Tag Archives: dead

Druidry and bones

I take my bones to the graveyard and I lie on the land, feeling the weight of myself.

These bones are made of limestone, of hill and landscape, and there is empathy between them and the earth.

Below me, the bones of others lie, peaceful and soil embraced. There is empathy between my bones and these bones unknown to me. We are all much alike when it comes down to bones. Hard to tell apart.  The differences between bones are fewer than the differences between lives.

I listen to the soil, to the grass. To whatever it is somewhere beneath me whose sound I cannot name, but who sounds anyway, careless of my ignorance.

There are no rituals today. There are a few muttered prayers to the universe, the land, any gods who might be willing to believe in me even though I struggle to believe in them.

It is a Druidry that lacks for grand revelations. It is the Druidry of grass against my face and something I cannot name in the ground beneath me, and the quiet presences of the hundred years dead, and the ancient history of Romans on this graveyard site and all that has been here alongside these known moments in history.

This is the Druidry of questions with no particular answers. But I can lie down amongst the unnamed dead, whose stories are forgotten. Not because I am able to channel their stories or speak for them, but because it seems meaningful to me to be with them, story-less, honouring a shared humanity, knowing that I will disappear into the mists of history in time as well. Sometimes it is powerful indeed to make space for my own insignificance, the fleeting nature of my being.

I do not think the land much notices me, or cares about me. And yet, nonetheless the land holds me, and lets me stay, and does not mind. It is a blessing to be able to exist. The land does not much care who I am or what I have done or what I believe. It will take my bones when I am dead. It holds my bones while I live. It is inside my bones. Separate and together.

I take my bones to the graveyard – a privilege for the living. To choose to go, and choose to return and to lie in stillness for a while.

Honouring the dead

Today is the anniversary of the end of the First World War. Here in the UK we will be honouring the soldiers killed in armed conflicts. I’ll be very clear up front: I take no issue with people who are soldiers as a general premise. Individual conduct is a different thing. I am not questioning honouring the war dead in any way (emotive topic after all) but I am questioning the things we don’t do alongside that.

The desire to serve and protect has always brought people to armies. Propaganda and tales of glory, cultural pressure and politically nurtured fear: Honest reasons to defend hearth and home that no individual should be blamed for responding to. Formal drafts and recruitment by force mean that many who have fought and died were not there by choice. Poverty and lack of other opportunities has always been a great army recruiting officer, too. I do not blame anyone for doing what they had to, to survive. Thinking about soldiers dropped into disaster zones, and the way these trained and disciplined people can be mobilised in any emergency… there’s a lot of good work you can do with an army that is not about killing people.

Wars have always been about people in power wanting more power and more resources. If you are obliged to fight to defend your home and way of life, you have every right to do so, but never forget this only happens because some power hungry bastard has started a thing.

War does not just kill soldiers. We do not talk about the medical folk, men and women alike, who died trying to save lives. We do not speak of the men and boys who died in the merchant navy, trying to keep countries supplied with essentials. Their work is no less heroic – and arguably more so because it is simply directed towards preserving life, and often undertaken with no arms or armour.

In the First World War, one fifth of the casualties were civilian. By the end of the 20th century, your typical war inflicted a 90% civilian casualty rate, while wars in the 20th century accounted for some 187 million lives worldwide. (Figures taken from John Keane’s The Life and Death of Democracy). Wars kill off countless animals, both those used to facilitate it, and those who are ‘collateral damage’ alongside their civilian human neighbours. Landscapes and eco systems are destroyed by bombs, alongside culture and heritage. War destroys.

It is simply not enough to honour those who fought and died. We need to start talking about what war actually means, and what it actually costs. The best tribute we could pay to the many victims of war, and especially those who fought, would be to cease this madness. World War One was supposed to be the war to end all wars. It wasn’t. We failed them. We owe our war dead more than that. We owe each other more than that and we owe it to the future. Killing people is not the answer, the ‘collateral damage’ of murdering civilians is not acceptable, and there is no excuse.

