This was written for those who work as priests/priestesses in our community, but perhaps of equal value to those who are lay people in the community and wish to understand how to handle death in our community using the tools the ancestors left to us.
There is a lot that our ancestors accepted that we do not, they were much more comfortable with their mortality, but their definition of self was linked more strongly to their family than ours, so the context of their personal death was different than our own, and in many ways they understood death had less power over them than we are wont to give it.
We do have the tools to help with death in our community, and there is not really a great deal you have to understand before you are able to begin to apply those tools both in your own life, and in those you care about, to make a real difference in dealing with the death of loved ones.
Funerals and memorials are for the living, not the dead. Understand this, understand the reason the tools exist and you will be able to understand how to use them to move through the agony of the loss itself and into the remodeling that follows. I use the word remodeling rather than healing because healing implies that what was lost will be restored, whereas remodeling is the term used in rehabilitation after injury that denotes learning to understand, accept, and work with the reality that you are left with. This is a better description for what we do in the grieving and morning process. In the saga’s we have many indications of grieving that worked, that didn’t, and what followed from each path. Let us start with GUTHRUNARKVITHA I The First Lay of Guthrun
10-Grieving could not | Guthrun weep,
Such grief she had | for her husband dead,
And so grim her heart | by the hero’s body.
11-Then spake Gollrond, | Gjuki’s daughter:
“Thy wisdom finds not, | my foster-mother,
The way to comfort | the wife so young.”
She bade them uncover | the warrior’s corpse.
12-The shroud she lifted | from Sigurth, laying
His well-loved head | on the knees of his wife:
“Look on thy loved one, | and lay thy lips
To his as if yet | the hero lived.”
13-Once alone did | Guthrun look;
His hair all clotted | with blood beheld,
The blinded eyes | that once shone bright,
The hero’s breast | that the blade had pierced.
14-Then Guthrun bent, | on her pillow bowed,
Her hair was loosened, | her cheek was hot,
And the tears like raindrops | downward ran.
Here we see Guthrun initially unable to process the death of Sigurd. Literally, the loss she felt was so deep and shocking that she is unable to even weep, unable to cry, unable to feel; so great is her shock. In the earlier stanza, we see the women of the community coming together to share their own stories of loss, because it really helps to know you are not alone, you are not the first who have had the pillars of their world kicked away, and yet, these women too carried on. This is not about showing how they lost more, so you should stop whining; this is about supplying context. To show that such loss is a part of the world, that such loss is a part of such love. Context is important, I would go so far as to say critical in grief work as you must place the death, the loss itself INSIDE the greater context of the life that was before you can accept the reality that you can not only move forward past the loss without giving up the person you lost, but that in moving through and past the loss itself and the grieving you can reclaim all the bright strands that person wove into your life already. Grieving is not about healing the loss, nothing will fill the spot that is gone, but you will remodel around the loss so that you can retain all that you shared with the loved one, while moving forward into a world in which they live on in their words and deeds, in the memory of those around them, not in the body you just burned or buried.
Guthrun literally cannot make this step, cannot make this transition because she cannot let go the living man. In order to accept that he is gone, she must look upon his dead face, kiss his sightless eyes, to accept that no matter how hard she fought to hold onto her living husband, he was gone. What she held was simply the meat that his soul once wore. Now she could cry, now she could weep and wail. Tears, like blood, carry the poisons out of the terrible wounds we take when one we love is taken from us. The dead simply die, it is the living who take wounds in their passing, for the dead are beyond all pain, beyond all care, while the living bear a wound of severity equal to the importance to your life of the person who just died. Viewings of the body, funerals, these are about letting go of the corpse, about accepting the living person who you want is no longer contained in the body you are commending to soil, sea, or fire.
