Here in the West, we go to great lengths to avoid death. How many people spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on healthcare, just to buy a few more months of life?
To be fair, this avoidance of adversity can be found in other areas as well. We avoid setting boundaries to avoid coming across as rude. We bathe our brains in neurotransmitters to avoid feeling emotional pain. We even stay in shitty situations because at least we know what to expect, because it’s uncomfortable to face the unknown.
And Death is the ultimate unknown.
What happens when we die?
I don’t really have an answer to this. No one does. There are a few people who claim to have come back from death. I don’t feel like we can always trust what they have to say.
With that said, I feel like we do have some information about what happens after we die. These are my perspectives, based on my Pagan worldview and other cultures that I’ve explored. There may be some influence from Jason Miller’s teachings, from Yoga, Buddhism, and more. I promise, I’m not trying to plagiarize, just write out my thoughts on the matter.
Death is not The End
Some part of us lives on after we die. There are enough verifiable accounts of small children recalling concrete facts, that I think reincarnation is a thing that happens. I’m not sure it happens all the time, but I’m convinced that some people come back around.
So that leads me to believe that there’s a part of us that is permanent, and transcends our bodily functions. I’ll call it a Soul, for lack of a better term.
Even though we have a permanent soul that can store memories across lifetimes, that doesn’t mean all our personality traits are rooted in the soul. If they were, people with brain injuries might not have their personalities so strongly affected. Likewise, a person under anesthesia appears to be gone – absent, like their consciousness is absent.
So in addition to the soul, I think there are other aspects of our non-physical existence. For the sake of discussion, let’s say there are:
- physical body
- energy body
- conscious/astral body
Note: I’m not an atheist, nor an atheopagan. Even if I were, I feel like there’s enough evidence to demonstrate an existence beyond the physically measurable. However, even if you’re an atheist, the people you love still affect you after their death. You grieve their loss and are moved by their memory. Even if you’re an atheist, death doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is gone, so long as they are remembered.
What happens when we die?
I’ve seen several family members die. Mostly grandparents. Fortunately, I’ve been Pagan and a practicing sorcerer for most of that time. When someone dies, I turn on the “wizard eyes” to see what’s going on.
One thing I’ve noticed is that the recently dead tend to be confused. I suspect there are a couple reasons for this. First, I think the afterlife is not generally what they were taught to expect. Second, it’s like learning to walk – you have to re-learn how to operate your non-physical body, after a whole lifetime of using a physical one. The confusion seems to last for 1-6 months, after which there’s a gradual shift in how close the spirit is to this world.
Some dead people move on. I don’t really have a better word for this. Maybe go to rest is another way to put it. When I reach out to contact the resting dead, I get a very faint response (if any response at all). If I had a very strong connection with the deceased – like a relative – I sometimes get a response. This is usually love, and happiness, and joy at being connected and seeing how we’re doing. These dead seldom want to hang out and interact with the material world.
Some dead stick around. There are lots of different narratives about why this happens, and what to do about it. Some dead want to stay in touch with their families. Some are stuck. Some are pissed off about stuff that happened in their lifetime, and that creates bonds that keep them here. Some take a vow to help the living – boddhisatvas, for example, who promise to stay on this plane of existence until every human achieves enlightenment. Or, just as likely, grandma sticking around to make sure you don’t screw up the pie crust recipe.
The Physical Body
There is a concrete, documented process that the human body experiences. This starts before the actual time of physical death, and extends to the gross parts of decomposition.
The actual time of death can be a matter of debate. Recent experiments with dead pigs invite us to question whether brain-death is really a thing. Likewise, there is a controversy around declaring time of death early, so that organs can be harvested and transplanted.
On this, I tend to agree with the atheists. Once your physical body is dead, you’re dead. Your cells stop converting ADP to ATP to create the energy used to move muscles. No muscles means no heart or lungs, which means no oxygen, which means no brain activity.
