Monday, February 18, 2013

Death and Community-A Reflection

(Originally posted as part of the Pagan Blog Project,week D-1)

We Pagans are fond of saying that Death is not the end of Life; that's not entirely true. The cessation of physical existence on this plane of consciousness is but one of the many Rites of Passage we experience as humans. We may have a belief that when we die we "cross the Veil" to another form of spirit. We may have faith that happens, but we actually don't know what happens to the spirit when it leaves the body. That is one of the Great Unknowns. It is a certainty that we will all die someday; that's how Life is wired. One day each of use will simply no longer exist, our physical body will decay and return to its most basic elements, and we will return to the soil that formed our ancestors.

Humans cling to many notions and taboos about Death. One notion is that we survive in the form of a soul which passes from one level of being to another. We are fully conscious of our existence and that of others of our kind, and so one of us dies many of us choose to believe that we will live somewhere else in another form. In fact, nearly every religious tradition shares that myth: that we go on elsewhere. Why do we do this? I believe it's very simple: we want to know that we mattered, we want to know that what we did in the span of our incarnation made an impact on others. Humans have an innate need to be validated in order to justify (perhaps in their own mind) their presence in this world. Even those who do not believe in life after death want to leave a legacy so others-(and they themselves) know they were here.

Little over a month ago I presided over a memorial ritual for a member of a group of which I was associated. The individual who had died was young and the circumstances of her death were particularly tragic. Her birth family was not Pagan and I'm sure would have been offended if any of us had dared to show up at the spiritual 'homecoming' they held for her, so we had our own. Out of the community's grief over the loss of the individual, there was the emptiness of the void she left. One of us was gone and would not be coming back. The most poignant thing said  during the time of sharing during which we took turns expressing our love for her and joy at having known her was,  "April mattered."  In that moment, I believe, we understood the importance of belonging: our existence was cherished by the others in the circle. Each of our lives mattered because there was a deliberate place for us in the lives of others.

Whether or not we like to admit it, humans long for place.  Best-selling author and Irish mystic John O' Donohue notes," When two people discover each other, the way they look and talk to each other indicates that they are enfolding each other in a circle of presence." [Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong, HarperCollins Publishers,1999] We want to be acknowledged, we want our presence to speak our existence.

But what happens to that existence when we die? Does our existence die also? At what point does existence became memory?

It has been my experience as the witness and officiant of a number of funerals, that just after the passing of a loved one, those left behind want to hold them close. Most don’t want to let go, physically or metaphorically. They don’t want to lose the essence of the individual. That is a natural part of grief and mourning. There is a saying that there are two deaths: When you stop breathing and the last time someone speaks your name.

We keep those we love and care for alive in our nostalgic remembrances.  Episodic memory represents our ability to recall autobiographical events-times, places, emotions and related detail; Semantic memory delves into the rather secret world of personal meaning. Together, they cull the mind of experiences and compartmentalize what we remember.[]

The truth is that we exist after we die as a form of thought to those who survive us. Subjective material is what makes that thought form come alive. It is why we fondly remember Aunt Jenny’s cherry pie that we can almost taste twenty years later. It is how we can momentarily recall what being 16 years old feels like. And it is how we experience the presence of an individual.

Life and Death are essential parts of the same creative process. We don’t know where we came from in the beginning and aren’t sure where we’re going in the end. One day each of us will simply no longer exist, our physical body will decay and return to its most basic elements, and we will return to the soil that formed our ancestors. It is our task to live, but it is the task of those left behind to honor and celebrate memory.

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