Death and Context:
All deaths are not created equal. It sounds wrong, but it is a part of how we as modern humans are unaware of many truths our ancestors accepted. The gap between what we think and what we feel can often make it impossible to deal with the feelings that seem to make no sense. Death reveals to us the gap between the modern understanding of self, and the ancient understanding of self as our own Heathen traditions held it. When you talk to a westerner, European, or one of the Australian, North American or other daughter colonies of Western Europe about the definition of self in the modern Christian era, you will find that the definition of self begins and ends at the skin. The myth of the nuclear family is one of terrible power in our age, but of relatively recent vintage. Our ancestors were a clan or tribal people, and the definition of self was not limited to their own skin. The self was bound indelibly with the family, clan, or tribe. When you accept that your definition of self extends to your bloodline , rather than simply to your skin, the definition of selfish and selfless acts becomes blurry, and much of what we today would describe as heroic becomes merely pragmatic from the point of view that looks at the preservation of a self that extends beyond their skin.
The Christian looked at the Heathen warrior’s attitude about death and mistook them as being death hungry, when a more complete view would be were accepting that there would inevitably be a death for them, and not unduly concerned that a “good death” or death in the most glorified context of battle, is not to be viewed as entirely bad. Part of that was the realization that given the choice, this is one of the “good options” to go out on; one your family would speak well of long after you were gone. A larger part of the seeming fearlessness was the realization that death upon that battlefield did not threaten all of yourself. If your self extends beyond your skin, and extends into your line, then if your children, your siblings, your cousins, nieces and nephews, your clan and your tribe endured, then so did part of you. What you did to ensure their survival was part of guaranteeing your own immortality.
Our ancestors accepted that our body was not immortal. Our immortality lay within the family and the tribe. This gave some deaths a context that made them easier to accept. Look at Egil’s Saga for examples of death and context as both a tool that allows us to accept it more easily, and as one that renders death infinitely more terrible.
Egil’s Saga LV; Egil Skallgrimson’s beloved brother Thorloff falls in battle fighting on the opposite wing for King Athelstan of England against King Olaf and his Scottish allies. Egil was brooding while all around celebrated survival and victory until King Athelstan gave him a gold ring taken off his own arm, offering praise and gifts to honour the loss of Thorloff
“The king said: ‘These chests, Egil, thou shalt have, and, if thou comest to Iceland, shalt carry this money to thy father; as payment for a son I send it to him: but some of the money thou shalt divide among such kinsmen of thyself and Thorolf as thou thinkest most honourable. But thou shalt take here payment for a brother with me, land or chattels, which thou wilt. And if thou wilt abide with me long, then will I give thee honour and dignity such as thyself mayst name.’
Egil took the money, and thanked the king for his gifts and friendly words. Thenceforward Egil began to be cheerful; and then he sang:”
The death of Thorloff was terrible, but the context of death in battle was one that he was prepared to accept, and the funery gifts made it clear that Thorloff fell in glory, his name won praise and gold from great kings, and would see him remembered with the greatest heroes in the hall. Now Egil was not only free to celebrate the victory with the rest of the warriors, but free as well to move forward and take the gold won in Thorloff’s name to look after the needs of his remaining family back at home. Funeral rites and rituals, insurance and estate settlement are all part of the process of grieving and morning, a practical element that cannot be overlooked or separated from the emotional. Thorloff was not just a man, he was not just Egil’s brother, he was a father, a husband, and the support of all his dependants. Egil needed to not only let go the living man, to deal with his own loss, but to see that the duties of him who was lost were themselves taken care of, that the dead be not dishonoured by those he left behind being not cared for. Egil’s grief was bearable because Thorloff was a warrior who fell in battle, a good death. His dependants would be cared for, due to the glory and gold he won in life, and his name would be remembered.
http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe04.htm The Havamal tell us
Cattle die, | and kinsmen die,
And so one dies one’s self;
One thing now | that never dies,
The fame of a dead man’s deeds.
The death of a parent, a sibling, a lover, a friend is one that we can fit into context because we can make sure their name remains bright, their memory is cared for. Context makes it better. This is not always the case. If our ancestors accept that our self is not defined simply by the limits of our skin but by our line. This makes the death of a child harder. We see not just the death of what they are, but the death of the future. It is just that the young bury the old, not the old bury the young. When Egil’s son drowned, he was far less able to deal with this loss. This was a death out of context; neither the failing of a baby not yet grown into strength, not the failing of an elder whose life was done, nor the fall of a warrior in glory, or woman in birth. This was a death of potential, the theft of a life that will never be.
