Tag Archives: Death

Sunday Morning Ultimatums..,

“You live, you die. There are 2 destinations. There is no 3rd choice. Believe in Jesus before it’s too late.”

An old friend of mine from high school posted this yesterday morning.

He followed it up with a bible verse, but I didn’t bother to read any further. I lost my taste for Sunday morning ultimatums a long time ago.

And usually, I just let these things drift by, unnoticed and unremarked upon. My social media feed is chock full of Jesus, and it all just becomes so much white noise after a while.

For the most part, these posts and comments are of the “god is love” variety. “God shaped me, Jesus is my reason, God guides my every step…,” And I might occasionally smile to myself and wonder how the poor fellow ever gets anything important done when he’s so busy playing ‘seeing-eye dog’ to a population of folks who are too bloody insecure to get up and walk on their own.

But once in a while you get one of these “believe in him or you’re going to burn” comments, which so perfectly illustrate the lie behind all those other love filled exhortations.

Because, my friends, if you feel like the best you can do is to frighten folks into believing, I have to assume that either you are desperately trying to shore up your own lack of faith, or you’ve noticed that donations are down and that new private jet isn’t going to just buy itself.

The world we live in is not so black and white as they would have us believe. And neither, I am sure, is the next.

We live, we die, we live again, and I’ve little doubt that there are a multitude of realms in between, where we might wander for a spell, before we make our way back.

So save your threats, my Christian friends, because if you have to resort to these kinds of tactics, you’ve already lost the argument.

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Filed under Culture, Proselytizing, Religion

Death Becomes You

The signs of the changing season are many and plentiful: there is a new crispness in the air, the days grow shorter, the leaves begin to fall, pumpkin spice flavoring has been injected into every consumable, and the yearly barrage of educational outreach posts from the Pagan community are making the rounds.

I used to do a fair bit of that myself.  The confluence of Pop-Culture Halloween and Pagan Samhain makes for a pretty tempting public relations opportunity.  Watch as we slide a little truth in there between your fun-sized Snickers and your yearly viewing of The Great Pumpkin.

I gave it up though, because mostly people don’t want to be bothered with it.

And of those who do show some interest, trying to explain Celtic Ancestor Night traditions to someone who’s cultural understanding of death is rooted in Western Christianity is a serious undertaking.

There’s just no easy way in.

Except that is for Dia de Muertos.

The growing popularity in the States, of the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ has, on several recent occasions, given me something a little more tangible to point to.

But still, the conversations tend to go something like this…,

Me: “It’s like ‘The Day of the Dead’ but without the Sugar Skulls.”

Them: “Huh?!”

So, it seemed like the best thing to do was to just give up again, when suddenly this…,

The Book of Life

The Book of Life.

It came out in 2014, and I’ve just now watched it.

How did I miss this movie?!

It is without doubt, the best representation of a modern cultural rite of honoring the dead, that I have seen on film.  The movie is cute and funny, even while treating the subject with a particular reverence, and most importantly, it is rich and beautiful to look at.

In a time when the rotting flesh and gnashing teeth of the zombie has become a year round staple of popular culture, it is nothing short of miraculous to see the dead depicted as beings of both whimsy and grace, who care for their living descendants as fervently as we should care for them.

Do not be fooled by the corruption of the grave.

That is not death.

Death is not something that happens to us, it is something we become, and in so doing, we carry away all that is beautiful within us into that next realm.  How could what we find there be anything other than glorious to behold?

Watch the movie.  Smile and laugh at the story, even as you catch a momentary glimpse of a truth beyond our mortal reach.  Do that, and maybe you’ll understand the things we do.

We dress the graves to honor them.

We kindle the fires to light their way home.

We share with them offerings of food and drink.

We remember them to each other in the stories that we tell.

And we pray that we will be remembered when we have passed beyond the vail.

Do not fear the grave.  Death becomes you.

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Filed under Culture, Death, Holidays, Religion, Traditions

An Audience of None

book of the dead

Who will judge us, and by what measure?

We closed our eyes upon the living world and awoke to find ourselves standing in the presence of a powerful being, being both jackal and man.  We do not fear him, but rather the great set of scales besides which he stands.

In one hand he carries a single feather, plucked from the wings of the goddess of truth.

He places that feather upon the scales, and then reaches out toward us, into us, and though we are not harmed, we see that he carries our heart in his easy grip.

This two he places upon the scales.

A heart weighed down with a lifetime of regrets, and a feather infused with the weight of justice.

