D is for Death – Pagan Blog Project 2012

Change of plans, folks. Originally, I was going to do “D is for Deities” (I may go with “G is for Goddesses” instead) as my next instalment in the Pagan Blog Project but, due to my grandmother passing away last week, I’ve decided, instead, to do:

D is for Death

How do I start?

I got a phone call, late Tuesday morning, from my aunts – my Dad’s sister and her wife (to clarify). They were up visiting but had received word that my grandmother was getting very close to dying and that they might want to get back to up-state New York ASAP. They called me and asked if I wanted to come with them.

Two hours later, having thrown some stuff (sheet music, poetry, a week’s worth of clothes, shampoo, note-paper) into a suitcase and having dragging my girlfriend away from work so that she could get me to my Mom’s place, where my aunts were staying, the three of us set off for Ithaca. (My sweetie can’t travel outside the country at present, otherwise there would have been four).

One of my aunts and I spent the night doing rotating shifts – one of us would sleep on the cot the hospice staff brought it, and the other would fitfully doze by my grandmother’s bedside, keep contact, pay attention to her breathing and the presence of her heartbeat.

I spent Wednesday doing the same thing, while my aunts prepped their (very recently renovated – and, thus, still disorganized) house for the impending influx of relatives.

Another aunt (also my Dad’s sister) arrived Wednesday night. She took Wednesday night’s watch and my two aunts and I went back to their house where I gratefully fell into bed (another cot) and went to sleep.

I dreamed – or possibly imagined – that my grandmother was standing at the foot of my bed, looking somewhere between 30 and 75, and smiling.

Shortly there-after, I was awoken by my aunt.

My grandmother died at 11:02pm on Wednesday night.

In white, urban Canada, death is pretty hidden. It tends to happen in hospitals, and the families don’t tend to be the ones dealing with the bodies. Getting my Dad’s body from his hospital room to the funeral home where he/it was cremated was done by hospital and funeral-home staff, rather than us.

This wasn’t how things happened with my grandmother.

The staff at the hospice brought a basin of warm, soapy water, and a heap of washcloths and towels… and we washed her body.

If there was any weirdness about doing so, it was that a little part of me kept expecting her to move – a flicker of eyelid, the tremble of a heart still beating – not because I was washing the body of someone who had been alive less than an hour ago and was now dead.

My grandmother was burried on Saturday in a natural cemetery. I really like this idea – you just go into the ground, wrapped in a shroud (natural fibres only, thanks) on a bed of spruce boughs.

It seemed really fitting that we be the ones to wash her body, to cut open the pink silk dress so that she could go to the ground in splendor, to wrap her in her shroud of paisley wool (brought by one of her own ancestors from Paisley, Scotland, fyi) and secure it with her old, silk scarves. To sing songs – The Ancestors’ Breath; Return Again; Hymn to Her (just the chorus) – while we washed her body and, again, as part of her burial ceremony.

I wrote a poem (which I’m not going to put here – at least not in full – as I’d like to get it For Real Published elsewhere, if I can) about the experience, which I read at her burial. Part of it is below:

this is how it used to be done
no secrecy
no whisking away of the dead by discrete hospital staff
just wrung out wash cloths
soapy water
and us


it dones’t feel weird
or creepy
or wrong
to be doing this
to rinse the cloth
smooth cheek or belly
to close her lidded eyes with gentle hands
to be among these daughters washing
the mother of us all
one final time

The whole thing felt very personal. That it was all done by family, and that the family in question – while being from a number of different faiths – were all very oriented towards the idea of “peace in nature”, made me feel particularly connected to, and comfortable with, the whole endevor.

I want to see more burials like this[1]. It seems extremely appropriate for folks of Pagan and Heathen faiths.
There is a natural cemetery in Coburg, Ontario, and another one looking to open in Paisley, ON (near Guelph, I believe).

(The Pretenders)

(Shaina Noll)

(The version I learned – The Flirtations)

(Original – Sweet Honey in the Rock)

When I am gone, come and burry me
under the roots of an apple tree
let the seasons turn for a year or three
then eat of the apples that once were me

Fairwell, fairwell, and fairwell,
The circle is never broken;
We will see you on the next round,
We will see you again.

Meliad the Birch Maiden.

[1] I just – literally inside of two minutes ago – got word from my Mom that her father, my maternal grandfather (and last living grandparent), is getting close to death and will probably go inside of the next five days. Blood clots and something to do with his kidneys (which we knew would happen – he has tumers on both kidneys, so…).
Cripes. When it rains, it pours…
But I know his burial won’t be anything like Gram’s. It’ll be like Nana’s (last summer). A funeral parlour, a minister, and the vast, extended farming family who are mostly some degree of Christian, like my grandparents.

One response to “D is for Death – Pagan Blog Project 2012

  1. That’s the most beautiful funeral I’ve ever heard of. It’s sad that it can’t be like that for my mother, and probably not for me, either.

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