October is over, and now we really enter the dark part of the year. All the activities for Samhain/Halloween/Day of the Dead are done, and I can reflect on how it all went. Samhain is the biggest holiday for Celtic and Celtic-inspired pagans, and since most pagans I know fall into that category, I participate (even though Yule is really the most important Heathen holiday). But more importantly, I think having a holiday to honor the Dead is a really good idea, especially this year, the year my father died.
This year’s Samhain season had its ups and downs, and unfortunately I’m left with some feelings of disappointment. Maybe it’s because this year’s Samhain was especially important to me, so I had a lot of anticipation.
I’m mentioned here before that I attend this semiannual pagan campout held for Beltane and Samhain each year. It’s a splinter group from a much larger pagan festival here in Central Texas, but I wasn’t involved in the schism. I’ve mainly been going to this one because it’s cheaper, quieter, and smaller than the big festival (which I have also been to a few times), and therefore usually more suitable to an introvert like me. This has been going on for a little over ten years now.
When this campout first started, there were a lot of activities, probably because people were trying to recreate the big festival. During the day there were crafts and workshops, and every night there was a bonfire. On some Beltanes there were unofficial handfastings, or at least re-dedication rituals for couples, but my favorite was always the Samhain ritual.
Some of the founding members would dress up as various death gods, and the rest of us would walk down a trail through the woods to the big pavilion, encountering the death gods along the way. At each step, one of them would have something to say to us. There was Odin, then Anubis, and finally when we got to the pavilion, we were welcomed to the Underworld by Hades and Persephone.
Then we’d partake in the Dumb Feast. People would bring dishes that reminded them of their Beloved Dead. An altar was set up with pictures of the deceased (including pets), and we’d say a few words about our loved ones, and then eat in silence. There was a small wooden coffin with pens and paper to write messages on. Then when people were done eating, the coffin was closed, and then carried in a procession to a funeral pyre set up in the main fire ring. Then it was burned, and we’d stand around in silence or say some more words about our loved ones. When the coffin was finally completely consumed by the flames, the rite was over, and we could relax and pull out the drums and have fun the rest of the night.
That’s how it used to be. Over the years, the ritual has shrunk. The woman who used to play Persephone moved away. She was one of my college friends, and when she graduated, she moved to Portland. When she left, the man who played Hades said he wouldn’t be doing it anymore without her, and that was the end of that aspect of the ritual. The man who played Anubis now acted as priest over the Dumb Feast along with his wife. They’d do a Wiccan ritual under the pavilion as priest and priestess calling the quarters and the Goddess and God. Not my style of ritual, but at least it was a ritual.
Then the priestess got breast cancer, and last year her picture was on the altar for the dead. I had actually set up that altar myself and put a picture of our cat on it, and later when I passed by I noticed someone had added her picture. We had a dumb feast without much ritual to go with it, but when we burned the coffin, the man who used to be Anubis had a lot to say about his departed wife.
I hoped that would show people how important Samhain is. Now for the first time one of our own was on the altar. One day each one of us will die too. Don’t we also want to be remembered in a Samhain ritual after we’ve passed?
But at the beginning of this October, what I always feared happened. A post by one of the people who organize the campout appeared on the Facebook page, saying to let her know if anyone wants to do this coffin ritual this year, but otherwise they’re not going to bother with it. The guy who usually builds the coffin said he could build one if anyone really wants it, but someone else would need to take care of all the rest.
I commented on the post in a panic saying yes please build the coffin because my dad just died and I’ll take care of all the rest of the ritual. I was freaked out and upset until he finally replied saying that would be no problem.
And now I had committed to running this year’s Samhain ritual myself, because if I didn’t do it, no one would. The campout was the weekend before Halloween weekend, so it wouldn’t conflict with any at-home Halloween activities people had. That didn’t leave me much time to prepare.
I had already decided what I would make for Dad for the Dumb Feast. When I went to visit him in January, he made me some salmon. Dad loved cooking, and would sit and watch the Food Network all day, even when he was too sick to eat anything. He sat with me while I ate my salmon, and he drank his Ensure and talked about how much he’s looking forward to beating the cancer so he could eat solid food again. He was about to go into surgery to get the damaged part of his esophagus removed. He had gotten radiation and chemotherapy to kill the cancer in his esophagus, and then was going to have that part cut out.
