The practice of going to burial sites and leaving offerings, feasting with the dead, and other similar practices is nothing unique. It has been carried out and is carried out in many religions, and I would also contend that in the majority of Pagan paths both new and old, the same kind of veneration is in some way present.
The modern ‘attitude’ of devaluing death and its place in the world is nothing short of wool being drawn down over people’s eyes instead. This has, I would argue, had the impact of making the subject taboo within the modern western culture, which has resulted in an overall unhealthy attempt to suppress it despite it being an inescapable fact of life. In many countries, it would now be impossible to celebrate death as a part of life for the fear of being labeled strange, out of place, or macabre.
My target is the modern culture we live within, which has seen the rise of ant spiritual sentiment and suppression on a large scale. This in turn has led to a disconnection between us and our world, and this death aversion I would contend has led to a widespread psychological issue on the cultural level. To explain this, I will cover two approaches to how the universe can be seen, these being linear and cyclic respectively.
Many belief systems either see existence as being cyclical or incorporate some ideas from this basic concept. An example of this which is usually given is the natural cycle of the seasons, which can be seen demonstrated in the modern contemporary interpretation of the wheel of the year. In Wiccan belief, the common narrative for the Wheel of the Year is that of the Horned God and Goddess.
Horned God is born from the Goddess at Yuletide, comes of puberty at the vernal equinox, impregnates the Goddess at Beltane, reaches his full strength at the summer solstice, ages at Lammas, and finally, dies and passes into the underworld at Samhain. The cycle begins again, as he is once again resurrected and reborn at Yuletide to continue the cycle. These narratives and observations are seen to be the microcosm of a macrocosmic truth that asserts that the universe consists entirely of such infinite life cycles, all important to the other in eternal change.
Seen from this perspective, it explains the approaches surrounding death within such belief systems that hold to this cyclic truth. Death is seen here as a transition not a final end, a metamorphosis of sorts. Just like one season transitions to another, rather than non-existence, so too does the person who has died. Whether their destination is the underworld, some form of heavenly afterlife or to be reincarnated is usually up to the individual belief system.
An example of this can be seen in the Norse concept of the Ragnarök, where the world would be destroyed, and be remade and repopulated. Not even the Gods would be immune to the hand of change in this event, which it was said would cause several of the major Gods (including Odin and Thor) themselves to die because of it. Even the Christians, inspired by earlier beliefs, still hold that the Earth will be eventually judged, destroyed, and then remade into a new Heaven and Earth.
In modern contemporary culture, this is however not the prevailing case, where such interpretations were challenged by the rise of philosophical concepts that arose in the Enlightenment period such as Secular Humanism. A product of the enlightenment age, Secular Humanism is the position that human reason and philosophical naturalism are the basis for morality and decision making. Whilst supposedly an essential part of secular humanism is a continually adapting search for truth, it rejects completely the notion that spirituality is essential to the human experience and that truth can be gleaned from spiritual practice.
Whilst this did have the positive effects of freeing us from the dogma that was enforced under the boot heels of a militant Christianity, in the end, it would end up evolving into its own ‘naturalist’ dogma of sorts which has gone on to have a profound impact.
The cyclic model was thus slowly replaced and eroded into a new model, that instead concluded that in fact, the reality was a linear construct and not cyclical, progressing along a line with a definite Beginning, and a definite End, without necessarily leading to new creation. This coupled with the corresponding rise in anti-spiritual sentiment led to a repression of the former dissenting worldview. With this scale the concept of death and destruction changed, becoming final instead of part of a cycle. This resulted in the confrontation with Nothingness and the concept of Eternal oblivion.
Faced with the meaningless of life and the concept of eternal oblivion, the philosophy of Existentialism was born, which posits that an individual is responsible for imposing their meaning onto their own lives in what is essential, an apparently meaningless, insane and absurd universe, a world that began without cause, and will end without cause, with the only meaning in a person’s life being defined by the individuals themselves.
For many, this position leads to that of Existential Nihilism, where the intrinsic meaning given by an individual is not sufficient to replace the fact that life has no intrinsic meaning or value. It is well summed up by a section of text from “The Spectre of the Absurd: Sources and Criticisms of Modern Nihilism” by Donald A. Crosby. “Strut, fret, and delude ourselves as we may, our lives are of no significance, and it is futile to seek or to affirm meaning where none can be found.”
When faced with such a bleak outlook, it’s not surprising such a taboo regarding death slowly seeped into western culture. No longer was it a transitory stage, but the extinguishing of a person. It became something to be shunned, something to be not looked at or investigated, in a way that ironically smacks of superstitious fear. Don’t talk about it, don’t invoke it. By being out of sight and out of mind, the concept of Eternal Oblivion hangs like a specter over many today whose only answer to it is that they ‘choose not to think about it and shove their heads into the sand in terror. From this, it’s also not surprising to see that in such modern ‘advanced’ cultures, that thing such as harmful “live for the moment lifestyles”, widespread ecological damage in the name of profit, and a false belief in transcendental technological salvation come about alongside skyrocketing suicide rates, amidst a growing cloud of unrelenting cynicism and depression.
However, Man is not cast adrift into life like a shipwreck survivor onto an island, who can only ‘make do’ with his woeful fate and stamp his feet in anger and gnash his teeth until death claims him. This thought is nothing short of modern psychosis.
I hope one day, people can see this, I wish others could even approach the subject with seriousness and not disgrace the memory of their dead by forgetting they ever existed.
I’m not holding my breath though.
Em Hotep - Patrick Gaffiero