'Dark Mother Always Gliding Near...' - Death and Wicca

by JoHarrington

Wiccan funerals are all about honoring the dead, but not in a way that assumes that they've gone. In fact, a place is set there for them.

'Dark Mother, always gliding near, with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?

Then I chant it for thee—I glorify thee above all;
I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly.'

The words are from Walt Whitman, a poet whose spirituality was steeped in Christianity. But the sentiment is pure Wiccan.

None of us are suicidal, but our religion embraces death as part of life; darkness as the flip side of light.

The Dark Mother of the Wiccans

The Crone has the hardest job of all, at least from the point of view of mere human feeling. But you need the darkness to be able to see the light.

Upon Earth, I give the knowledge of the spirit eternal and beyond death, I give peace and freedom and reunion with those who have gone before.

These are words from The Charge of the Goddess, written by Doreen Valiente, who is widely acknowledged as the founding mother of modern Wicca.  It's not a doctrine, but a guideline. It's the closest thing in Wicca to a religious text.

It is spoken from the point of view of the Goddess Herself, with this passage certainly pertaining to the Dark Mother.

She is the Crone and the waning of the moon. She is there when the Earth lies barren, frozen under winter snows. She is close at 3am, when we lie awake, doing our own heads in. She is on the battlefields, in the sickroom, at our death-beds.

Seen from one direction, the Dark Mother is destruction and the end of things. Seen from another, She's the deliveress and the way to new growth, new worlds, new situations.

Put it this way - on a recent stroll across the Yorkshire Moors, I saw a huge tract of scorched, charred heather. This was the Dark Mother in nature. The purple covering flowers had gone. The whole area appeared to be a wasteland.

But had the heather not been burned, the sun would not have reached the soil. Starved of nutrients, the spiny stems would have lost their flowers and branches. The tips alone would have aped superficial life, looking splendid, but all an illusion. The heather would have slowly died and nothing would be in its place.

Already, amidst the blackened remains, new shoots were pushing through. They were green and healthy.  The heather would go on.

Sometimes, in nature and beyond, destruction is necessary for life to go on in the long-term. When it is, the Dark Mother is there. 

Books about the Crone in Wicca

Read these guides to learn more about the Goddess as a divine destroyer; and how that ultimately makes Her a mother.
Hecate: Death, Transition and Spiritu...In Praise of the CroneThe Crone: Woman of Age, Wisdom, and ...

How Wiccans View Death

The short answer is in many different ways. But we mostly agree on some things (ish).

I'm not so presumptuous as to speak for all Wiccans, of every denomination and pathway, here. 

There is no one belief, nor central dogma, which informs what Wiccans think happens after death. But there are some which are common to a majority.

A popular thread is that of reincarnation. Most of us subscribe to the idea that we'll be back.

There's nothing particularly tailored to that notion, at least in terms of morality. If we're bad, we won't come back as an amoeba; if we're good, we won't return as the queen.

However, there is a prevailing concept of life lessons. Perhaps we came back to experience a certain circumstance, or to have the opportunity to learn.

No-one's assuming that there's a grand master of ceremonies dictating such things.  Except ourselves. It follows that death provides a kind of overview, where we can see all of our past lives laid out before us. We can examine what we need for ourselves.

And the end game?  Not a clue.  No-one with the enlightenment to know that would want to spoil it for the rest of us.  We have our own journeys to make.

There's a kind of mass feeling that reincarnation can't be instantaneous. We have to have time to chill out, reflect, read the Akashic Records, meet up with old friends and relatives, and prepare our next trip down here.

For some, that place is called the Summerlands. For others, like myself, it's Annwn; or Tír na nÓg; or Valhalla; or Helheim; or Hades; or Heaven.  Whatever we're calling it, death is not the end.

Books about Wicca and Death

Buy these books to learn more about how Wiccans approach funerals and the death of our loved ones.
Entering the Summerland: Customs and ...The Pagan Book of Living and Dying: P...In The Service Of Life: A Wiccan Pers...

A Description of a Wiccan Funeral

For those unfamiliar with the rites, it might be most illuminating for me to take you there.