The scales tip, one way or the other, and we are judged.

 


 

The taste of the coin lingers as the small boat finally comes to ground.

We step eagerly over the shallow rail and onto solid earth, with only a brief glance backward to see that the cloaked ferrymen is rowing away again, into the gloom from whence we came.

There are three paths before us, and three kings, sons of the sky father, the keeper of oaths.

In life, their judgements were fair and true.

In death they will not fail us.

Our story is all told, we need only an ending befitting our tale.

Was our life one of goodness, or evil, or were our deeds unremarkable, our life wasted?

The story goes on, and we are judged.

 


 

Our ticket to eternal reward has been purchased in blood.

And now, after a long sleep, we shall rise and collect our due.

All around us they gather, the people we knew and loved and feared and hated.

But we have no eyes for them, nor they for us.

Our attention is arrested by the light which drew us from the grave, a light that touches every part of us, that burns away the shadows so that we are revealed completely to him.

Did we store our treasures in the old world, or in the new?

Eternity yawns before us, and we are judged.

 

Always we have been judged.

We crave it and we fear it like no other thing.

For as long as we have walked upon this earth, we have given ourselves to the gods for judgement.  The names change as we move from tribe to tribe, as do the specific details, but in the end we imagine ourselves laid bare in the eyes of those who will rule, finally, upon the content of our lives.

I have wondered, sometimes, if the gods and the ancestors volunteered for this duty, or if we somehow pressed them into service?

Just lately, I have wondered if their long obligation might be coming to an end.

We have found a new God of Judgement, it seems, better than those we have previously known, more responsive and immediate in both its praise and especially in its condemnation.  This new god does not wait until we are dead to pronounce judgement upon us.  It watches us with a billion eyes and when we are found wanting, the punishments of this new god are immediate and scathing.  No more waiting around for the privacy of the grave, no more scriptures or doctrines to follow and uphold.

Have you guessed it?

We did this.

We reached out and opened the eyes and ears of the world.  We gathered them all together in one place, where they could speak in one voice.  And before the echoes of our celebration had died away, this shambling titan began to reach out in complete and utter condemnation of everything within reach of its great and dissonant voice.

For once, we’ve given the atheists what they wanted.  We’ve swept aside the old gods and shown that we can do things far more efficiently by ourselves.  And what a job we’ve done!

But I think I was more comfortable when Anubis was weighing our hearts against the Feather of Ma’at, than I was a few weeks ago, watching a young woman torn apart on Twitter because she didn’t put her hand over her heart when the national anthem played.

I don’t care for this new god.  It is hungry and arbitrary in a way that makes the most capricious of the old gods seem tame by comparison.

It is not a god we can fight.  There are no temples to burn or idols to smash.

If we would not give ourselves fully to this new god, we must then seek to starve it, to deny it our attentions and concern.  We must live our lives freely, without casting arbitrary judgement on others and playing our brief parts for an audience of none.

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Filed under Death, Modern Life, Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, The Gods

Maybe (a prayer)

Maybe they danced,

Talked,

Caroused,

Flirted.

Maybe they couldn’t stand the crowd and longed for the trip home.

Maybe they felt the pulsing energy around them and couldn’t tear themselves away.

Maybe…,

I don’t know.

I didn’t know them.

But I know they were beautiful.

And I know that they found beauty in each other,

And in the love and freedom that surrounded them.

And they died for it.

They died,

Because some people…,

Maybe just a few,

But too many,

Can see only ugliness in that which they do not understand.

So their lives were cut short, their spirits released.

And I wonder which God will step forward to shelter them?

Which Savior?

Which Prophet or Saint will guide their way?

If none of theirs, then I offer mine.

Freely.

May the fair Goddess on black wings guide them swiftly to better shores then these.

As worthy as any soldiers, these spirits, slain in someone else’s war.

Let her keening rise up until the heavens crack.

Until all the priests,

And the politicians,

And all who trade in fear and hate,

Have fled at last beneath the shadow of their empty pulpits.

And then,

In the quiet that follows,

Those who have eyes to see beauty,

In all of its wonderful diversity,

Will be free to dance,

And to love,

And to live,

Finally without fear.

That, my friends, may be too much to hope for.

But is such a thing too much to pray for?

It may be.

But if enough of us raise our voices,

If we join our cry with her’s,

And all the gods hear us,

Maybe not.

