It seems somewhat obvious, but for those who haven’t done the math, let me do it for you now. For every person that lives today, there are fifteen dead people. One hundred and seven billion dead occupy this world, along with a mere seven billion living.
We are less and less comfortable with death and with dying as we use our technology to stave off personal encounters for the better part of a century, over a century for some. This does not change the number of dead that exist, or will exist, it simply gives us lots of time to pretend death doesn’t exist, and work really hard not to think about those who have gone before.
We put walls around cemeteries, fences whose job is not to keep people out, as most of them are fairly token, but they are deeply important to us, as they are the boundary that separates the living of this world, from its dead.
Some people don’t have that option. Some people, by inclination, training, experience or just wyrd are aware of the dead who have not gone. What can we say to those who don’t have the option of just denying the existence of the dead, outside the rituals we have constructed for the purpose of interacting with out dead deliberately?
First, the dead is a really broad term, about as useful in deciding specific actions as the living is. There are all kinds of dead, just as there are all kinds of living. Of the seven billion or so living on the planet with you right now, almost none of them are going to have any effect on you at all, so it is with the dead. The default answer is that it is a big old world, and you can get on for a whole lifetime without actually encountering someone who moves through spaces fairly close to yours on a daily basis.
Most of the dead are bound to the mound, to the underworld, to the sea, or to whatever received either their body or their ash. Like gravity, death defines the lowest energy state and eventual end state of anything without a great deal of energy to expend as in the mound, the earth, the stream where they were laid.
We are still tied to our dead, and they to us. We can and do call to them, consciously or unconsciously through the ties we forged in life. Those ties often stretch far beyond a single generation, and can carry along all the ties that bind, not simply blood. When we stand at the Centotaph and call our warrior dead to us, their spirits answer, and the living, however stooped and aged stand strong and proud again when they feel the ageless brothers (and sisters) who served with them return to their call. They shall not grow old, as we who were left grow old. We who are left are charged to keep the watch for them that fell, to defend the freedoms and the families for which they fought, and fell. Yet although they have paid the final price, still do they come to our call, and we give them bright offerings of praise, and gifts to honour them
Families still make pilgrimage to the mounds, the graves, the internment place of their dead for the purposes of making offerings to them, and of feeling again the touch of the spirit of their honoured dead. We use the reciprocal gifting relationship that we learned to use in life to maintain the relationships with our dead.
That is our honoured dead. There are two categories that remain, the dead that are not our own, and those who are not worthy of honouring.
Before beginning to answer the question about what to do about dead people who fall into the “other than my own honoured dead, but still bugging me” category, I find it helpful to reflect upon the words of my grade eight English teacher reguarding conversational intent. Consider first two questions; Audience and purpose. To whom am I speaking, and what do I want from them.
OK, that is really important, first of all, look at the second one. What do you want?
Basic level, most common and defensible concern for the living who are aware of the dead, and not happy about it, the purpose would be, quite simply, to be safe from ill-wishings of the dead. Totally reasonable. The Norse understood unquiet dead spread famine and disease, could through Wod bring possessive frenzy and violence into the community. Physically anything that came back was disposed of through bogging (stake out in the bog, bound to the bog and staked down to it), through dismemberment (cut off the head, tuck it below the knee so the dead will not rise or walk again). You could give the dead to the fire, that it strip the flesh away and remove the ties that bind it to the land of the living. You could cast it into the sea, for what Ran takes she keeps. In fact sunlight, the essence of Sunna and the primal fire of life is easiest bar to the dead, as it takes great energy to bring the dead into its presence (ie group ritual like the rememberance). Salt is also a bar to the dead, blood of Ran, it has the power to deny passage to spirits, and to disrupt their form.
Your own hearth will offer such protection, often enhanced by a deliberate land taking, you can simply banish from the limits you define as your own space, those wights with all ill intent. This will bar hostile wights, but it also binds you to a duty to maintain a positive reciprocal gifting relationship with the wights who are beneficial and remain in the space.
If you do a land taking and the spirit persists, it has bound itself to your benefit, and to your hearth. You now have a duty to it, as any of your house-wights to share your hospitality, and derive from it such benefit as is within its power and matching scope of your offering.
If you are bothered by dead at night in places other than your own, well for work places or school you may want to work on fostering relations with the other wights of those places to ensure your not being harassed, as far as the rest of the planet, it’s a big place, and we don’t own it, so live and let live, even with the dead.
If you are truly concerned about the dead being a problem, reach out to your Disir. Male spirits after death are not usually given the ability to do more than communicate or teach unless they pull together an easily destroyed revenant or draugr, but your maternal ancestor spirits are proported to collectively weild great power to affect change in this world, and have a deep and abiding interest in your life and wellbeing.
In essence, if you are being bugged by a nasty spiritual pitt-bull that you are worried about, call out the hunt, and a wolf-pack of your maternal ancestral spirits will take care of anything that needs taking care of. Do not invoke them lightly, for they are real, they are powerful, and they are going to act as they see fit, reguardless of what limitations you would like to set upon their actions. They are powerful, motivated, and purportedly prone to permanent solutions, so call if you honestly need them.
Being dead does not make people any better or worse than they were in life, however it does make them a whole lot less connected with this world in any independent fashion. We share this world, the living and the dead, but death is to spirits as gravity is to arrows, a powerful attractant that gathers to the earth almost everything that once soared high. This world is given to us from the hands of our dead, and held in trust by us for those who are yet to come. There is no us and them, we are all of us bound together, the dead who have gone before, the living who are now, and the future descendants yet unborn. We all have the power to affect each other, the web of wyrd stretches in all directions, but from the point of view of those of us bound in it by life and time, power to make change belongs to the living almost exclusively. We are the power that shakes the world, the dead are but echoes of that.