When Mike died, we all gathered in the Sekhmet Temple in Nevada. Some of us had traveled a long way to be there.  I'd crossed an ocean.

The fact that the temple was dedicated to Sekhmet wasn't important. But She is a Dark Mother and that suited just fine.

Better still, Her temple is in the middle of the desert, a place of undisturbed Pagan grace. We were able to conduct our funeral in private. Any who might stumble across us would understand immediately what was going on.

We had no body here.  One of the sometimes galling facts of reality about Paganism is that the rest of the family aren't often of the same faith. He had already been interred with full Catholic ceremony, despite his own spiritual path.

Two of his siblings were there. The rest of the family were not. That was their choice and it was respected. Funerals are often there for the living, not the dead; and a corpse is merely an empty shell.  An overcoat thrown off, when its owner crossed into the great beyond.

From the Wiccan point of view, the lack of a body did not mean that Mike was not present. He was guest of honor. We were there for him.  As we formed a circle, there was a space left in it. This was for Mike. This was where he could join us, thus completing it.

If his body had been available, then it would have been present (and we probably wouldn't have chosen the middle of the Nevada desert for obvious reasons). Part of the ceremony would have included burial or cremation. Pagans tend to go for the latter.

I was the High Priestess there. In many ways my role was that of an MC.  I began the conversation, but I wasn't there to deliver a sermon. I merely kept the rites moving towards their conclusion.

Mike's place in the circle was right next to me. Behind it was an impromptu shrine, dedicated to him. It was his moment in the limelight after all.  Before the ceremony his photograph had been placed there, decorated with sunflowers. (He had once indicated that they were his favorite flowers.) 

Image:  Sunflowers
Image: Sunflowers

I welcomed all to the circle.  At this point, I was representing Mike, a role which would have been taken by the High Priest, had we had one there. I greeted all as his proxy.

Once all were settled, arranged in a cosy circle, I welcomed the Dark Mother amongst us. The quarters were called; and the Watchtowers equally welcomed. The energy was focused on our place.

I talked about Mike's life and death.  At any point, those there could have interrupted - clarified a point or added a memory of their own - but none did. I appeared to have it right, but then this was merely an opening speech.

I finished with my personal feelings about him.  I shared a couple of my stories and told them what impressions I'd made, in all our encounters, in our friendship. 

This was the next part of the rites opening up. After I'd finished, I nodded to the person who caught my eye.

One by one everyone present did the same thing in their own way.  They sat or stood, they spoke. We laughed, we cried, we remembered.  As each person concluded their stories, he or she walked across to the shrine and left a token.

It might have been a cigarette (he smoked) or one of his favorite cakes. It could have been his favored liquor poured out onto the ground. It may have been a photograph of a past scene from his life; or a CD of his favorite music.  (We did have a moment of listening to Eminem there. I'm listening to the same artist as I write this. Mike loved him.)

Eminem 'Lose Yourself'

I can't hear this without thinking of (Warriormail) Mike. Remembering and honoring is the Wiccan way. How can Mike be gone, when someone knows his name and how he was?

The offerings didn't necessarily have to pertain to Mike himself, but to his death. An icon of the Dark Mother or a pentacle, representing the circle of life.

We all shared in what was placed there. A bite was taken from the cake; a single gasp inhaled on the cigarette, before it was extinguished; a sip taken of the liquor before it was poured; the Dark Mother kissed before she was placed.

This was each individual sharing in an aspect of Mike's life. (Naturally, you would only leave a cigarette, if you smoked yourself. Otherwise that would be silly.)

At the conclusion, that shrine was a full testimony to Mike's existence. Anyone glancing at it saw Mike in all that he was. We had all touched everything that could be turned into a tableau of him. (Later the whole thing was packaged and handed to his family. It belonged to them, as he had done, as memento mori now.)

There were tears, both of mourning and laughter, as we told our tales. Now everyone reached into their bags again. We had all contributed to a funeral feast - sandwiches, cakes, tea in flasks (or bottles of the harder stuff), pastries and savories. Where possible, we'd chosen food and drink that Mike would have loved.

