Guest Essay: A Response to Recent Questions on Death

This essay is an editorial by guest author Sid Simpson

Do you believe the souls of our ancestors have been fragmented and damaged by lack of care? Does their religion in life have anything to do with this?

I do believe there has been a significant loss of luck over the years because of our societal aversion to discussing death in general and the pervasive misunderstanding of death from an Arch Heathen perspective. I feel that in failing to converse and address death, we have made it a far too insidious specter in our current age.

The further people get from everyday experiences in death, the fewer tools they have to process death. I feel this starts with the food industry. No, not everyone has to hunt and butcher every bite they eat. But when we do not witness or know about the lives and deaths of the animals that nourish us, we become less involved in how they are processed. We eschew this responsibility and put it in the hands of Outer Yarders whose interest is not our Inner Yard nutrition, but their own profit. This has resulted in a lot of crazy stuff in our food that has led to compromised health at all levels. Compromised health has a negative effect on luck.

Culturally, we are unable to adequately discuss death. We have code words and avoidance tactics to shield ourselves from the reality of it. We are so afraid of it, that we go to extreme medical measures to hold it off. This frequently results in what, IMO, is a far more horrible and terrifying thing than death- suffering. The suffering is multi leveled. Dying people are emotionally blackmailed into “trying one more thing” so as to ease the pains and demonstrations of their loved ones. The dying gift their dignity and ease for the living. Make note- this is not a sacrifice. The suffering is absolutely not sacred. It is often a reaction to the selfishness of people who are internally focused on their emotional needs as opposed to the spiritual and heart needs of their departing loved ones. This goes beyond blackmail and can manifest as extreme measures done to people who cannot make choices for themselves. I find it is most tragic when this happens to children whose parents, in their grief, drive themselves mad in trying to “save my baby!” It also extends towards the way we treat pets. Again - this is not rightfully focused on the departing one - this is for the survivors who are grasping at straws to fend off guilt and grief. There is also a flip side of this- people who themselves insist that every possible thing be done to keep them meeting the basic qualifications for “living” and end up in greatly reduced states incurring monumental medical bills and leaving loved ones in a perpetual emotional waiting room. Extended states of avoidable heartache negatively affect luck.

Why is there this insane drive to extend the dying process? I think that because we do not talk about death, we do not know it and we do not “feel” it. We are afraid. And instead of facing the fear, we run away in increasingly more complex and dramatic ways. How fast and hard we run then becomes a current cultural marker for personal worth. “She did everything she could for her Mama!” “They went to 5 different doctors!” “Well, he was in a wheelchair and was being tube fed, but that extra round of chemo got him 3 more months than they expected”. I see this as having a tremendous negative effect on luck because this creates a false flag of worth. Extending suffering, putting proud people in states of compromised autonomy and dignity, misusing resources in one place when they are needed for the rest of the group ( financial, emotional, etc. all resources), insisting on self-focus ( dare I say self-victimizing) as a care giver as opposed to focusing on the death journey of an ill person, etc. are not indicators of worth. They display fear and pain. This is not a mark of a “bad person”. But these are not acts of true merit. Worthing means that we mindfully navigate fear and pain.

For Arch Heathens, death was an everyday if not every hour thing. They had a much smaller range of ways to run away from it. The frequency of death called for navigating fear and pain with expediency in order to keep on living. As has been pointed out in the essays of Ashli Autio, death was not an end of everything between people. It was a fork in the road of a group journey. In no way, did it negate the personal and group/family obligations of Frith that existed while all parties were alive. It could be posited that maintaining Mound Frith was more complicated than Hall Frith in that those Honoring the dead had to rely specifically on remembered praxis and preference without being able to directly ask “What would you like me to do for you?” Fulfilling the obligations of Mound Frith were the marks of Worth for Arch Heathens. Mound Frith displays duty, wealth, forethought, cultural literacy, resource management, etc. Further- Frith is not easy to maintain amongst the living. How much Worth is displayed when a person who struggled to maintain Frith face to face with someone fulfills and exceeds at all of their Mound obligations and duties despite wanting to spit and walk back into the gate? The expectations and processes for burial and devotions gave individuals a framework upon which they could structure and display grief. Their emotional and spiritual comfort needs could be met in ways that did not diminish what they offered the dead. Moreover, because Frith bonds continued and communication was expected and valued between people despite their place in Mound or Hall, death was not an abject goodbye.

Maintaining Frith has a positive effect on Luck. The end result was that death was feared but not dreaded.

The current over culture dreads death. This is a relatively new thing. We are only several generations away from practices such as mourning clothes schedules for widows. As modern life has eroded generalized and culturally understood practices for grief, the ability of people to process grief and death has crumbled. Instead of having rituals and structures for this, people get a week or so then have to “get on with their lives”. It is pretty clear this approach doesn’t work. Just think of how many Memes you have seen about “Grief does not have a time limit” etc. We have reached a point where we have to be reminded that it is normal to have long term feelings. Grief behavior, especially for women, is now culturally patterned so that survivors have to be stoic till they are labelled of modern “worth” then they are allowed to collapse and break down at which point they are allowed to gain “worth” by “getting through so much”. This can only extend the grieving process and is probably the opposite of helpful for everyone. Again, extended misery has a negative impact on Luck. How much better would it be if from the get go, people were allowed to cry while they honored their dead in ways that were recognized and praised?

