In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.
Extinguished Hearths: Rituals for a Household in Mourning
My familiar died last year.
But this article is not about him: the death of pets, even the best-loved, is in my opinion a matter for private, not public, mourning.
But the death of a household member occasioned some serious thought on the matter of the rituals with which we meet such an event in the home. As a community, we've been strong on public ritual and weak on household observance, and in this we differ greatly from the ancestors, who held both to be of equal necessity. The last death in my household had occurred almost 10 years previously, and at the time I pretty much winged it. But since then my thinking has matured (or so I like to tell myself), and so when Gremlin died I followed Ceisiwr Serith's advice: when confronted with a new situation, consult ancestral precedent.
Extinguish the hearth fire.
Anciently, the hearth was, symbolically if not literally, the center of household life (the Latin word for “hearth” is focus), the source of all heat and cooked food. As such, the hearth fire burned constantly, so that to extinguish it constitutes a major rupture in the course of one's everyday life.
This, of course, means that no cooking can take place in the house, another major disruption. This, I suspect, is the original reason why we customarily bring food to the newly-bereaved: because, in the absence of fire, no food can be cooked.
How does one observe this custom today, when few contemporary houses have an ever-burning hearth-fire? One option would be to extinguish the pilot light of the stove, or the water heater. (If you do, for gods' sakes be sure the gas is turned off first.) Since I live in Minnesota and Gremlin died on March 1, this was not a practical thing for me to do. But as my home temple is the covenstead, I keep a light burning continuously on the altar. This I extinguished, and though I did not refrain from food preparation entirely, I did no cooking at all for three full days. Anciently, one might have fasted through the entire course of the three days of mourning, or eaten only cold foods. These were simply not practical for me to do this time around. Nonetheless, the disruption of the usual routine of household meals established a strong sense of disjuncture, which, of course, is precisely what these rituals are intended to do.
Stop all household ritual.
A death in the household renders the entire house and everyone in it ritually impure, and hence not a suitable place for sacred action. Daily prayers, offerings, and meditations stop. This is as it should be, for death creates a disruption in the spiritual life of the home was well.
Since the coven temple is located in my home, this custom put me in something of a quandry, as the twice-daily offerings that I make are on behalf of both the household itself and of the entire community. I compromised by continuing to observe the prayers and offerings for the community, but not those for the household.
Wear the same clothing during the three days of uncleanness.
During mourning, the ancestors tended to refrain from bathing, shaving, and change of clothing. Obviously, each of us needs to make our own call on this one. I compromised with tradition by continuing to bathe, and I did change socks and underwear daily. Even so, I was getting a little ripe by the third day.
At the end of the three day's mourning, ritually purify the house and members of the household, relight the hearth fire, and end with a meal.
In its simplest form, the purification of the household consists of sprinkling water on the threshold and the heads of the members of the household and declaring: Be pure!
Having entered the newly-clean house, one relights the hearth-fire, whether actual or symbolic, and performs the usual daily household ritual. This is followed by shared food. It is customary to serve round foods as a testimony to, and invocation of, the circle of life: hard-boiled eggs and bagels were the tradition in my family. With this meal the three days of ritual impurity come to an end, and the usual daily life of the household resumes.
As I observed these rituals after Gremmy's death, I was struck by a number of things. One was that, even though I did not observe all the traditions in their fullest form, nonetheless, the mere act of engaging the Received Tradition, even when this engagement ended in compromise, nonetheless gave me a sense of groundedness and ongoing connection to the cycle that was deeply important. Death inevitably leaves the survivor wondering, What do I do now? The presence of these traditions helps guide the mourner through this in-between time of uncertainty.
Secondly, I found that this participation in tradition created a space between me and death. Death always comes as a disjuncture, and the three days of mourning successfully created for me a separation from that Separation.
Thirdly, the disruption of my usual household and daily cycles paradoxically emphasized both the importance and the ongoing nature of the cycle. In effect, the entire household dies ritually along with the household member. The three death days being over, the cycle begins anew.
Here as always, I found my experience to be enriched and deepened by my encounter with the Received Tradition. These are behaviors that have passed the test of time: the ancestors have done them for thousands of years. When we walk in the footprints of the ancestors, we find ourselves strengthened by this continuity. The Received Tradition is vast, a sea which will bear us up whenever we need it. “Turn it and turn it,” says the sage, “for everything is in it.”
Much (but not all) of the above is drawn from Ceiswr Serith's invaluable Deep Ancestors: Practicing the Religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans (ADF Publishing, 2007). Serith is one of the New Paganisms' deep thinkers, with a rare grasp of First Principles; I cannot recommend his work highly enough.
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