Egil determined to starve himself to death because he could not live with the death of his son. It took his daughter deceiving him into violating his oaths to turn him from self destructive expressions of his inability to grieve, to actual expressions of grief. As with the earlier case where Guthrun could not grieve until she looked upon the body and accepted Sigurd’s death, Egil could not bring himself to grieve until he accepted the fact that his duty compelled him to go on, and going on required the duties of the living to the dead. It is these duties that serve to set our feet on the path to using grieving to remodel our own lives to accept the reality of the loss we have suffered, and which enable us to regain the loved one as part of our life, even if now they are no longer among the living.
“Egil heard these tidings that same day, and at once rode to seek the bodies: he found Bodvar’s, took it up and set it on his knees, and rode with it out to Digra-ness, to Skallagrim’s mound. Then he had the mound opened, and laid Bodvar down there by Skallagrim. After which the mound was closed again; this task was not finished till about nightfall. Egil then rode home to Borg, and, when he came home, he went at once to the locked bed-closet in which he was wont to sleep. He lay down, and shut himself in, none daring to crave speech of him.
It is said that when they laid Bodvar in earth Egil was thus dressed: his hose were tight-fitting to his legs, he wore a red kirtle of fustian, closely-fitting, and laced at the sides: but they say that his muscles so swelled with his exertion that the kirtle was rent off him, as were also the hose.
On the next day Egil still did not open the bed-closet: he had no meat or drink: there he lay for that day and the following night, no man daring to speak with him. But on the third morning, as soon as it was light, Asgerdr had a man set on horseback, who rode as hard as he could westwards to Hjardarholt, and told Thorgerdr all these tidings; it was about nones when he got there. He said also that Asgerdr had sent her word to come without delay southwards to Borg. Thorgerdr at once bade them saddle her a horse, and two men attended her. They rode that evening and through the night till they came to Borg. Thorgerdr went at once into the hall. Asgerdr greeted her, and asked whether they had eaten supper. Thorgerdr said aloud, ‘No supper have I had, and none will I have till I sup with Freyja. I can do no better than does my father: I will not overlive my father and brother.’ She then went to the bed-closet and called, ‘Father, open the door! I will that we both travel the same road.’ Egil undid the lock. Thorgerdr stepped up into the bed-closet, and locked the door again, and lay down on another bed that was there.
Then said Egil, ‘You do well, daughter, in that you will follow your father. Great love have you shown to me. What hope is there that I shall wish to live with this grief?’ After this they were silent awhile. Then Egil spoke: ‘What is it now, daughter? You are chewing something, are you not?’ ‘I am chewing samphire,’ said she, ‘because I think it will do me harm. Otherwise I think I may live too long.’ ‘Is samphire bad for man?’ said Egil. ‘Very bad,’ said she; ‘will you eat some?’ ‘Why should I not?’ said he. A little while after she called and bade them give her drink. Water was brought to her. Then said Egil, ‘This comes of eating samphire, one ever thirsts the more.’ ‘Would you like a drink, father?’ said she. He took and swallowed the liquid in a deep draught: it was in a horn. Then said Thorgerdr: ‘Now are we deceived; this is milk.’ Whereat Egil bit a sherd out of the horn, all that his teeth gripped, and cast the horn down.
Then spoke Thorgerdr: ‘What counsel shall we take now? This our purpose is defeated. Now I would fain, father, that we should lengthen our lives, so that you may compose a funeral poem on Bodvar, and I will grave it on a wooden roller; after that we can die, if we like. Hardly, I think, can Thorstein your son compose a poem on Bodvar; but it were unseemly that he should not have funeral rites. Though I do not think that we two shall sit at the drinking when the funeral feast is held.’ Egil said that it was not to be expected that he could now compose, though he were to attempt it. ‘However, I will try this,’ said he.”
Grieving: Emotions, truths, rituals, offerings, practices and practicalities.