I think it’s highly unlikely that a person could physically come back after they’ve started to decompose. If you’re curious as to the process of physical death, I encourage you to read more on the subject.
The Energy Body
The energy body is the part of you that feels good after a workout. It’s where other people perceive the emotions you’re feeling, and where you perceive “vibes” and magical activity.
This part of you is a system of channels, vortices, and pools that store, cycle, and move energy. Movement seems to be an effective way to cause this energy to move. Specifically, breath and muscle movement. Emotions also create and affect this energy. Strong emotions seem to be able to “color” energy, imbuing it with a sense of that emotion. Have you ever walked in on a tense conversation? Stumbled into a Christian revival, just as they hand out the collection plates? Get a creepy vibe on a date? That’s emotion “coloring” the energy you’re sensing.
When we die, I think most of this energy dissipates quickly. If there’s an especially energetic person, I think their energy can get “stuck.” Just like a concentration of spiritual energy can spontaneously achieve its own consciousness, I think the energy of a deceased person can become a sort of spirit.
Spirits created in this way seem like the deceased, but I think they’re just an echo of part of that person’s existence. These spirits can still be contacted for help with magical or spiritual tasks. They sometimes have information or allies, and can operate on the spiritual realm. However, they tend to be limited to the biases of the person they were in life.
So if Grandma was good at making pies, her energy body might hang around and help you out in the kitchen. If grandpa was a racist, his lingering energy body probably won’t become un-racist. This part of a person doesn’t seem to get any extra powers that a regular person wouldn’t have
The Conscious/Astral Body
This is the part of us that is the “I Am.” Each of us has a place in our body where we feel like we exist. It’s the place where we feel like we’re perceiving the world around us. Usually our head, here in the West. Interestingly, we can focus on that sense where we feel like ourselves, and move it around in our body.
You can try this right where you’re sitting. Where in your body do you feel that “I Am”? Try moving that location to another place. If you feel the “I Am” in your head, try moving it down to your heart. Try to figure out what it would be like to perceive the world from the location of your heart.
This is the part of you that does astral travel and shapeshifting. Consciousness is a weird thing. It is affected by our physical brains, our emotions, our physical senses, and our energy body.
But it’s also got some features that are independent from those.
Consciousness can manipulate energy. That’s the fundamental method of spell-work – we use our consciousness to decide what we want, then we raise energy and use our consciousness to send energy into that desire.
I think that the conscious/astral body is what we most commonly refer to when we’re talking about ghosts. This is the part that can “move on,” or linger locally. Some are quiet, some are restless.
Historically, most death rituals were designed to help the consciousness/astral body move on to a place of rest. (Or to a new incarnation.) For the ones who were angry or restless, we had procedures to help them find peace.
Our modern death rituals don’t do that anymore. This is creating a problem with angry ghosts. And since these spirits can manipulate energy (and hence, probability), we are seeing the results of several hundred years of social trauma weighing down our society. We literally can’t get past slavery or abuse, because so many of our ancestors are restless ghosts twisted up in those traumas.
These ghosts can be called upon. Sometimes, they don’t respond – I interpret this to mean that particular spirit has moved on. If they’re lingering, they may be restless (angry dead), or they may stick around to help (honored dead). Since these spirits are conscious, I feel like they have a decision about what they do when they die. We can ask for contact or help, but they are typically not obligated to do so.
I think that the Consciousness/Astral body influences where they go after death. Further, I think that the collective beliefs of consciousnesses can collectively create environments to live in. So, maybe there really is a heaven that Christians go to. Maybe there is a Hell where the wicked sign up for punishment. Maybe there is reincarnation, where a spirit hangs out in the Summerlands for a while before hopping back on the ride. The choice appears to depend on what the deceased believed when they were alive.
I feel like the Soul works sort of like a video game. If a person is the character in the game doing the things, then the player holding the controller would be like the Soul.
