Honoring Our Dead

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Honoring Our Dead

How we treat our dead reflects our outlook on life itself.

On the morning of August 12, 2010 Pagan elder, ADF founder, author and curmudgeon Isaac Bonewits passed away in his sleep after a battle with cancer. The Pagan world (including this magazine) is richer for his life and poorer for his death. Rest in peace, Isaac: unlike Caesar, your good deeds live on after you. Let them be a memorial to a life well-lived.

In many (if not most) mythic cycles, our final breath brings not an end but a beginning. Freed from its fleshy envelope, the spirit moves on to other realms. Some say it passes into eternity; others believe it is but a brief stop on the way to a new life. Taking the lessons learned during this incarnation, we put on skin once again and repeat the process. While these stories may vary widely from culture to culture, all agree that there is something beyond the grave. By exploring historical and contemporary visions of death and the dead, we can get some tantalizing hints of what may lie in store for us in that twilight realm to whence we all must come.

There is near-universal agreement that the dead should be honored with appropriate rites. Grave sites dating back over 23,000 years have been found from Spain and Wales to Moscow. All incorporate heavy use of red ochre coloring and include the bones of totemic animals like aurochs, mammoths, bison, or reindeer. Some of the corpses wear shell jewelry, beads, flint blades or other items.1 Alas, there are few hard and fast rules of what is and is not appropriate. Zoroastrians and Tibetan Buddhists expose their dead to vultures and other scavengers. The Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea disposed of family members through mortuary cannibalism, until it was found this was a prime vector for transmission of kuru, a brain-wasting disease similar to Kreutzfeldt-Jacob (“Mad Cow”) syndrome.

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