The Undiscovered Country… and the Journey Getting There


I think most of us get a bit nervous thinking about death.

Roman mosaic found in Pompeii, showing the wheel of fortune and life hanging from a string, with death lurking in every moment of life...

Roman mosaic found in Pompeii, showing the wheel of fortune, and life hanging from a string, with death lurking in every moment… Image by Marie-Lan Nguyen, Creative Commons.

Our society has recoiled from talk of death, to the point where we almost think we’re immortal – at least for a little while. In the past, though, people thought about death all the time. There was little choice to do otherwise. For many of our ancestors, death was chasing you all your life and could catch up at any time. The old tradition of the memento mori, the artistic reminder of death that you could keep with you, is a fascinating result of that. How many of us would have the nerve to keep a portrait of a skull on our wardrobe door today?

…OK, I can actually think of a few people who probably do. But it’s not considered the ‘norm’. :P

We know that burial practices were important to our ancestors, in various cultures. Exhumations in Britain have demonstrated that the Anglo-Saxons cared about everything from positioning in the grave to the goods they were buried with (often including weapons), while some Saxons (and Vikings) were sent to their end on burning boats – if they were rich enough. Stonehenge was a burial site, and there are burial mounds all over Britain and Ireland that are the resting places of our very ancient ancestors. Death, and what happened to the body in death, seems to have mattered to them a great deal.

Burial mound on Anglesea

Burial mound on Anglesea

Nimue told me about Death Cafes when we talked for Pagan Tea Time, and I think they’re a fantastic idea. I haven’t got up the courage to go to one yet, though.

Currently I don’t believe in any kind of afterlife that we could really conceive of (NB: beliefs subject to change at any time with no notice). And in some ways, that makes my plans for death and burial even more important than when I believed there was something coming afterwards. As a non-dualist, I can’t help but believe that when my body returns to the ground, the person I am goes with it. That means I can have complete control of my own post-death existence! So what do I want to happen to me after my death?

I recently had a discussion with someone who thought that the body should be kept in a ‘whole’ condition after death. I think entirely the opposite. My main focus, as an environmentally-conscious slightly-hippy urban-druid-y type, is on the most ecological way to return my body to the earth. Its dismemberment is my aim, at that point – not its wholeness. The entire concept of ‘wholeness’ makes me twitchy. There’s no such thing. We’ve been falling apart from the moment we were born. That process will get a lot faster after death.

Sad will they be in the Hostel:
Bodies will be severed in bloods,
Trunks will be headless,
Above the clay of Da Choca’s Hostel.

Da Choca’s Hostel, Irish myth, trans. Whitley Stokes

There are a few ways of speeding up the process, and making the whole thing more ethical – from green burial to donation of organs. I haven’t figured out exactly what I want done with my body yet (except that I’m on the NHS Organ Donor Register). For a while I got stuck on the materiality of wanting a memorial where my descendants could remember me. But, having seen too many neglected graves and cremation memorials, and thinking about the waste of precious land involved, I’m thinking my focus should be: what’s the quickest way to disintegrate me? Squeamishness about death won’t keep me from going back to the ground!

Happy thoughts for Sunday evening. :D


Ronald Hutton (1991). The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. Oxford: Blackwell

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