Grief is a noun, but grieving is a verb. This sounds like sophistry, but there is a really important message here. Grieving is something we have to do. Grieving is work, grieving has a series of objectives that must be achieved for the changes required to remodel successfully to be made. One of the first things that you as a priest will have to deal with it the expectation of others that someone should “get over it”, or simply put, stop grieving. Understand this is the equivalent of telling an athlete or soldier who has lost a leg at the knee that they should simply stop physiotherapy to learn to walk again without that limb, to learn to adjust their balance without a support they have always know, to learn to do again all those tasks that they are required to do with the support they have now, not the support they first learned to do all these tasks with. No one would expect a one legged person to just carry on without going through a long painful process of relearning to work around what was lost, yet we expect people to lose an entire human being, and simply flip a switch and carry on as if that person that was as much a part of you and your life as a limb had never existed. Grieving is not healing, it will not give you back the living person. Grieving is remodelling, it allows you to move forward with the acceptance that this person is no longer alive, but as you complete the remodelling and process the loss itself, you make the dead again reachable, make those parts of your life that they shaped, filled, and brightened again accessible and as potently supporting as they were when that person still lived.
Grieving should not be sanitized, cleaned up, or edited out of respect for the dead. Understand and accept this, funeral rituals, and grief rituals are for the living. The dead are with the ancestors and under the care of the gods. They are beyond our needs, but the living are the ones who have to deal with the consequences of death. Grieving must be honest. As a priest, one of the things that you can do to affect the outcome of grieving is to help the one who has suffered a loss to understand that all of their feelings have a place in grieving, and none of them represent a betrayal. The reality is that sanitizing grieving is one of the most dangerous things we can do for spiritual or mental health in the period immediately following a death.
What emotions are natural? Oh that one is not only a complicated one, but one that strikes deep into the gap between who we wish to be, and who we actually are. This gap is like a chink in our armour, and as a priest it is our job to be without judgement as we help people to process those feelings they do not wish to admit they have. If you do not admit you own the feelings, you will not be able to deal with them, and will not be able to remodel around the wounds these unadmitted feelings leave. That is like healing most of a bone, or most of a tendon. You are not going to be strong, as the part you could not admit to, and thus did not heal will forever be the point that fails, and harms you in the failing.
Love; love can be a negative until you have processed the loss. The degree of love you feel can be overwhelming as it can drive you, like Guthrun or Egil in to refusing to let the dead go. There is an irrational fear that admitting they are dead, or accepting they are dead is a betrayal; that somehow like Schrodinger’s cat, until you accept it, they are not truly gone. What is true is that until you accept they are dead, you will never be able to get past the loss to be able to feel the love, because you are freezing yourself forever in the agony of the loss itself.
Anger; the person who is lost has hurt you, has betrayed you. You depended on them and they are not there anymore. Their loss is a wound in you, and they are the one that inflicted that pain.
Shame; this one is tricky, and really dangerous. This is one of the big reasons priests are needed in the community to help with grieving. Shame has a few sources, most of which are operating in a tangled mess in those dealing with a loss. There is shame at the anger mentioned above. There is shame sometimes generated by relief. You can be relieved that a long expected death has occurred, and the waiting/fear is over. You can be relieved because your relationship with the person you lost contained both love and anger, love and fear, love and resentment. Relationships that are deep and long lasting will have strands of a thousand different truths woven through them, both light and dark. We say that you should not speak ill of the dead, but the reality is that if we are to actually remember the dead, we must be honest about them, at least to ourselves. You cannot process a loss fully until you process all of your feelings, the bright and the dark both. Shame is something that we as priests can help our grieving members to deal with.
Fear. This one is again rendered more potent by the strength of the relationship, and by its duration. It is literally impossible for many people to envision a world without the person they just lost. They cannot think of a world without the one they lost, and the fear of the unknown has always been the most potent and most debilitating fear known to humanity. Fear of the unknown is dealt with most easily by practicalities. The grieving process is mixed inexorably with the bureaucratic nightmare of dealing with the practical effects of a person’s death. These very real tasks are terrible, because you cannot separate the practical task from the emotional reality of the loss, but this is also a positive. With support from your community, dealing with those practical tasks takes you out of the terrifying unknown, and into the known (but unpleasant) and shows that you have the power to keep fulfilling your obligations. You are doing something not only for the one who was lost, but to move forward in your own life. Moving forward is a habit, as much as being terrified into stillness is. The practicalities of moving forward are something you and the community can support the grieving person with, and this restores to them the ability to move forward and thus weakens the hold of the fear of the unknown.