There are several places where we still have a bit of help navigating grief. The Catholic, Greek and Russian Orthodox, and Ethiopian churches have ancient practices for lighting candles to honor the departed, year round observance days for Saints, etc. that also have associations with people ( living and dead) of specific occupations and roles. They have long held praxis for preparation of the body, known rules for internment, expectations of survivors regarding grave maintenance, etc. that provide structures upon which the living can safely display their grief. There are beautiful and complex rituals in the Jewish faith that guide the family and the community of the deceased as a whole through the grief process. Muslim faith has incredibly similar rituals and beliefs for this. Eastern faiths also provide complex positive paths for sending off the dead. Amerind and Aboriginal faith systems on every continent are maintained every day. And in each of these cases, trained clergy are acting as ritual technicians whose deep understanding of Faith Praxis eases the load for the mourners so they may take up their appropriate responsibilities in the rituals.

Secular culture has some “safe grief space” too. Think of the solemn orchestrated dignity of military funerals and the funerals of Firemen and Law Enforcement officers. Indeed, think of Presidential Funerals. These rites preserve the Luck of the deceased individuals. They provide Gefrain testimony for the survivors and descendants of the dead. They provide forums for Gefrain reports about the deceased which add to the Orleag of their families and enrich their Hearth Cult practices WHATEVER religion or belief system they followed or is sustained by their people. It is good that we provide high quality observances for these public servants, but we have forgotten that we used to give this much care, if not fanfare, to everyone’s death. And we have forgotten that we used to have extended duties and responsibilities to “make the dead remember who they are and were.”

The abandonment of the obligatory reminder of identity is probably where we have most disappointed and dishonored our dead. As culture, religion, and over culture have changed, so too have burial practices. Changes in belief about what happens after death have changed what we do or don’t have our dead wear and take with them into the grave or urn. How we manage their physical selves, although important, is probably at the bottom of the importance hierarchy so long as the expressed wishes of the departed were followed or the cultural expectations for honoring the dead at that given place and time were met. Where we have messed up is that continued level of devotion. The over culture, in no longer providing generalized grief structures, does not support us in ritualized familial maintenance of the grave, communication with the deceased, etc. How many times has someone who has taken up a visitation and maintenance practice been viewed as odd? “She even took a teddy bear in a costume to the grandson’s grave at Halloween!” or “She went to the military cemetery last week and said she talked to her dead husband about wanting to marry another man who she thinks is worthy of being a father to their son. How creepy is that?”

For a Heathen, these are acts of Frith and indicators of Worth. But for others, these actions are taboo. We have been encouraged to only remember the dead in tiny quiet spaces or silent and private memorial tattoos. We are pushed into “Ghosting” the dead. We compartmentalize their identities and limit their access to themselves via stifling our memories and interactions. Eventually, they get amnesia and since they don’t remember who they are, they don’t know who we are and have no drive to help us and no understanding when we shout their name over a horn or beg their help when visiting a shrine. If they have been on their own long enough, particularly if they were part of close knit communities while alive, they are probably pretty agitated about having been alone for so long. The luck that they have contributed to us is then cut off. We still inherit their contributions to Orleag, but we lose out on the resources to build upon that family hill. Limiting resources limits what you can do with luck.

So, what do we, as Heathens, do about Death? We can take concrete steps in our lives to build new Praxis for future Mound Frith. Given the amount of historical and archeological information we have about how the dead were regarded and treated making modern versions of those practices is going to be easy. The hard part is going to be treating those ancestors who are suffering from amnesia. Mentioning them at Symbel and framing their photos or having replicas of their swords is but a pittance we have falsely paid over the years. We need to learn who they were and what they were about. We need to except with open minds that most of them were likely not Heathens and therefore will need chaperones to get them from the Presbyterian Church Cemetery to the Symbel Hall. We need to be gentle but repetitive in calling their names at our Hearths and tables and having our children take active roles in learning about them. We need to find their graves and GO VISIT THEM. IN PERSON. WITH TREATS. AND SPEND TIME THERE. We need to share meals, and get them up to date on what is happening in our lives- the lives they helped create-and those visitations have to become part of the Hearth Celebration cycle. Be it every month, or every 5 years because of distance, the dead have to be honored by being put back on the regular schedule for emotional display.

We already have time to do this- this is the intended use of Memorial Day. Once we visit them we can return the hospitality and host them in our homes for Winter Nights, Mutter’s Nacht, and Geol. We can serve their favorite foods and display their favorite ornaments. We can tell tales of their exploits and celebrate them. For those who are so far removed we do not know their names, we can bring in evergreen boughs and serve spiced wine to give them familiar sensory cues to our celebratory intentions. We can display our Wealth and Honor and show that we have been good stewards of our collective Luck.

Hopefully, by taking this proactive approach we can regain the trust and jog the memories of the dead. We can accept the Orleag of generations of failed duty and use our luck to positively move forward and make amends. It is terrifying to know that we have so messed this up in the past that we have impaired what we have now. How much different would things have been if we had kept our generational dead in our hearts and experienced true Worthing by maintaining our duties to our ancestors? Thankfully, by embracing the Arch Heathen worldview, we have structures upon which to display and navigate our grief not just for who we have lost, but what we have lost. And we know how to deal with it and go on. Frith is the religion. And Frith is the solution for moving forward. Frith between people is recognizable even to someone who is outside a given web. Frith itself is so pure it resonates in all Faiths. Maintaining Frith in the here and now and extending it to the Beloved Dead at their mounds and in our homes and halls will be the way that we bring them back into our lives.

And once, hopefully, if and when they chose to rejoin us, we can once again work together to steer our luck.