The next day he had the surgery, but when the doctors cut open his chest, they saw the cancer had spread to his stomach, and just closed him back up again. While he was in recovery, the doctors called the family in and showed us pictures of his stomach dotted with tumors…
But I digress. I got Dad a nice salmon fillet and wrapped it in a foil packet with butter and lemon to cook on the grill and contribute to the Dumb Feast. I also brought pens and notepads for people to write messages to the Dead on to put in the coffin. When we got to the campground, the little wooden coffin was already on a picnic table under the main pavilion. I put the pens and paper next to it, and then set up the altar on the picnic table across from it. Pagans like to use sarongs for altar cloths, and I have a dark blue one with black bats on it (very different from the usual Celtic knots you see) that I got from the gift shop when I was an intern at Bat Conservation International in Austin. I like to use for Samhain. I think bats are appropriate animal spirits for this time of year. I put on a picture of my Dad that was taken at my wedding, the last time I saw him healthy (and didn’t know he would be dead in almost exactly a year). I added two Day of the Dead skull candles from the local grocery store, and my black Odin candle with the raven on the front, since Odin is the God of Death.
Next to the picture of Dad I put a bottle of Dr. Pepper. He said that was one of the few things he could drink when he was on chemotherapy that “went down” well, without making him nauseous. I also added a paper plate to put food offerings on for the Dead.
I ended up having about ten people attend the ritual, which was only a small fraction of the people who were at the campout. I designated another picnic table as the place to put the food, buffet-style, and then we sat down at another table. I told people we’d first say a few words about our loved ones, and explain why we brought what we did, and then the Dumb Feast would begin, and we’d serve ourselves and eat in silence. I told them while we were eating, anyone could go and put offerings on the plate, which was going into the coffin when we were done, and I also had pens and paper to write notes to put in the coffin. Then when it looked like most people were done eating, we’d close up the coffin and take it to the funeral pyre.
Of course, at first nobody wanted to talk, so I had to start. I told them about my dad, and struggled to keep from breaking down and crying (less than successfully). My husband also added some things. Then some other people spoke up briefly about their dead loved ones. Then we had the Dumb Feast, some people added offerings to the plate, and added notes to the coffin. When it looked like people were done, I put the paper plate with offerings into the coffin, and we closed the coffin up and proceeded to the funeral pyre in the big fire pit. A stack of juniper had been set up nicely, and the coffin was set on top. The fire was lit, and we stood around in silence watching it burn. Before it was completely burned, people started to squirm and look at me for some signal that they could end the ritual and start the reveling, but I didn’t budge until the coffin completely collapsed in the flames. These things need to be done to completion.
Once the ritual was over, more people started to gather around for the revel fire. I overheard the man who used to play Odin say (presumably to answer a question about why he didn’t participate in the ritual) that, “I don’t really consider myself a pagan anymore.” The man who used to play Hades stayed at his campsite the entire time. People said he is having trouble walking down the steep, rocky path to where the fire pit is due to a bad knee. Though he’s already said on his Facebook that he’s “pretty much an atheist,” so he might have not been interested anyway, bad knee or not. The man who used to play Anubis didn’t come at all this year.
If I hadn’t insisted upon a ritual, there really wouldn’t have been anything “pagan” about this campout at all. Same thing happened at Beltane when my husband and I brought that Maypole. Otherwise it’s just like any other campout with people sitting around knitting and talking by day, and singing songs around the campfire at night. Nothing religious at all about it really, just a social event. Obviously that’s what most people there want.
I know a lot of teens and tweens come and go in paganism as a “phase”, but these are people in their 40’s and 50’s. Was it just a phase for them too? Or are they older and wiser than me and have figured out that this is all silly after all? Maybe it’s only a matter of time until I also mature and figure that out for myself, and one day I look back on my Heathen years and say, “What was I thinking?”
But right now I still think rituals are important. I think they’re important no matter what you believe about the afterlife or deities. Rituals are a way to express how important an event is in your life. When someone dies, you want a ritual to say, “Hey, this person is no longer here, and I think this person was important and needs to be remembered.” My dad didn’t even get a funeral. He was just cremated and that was that. He said he didn’t want a funeral, But I still felt like something was missing. Without a funeral, it felt like he died and nobody cared.
Modern paganism is a way for us to have those important rituals in our lives outside of a Christian context. But will paganism even survive when so many people just view it as a phase that they grow out of? Part of the power of a ritual is continuity from one generation to the next. We honor the ancestors, partly because one day we will be ancestors ourselves, and we hope that our descendants will honor us.
But they won’t if the idea of honoring the Dead was just a phase we went through that we decided wasn’t worth continuing.