The Pagan Book of Living and Dying (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997)
Go into a forest, a meadow, or a garden — anywhere plants grow and die and insects, birds, and animals forage. In any natural environment, death is constantly occurring. Leaves drop to the ground; plants end their lifespan. A butterfly ceases its fluttering and falls. A rabbit lies dead behind a bush.
Instantly the processes of decay begin. Subtle cues of scent or some unknown sixth sense alerts all the families of creatures that feed on death, from the tiny one-celled bacteria and fungi, to the beetles and termites, and on up to the vultures and coyotes. The earth takes in the dead through a thousand mouths that reduce each body to its most basic elements, and those elements, in turn, feed the living, nourish the roots of the great trees, and send the vultures winging aloft. As any good gardener knows, it is the processes of decay that sustain the fertility of the soil. All growth arises from death.
This cycle of birth, growth, death, decay, and regeneration is the basic life-sustaining process on this planet. From the time of the emergence of human beings as a thinking, conscious species, people who have lived embedded in nature have observed these processes in action and have acknowledged our dependence upon them by naming them sacred. They have understood death as a natural part of the cycle of life, and have known, not through faith but through direct observation, that death is the matrix in which new life is born.
For human beings, the death of a leaf at the end of summer, the culling of seedlings, or the salmon’s end after spawning is easy to accept as part of the natural cycle. But our own death, or the death of those we love, is not. We feel fear, pain, and grief at the thought of our own consciousness coming to an end.
Religions, theologies, and mystical traditions worldwide have attempted to reconcile us to death. Perhaps the major impulse toward a religion, for most people, comes from the recognition of our own mortality, from the deep desire to believe in an afterlife and the wish for comfort for our losses. This book describes the understandings and practices of one of those traditions, the Goddess tradition as it has evolved over the last twenty-five years in the extended community that has grown up around the Reclaiming Collective of the San Francisco Bay Area. Our traditions around death arise from our deepest core values and beliefs about life, so we begin this book with some background in our history, practices, and thealogy. We cannot talk about death without delving into the mystical, entering the realm of spirits, voyaging through the otherworld, examining the nature of the soul. But even confirmed skeptics and atheists can take comfort from the roots of our tradition in the observed processes of nature. You do not have to believe in the cycle of birth, growth, death, and rebirth, or take it on faith as revealed truth, or accept it as dogma. You are not asked to accept truths mediated through someone else’s experience, even the experience of a great teacher or mystic. You can simply walk out into a forest and observe the cycle in process.
Pagans — another name we use for ourselves — 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. But we have no desire to make our view a dogma. We offer our insights with respect for intellectual freedom and in the hope that they can be helpful personally and collectively in our encounters with death. Acceptance of death as part of the natural cycle can be a healthy counterbalance to our present-day combination of denial and obsession. Modern Western culture hides death away in hospital rooms, isolating the dying. We undertake tortuous and heroic measures to prolong the last physical signs of life, without considering the whole well-being of the dying person. Although recent years have made us more conscious of the rights of the dying to refuse painful, last-ditch interventions, heroic measures are still the norm. Helping the terminally ill to consciously end their lives is a crime, while denying health care to the living is seen as sound fiscal practice.
At the same time as we fear and deny death, we are obsessed with violence. Who could begin to compile the body count from our movies and television shows? Daily we watch people stabbed, shot, blown up, and burned — often at the hands of those who claim to love them — or vaporized by space aliens. The children who grow up watching this fare fear that their schoolfellows are packing weapons in their book bags. Our young men, and even our young women, can be shipped off to fight electronic wars that seem like video games as long as the blood and stench and suffering are far away. Our disconnection from the cycles of birth, death, decay, and regeneration runs through every aspect of our society. We have forgotten the connection between decay and fertility. Our agriculture substitutes quick-fix fertilizers for compost, mulch, and manure, thereby impoverishing the soil and polluting our waters. Our technology creates products with no thought of how they will end their useful life and be returned to the cycle of the elements. We make plastic bags of a nearly eternal substance in order to carry a lettuce on a twenty-minute trip from the grocery store to home. We create a whole nuclear industry before we have solved the problem of what to do with its wastes. Our landfills are overflowing and toxic-waste sites dot the land, because we behave as if death and decay were anomalies instead of integral parts of every activity.
The foregoing is excerpted from The Pagan Book of Living and Dying by Starhawk, M. Macha NightMare, and the Reclaiming Collective. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
Imprint: HarperSanFrancisco; ISBN: 0062515160