Scattering Violets

An exploration of funerary traditions and innovations, care of the dead, and pagan perspectives on death

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Prayers for the Grieving: A Snapshot of a Psychopomp at Work

A couple of weeks ago, we got a call at work that a woman named Christy* had a malamute dog who had passed away, and she needed us to pick him up and take him to the crematory. So a coworker and I climbed into the Explorer, one of our two work vehicles, and drove down the road out of the city, through the outskirts of town, to her ranch in the country. Christy has an adorable red-sided, sharply peaked farmhouse surrounded by fenced-in plots of land where her horses grazed in the midmorning sunlight. There was a bite in the air, but it wasn't cold. When she saw us driving down her long gravel driveway, she came out of her house and opened the gate for us. Her other malamute, Kallu*, the deceased dog's sister, was gentle and came up to greet us, and then clung protectively to Christy’s side. She was huge, wolf-sized, but not lean like wild animals. She had a rounded, well-fed figure, and her fur was fluffy and clean.


As Christy led us to the side of the house where her dog Kallik* lay, she told us that her husband had died a week and a half ago. Kallik was 10 years old – elderly for big breeds – but had never had any health issues. He passed away very suddenly; we think he must have died of grief. My coworker and I set our stretcher next to Kallik and laid a white sheet over it. Like Kallu, he was enormous. Christy guessed he was around 180 lbs. His coat was white on his underside and black over the top of his head and back to his tail. His tongue lolled out the side – a muscular reflex that's a normal part of the death event.


As I knelt down before her brother, Kallu came up to me, sniffing. I patted her head and told her she was a good girl. She gave me a few soft licks on my chin, and then plodded some feet away to watch us roll Kallik onto his other side, onto the stretcher. I glanced over at her as we attached the straps to keep him secure. I had never seen such an expression of grief on an animal before. Her dark eyes were half-closed beneath furrowed brows; her smallish, pointed ears were turned down to the sides; she hung her head below her shoulders as she watched us work. I could almost feel the weight of her grief hanging on her.


My coworker and I crouched into lifting position – a wide, stable squat in our legs, abdominal muscles taut, our backs bent just enough to grasp the corners of the stretcher with our hands, but not so bent that we’d use our backs to lift.


"Ready?" I said, and we raised him up.


My coworker and I are pretty strong women, especially considering we don't otherwise weightlift. That was one of my plans before I became chronically ill last year – to get into weight-lifting at a gym, mostly to make my job easier and safer, given that we often tend to large dog breeds: mastiffs, boxers, wolfhounds, huskies, and (rarely) malamutes like this one. That never panned out. Post-exertional malaise makes it impossible for me to exercise regularly now – either because I’m too fatigued and achy from the workday, or I have to be cautious about overexerting myself into a flare when I feel well. Even so, I haven't gotten physically weaker. If anything, I can lift more weight than I could a year ago.


My coworker and I carried Kallik across the backyard, through the fence, to the Explorer in the driveway and slid him into the back of it. Big as he was, he barely fit, his nose just behind the passenger seat and his back legs neatly tucked against the hatchback trunk door.


Back at the crematory, he weighed in at 164.4 lbs, a little lighter than what his owner had estimated. That's pretty common: older pets tend to drop weight before death, either from not eating or due to illness ravaging their bodies. His fur was so thick, layers and layers of white fur. I wondered how he'd felt with all that fur when it got hot in the summers, and imagined he had a pool or a pond he could jump into somewhere on the farm to cool off. I thought of his sister Kallu, the two of them running across the fields, wrestling in play, sleeping side by side at night.


I felt so sorry for Christy, having lost her husband and now one of her dogs. But I felt even sorrier for Kallu. Her expression of deep, quiet grief clung to me, cutting into my heart. I worried that she'd pass away soon out of grief for him, too, and the toll that would take on Christy who loved her and had already seen so much loss in a short time. Even more so, I didn’t want that for Kallu: for the last remaining weeks or months of her life to be marred by body-wasting grief. I wanted to do something for them, something that wouldn't make Christy feel embarrassed or awkward by an overture, something that would ease their grief and bring them a little comfort.


Part of my work as a cremationist is putting together mementos of the dead: clipped locks of fur, paw prints pressed into white clay and ink prints on paper. These keepsakes help the living sustain a tangible connection to the dead that helps them through their grief. We also send sympathy cards to our clients. But for these two, I wanted to somehow do more. But the only thing that would bring the kind of comfort I wanted for them would be to see their beloved dead again. Only that would offer peaceful reassurance and closure.


When the cremation was completed, I processed the cream-colored, brittle bones into a fine, whitish powder and poured them into the large eco-urn that we use for extra-large pets. I held the urn in my hands, still warm from the processed bones inside it. I closed my eyes and prayed, my lips whispering under the roaring of our two cremators. I called to my psychopomp Gods, Mercurius and Rosmerta of the Valley. I asked Mercurius to stall Kallik’s departure, to guide him back to his family, just for a while. I called out to Kallik, asking him to return to them one more time – even if just in dreams – to let them know that he was all right, that death is not an end, and that he still loved them. I asked Rosmerta to hold Christy and Kallu in Her arms, to give them a space in which they could grieve safely and find comfort and peace.


I have no way of knowing if my prayers were answered, but it was the least – and most – I could do. Grief is a healthy and normal experience for the living; it means that we have loved, which is wonderful. But it isn't an easy experience, and in order to walk through it well, it helps to find moments of comfort and reassurance, buoys in a sea of stinging loss. I hope Christy and Kallu find that when they need it most.




*Names have been changed to preserve privacy.


Photo by eberhard

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, and spirit worker and traveler. Her work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans and Hagstone Publishing's Stone, Root, and Bone ezine. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  


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