One of my earliest memories is watching a Sunday morning religious show when I was about four years old. When they talked about people dying and going to heaven, I remember clearly thinking, “That’s stupid, everyone know when you die you come back as another person.” Learning that neither my parents, relatives or Hebrew school teachers shared this belief didn’t shake it in the least, so I was delighted, when I grew older, to discover other religions that did, including Paganism.
Our understanding, however, is a bit more complex than my childhood certainty. In The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, I wrote: “The heart of the Pagan understanding of death is the insight that birth, growth, death and rebirth are a cycle that forms the underlying order of the universe. We can see that cycle manifest around us in every aspect of the natural world, from the decay of falling leaves that feed the roots of growing plants, to the moon’s waning and waxing. Hard as it is for us to die, or to accept the death of someone we love, we know that death is a part of the natural process of life.
“Therefore we can trust that death, like every other phase of life, offers us opportunities for growth in wisdom and love.” (1)
Our metaphor for death is of a journey . When we die, the soul voyages across a dark sea to the Shining Isle, the Isle of Apples. There, we walk beneath the apple trees of the Goddess, trees which are in bud, blossom, fruit, and decay all at the same time, reviewing our life and its lessons, and growing ever younger, until we are at last young enough to be reborn.
“You warriors, here your battles are over,
You workers, here your tasks are done.
You who are hurt, here find healing,
You who are weary, here find rest,
You who are old, here grow young again,
For this is the Shining Isle, the Land of Youth, the Isle of Apples,
Here, what is remembered lives…”
(From Reclaiming’s Spiral Dance ritual.)
While some Pagans believe this story literally, others of us see it as a poetic expression of the cyclical nature of birth and death. Pagans are not trying to escape the wheel of birth and death. We see birth and life as a great gift, and the reward of a good life is to be reborn again among those we have loved before, so we can know and love them again.
At this time of year, as we move toward Samhain or Halloween, the ancient festival of the ancestors, we say ‘the veil is thin’ that divides the world of the living from the realm of the dead. The ancestors return to visit us—and that is the origin of our Halloween customs of setting candles out in jack-o-lanterns to light their way to our doors, of giving offerings (once harvest offerings, now candy) to children, who are the ancestors returning. In our Samhain rituals, like the large, public Spiral Dance ritual that Reclaiming creates every year right before Halloween, (2) we often take an imaginative journey to the Isle, to meet and talk with our beloved dead, to receive help and guidance, to finish what is unfinished, to offer our love. I have many times had visions and a deep sense of connection with my loved ones who have passed on. The meaning is often very personal, a message of hope or approval or advice.
My mother was a meticulous, well-organized person. When she was dying, one of her great worries was what would happen to all of her files. On her deathbed, she wanted to go through her Rolodex, instructing my brother about whom to invite to the funeral. (He got through the ‘E’s, and then balked.) My brother and I tend to be messy and disorganized, our desks piled high with papers and our shelves crammed with books out of order. A month after our mother died, we were both separately struck with an overwhelming urge to clean up our offices, reorganize our files, and generally straighten up. Living on opposite coasts, it was only after days of dusty filing that we compared notes, and realized that Mom might be gone, but death had not deterred her from her mission to finally get us to clean up our rooms!
I’ve had many similar experiences. If there is a theological meaning, it is that the community continues to hold us, even beyond death. And death itself teaches us to value and embrace the fleeting, fragile gift of life.
(1) Starhawk, M.Macha Nightmare and the Reclaiming Collective. The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 1997, p. 58
(2) This year Reclaiming’s Spiral Dance ritual will be held on October 27 in Kezar Pavilion, San Francisco.