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Filed under Death, Modern Life, Prayer, Religion, The Gods

Fragile

The Jehovah’s Witnesses came by again this week…,

…right on schedule…,

…as I was sitting down to lunch.

-sigh-

It was the same old fellow who’s been coming by for years now, only this time he had his wife with him, which I can only remember happening once before.

We exchanged pleasantries and spoke for a few moments about work and the pleasant weather we’d been having.  Then he handed me their little monthly booklet, and began to share a sampling of his particular brand of wisdom.

All while my grilled cheese slowly cooled on its plate.

My mind wandered a bit, I must admit.

Usually I do a better job of paying attention, because however else I feel about his little visits, I know that he means well and I am always interested in better understanding what other people believe.  Otherwise, I’d have shooed him off long ago.

But I’d been looking forward to that sandwich all morning, and they’re never as good reheated as they are right off the skillet, and…,

…then he said something that DID catch my attention.

He said that we were “not built to die.”

In my mind I quickly rewound the last couple minutes and then skimmed it forward again, this time listening for content.  He’d been speaking of the subject matter of this month’s Watchtower, having to do with how people should react when a loved-one dies.  “People are always surprised by death,” he said.  “And the reason for that, is that when God made us, we were immortal.  Death always takes us by surprise because we were not built to die, and so we lack the programming to deal with it properly.”

When I caught back up to the present moment my visitor and his wife were already making their way back down my front walk.  We’d exchanged parting pleasantries, and as usual, I’d assured him that I would consider his words carefully.

And I have at that.

“Not built to die,” he said.

I couldn’t get those words out of my head as I sat, munching on my cold sandwich.

He’s a nice enough guy, but he could not possibly be more wrong.

Living is a thing that we do in absolute defiance of the odds.

And dying?

Death is not the enemy, it is hardwired into our biology.

I wonder if my door-knocking friend has ever heard of the Hayflick limit.

It turns out that the cells in our bodies can only divide themselves a set number of times.  With each division, the length of a cell’s DNA is slightly shortened, and eventually, just shy of about 60-divisions, our cells can no longer reproduce and they begin to wear out and break down.

It’s a bit like that “best if used before…,” tag that we see stamped on a loaf of bread or a carton of milk.  Barring accident or disease we’re fine up until that predetermined point, and then from there it is only a matter of time.

And this isn’t something that just happened to us one day.

It’s not an accident, and it’s not some ridiculous punishment for eating fruit off of the wrong tree in a magical garden somewhere.

If your belief is that we were designed, than that designer built us to die.  If you don’t believe in a designer, it’s still true, because the way life evolved on this planet is that it can only exist through the action of death.

Life is precious precisely because it is temporary.

****

I had another unexpected visitor this week.

Just a couple days after the Jehovah’s Witnesses came by, I arrived home from work to find a screech owl sitting in the middle of my front yard.

The sun was long set, and a bird of this kind should have been on the wing, hunting for insects and the like.  Instead, it sat almost motionless in the grass, hard to see in the darkness but still an easy target for neighborhood cats.

Assuming that it must be injured or sickly, I tipped an empty laundry basket over it, to keep it in place, and then, wearing thick gardening gloves, reached under the basket to collect the little creature and place him in a cardboard box, for ready delivery to another of my neighbors who does wild bird rescue and rehabilitation.

I’ve never held a screech owl in my hands.

They seem profoundly fragile things, and lifting it out from under the basket felt a bit like holding a feathered soap-bubble.  I was moving quickly, so as to cause as little stress as possible, so I only caught a brief glimpse of those big yellow eyes.  It made an alert sound with its beak, a bit like flicking your fingernail against a hard wood surface: tap-tap-tap.  And then it was safe in a box and, I hope, off to a speedy recovery from whatever ails it.

Holding that small creature in my hands, I could feel the fragility that is life.

For an owl, a mouse, a blade of grass, or the mightiest tree.

The soul may move on to some other place.

It may even return to live again.

But immortality for this life or any other is a false hope.

We cling to life because it is temporary, because it is fragile.

Why else do we cling to each other?

May Mushroom

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Filed under Death, Nature, Philosophy, Religion, Science, Spiritual Journey

There are plenty of ways to die.

We are, as a species, both fearful and fascinated by death.  And the more time passes, the more we push back against certain boundaries, the more interconnected we become, the more preoccupied we seem to grow with the most unlikely of threats to our well being.

We spend too much of our time living in obscure ‘what-ifs’ and not enough in the now.

We give ourselves over to fear, and we grow smaller in the bargain.