Helplessness. There are a few conflicting truths here. You are helpless to bring the dead back. You are not helpless to honour them, to reclaim them as a very real presence in your life. This is where the rituals, offerings and practices come into play.
Funeral rituals exist to honour the dead, and serve the living. Funerals bring us together as a people, as all those who shared the loss can come together to share in the grieving. We are a people that believes in grave goods. We are a people that make offerings to the gods, wights and ancestors with the belief that such things have real and lasting impact, that such gifts are indeed welcomed and returned in kind if not in form. A gift for a gift is our way, and funerals are about shifting that reciprocal gifting relationship in form, while maintaining its essential nature. There are two different levels of operation of the funeral; the public and the private.
The public portion of the funeral is about the grave gifts of glory, praise, fame. The public portion of the funeral is about the worth of the one who was lost, and through this public affirmation of the worth of the one who was lost we see the power of what other faiths view as the coldness of Heathenry, but is actually one of its real and founding strengths:
78-Cattle die, | and kinsmen die,
And so one dies one’s self;
One thing now | that never dies,
The fame of a dead man’s deeds.
Death is the period at the end of a sentence, the silence at the end of the song. Death cannot take away a single word you have spoken, a single deed you have done, nor unmake the changes you have made in all those lives you have touched, or that your words and deeds will inspire others to do in the future. Death can kill the flesh, but it has no power to remove you from this earth while your memory is held bright, while those who live still remember you and still give thanks for the gifts you gave them in this life. The public portion of the funeral is about proving to those who suffered the loss of someone that death has robbed that person of heartbeat and breath, but it has not, and cannot taken them from this good earth while those who still walk it cherish the words and deeds of their lives. Funerals are not just a celebration of the life of the person who has fallen, but a placing of hard limits on the power of death itself. Death is not something that begins with the last heartbeat and extends for all time; death is simply the moment of that last heartbeat, the fall of the chest that does not rise again. The life of the person that was lost is infinitely greater than the death that took them, and it is coming together as a community through funeral rituals of whatever form that we grow to understand this. The public phase is important for this realization, and for the support structure it gives us to share both our pain, and our strength. In sharing with others it becomes easier for each of us individually to go forward.
The private portion of the funeral is not always a unified thing, sometimes different groups representing different aspects of the persons life will do this separately, as not all sharing’s are equally age or personality appropriate. There is a very great temptation to place the dead upon pedestals, to choose to cherry pick our memories of them and remember only the fairest portions. This is a natural temptation, and a dangerous one. To do that is to place them forever beyond our reach as this pedestal will not admit close scrutiny, and will forever leave that person beyond your grasp. You will never be able to reclaim them as a living part of your life, only a ghost that forever reminds you of your loss. The private sharing is a lot like a really powerful sumbel; it begins with formality and dignity, and degenerates into sharing of truths, the true faces the lost one showed to us. There are the ones that endeared them to you, not all of which are dignified, some of which are outright ridiculous. The reality of love is that it is not always born of those things that you boast about, but sometimes in small simple, and outwardly foolish things. There are the bits that infuriated you, the parts that are so much a part of the loved ones personality that everyone who truly knows them accepts that you could no more stop them from these infuriating habits than you could from breathing; this is a part of who they are, and you can all laugh about it as you share that you truly knew and accepted the lost person for who they were, not who you wanted them to be. There will also be some sharings of darkness, of pain, of experiences that left you conflicted. There will be some who are threatened by these sharings, and obviously the circle for this kind of sharing will be smaller. The fact is that you must be honest about all the feelings you had if you are to process a loss, and move beyond the pain of the loss itself and reclaim the living presence of that person in your life. When you are able to remember all of them, the light the dark the proud, the funny, then you can reclaim everything they gave to and shared with you, and they can become again a living part of your life. What they shared with you cannot be taken away by death, and they can again become a living presence in your life. If you put them on a pedestal, you will always and only have the real shocking pain of their loss, the reality that they are forever beyond your grasp. You will have lost them in truth, through failure to process your own loss, rather than through the simple act of their death.
