I was sitting and watching dead people.
Or at least those brave enough to impersonate them. They wandered around with greasepaint skulls overlaid onto their faces preparing for what was to come. I was perched on a wall of the pavilion where the Devotional for the Dead was to take place, kicking my leg out and back like a cat’s considering tail. I am more comfortable with the spirits of the land than the ancestors. The dead leave me cold, literally. Now I wonder if that’s their fault or mine?
The Rev. Robb Lewis wandered over and we talked a bit. He asked if I was planning on coming and I told him I was unsure, but in that moment of asking probability settled into form and I decided I would. A fairy among the skulls. We walked in singing after a sacred dance was performed by one of the painted participants. Rev. Carrion Mann lead the rite, wearing a plain mask of white. When I walked past her she seemed to be the very image of white-faced Giltine, the Lithuanian death goddess. As she pulled us into trance with her voice I saw an image of the death and life. The sunken carcass of a deer on the side of the road faded into dying bees in the drying fall grasses and smell of good rich compost fed from rotting vegetation. I heard a voice say, “These cycles that you are so familiar with are also the purview of death. The bee has an ancestor as well as you do. The deer has a spirit that persists. You are to find out how these cycles relate to this work. Your job is to discover the connection.”
In that moment I saw the cycles of death and life flowing around us all in a great woven network that supports us. The flower that lives and dies on the stalk has its own existence as well as the old man who picks it. What is our obligation to that connection? As members of the greater world how do we fit our own death into the larger community? I see this as expressed through my work with butchering my own meat, when I take the life of another being that I may eat their flesh. I see this also in my gardening, when I take the life of one plant so that my chosen species may thrive. I choose when they live, and when they die. Sometimes I feel the violence I take upon the lettuce patch when I rip it out to plant carrots. I am channeling the Morrigan, reaping my harvest as much as the crow on the battlefield. There is a connection between the two and in this moment of gestalt, as I sat while offerings were made to the dead, I was sure of it.
This was just the beginning.
We were lead into trance, for the first time according to the rite, for the second time in my personal narrative. We were to meet the ancestors. My ancestors and I don’t seem to always get along. In trance I have been told to stay away from the gates of the dead. I saw the gates: tall and strange, filled with vague visions of bodies and the low sound of moaning. Then I was in a wood, with moss upon the ground and only a few leaves on the gnarled low branches. I walked until I found a woman with long dark hair and pale skin. She was wearing a light blue-grey dress the color of the sky and was clearly quite dead. I knew she was my ancestor. I also knew I had to wake her, and then the dead themselves attacked us. Skeletal and horrific, it was a scene out of some sort of zombie movie and I responded in kind. I picked up a branch and used it as a quarterstaff, defending my dead ancestor from these other angry dead. I defeated them and it was strange. Usually, I am not allowed any kind of weapon within my trancework. I’ve tried often enough. There are plenty of guided meditations that involve weapons, but every time I’ve tried they’ve disappeared in the blink of an eye. This time I got to keep my quarterstaff as I dragged the deadweight of this anonymous ancestral snow white with me. I heard the voice again, masculine and low, “To wake her will be a long journey, but a worthy one.”
At that point I came out of the meditation and the devotional rite was concluded beautifully. Carrion lead a discussion on the three houses of the Order of the Dead. Primarily we talked about the second house, which was about the actual process of aiding both the living and the dead in the transition between the two. I was very interested in this work, as a member of Clergy I will someday be called upon to perform rituals of death as well as of life. As the discussion continued I began to hear children’s voices raised in playful fun nearby, and while that sound always makes me happy, I was concerned that their rather loud fun might be disruptive. I chose to make a quiet exit and help them find a different place to play.
Little did I know that they were only going to continue my journey with death rather than end it. As soon as they saw me, my hand was taken up and excited shouts informed me that they had something they wanted to share with me. I was taken to a rocky stream they often played in and shown a pile of rocks decorated with charcoal, presumably taken from a cold fire. They told me they had accidentally killed a newt and had buried it under the cairn they had decorated. In that moment my earlier insight into the connection between our own ancestor veneration and the world of the non-human was made sharply clear. These sweet girls had done their best to honor this small dead being, making as right as they could the wrong of playing with their small companion until he died.
What is our responsibility to the non-human species? How do we act in accordance with the harmony of the sacred cycles? How do we come into full reciprocity with them? My experiences opened more questions then they closed, but I felt the rightness of the thought. The synchronicity of vision and reality closed the deal. Maybe there’s a place for a dirt grubbing priestess of nature in the Order of the Dead.