There is a movement afoot in the end-of- life care community to introduce the concept of dying as a transition to the general public. This is certainly not anything new, as it is a concept shared by many spiritual traditions. The core of this concept is that death is simply another stage of life, a threshold stage where the living crossover to the afterlife ( whatever you think that is). There are many theories about the afterlife which is influenced by religious dogma, culture and society. This concept makes clear that although what we perceive as the life force that animates the physical body ceases to exist, the spiritual element, that is, the soul, lives on in entheric form. Some religions teach that the devout dead go to live with the Divine ( or a form/place unique to their understanding of the subject). Others believe the dead go into a type of healing stasis before making the journey to that place, or reincarnating. And finally, a growing number of individuals believe death is a state of nothingness.
Although the majority of mainstream Christians believe their immortal
soul goes to Heaven to spend Eternity with their God, typically, the
Bible offers conflicting verses: Job 19:25, the verses famously used by
Christian clergy at funerals," I know that my Redeemer lives and at last
he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus
destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God.” While all that is actually stated
in this verse by Job is that he is aware that he will not return to
this familiar mortal life, and nothing about the content of that
existence, these verses are used in collaboration with others to prove a
continuation of the spirit after death. Job 14:21 is quite different, as it says: “His sons come to honor,
and he does not know it...” To many, this text is
clear: there is no consciousness after death. Ecclesiastes 9:5
states..." For the living know that they will die, but the dead know
they have no more reward; but the memory of them is lost." The writer
not only states that the dead know nothing, but that they have no
additional benefit from this world, and that they are forgotten by the
living. These are the verses that Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah's
Witnesses often use as proof that death is final until Jesus makes his
long awaited return to Earth. The Bible is often confusing and
contradictory, and to be quite honest, so are most other sacred text. I
have personally come to believe this is intentional, because the Divine
wants us to be seekers, to explore and make our own decisions out of the
many varied sources available to us.. The Mystery is just that-a
I believe the trend of thinking of dying as a stage of
Life is a healthy one because we have become so disconnected from that
which used to be a part of the everyday. Life was difficult and death
was a fact. People, animals...everything eventually died. There was not a
big bunch of hoopla about it; if someone passed away, family, friends
and community came together and did what needed to be done. Someone
cleaned the body and dressed it, someone else sewed a shroud or made a
coffin, there might have been some sort of ritual or religious service,
and then the body was buried. That was that and back to business after a couple of days because life, as they say, goes on. The whole scenario was repeated with each
successive death, and everyone instinctively knew what needed to be
done. There was a well rehearsed routine within the community: when an
individual became terminally ill or grew old and neared the end of their
existence, family provided primary care and friends pitched in to help,
because this type of thing affected everyone. When the death occurred,
everyone knew there were certain things to be done and those tasks were
delegated. The death and subsequent after care of the body was not given
over to outsiders, mainly because there was no one else.Professional care was unheard of. The funeral
industry as we know it didn't exist until relatively recently. Embalming
was not a common practice until the Civil War, when field surgeons or
others with quasi-medical training prepared bodies with preservatives
for transport so families could see their loved one one more time before
burial. This changed the public mindset about dying and death
drastically and also created quite a few taboos, while either lending
credence or discrediting others.
But what does all this have to do with the ancient Celtic holiday/season of Samhain?
The answer is: much more than you would think.
Death has always been Life's greatest mystery.There are more unanswered questions and more taboos and customs centered around death than anything else that befalls humans. It happens to all of us eventually, yet most individuals are at a loss when dealing with its effects and aftereffects. The traditions and rites surrounding Samhain give us a foundation to build on so we are better able to not only cope with the death of those we love, but our own.
In order to lay this foundation, we need a few tools from history...
"Samhain" is a Celtic word loosely translated to mean "final harvest"; each Celtic country has a slightly different pronunciation or spelling of the word. The final harvest followed that of grain and vegetables. Quite often it is referred to as "the meat harvest" because the festival took place at a time of the year when grazing animals were brought down from the higher elevations and the herds culled.The meat was cured ( usually through salting or smoking), or in some areas of extended cold during Winter, it was frozen. The animals that were spared were blessed by driving them between fires or went through a rite intended to protect them from disease or maleficent spirits. Bonfires were lit on hillsides for the same purpose- to ward away any spirits that might bring bad fortune. Some believed the souls of the recent dead stayed hidden in the woods near the place where they died before going to a place of rest, and the bonfires were used to either drive them away or guide them along their journey. There are many stories concerning local customs. Samhain, to be sure, was a spiritual and magickal time, but what it wasn't was a holiday dedicated to "Samhain, the Lord of Death" because scholars of ancient Celtic history and mythology agree that there is no proof that a god named Samhain ever existed. To my own knowledge, there is no god in the Irish/Scot/English/Manx or Welsh pantheon with a name even close to Samhain. In fact, the only two historical references found by Professor Ronald Hutton are credited to Charles Vallency's series of books in 1770 and again in a book by Godfrey Higgins in 1827, and both references are fleetingly brief.
For many NeoPagans, no matter their chosen tradition, Samhain is the most important Sabbat on the Wheel of the Year (calendar). It is a time to communicate with their Beloved Dead and to welcome them into their homes. It is a time to renew memory of those who have crossed the Veil and to meld with them spiritually. It is said that which is remembered lives; continually calling forth those in blessed memory during this season makes this so. Sharing a meal with them during the Dumb Supper or simply laying out food as an offering is a powerful bond for both the Living and the Dead. My fondest memories and the majority of my deepest friendships all began with the sharing of a place at the table, a bit of cheese and wine, or a cup of tea. Food is one of life's necessities because we are nourished and sustained by it.Offerings of food has been a part of spiritual practice in many cultures.
Calling the Beloved Dead to you, creating a visualization or meditative space- what the Scots call Kything- is a favorite form of connection for me, at Samhain and other times. This has become especially important as a practice to me because I now live in a different part of the country than where my family is buried, and a several friends who have crossed the Veil chose forms of disposition of their remains other than burial. Creating a cast circle and calling them into sacred space is comfortable and comforting; it is a place to be together and speak through our hearts.
Samhain is also the time when I remind myself who I am and what my purpose in this life is. It may sound corny, but because of all the imagery that surrounds Halloween/Samhain night, I feel a particularly open to my personal witchiness. I know that I am a witch 24/7, but on this night that is not a typical night, at a time when we sit on the threshold, I Am Witch. Power of suggestion, perhaps, but that's how it is.
In the not so distant past, this sort of connection was not saved for a special day once a year. It was practiced everyday. Everyone spoke to the dead. Everyone spoke to their ancestors. It was not odd and no one thought you were becoming unhinged. It was something you instinctively did because you grew up thinking that way. People consulted their ancestors and the Beloved Dead for everyday matters because they believed they were just a step beyond known consciousness. Death was not a final separation, but a transition to a different level of existence. How wise our fore bearers were. How wise indeed.
[ For your further consideration read Christian Day's Witches Book of the Dead]