Offerings at a time of loss are something that we as priests need to be able to identify, mostly so that we can help those who are dealing with the loss in their own ways to recognize the offerings of others, and find ways to make offerings themselves. There are a lot of ways to make offerings, and some of them are not as obvious as offerings without some thought. Tears are an offering in and of themselves. If a person was worthy of love in life, then they are worth of tears in death. For strong men and women especially, the idea that strong people do not cry is a toxic teaching from a society that has lost its understanding of strength. To cry when someone you love has been taken from you, especially when you pride yourself on not ever crying for yourself is to make an offering to the one who was lost that literally you would never make for any suffering or pain of your body, nor fear of your own fate. This is an offering of power and worth, not a weakness to be shamed by.
Offerings can be praise, can be memories, can be sharing of parts of the lost one’s life you may not have been aware of. In sharing how the one who was lost has touched each life differently you are raising the worth of them, and literally stealing more from death, granting to them more of what death cannot take away from them. This is a very real and powerful form of victory.
Offerings can be practical. Not every person is a poet, or is comfortable with expressions of outward emotions. There are large numbers of people whose offerings in time of grief are baby sitting, casserole, house cleaning, errand running, paperwork, banking assistance, baked goods, or carpooling kids to school or activities. This is a very real statement that you know they have felt a loss, you are doing what is within your power to take from their shoulders the burdens you can take up, so they can better deal with it. Grieving is a verb, verbs are actions, actions require energy. Those who take up your burdens in part while you grieve are freeing up your energy to better do that grieving. These sorts of offerings are quite often greeted not with thanks but with anger by those who are comfortable with emotional expression as they believe it constitutes being unfeeling, or uncaring. The opposite is in fact the case, but not everyone has the same expression of emotions. Some people emote, express their emotions through visible displays. Others must express their emotion through practical action. Both are valid, and as a priest it is part of your job to gently show how each is offering “first and best” as they know how to do. It is not always easy to see when you are in great pain that someone is making a worthy offering if the form is not one that is familiar or comfortable to you.
Practices and practicalities
The closer you are to the person who was lost, the more likely it is you will have to deal with some of the bureaucratic nightmare of the death paperwork. Until this is all done, and it will take over a year in most cases, the death itself is not fully over. The practicalities of dealing with the death give you a very real window for how long at a minimum you will be processing the death. At the end, you have closure. The death is over. The emotional roller coaster of the dealing with the physical possessions, and legal leftovers provides a very real way to let those emotions burn themselves off, while providing a real focus for the attendant energies to do something with a practical and knowable result. This combats the feelings of helplessness as you are actually doing something. This provides a chance for community and family to provide physical assistance that allows an emotional sharing of the burden through the physical mechanism of practically sharing the burden. Working things out internally is often easier when it is expressed through actually working something out practically. Cleaning is a very useful tool this way.
Tending of graves, altars, memorial stones, making of memorial crafts, photo collections, gardens are all very real ways that we can blend the physical actions of the practical world with the emotional and spiritual aspects of memorializing, remembering and offering to our dead. Each of these actions allows us to extend that reciprocal gifting relationship into a form different than the one we shared with the living person, but equally real. This is another way to finish the remodelling by making a new place for the dead person in our life moving forward. We cannot bring back the living body, but we can make sure that they remain a part of our life going forward. They dead are only lost to us if we choose to allow it. Through the grieving process we learn to let go the living person, to accept the body no longer holds them, and allow the pain of that loss to be bled out of us through the process of grieving until we can let go the loss itself, and reclaim the place that person has in our life, and will always have while we remember them.
Healing leaves you as you were before, pain free and exactly as capable as you were before. That we can’t do. That is magic the gods don’t even promise. Remodeling is what rehabilitation professionals refer to as the process by which you deal with injuries that make permanent changes. That is what we are doing with grieving. We are remodeling, the terrible scar of the loss is slowly remodeled into a more functional form that admits that the person is no longer with us, but allows us to access those gifts and strengths they left us. As priests, we cannot do the work for someone else, any more than a good physiotherapist could, but what we can do is use our knowledge and experience to enable those in our care to have the most favourable outcome possible, to be able to reclaim as much of the loved one as they may, as they move forward in their lives.