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Dealing with Death
Copyright 1989 by Lynna Landstreet.
Originally appeared in The Wiccan Candle, Samhain, 1989.
s Samhain approaches, it seems like an appropriate time to start thinking about death. This shouldn't be too traumatic for pagans, since (in theory) we see death as a natural part of the life cycle, leading in turn to rebirth and new life. "To live you must be born. To be born you must die. The beginning, the continuation, and the end, over and over."
However, the society we live in does not have such an accepting view of death. At times, it seems that an obsessive fear of death underlies its entire way of thinking. "Heroic" measures are taken to keep terminally ill or severely injured people alive, even though they may be in terrible pain, or so badly brain-damaged as to have no hope of ever regaining consciousness. Even if the patient wants to die, they are rarely permitted to, and any friend or relative trying to help them can be charged with murder. Anyone who attempts to end his or her own life, for any reason, is assumed to be insane and can be committed to a mental hospital and drugged or electroshocked into mindlessness, a fate many find worse than death. The days when one could simply realize that it was time to go, and wander off into the woods to die in peace are long gone.
When a human being does die, the body isn't even allowed to return to the earth like any other dead thing. It must be embalmed to prevent natural decomposition, and sealed in a casket to keep it from contacting the earth at all. Only then can it be buried, and only in a place specially set aside for that purpose. Cremation is an improvement, but not when the ashes are kept in an urn forever instead of being scattered so that they can return to the earth. Now, obviously there were pagan cultures that had equally complicated ways of dealing with death -- the Egyptians come to mind -- but in our culture it seems to have been elevated to a major neurosis.
As Wiccans know from our work with polarity, suppressing one side of a pair of opposites that should be in balance tends to lead to nasty results. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung defined a Law of Opposites, which stated that if one side of a pair of opposites becomes excessively dominant, it tends to turn into its opposite, a process he called enantiodromia. If the one-sidedness is part of a conscious ideology or attitude, as it generally is, the opposite will manifest in the unconscious. Thus our society's conscious fear of death may have actually created an unconscious desire for it.
If this sounds strange, stop and think for a moment. The diet most North Americans subsist on is unhealthy to the point of causing a wide variety of diseases, from candida to cancer and heart disease. Cigarette smoking has been known for years to cause lung cancer, but remains popular. People continue to roast themselves in the sun despite knowing it causes melanoma and other skin cancers, take both medicinal and recreational drugs with a wide variety of harmful side effects, and drive cars everywhere despite the number of accident fatalities and the environmental damage they cause.
And more importantly, we are polluting the planet to the point where it may no longer be able to support life in a few years. Our drinking water contains an incredible number of toxins, our air is fouled by car and factory emissions, our soil laced with dioxin, lead, and PCBs, and our food contaminated with deadly pesticides. Not to mention that a single computer error could result in the planet being wiped out by nuclear war. It seems that the Law of Opposites does hold true for societies as well as individual psyches.
I think the influence of Christianity has had a fair amount to do with creating this situation. Christianity, like Wicca, is duotheistic (the two deities being Yahweh and Satan), and sees the world in dualistic terms, but in a very different way from the Wiccan ideal of a balanced, dynamic interplay between opposites, because the Christian deities are seen as competitive, not cooperative. Rather than both being necessary for creation, one is seen as good and one evil. Thus Christian dualism is hierarchal, not balanced, and these values are imposed onto any duality, so that in any given pair of opposites, one is good and one is evil, or at any rate one is superior to the other, and they are seen as locked in combat. Thus if life is good, then death is evil.
Also, the Christian concept of the afterlife does little to improve the situation. Rather than a continuing cycle of life and death, one is dealt only one chance at life, and then offered the two alternatives of Heaven and Hell, the one consisting of everlasting paradise, the other of everlasting torment. Given these options, it is no wonder that death starts to look pretty frightening. The average person is probably not too certain of his or her destination, and the possibility of ending up in everlasting torment for some misdemeanor or other isn't very appealing.
Now, obviously I'm not saying that all Christians think in these terms. There's as much diversity among Christians as among pagans. What I'm referring to is Christian philosophy in its purest form, as adhered to by fundamentalists, or hardliners of any stripe. Some may feel it's not fair to generalize from that to all of society, but the Church in times past was considerably more dogmatic on such matters than most Christians nowadays are, and that helped form the foundation of the ways of thinking that now plague moderate Christians and even non-Christians, as well as fundamentalists.
So what can we as pagans do about all this? Well, one place to start is to realize that most of us weren't raised as pagans, and probably have the same old Christian-inspired biases lurking in our unconscious as everyone else. As I mentioned last issue, I don't think most of us really tend to think about everything from a pagan perspective yet. It's easy to think like a pagan about specifically religious matters, but revert to our conditioned patterns of thinking the rest of the time. For example, how many of us have taken the time to think out what a pagan view of death might mean when dealing with, say, abortion?
Now, I'm not suggesting there's any one right answer to that question or any other, but what occurred to me in considering it was that, if death is a part of the life cycle and we are a part of nature, not above it, it seems fairly arrogant to define human life, even in the form of a microscopic embryo, as sacred and inviolable, while we are constantly taking the lives of plants and animals, both directly and indirectly.
Looking at the matter from a pagan perspective in which the entire web of life is sacred, it might make sense to consider an embryo of an endangered species to be of crucial importance, but of a species that's currently overrunning the planet like a plague of locusts? It seems to me that in comparison to all of the many deaths taking place constantly, that particular type of death is not worth getting too upset about. I'd have more respect for the "pro-lifers" if they showed as much concern over the death of the whales, the rainforests, or the Great Lakes.
Another issue that begs examining in this light is that of eating meat. Now, again, if all life is sacred and death is a natural process, defining killing animals as invariably wrong (while killing plants is OK) doesn't hold up too well. Now, this might sound strange coming from a confirmed vegetarian such as myself, but what many people don't realize is that there are a wide variety of other reasons for not eating meat other than the aforementioned.
For one thing, there are health reasons. Meat as it's currently produced in this society contains large amounts of cholesterol, saturated fats, growth hormones, pesticide residues and other unpleasant things, and it's been shown that vegetarians have far lower rates of cancer and heart disease.
There's also the fact that raising animals for meat is an incredibly inefficient use of resources. Producing meat uses up far more water, land, and electricity than producing vegetables, not to mention large quantities of plant protein that could go a lot further if fed to humans directly (beef is the most wasteful). Also, current intensive methods of animal raising ("factory farming") are very polluting and unbelievably inhumane.
I'm not going to go into a lot of detail or cite all the statistics on land use, etc., since this sort of thing has been dealt with in depth by many other writers and isn't really the focus of this article anyway; I just wanted to make the point that there are plenty of reasons for not eating meat other than the idea that killing animals is wrong.
Anyway, those are just two examples of ways in which a pagan view of death might shape our views on other matters. And trying to extend our pagan worldview into the "real" world is crucial if we're going to develop the new ways of thinking that are necessary to stop humanity from destroying itself and the Earth. Which is not to say that everybody has to become pagan or else we'll all die, just that pagans have a crucial part to play in saving the Earth, and that as the Craft becomes more visible, hopefully some of our ideas will filter into other religions, and we'll start seeing more holistic and nature-revering forms of Christianity, Judaism, etc. In the meantime, what we can do is develop our theology and our community to the point where it can be a foundation underlying our entire worldview and lives, the way that it was for our pagan ancestors.
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