So let’s take a moment and go through it.


The vast majority of us will succumb to simple mechanical failure…,

Hearts stop ticking.
The vessels grow clogged with gunk.
Oxygen delivery becomes less than efficient.
The lightning in our minds that form thought and feeling becomes turbulent.


Most of the rest of us will fall to some kind of disease…,

Infections that taint the blood or clog the lungs.
Cancers that turn our own cellular building blocks against us.


Your next most likely exit is through simple accident…,

Our balance fails us.
We regularly handle objects which are sharp or heavy.
Often we run and jump and fly and drive, because these are the things of living.
And sometimes it is the living that kills us.


A tiny few of us have our lives taken away by another…,

War takes some.
Acts of terrorism account for a handful.
But far more often, it is our own neighbors who kill us.
Or the people we love best.


There are plenty of ways to die, and the statistics don’t lie.

But we see big flashing numbers on the news and we are convinced that the thing which is least likely to take us, is the thing waiting just around the corner to do us in.  We become convinced that someone is coming for us, someone wants us dead, the knives are sharpening, the explosives are being wrapped in duct-tape, there are clocks and triggers and backpacks and high profile targets and you’d better be safe and you’d better stay safe and you’ll never be safe…!

You’ll never be safe because we are going to die.

But any one of us is 35,000 times more likely to die of a heart attack than we are in a terrorist attack.  Yet, by and large, I don’t see that many of us suddenly laying off the cheese-burgers.

Which brings us to another way to die, one I haven’t mentioned yet.

Sometimes we kill ourselves…,

And here is one place where I think the statistics DO lie, because it’s not always as straight forward as a gun to the head or an overdose of prescription meds.  Sometimes, yes, we kill ourselves all at once.  But more and more I think we’ve begun to do it so slowly that we don’t even know it’s happening.

People won’t give up eating fatty foods, but they’re sure wiling to give themselves over to fear.

Some of us can’t face a world full of (mostly imagined) boogymen without the security blanket of a weapon in our pocket.

Some of us would rather not face the world at all, when it’s so much safer to just sit in our homes and watch the news and fret about all the growing dangers outside.

And here lately, all too many of us are happy enough to switch off the very traits that make us human: our sense of compassion, our willingness to endure personal sacrifice to ease the hardship of our less fortunate brothers and sisters.

Make no mistake folks, we have become a culture which is living in fear.

And I don’t think I’d call that ‘living’ at all.

I find it disheartening that in this season of thanksgiving, when we are urged to count our many blessings, that bravery and generosity of spirit do not seem to number among them.

There are plenty of ways to die.

The real question is, in the long run, will we be able to live with ourselves?

Refugeess

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October Stories: The Fields of the Dead

The weeds, so late in the season, had been reduced to clumps of tall spindly stalks.  They reached almost to our knees as we stalked our prey across the field, tawny spikelets rasping together in the cooling October breeze.

We fanned out slowly.  Each taking a few large steps forward and then sweeping one leg forward and across in a low arc, the crunch of tall grass bending and breaking underfoot, while we scanned the ground before us for any sign.

Another few steps.

Another sweep of the leg.

And again, widening our distance.

And again.

And there!  A flash of white between grayish-green blades of grass.  My hand thrust downward, looking for purchase, for something hard and rough wedged into the earth.  And then the grip and pull against a resistance from roots above and soil below.

A few moments spent shaking the dirt away before I can properly see what I’ve found.

“Got one,” I shout to the others, “I think it’s a shoulder bone!”

“Good, now look for the rest.  We’ll keep going.”

Smiling at the club-like form in my hand, I give it a couple more good shakes, dirt flying from a thousand hollow pockmarks which seem to line one flattened edge, and then I give it a gentle toss into the low grass at the edge of the field.

I make that sweeping motion with my foot again, and then again, until I see more white peeping up from below.  More bones to gather, weathered and stained, from the hungry earth.

She does not easily yield that which she has been given.

***

Throughout my high-school years my parents and I lived next to a small cattle ranch.  Its glory days long since passed, the property was held by two elderly ladies, mother and daughter, who kept their small herd more out of habit than anything else.

I fed the cattle and my father sometimes pitched in when the owners needed him for fence repairs or brush removal.

There were never more that a couple dozen head wandering the fields in those days, and there was more than ample space for them to roam and graze.  As I recall, there was only one small field closed off to them: the grassy crown of a wide hill, hidden back behind the main house and the barn, surrounded by trees and left to seed.

