Sunday, February 26, 2012

D is for Death and the Dead

I've talked about this before. I talked about it here, and a little bit here, and in the PBP entry here. And I was going to write about devotionals instead. But here we are. This is probably more important. Though, in having written this and coming back up to the beginning... it's rather a wandering entry.

I grew up like many young girls idolising figures like Wednesday Addams and Lydia Deetz. I grew up with the idea that a ghost was the best sort of friend to have. I grew up loving graveyards. I grew up with a fascination for crypts. And mummies! Good lord. "Hey dad, did you know that when they made mummies, they pulled the brains out through the nose with a hook?!" Maybe it's a kid thing. I always assumed it was a kid thing. Then I discovered some children were actually afraid of Beetlejuice. Frankly I'm ashamed to share a generation with people such as that. Genuinely. I mean really.

I've seen a great many skulls and bones. I've seen far more human skulls than I have any other creature, now I think of it, and so have you if you'd been through the Catacombs in Paris (or indeed elsewhere). As a child, I wasn't afraid of skulls, although I did have one particular fear, at one point, of skeletons coming into my room at night and looking at me. I don't know why. Perhaps it was symbolic, or something. But when you come face to face with them they're really such cheerful looking things.

See? Such friendly chappies. In a geriatric sort of way, perhaps. It's the lack of teeth. 

(That's my photo, by the way. I took that. Hold your applause.)

It's hard to see a skull and not smile. But then, they're just bones. They're not all covered in gunk, most of the time. Whoever had been in there has long gone. There's nothing ghoulish or frightening about them, when you're face to face with them. Although, that's not to say there's nothing there... I'm an animist, in my way, and I think when something like a skull has been hanging around for a while, they do get a spirit to them, of sorts. Not the spirit of the dead person, unless said person actively wanted to be there. (But would you, really? It would have to be pretty dull. A doorway for a dead person, perhaps, a method of reaching the world of a living.) The spirit of the skull in and of itself, though, that's what I think one comes face to face with, when one meets a skull.

Or perhaps it's just projecting. It's hard not to anthropomorphise something with such a face. 

Anyway. Where was I. Death.

I find myself drawn towards deities related to the dead, without any particular desire to do so. Hades was the first god I met - from any palaeo-Pagan pantheon. We got along famously. I developed a fondness for his wife and her friend Hekate. I have something of a fascination for Hel. The god who keeps my eyes wandering back towards Egypt is Anpu (or Anubis). And why? who knows.

Heathenry has an aspect of ancestor worship. Ancestors who don't hang around knocking pictures off walls, but are more distant and therefore easier to worship. If Granny kept returning to her rocking chair, enjoyed scaring the dogs and occasionally berated you for not dusting behind the television, you might not feel quite to inclined to worship her. At any rate... there are the Dísir, already mentioned, and the Alfar who may or may not count (things get a little blurred). Honouring ancestors in a blót or sumbel is standard practice, and of course some of the dead were said to reside in burial mounds and mountains.

Burial practices! Why such an obsession? It must have a reason to it somewhere. Aside from just the world-crossing and dead-talking, I mean. Or maybe that's just it, and the whole bones-and-burial thing is just another aspect of the veils being thin. But I really feel such a fondness for the dead, and the paraphernalia thereof, even though when you get right down to it the dead don't spend a lot of time around the paraphernalia. 

Some of my best friends are dead. And the dead are really very much like the living, albeit sometimes with a different set of etiquette rules and who can blame them really. But dead people are still people, and that's why I get very angry and upset when people treat them like some sort of entertainment...

Those gods-awful programs where people go to supposed "haunted houses" and stand around with the lights off going "I FEEL SOMETHING! MY GADGET IS MAKING A NOISE! THE TEMPERATURE JUST DROPPED! THERE'S ACTIVITY HERE ALL RIGHT!" as if this sort of behaviour was in any way appropriate. Why do people think the dead get agitated? You just came into their place of habitation and started poking around as if you owned the place. Places of "paranormal activity" or whatever are not amusement parks, and the dead are not fairground attractions. Show some fucking respect. Why the dead are supposed to be automatically a) evil, b) mysterious or c) deeply troubled just by virtue of no longer being alive I shall never know. It's not a different species you're dealing with here. They're the same as they were before they died, with a little extra information and perhaps a little more self-awareness. 

You see, my theory is that when you die, the little illusions you built up over your lifetime evaporate. You face yourself and your actions and you have nowhere to put your face, as they say. And you have to deal with whether or not your actions were honourable. Whether or not they were the right actions - or the best actions. You evaluate your life. No lying to yourself, no delusions or self-deceptions. And after that, you move on. I don't think the good and the bad go to different places. Everyone has different reasons for doing what they do, and why. Not excusing poor actions here, but when you're dead, you're dead. Game over, Redo From Start. Death is the great leveller. We all end up in the same place. The Conqueror Worm eats rich and poor, good and bad alike. There is no Justice. (Pratchett readers will follow this sentence up in their heads with Oɴʟʏ ᴍᴇ.) And I don't mind there being no justice. I don't require justice. Just understanding, and maybe empathy. I don't see the point in justice when all's dead and gone. Besides, I'm a bleeding heart. And there's no justice in eternal punishment, or in getting short shaft in your next life if you can't remember the wrongdoings committed anyway.

I speak with the dead, but I'm not a necromancer. I've never really understood necromancy. In my experience the dead don't know much about the future, and some of them will make stuff up in order to sound important, or just to mess with you because they can. I wouldn't bother, really. But just having a chat can be nice, if you've formed a friendship. I like having a ghost about the house. Even if you do have to be a bit more diligent while in the shower. But I suppose being dead has to have some perks.

As for Death, the anthropomorphic personification? I like to believe he's real. Perhaps I read too much Pratchett, or perhaps I was far too into the idea of the Grim Reaper as a child. Oh, I was obsessed with the Grim Reaper. How marvellous he was! how fearsome! Cutting the souls from the bodies with his scythe. And of course it was such a reassuring idea that there would be someone to greet you when you died - not evil, but coolly and calmly Doing His Duty. 

And sometimes it becomes too normal and loses that fun sense of mystery... of cool earth and incense and darkened rooms and spoo00ookiness I loved as a child. I still like to steep myself in that. In the theatre of death. And pretend that the next world really is like a gothic playground, rather than the mostly pleasant place I suspect it largely is.

And it's all somehow reassuring.

Memento mori.


  1. Wonderful blog and stunning photos ma'am. Truly. You have a very good eye for a good shot.

  2. Come to the Kemetic side, we have jackals. XD

    And I wouldn't worry too much about it feeling like it wandered. I still enjoyed reading it.

  3. Excellent post, some wonderful insights and as has been said before, excellent photography (my next plan is getting pictures onto the blog lol)

    I've got to mention that I couldn't agree more with you on the comments about 'ghost hunting' tv programmes, that's just wrong in my mind, I've noticed a lot of pagans go looking for the paranormal such as ghosts and to me it's disrespectful at the very least.

    Anyway great post, I've bookmarked your blog as I can't find a follow button :)

    1. Thanks very much! The follow link is in the top... bar... thing. But bookmarking works just as well ;)