Speaking of the dead

For many of us in Western cultures, it can be the case that we get into our thirties before even losing grandparents. We’re a long way from the ancestors who would have lost siblings and friends as a normal part of growing up, and from a world in which death was a normal part of life. The Victorians had a huge culture around the etiquette of mourning. So many older cultures had complex rituals of death and grief, but we’ve lost that. And so, when death comes into our homes, it comes as a shock, with little framework to support you and little information about how to cope.

My friendship circles have always extended well beyond my age group, and I’ve always had a lot of people in my life – at least as casual acquaintances, which I think is part of why I’ve had more contact with death than many people my age. There are a number of things that can be surprising in the aftermath of losing someone, but which are entirely normal. If you can think of more, please do put them in the comments.

Shock and disbelief are very normal reactions, and they can come and go. You think you’ve got to grips with the idea of the person being gone, and then you imagine telling them about something, and the enormity of grasping that you can’t have that conversation, comes back. This just takes time, unpicking your life from the life that is over, and rebuilding a sense of reality in which the lost one is no longer a physical presence. There can be a sense of guilt, sometimes especially when a younger person dies. There can also be a sense of being abandoned or in some way betrayed. This is really hard to acknowledge because, suicide cases aside, it seems irrational. The person did not choose to die and leave you, and yet it can so often feel as though they did. Why couldn’t they wait for you? Why couldn’t they still be there when you need them? It’s part of what death does to us, and the best advice I have is work it through, and don’t beat yourself up for feeling it.

Somewhere after the bereavement, you may start thinking about the future, all the things you won’t get to do, or share, all the things they will never see. These hurt, and again, there is a process of reconciliation to go through. I’ve found I also think about the past, the things I got wrong, the things I never thought to ask about. All the stories, knowledge and life history that I didn’t absorb, gone forever now, lost to me. I regret the things I never said, and never did, and I think we all do. Death tends to bring that into focus. The best thing to do with that focus is not to obsess over what cannot be changed, but to look to the living, to the people you still have and those other lives where there is room to do more. Older relatives, the ones who were always there, are easily taken for granted, death can teach us to do differently and view the time we have as precious.

When a younger person dies, the sense of unfairness is crippling. All the things they will never do, and the sheer lack of justice in it can make you question everything. For people who believe in benevolent deity, this can make for a very testing time. Why did it happen? Why did the benevolent deity not prevent it? People have been facing this one since the dawn of humanity. Standard answers include the gods having a plan we do not know about, the gods gathering the best ones to them, and so forth. Deep grief is probably not a good time for this kind of soul searching. Try and hold a space in which you can grieve, do whatever it takes to get you through and consider your relationship with reality later, if you can.

It can be hard to know how you are ever going to laugh, or smile, or feel good about anything, ever again. The idea of even being happy can feel like a betrayal of the dead one. Looking around, you see the potential for death in everybody else, and the certainty of loss. The world is terrifying when you can see death in everyone’s eyes. In many ways, this is a good sort of fear. It makes us hold more tightly and love harder. Take that fear and turn it into love, because that really is the only thing you can wield against death. Love survives, and what we carry of a person within us survives, and something goes on.

Tell stories. When you are in pain, tell stories about the person you lost. Find other people with stories and get them to share. Keep telling those stories. Even if you do it with tears streaming down your face and a lump in your throat so big you can hardly speak, keep talking. You honour the dead by remembering them, and you will ease your own heart by speaking in this way.

The most important thing to remember is that it is a process. It’s often not a coherent process, it seems to throw you back and forth. Grief is something that happens to your body and your mind, and that needs to be allowed to work through. Fighting it makes it worse. The deaths of people we care for are an inevitable part of life, and we do not talk enough about what happens to the living at that point.

Modern Ancestor Worship

I’ve spent a lot of today in a museum, and it occurred to me that in many ways, museums are modern, secular temples to the ancestors. Whatever the focus of a museum is, they tend to have in common artefacts from times past, and narratives about them. If you hold a vision of reality that embraces all that has been before as ancestry, then there’s even room with natural history museums. Natural history tends to have a lot of human history wrapped around it too – who found what, how we made species extinct, and so forth.

