Pagan Paths

For Reclaiming Witches, what we do is the living embodiment of what we believe—about human worth, the holiness of the Earth, and the individual and community relationship with Mystery. Join me as I explore some of the tradition's central tenets and commonly held beliefs through the actions of our members. From soup kitchens to street actions, from guerrilla gardening to gender salons, "Reclaiming by Doing" hopes to illuminate the sacred in ordinary and extraordinary life.

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This Work of Dying

It's 7:30 on a Sunday morning. I'm writing this in the home of Marianne and Dennis, who I don't think are awake yet. For company I have a cat named Skeksis and a young man named Lee. Skeksis is ignoring me. Lee is dead.

For several years, I've felt a calling toward death work, but only in the past 15 months or so have I begun putting that call into action. I've joined a local group that focuses on family-directed death care and green burial advocacy and education. I'm helping plan a death and dying workshop for my local Reclaiming community. I'm getting my own end-of-life affairs in order. I'm sitting vigil with a young man I didn't know in life to help a shocked father begin to grieve and heal.

Each of us who comes to death work follows a different path, and we each have our own reasons. My reasons are rooted in my Pagan beliefs, which are profoundly shaped by the Reclaiming Principles of Unity.

"We see the Goddess as immanent in the earth's cycles of birth, growth, death, decay and regeneration."b2ap3_thumbnail_sugar_skulls_by_Narodny_Geroy.jpg

Most of you are aware by now that I'm a naturalist. When I say I see the Goddess as immanent in the Earth's cycles, I mean that the Earth is my Goddess--and even then I use that term gingerly. Earth Itself is the source of my awe and the object of my reverence. I see Mystery in all its cycles and processes and know myself to be a part of those cycles. I know that I participate primarily as a consumer, rather than a producer. This is a huge part of why I want green burial for myself and champion it to others, especially fellow Earth-based practitioners:  in green burial, which most commonly means no vault, no embalming, and either no casket or a very simple, completely biodegradable one, we have our best opportunity to give back to this sacred living planet that gives us so much over the course of our lives. Cremation and alkaline hydrolysis, although they have their environmental challenges, are also more eco-friendly disposition methods than being pumped full of embalming fluids and sealed inside air-tight caskets in vaults or mausoleums.

"We know that everyone can do the life-changing, world-renewing work of magic..."

Everyone. I take this phrase in the Principles of Unity very seriously, and I don't intend to give up that magic-making power just because I happen to be dying or dead. No, I can't wave a wand or stir a cauldron after I die, but I can make choices in life that will help ensure that my passing blows one last breath of magic across this world.

  • Making provisions for my families of blood and choice to clean and dress my body for disposition restores an age-old tradition, linking them to generations of ancestors and opening a path for profound healing and acceptance.
  • Choosing green burial, cremation, or alkaline hydrolysis restores me to Earth's cycles and connects me to its magic at the most elemental levels.
  • Preparing end-of-life and post-death legal documents, such as medical directives and wills, helps ease the logistical course my survivors will need to navigate and lowers the potential for strife and energy drain among my loved ones and communities.
  • Any action my loved ones and I take now to prepare for our deaths removes us from the dominant end-of-life messages of a culture that has become helpless in the face of death, utterly dependent on professionals and strangers to perform acts that, for milennia, were the province of families and communities. It empowers us in death, as many of us strive to be empowered in life.

After Lee's ashes returned to Florida, his father sent a message of heartfelt thanks to those of us who had helped with the vigil, funeral, and cremation. I suspect that, as with all acts of intention, the ripples of the group's work and Lee's presence among us will continue to spread and return to us. This is the outcome I strive toward: to continue to be magical and Earth-healing--even in death.

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Eli Effinger-Weintraub practices Gaian Reclaiming-tradition hearthcraft in the Twin Cities watershed. She plants her beliefs and practices in the living Earth and her butt on a bicycle saddle. Previous works have appeared in Witches&Pagans, Circle, and Steampunk Tales, as well as at the Clarion Foundation blog, Humanistic Paganism, and I’m From Driftwood. Eli writes the "Restorying the Sacred" column at No Unsacred Place, a blog of the Pagan Newswire Collective. She shares her life and art with her wife, visual artist Leora Effinger-Weintraub, and two buffalo disguised as cats. Eli's personal blog lives at Backbooth, and she tweets as @AwflyWeeEli.

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  • Editor B
    Editor B Friday, 26 April 2013

    This is very inspiring to me. We need more support for such choices. I need to start my end-of-life planning too. If you know of any resource online (or off) to help plan and think through these issues from a Green perspective I'd love to know about it. Thanks.

  • Eli Effinger-Weintraub
    Eli Effinger-Weintraub Friday, 26 April 2013

    Oh, EdB, do I ever! The Minnesota Threshold Network has an amazing resource page. A few of the pages are Minnesota-specific, but most are more general.

    The Green Burial Council also has a great website.

  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Friday, 26 April 2013

    I am so sorry for your loss, Eli.

    In other news, I'd be very happy if you wrote something about this work for our upcoming Element of Earth issue of Witches&Pagans.

  • Eli Effinger-Weintraub
    Eli Effinger-Weintraub Monday, 29 April 2013

    Thanks, Anne.

    As I mentioned, most of us involved in the vigil had never met Lee in his life, but there was a sense of the loss that a promising young man had been lost to us.

    I'll contact you about an article!

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Saturday, 27 April 2013

    This kind of loving care for each other is needed much more. I have no desire to be hauled off to some hospital to die surrounded by strangers, machines, hoses, and other obscenities. As I accumulate years I recall how my father died at home, but his body was taken and kept warm by the white coat mob trying to clean out his life savings. Being able to die in peace is a blessing.

  • Eli Effinger-Weintraub
    Eli Effinger-Weintraub Monday, 29 April 2013

    Thanks for the comment, Greybeard. I agree that being able to die in familiar surroundings with, if possible, family and friends near, is a great gift that I hope will become more and more possible as we continue this sort of work.

    I do feel that we need to have care with the words we use to describe the medical community that cares for and has cared for many of us and our loved ones. The majority are compassionate professionals doing what they can for the patients who come to them. If we want to improve end-of-life care and authority for ourselves and our loved ones, we may be better served by looking at a litigious and death-denying society where survivors without proper methods of grieving last out to sue medical personnel for not doing everything possible to extend the quantity of their loved ones' lives, no matter the quality. It is a poorly kept secret that many doctors and nurses would prefer not to perform many of the life-saving procedures they do and *would* prefer to let their patients die and be prepared for disposition at home. And I do wish that more of them would act in accordance with those preferences. But with the potential of expensive malpractice suits lurking behind every door, I don't blame them for being cautious.

  • hecate
    hecate Thursday, 23 April 2015

    Eli, I loved your post. And do want to mention for those interested in another resource, The Pagan Book of Living and Dying by Starhawk, and M. Macha NightMare, which is the book that got me started. I'm a psychologist and do a lot of work in this area, and have let my family know of my own wishes in this regard. I'm in NY and still having some trouble finding good green burial resources, but still learning even while teaching. Would love to stay in touch with others working in this field.

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