or instead of the body), such as their favorite tools, special personal objects or gifts may also be placed in a cauldron, if a casket or urn is not present, and buried in a special place or in the grave alongside the casket. In some traditions, coins or other payment may be placed in the mouth or on the eyes of the body to pay a guide or ferryman to help the deceased enter the otherworld.
One person may be asked to give a eulogy and/or all of the mourners may be given a moment to speak of their memories and love of the deceased.
Myths and descriptions of the afterlife may be recited or read by the officiant, tales of travels in the underworld by any of the deities who are said to have traveled there may be used as the beginning of a blessing wishing the deceased safe passage.
Often, a subdued party or feast is held in honor of the deceased and to comfort the living. Such feasts, perhaps of a more festive type, may be repeated at Samhain when the spirits of those who have gone before may be contacted.
Friend Rachel commented to me that her father had told her of wanting what he called a Viking funeral where a body is set in a boat, set on fire and set out to sea. She suggested that a modern, somewhat more hygienic alternative to this might be to set ashes or a photo on a smaller boat and set it alight on the water.
How is the personís life changed after the rite?
The life changed will not, generally, be that of the deceased as they have already passed on, but the lives of the mourners will, of course, be forever different after the death of a loved one and a funeral ritual can be tremendously healing and an important step in the grieving process as the deceased final wishes are completed and some closure might be attempted. My heart and blessings go out to all of you who have lost loved ones this year.