The objects on display in a museum create a very immediate connection to the past. Sometimes, one you are allowed to put your hands on. Where it’s permitted, I generally touch. I like the process of making physical contact with the past. Museums tend also to carry a lot of speculation about meaning, and there may also be religious items. I’ve seen a fair few charms today, and stones from shrines. I find it very hard encountering those behind glass, set up with little labels and all in together, not on the land they were made for, or in the place where they were sacred. But that’s the nature of museums.

I’m torn between relishing the beauty of grave goods and feeling uneasy about them. So much of what we know comes from things buried alongside the dead. But those things were buried for a reason, and most of us would be deeply uneasy if those ancestral possessions were only a few generations old. I’d hate to walk into a museum and see the items my Gran was buried with, for a start. There’s a tension here between intellect and emotion, between wanting a sense of connection, and not feeling that this is the right way to do it. I don’t really have any solutions.

Then there are the bones. Most human history museums will have some human bones somewhere, in my experience. A local ancestor of place, laid out for public scrutiny. This is not the blog post in which to tackle the many issues and ethics. It’s too big a topic. Today in a Cirencester museum I saw, for the first time in my life, a warning that an exhibit contained real human remains. I wondered what made them decide to put the sign up. The young man was laid out as he had been found, with his grave goods in position around him. He’s close to where he came from, geographically speaking. He’s still got his things, but we can see them. That feels like a step in the right direction, a balancing act.

I always pause to pay my respects to the dead, and I always find myself thinking how brief human life is, how precious and fleeting it all is. The animal dead catch me much the same way, but not the fossils. I have no idea why. They have transformed, I suppose, as much rock as remnant of life.

Samhain and the dead

There were a couple of witches on the towpath last night, off to a Halloween party. It’s the time of year to play with macabre images, pretend to be a zombie, make a game out of death. In some ways I see how this works – it’s a way of making some alarming stuff a bit more manageable, and of course plenty of people like their creepy thrills. We have a culture in which real death is kept out of sight, while pretend death is ever more present. From violent movies to shoot em up computer games, fictional horror can be a feature of daily life. It’s an odd juxtaposition to say the least. For me there is no supernatural. Everything, by definition, is within nature. I have thoughts about our degree of understanding of ‘nature’ and that for a long time anything we can’t explain has been ‘supernatural’. These days we tend to go for whichever buzz term around the wilder ends of physics is in vogue. These days, if we can’t explain it, we make noises about quantum. In folklore this is the time of year when the veil between the worlds is thin, the dead walk, the wild hunt rides, the faerie courts move from their summer to their winter halls. Tam Lin’s climax is set around Halloween. It is a good time to think about people we’ve lost, and our ancestors as well. Most of our ancestors are not known to us, but we wouldn’t be here without them, after all. My ancestors have been in my thoughts a lot this last year, both immediate and distant ones. How much of who we are owes something to where we came from? I don’t think background can ever be used to excuse or justify, but it so often helps in the making sense. Understanding is a good thing, you can’t have too much of it. I’m hoping to get an actual ritual in some time soon. Time to stand in the darkness and honour the darkening days, the shift towards winter, the bright colours of the leaves and the bare branches to come. Time to think of those I’ve lost. There have been no funerals in this last year for me, but death is a constant presence. Death constantly in the news, acknowledged on the radio. This is also a good time to think about what dies within us as part of our own cycles of growing and stripping back. Inner deaths can be a gift as much as a loss and either way they create the room for new starts and fresh opportunities. Without the dying, there could be no new things. I’ve watched a whole facet of my personality dying over this last year. An aspect created defensively, so survive external pressures and make sense of impossible things. Now that those pressures have receded and there is nothing incomprehensible to rationalise, I don’t need to be that person any more. The letting go is a slow process, one day to the next. Eventually I may even be able to forget some of it, which would be a huge blessing. That part of me should never have been, and it is good to let it die. It’s like pulling a giant leech off my psyche. There are things that should be allowed to die. Things that need to die. Recognising them, and allowing them to pass is a very important process. Hanging on to that which should be declared dead, only increases the pain. Trying to force life into any dead thing seldom works and as all the traditional stories tell us, things that come back from the dead often aren’t very good for us. Not everything can be healed, not everything should be continued. Time to pause and contemplate what now needs releasing.