We called it the bone yard.

From time to time, one of the herd would die, usually of age, and the owners would hire someone to throw a chain around its neck and drag it off with a tractor, into that lonesome circle.

There the bodies were transformed, by scavengers and time, into a loose collection of bones, picked clean and scattered across the area of flattened grass where the carcass once lay.

Still more time would pass and the bones, bleached by sun and rain, would begin their slow progress into the earth.

Or maybe they where dragged downward.

Certainly the roots seemed loath to give them up.

***

And those old bones might have vanished into the ground forever, had my father not volunteered to run the P.T.O Spook-House at my High School’s fall carnival.

Halloween in a small towns of Texas, populated as they tend to be, by the more evangelical flavors of the Christian faithful, can be a complex bit of business.

Oh the people do chatter about paganism and devil worship, and everyone is doing it, and everyone knows that everyone else is doing it, and they all pretend that they are doing something else entirely.

It’s very much the way they deal with sex, except that sometimes there are costumes involved…,

…so, I guess it’s exactly the same.

Halloween is therefore rebranded as a “Harvest Festival” or a “Fall Carnival”, which in an astonishing coincidence, includes costumes, bobbing for apples, a scavenger hunt, and a spook-house.

Oh, and a cake-walk!

And I can tell you, having participated in both, that nothing so closely resembles a poorly managed Neo-Pagan rite, than a cake-walk in small town Texas.  Particularly when the participants are trying ever so desperately to avoid the appearance that they might be involved in a dance of any description.

And that might make a good topic for another day…,

…but I was trying to explain why we were out in a field gathering animal bones.

That’s no great mystery really.

If you live in the country and are looking for props to decorate a spook-house, why pour good money into a bunch of cheaply made plastic crap, when there are entire skeletons in some neighbors field that can be dressed up in spiderwebs and a blacklight.

Because bones., skeletons…, the dead…, these things are frightening.

Or so I am given to understand.

***

A lot of time has passed since that day spent with family, harvesting cow bones under an October sky.  And in that time I have often been drawn to the fields of the dead.

In recent years have walked across hills dotted with dolmen and crouched in the heart of mighty passage tombs.  These are the necropoli, the cities of the dead, built by our prehistoric ancestors to house and honor the dead.

In my college days I spent a lot of time in the special collections section of the University library.  There I found old property survey maps that showed every graveyard in a five county area around my home.

Many of these I visited, when I could find them at all; so many have become forgotten, resembling little more than a weed-choked jumble of markers, the names and dates long worn away.  Still others were in surprisingly good condition, considering their remote locations.

I walked these places by day, looking at the names, the dates, words love and loss and hope etched in stone and left to us – to remember, or to forget.

Old Grave

On rare occasions, when the whim took me, I would visit at night.  And I’ll confess that on more than one of these nocturnal visits, I brought a date.

There is something primal and powerful about wandering among the graves with only the moon and a flashlight to guide you.  I do not recall ever experiencing the supernatural dread which people attach to these places, but the feeling of nervous excitement they generate is, happily, both contagious and easily directed toward other ends.

In my experience, however, the dead do not linger in the places where we lay their bones, but are far more occupied with that point in space where their existence slipped from this world into that other realm which parallels our own.

Perhaps those shades would spend more time there if the living were more frequent visitors by day…,

…or night.

***

I drive through my neighborhood and I see yards decorated with plastic skeletons and faux grave stones.  We erect pretend graveyards on the lawn to inspire seasonal fear, and we avoid actual graveyards like death itself lingered there.

Movie Skeletons

Is this what people are worried about, that the dead are going to suddenly spring up like skeleton warriors from the Hydra’s Teeth in an old Ray Harryhausen movie?

Did you know that in the 19th Century, cemeteries were treated like parks?  People strolled the paths between the stones, they picnicked on the wide green lawns within sight of the markers of family and friends.

In the early days of the Roman Republic, the dead were buried in the homes of their family, where they could be properly honored and cared for by those who loved them most in life.

We think of ourselves as an advanced culture, sophisticated in ways that the ancients could never hope to understand.  And yet as we have advanced, we have drawn ourselves further and further from the fields of the dead.  Empty bones have become objects of dread and ancient feast days must be rebranded so as not to offend those with delicate sensibilities.

Say what you will about the dead, the living are just weird!

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Filed under Culture, Death, Holidays, Modern Life, Religion, Spiritual Journey, Traditions