I think there’s a “Spark of the Divine” aspect to the Soul. When we get to this level of existence, it’s really hard to wrap our material minds around it. For example, time doesn’t work the same from a soul-level than it does from the material level. Imagine what you’d look like if time weren’t a factor – you’d be old and young at the same time. Rather, you’d be all ages at all the same time. I don’t know about you, but my mind isn’t really equipped to make sense of that.
The Soul is what preserves information that we experience in our lives. I figure the data has to be stored somewhere! If a consciousness lives a life, then dies, then incarnates into a new life, sometimes they have memories of a previous life. These memories can be verified. The consciousness doesn’t take anything physical with them when they reincarnate – so it seems to me that the Soul is a place where all that life experience and memory is stored.
The Soul is a quiet influence on our life. If we’re getting information from our physical body, our energy body, and our consciousness, then a part of ourselves so far removed as the Soul can be very quiet in comparison. It can guide us, and we can learn to listen to it. Sometimes, I think the Soul will “hack” reality, and put things in our path for us to deal with. This could be another person (for a “lesson”), or even a set of circumstances. Personally, I don’t feel myself if I’m not doing martial arts. I suspect that’s a Soul-level thing.
I can’t pretend to know what each Soul’s agenda is. But there do seem to be common themes of experiencing reality, learning and growth, and increasing agency and prosperity. And connecting deeply with others. Maybe also being of service to others and society, but that doesn’t seem universal when placed in the context of people who hurt others. I think that any model of the Soul has to account for people who seem called upon to hurt others. It’s not a fun thing to think of. It lends itself to victim blaming (which is not cool). But it could explain why some people seem called or compelled to commit harmful acts.
The Soul is invincible. You can’t sell it to the Devil. You can’t damage it with trauma. If you consider the analogy of a wise parent, a soul would be like a wise great-great-great-great-grandparent. It doesn’t usually manifest in front of you and tell you what to do. Truth be told, I feel like sometimes mine goes on vacation somewhere else, leaving me at the wheel (and that’s why sometimes I experience more anxiety and depression).
What should a Pagan do with Death?
If you have a loved one dying, one of the best things you can do is let go. Let them die in the way they wish to die. You can help this by telling them that you’ve got this, and they can let go and move on.
You can invite your Honored Dead and Ancestors to be present. Those Who Came Before often have a perspective and a wisdom that can help the Newly Dead ease through the transition. Even holding this space can allow Those Who Came Before to help process the traumas of the Newly Dead. There’s some Shamanic work that can be done here, if you have the inclination.
Allow yourself to grieve. Grief is a natural part of the process, and it has to happen for you to process the loss. Grief is weird – it’s highly personal, there are common themes, and people can be motivated to do different things. I feel like anyone who loses a loved one gets a pass for 24-48 hours afterwards, where the things they say and do kinda don’t count.
Incidentally, humans grieve whenever we experience loss. If you are trying to stop smoking, you might try grieving your relationship to cigarettes. I know when I’ve let go of things I’m attached to – even when they’re not good for me – grief helps me process and be more successful at leaving them behind. This goes for relationships, political parties, bad habits, old cars, you name it.
If you’re still grieving after several months, that might be a sign that you’ve crossed into unhealthy behavior. You might consider scheduling an appointment with a counselor who can help you work through your grief.
Hold a memorial. Some religions do a wake, some do a death watch, some do a funeral, some have a photo at a memorial, some have a feast. Schedule a get-together for all the friends and family of the deceased. Have people bring lots of food. Provide space for people to relive their favorite memories of the deceased.
Avoid forcing emotions, for yourself or for others. Some Newly Dead were real assholes, and deserved to be gone off this planet. If you feel that way about someone who’s died, it sucks trying to sort the grief from the anger. Give people who are angry space to say or do the things they need to do. Try to avoid coercing people into expressing themselves the way you think they ought to.
Weirdly, a lot of sex happens after a death. This is normal – life asserts itself in the face of death. For yourself, remember the agreements (marriage, boyfriend/girlfriend, etc.) that you are committed to. If you know someone who had sex after a death, just realize that’s a totally normal thing to do. (Though you are free to deal with any broken agreements as you see fit.)
