I’m not religious myself, but I’ve always been fascinated by modern Pagans and their approaches to nature. Druid and blogger John Beckett is one of my favourite writers in this area, and he recently posted two very thoughtful pieces on death which I have been meaning to write about for a while now. Go read them!
In response to questions about heaven and hell asked of him by well-meaning Christians, John articulates a fundamental difference between the dominant Christian religious paradigm in the USA and his own Pagan beliefs. He writes:
Christianity (at least in its more conservative forms) is a death-preparing religion – its primary focus is on holding the proper beliefs so the follower will end up in eternal bliss and not eternal torment. Paganism (at least in its more popular forms) is a life-celebrating religion – its primary focus is on doing the right things so the follower lives meaningfully and honorably here and now. That’s a highly generalized view, and that’s certainly not all either religion is concerned with, but it is a key difference in core assumptions.
This difference in focus does tend to lead to different views on death and dying, as well as on how to live your life. If life is a test that determines your place in the hereafter, and death is the final judgement, then what matters most is ‘passing’, ticking the right boxes, worshipping the right god in the right way.
If death is understood however as simply a natural process, a transition, then it can be seen as a part of the great cycle of nature, of life and death and new life.
This cycle is often mythologised in Pagan religions and mapped onto the ‘Wheel of the Year’, where the changing seasons are thought to mirror the cycles of life.
This seems to be a nearly-universal human association, perhaps the reason why the various festivals of Samhain, Hallowe’en, Dia de los Muertos and others all take place in Autumn as the year itself begins to ‘die’. Yet in Spring, Pagans often celebrate festivals of new life. This can be (and often is) interpreted as ‘justification’ for beliefs in reincarnation, but it also speaks powerfully to the fact that when we die, we can fertilise the earth and bring forth new life from our remains. All life really does depend on death and decay in one way or another.
While Christian funerals often consist of assurances of heaven and the restatement of theological doctrines, John writes that for Pagans, death is not the time for religious dogma and speculation on the afterlife. Instead, he says:
Focus on what we know. Someone was born, they lived, they loved, and they have died. Death is not the opposite of life, death is part of life. Birth is the transition from where ever we were before to this life; death is the transition from this life to whatever comes next. We don’t have to debate what that before and next are to recognize death as a natural transition.
For many Earth-centred Pagans, as for most non-religious folk, death is simply a natural process. We are born, we live, we die. This pragmatic approach lends itself well to thinking about how to prepare for death. John points out that death tells us to remember our ancestors, that it gives a sense of urgency to life and that it prompts us to consider our own mortality and funeral arrangements. Having a worldview that allows for such meditations on death, within a structured framework and philosophy, can be a powerful counter to the post-religious attitude of death denial we see in Europe and the USA today.
Our mainstream culture tells us to ignore death, to pretend it will never come, to stave off old age with drugs and cosmetics. It promises that technology will someday make death obsolete… at least for those who can afford it. It whisks the dead away and hides death behind soft words, begrudgingly grants a day or two of bereavement leave (if we’re lucky) and then expects us to get back to work like nothing ever happened.
John writes about three ways that you can prepare for death: Naturalistically, by accepting the universality and inevitability of death; Communally, by remembering our ancestors and engaging in communal acts of remembrance and celebration; and Individually, by taking the time to figure out your own beliefs about death and what, if anything, happens afterwards.
None of these are unique to Pagans or Druids, of course, but it is easy to see how these ideas can be embedded within a nature-based religious tradition that regularly allows for a time of reflection and meditation upon death and practices some form of ancestor-veneration.
I will leave you with one more quote from John, who says things more eloquently than I:
The Universe is so old and so long and our lives are so very brief. It is a waste to spend any of our precious hours worrying about an afterlife about which we know nothing with certainty. Instead, let us live lives of honor and heroism, and let us, in the words of Doreen Valiente, “sing, feast, dance, make music and love.”