We sat in that circle, with the buffet laid out in the center, and we filled our plates.  Not merely our own, of course, as Mike's plate was there too.  Each of us added something to it too. (Later it would be left outside. For Mike, or wildlife, whoever ate it first.)

All consumed, we stood to conclude our ceremony. The Dark Mother was thanked for Her presence. We let him go.  Such a stark four words for a beautiful moment of release. We let him go with Her.

The circle was taken down then, the Watchtowers equally thanked, before the rites were over. Of course, that wasn't the end of the day. We stayed together, remembering, honoring, respecting, sharing our lives, for many more hours.

That is how Wiccans say goodbye for now.  None of us expect that it will be farewell forever.

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Updated: 10/24/2012, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 09/17/2012

I'm sorry to hear of the loss of your best friend. The wake that you described practically sounds like a Wiccan funeral, though, as you said, without the religious part.

Thank you very much for sharing your story. <3

Ember on 09/16/2012

Yes. I like this take on a funeral or memorial or whatever it might be called. When I was in college, my best friend passed away quite unexpectedly.

When I went to the funeral they handed out these cards to everyone, with general info and the date, and a picture of my friend on the inside. As soon as I saw it I burst out laughing, and everyone was like 'are you okay?!' Yeah, I was okay, but that picture was despised by my friend. The very first time I ever stepped foot in her home, she paused, pointed at the very large copy of that same picture, framed up on the wall, and made a sound of distraught agony and said "Don't tell my mom because it will hurt her feelings, but that is literally the worst picture of me in existence and I HATE it." And I was laughing because I could picture her face too well... She would have been pissed off. And the funeral was short, and pretty typical, it didn't feel in any way that it was about my friend, so much as about the religious aspect of making us all feel better about death itself, if that makes sense. During the service all I could picture was my friend slouching in her seat next to me and whispering in my ear 'oh my god! just kill me now!' It was a bit surreal that I could picture her presence so well.

When we all got back home, no one in the dorm hall wanted to sleep in that dorm hall. Makes sense. We all took our mattresses out to the general living area, and shoved the couches and whatnot into the hall. I brought English muffins for everyone because literally the first thing on my friend's "bucket list" was 'try English muffins,' and everyday in the caf she'd look at them and I'd tell her to eat one and she'd go 'hmmmm not today' XD and green butterfly hair barrettes for everyone, because her favorite color was green and she loved butterflies. And we sat in a circle, for no other reason that it was the best way for us all to chat, and we took turns sharing stories, and memories, and we laughed as much as we cried, and I cherish that night as much as the relationship I shared with her. So the next time I saw my mom I told her I wasn't allowed to have a funeral when I died, if she happened to be the one planning it, but that whatever type of memorial happened, I wanted my friends to be as much a part of it as they were guests. She said okay. I think the Wiccan version is pretty much exactly that, with the religious aspect aside.

SusanM on 09/13/2012

Thanks :)

JoHarrington on 09/13/2012

:D I look forward to reading it.

SusanM on 09/13/2012

Now there's an idea ;)

JoHarrington on 09/13/2012

Ah! I get what you mean now. Yes, I can see how that would be really useful in counseling. Perhaps there's an article in there for you?

SusanM on 09/13/2012

Depends on whether it's for adults or kids. Non-directive play therapy has always been very big on personal symbolism. With children creating their own meaningful symbols through play. Art therapy is the same regardless of whether it's for adults or kids.

A lot of counselors working with adults encourage bereaved clients to explore, express and remember in a way that's symbolically important to them. In memorial services conducted by disease-related organizations there are usually symbolic activities for those who attend to take part in. These are more generalized (e.g. lighting of a candle for the deceased) given it's for multiple losses in many families - but the concept is still present.

JoHarrington on 09/13/2012

How is it being used in counseling? Sorry! This is all passive learning for me. :)

SusanM on 09/13/2012

Yes I can see why it would be your preference for sure. Personal symbolism has become important in other areas such as counseling. I hope it will eventually make it's way throughout all areas that are related to grief and loss.

JoHarrington on 09/13/2012

Precisely! This is why I prefer Wiccan funerals to any passive religion funeral. In those, there's just one person talking up the front; and the conversation keeps passing from the deceased to a deity.

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