Consider keeping a memento that belonged to the Newly Dead. I have, and I’ve found them incredibly helpful for seances and other rituals to speak with them. Possessions can help boost the signal and help the Honored Dead find you. With that said, don’t hoard their possessions. Their things need to be dealt with. Clean out the house. Have an estate sale. Let family take things that they want or need; for example, if the grandson just moved into an apartment, it’s totally appropriate to pass along the dishes.
Don’t fight over a deceased person’s possessions. No good can come from that. Like the person, just let things go. You may have wanted those earrings, but trust me, it’s not worth the fight, and you can find another memento to remind you of that person. You don’t want to come across like a vulture, picking at a dead person’s belongings.
Have someone write a nice obituary. If you’re the one writing it, here are a few tips:
- Say what the person meant to you (briefly)
- Recall a fun memory
- Recall a touching memory
- Speak briefly about their legacy, or something they were passionate about
- Tell readers where the service is, and where food/donations/flowers can be sent
It’s important to consider the wishes of the Honored Dead. When my Lutheran grandmother died, the minister kept saying she was “Dancing at the feet of Jesus.” Dude even added it to the obituary I wrote. It annoyed me a little, but – the funeral wasn’t about me. It was about Grandma.
I doubt the church ladies would have been impressed had we done a Pagan circle and spiral dance as a send-off.
Some families get into arguments about what the deceased wanted. Mormon families especially want to conduct Mormon last rites, even when the deceased identified as Pagan. This doesn’t have to be a problem. Let the family do as the family is going to do – they have a say.
But they can’t stop you from having a Pagan memorial on the side. We’ve done these for members of the Pagan community, and they can be lovely. Some ideas to consider:
- A Memory Candle to represent the Soul and Consciousness that transcends this life
- A photo to remember the deceased
- A token of the deceased, in case they wish to attend in spirit
- You can have everyone hold an unlit candle, then light one from the Memory Candle, then each person lights their candle in order around the circle – this can represent the love and the impression the Newly Dead left on us
- Casting a circle, and inviting in the Newly Dead (and Honored Dead / Ancestors)
- Give everyone space to speak, if they want, about their favorite memory of the deceased
- Incense, to carry the thoughts and wishes from the physical world to the Newly Dead
- A short blessing, spoken out loud, to help the Newly Dead hear your wishes and find their path
- Plant a tree in their name
- Scatter ashes in a place that was special to the deceased
- Collect donations to give to a charity in the deceased person’s name
These are just a few ideas. You are welcome to take them and improve upon them.
OK, yeah, bad title for a section.
Seriously though, Pagans die. And you’d think with all the work we do on the non-physical plane, that we’d be better equipped for dealing with death.
But many of us aren’t. Plenty of Big Name Pagans have died, and their spouses had to set up GoFundMe accounts for final expenses. Like a frickin casket.
So here are some things you can do to make your own death easier on the people around you.
Write a will – Seriously. This tells your survivors what you want done with your things. You should include computer passwords, safety deposit boxes, and bank accounts. There should be a master plan that outlines where you stashed all your stuff.
Set some money aside – Or, have life insurance. Leave some money with instructions on what your family should do with your body. Cremation? Burial? Planted as a tree? Cremated, then your ashes turned into a jewel set into an Athame? Leave some money to handle these things.
Leave instructions for magical projects – You probably have spells going, or you might have ongoing relationships with spirits (and perhaps deities). You may want these things buried with you. They probably couldn’t be cremated with you. If there are special instructions for decommissioning statues or other objects, make sure you leave those. You would not want spirits to get pissed at your kids because they didn’t follow a protocol you established with your guides.
Death is scary. But it doesn’t have to be paralyzing. There’s enough evidence that part of us continues to exist, that we need not fear the “Greatest Adventure.” I hope this article gives you some ideas on how to handle Pagan deaths in your social group. If you have any questions, you are totally welcome to email me and ask away.