Pondering Samhain and Ancestors

On ancestors, death and dying, bereavement, and comforting gods.

Charlest SC UU Church sml (8)As a Druid, I believe in the cycles of nature. Samhain approaches, and this year I am pondering the cycles of death and rebirth. Given my age, I have experienced few deaths of family and friends- generally those that passed were at advanced age, and death was a release. On Samhain I formally honor ancestors that have gone before, and people or animals that have died in the previous year.

This year Samhain feels like it will be different. I have Druid friends that have lost spouses. One still hears their footsteps. Another person I know is seeing unknown spirits in their house. It all feels very close. My husband and I just start talking about returning home from our latest travels, and spirit tricks from our property are back. (We’re up to 3 breakdowns of things in our car and motorhome, and miscellaneous other snafus. Too many to be coincidence.)

What this means to me is that it’s going to be a very active spirit year this Samhain. The veils started thinning early, as if the ancestors and spirits are coming forward for our attention. In Samhain 2012 I did a lot of ritual work mostly centered around purification and protection; this year it’s clear the spirits have a lot to say and want us to meet with them through the doorway that is open at at this boundary between the Celtic seasons of summer and winter.

(Coincidentally, I‘ve seen some recent comments from Druids wanting to learn about and wear talismans because of Samhain, and I wonder if this is a subconscious reaction to the heightened activity that is afoot. (And reminds me of my mother telling me in the 1960s that a talisman still protects you if you remember it, even if you aren’t wearing it at the time.) I find normal grounding and shielding to be sufficient, and not really an issue at Samhain, unless you are up to some mischief yourself ;). Cleansing and protecting your home would actually yield more results, in my opinion.)

So many threads have become apparent in the last few months, on ancestors, death and dying, bereavement, and comforting gods. So let’s weave them together to see how we plan for our own deaths, look to (and become) ancestors, let loved ones go into the great river of time, and look to the gods to see us through the transition of death.

Four years ago I wrote about green burials, and I revised and added the article back recently. Green burial (without cremation, chemicals or vaults) is a simple way to reduce environmental impacts upon your burial, and is just one part of planning for your death. Do your family and friends know what you want for end of life care, what level of medical intervention you will accept, and funeral and burial wishes? See the end of life planning resources on this page, and ease this burden on your loved ones.

Living your life with a view to becoming an ancestor can be healthy and fulfilling. (An ancestor doesn’t have to be a member of your family, and can still watch over and protect those that come after them.) Let’s start with this simple and wonderful talk on looking back at and looking forward to becoming an ancestor, from Aulani Wilhelm ( Stanford Graduate School of Business). Yes, it is so simple and so perfectly stated. (And it will set the tone for the video that follows.)

End of Life Planning

How Doctors Die, It’s Not Like the Rest of Us, But It Should Be, by Kenn Murray (2011), Zocalo Public Square. A discussion of when doctors administer ‘futile’ care to their patients, and the resulting pain and turmoil from a medical perspective.

Advance directive (living will). Advance directives are legal documents that allow you to spell out your decisions about end-of-life care ahead of time. They provide a way to tell your wishes to family, friends, and health care professionals and to avoid confusion later on.

American Bar Association Commission on Law and Aging has Health Care Power of Attorney and related resources. This includes their ABA Toolkit for Advance Care Planning – A great consumer guide with 10 “tools” for advance care planning.

National Hospice and Paliative Care Organization

On Our Own Terms, Moyers on dying, PBS.  End of life tools, care options, and more.

Green Burials

CemetaryPart of life is preparing for your death – and for many of us this includes designating an ecological method of disposal for our body.

The Journey Into Spirit: A Pagan’s Perspective on Death, Dying & Bereavement is Kristoffer Hughes latest book. Kristoffer is head of the Anglesey Druid Order in Wales, and is a remarkable Druid with a clear view. He has also worked for the last 25 years as a Anatomical Pathology Technologist at public mortuaries throughout the UK, and is a semi-professional funeral celebrant, officiator and funeral advisor. He discusses the book themes in the September 2014 Druid Coffee Talk podcast  interview.

Kris’ description of Celtic beliefs about death is the most clear and compassionate I have come across, and this interview is well worth listening to. (To read a print interview with Kristoffer, here is an interview with him on Patheos.)

We often find ourselves looking to a god or other helper during trails of death, and in Kristoffer Hughe’s talk at the 2014 OBOD East Coast Gathering, he introduced us to one in “The Other Side of Sadness: Mysteries of the Celtic Horse Goddess (the Mari Lywd)”. (The Mari Lywd is also known as the Welsh Grey Mare or  Gray Mary, who perhaps derives from an ancient rite for the Celtic goddess Rhiannon.  The Mari Lywd is a Welsh midwinter tradition, traditionally taking place over a period stretching from Christmas to late January, and is a form of visiting wassail.)

But she is so much more. Here is a music video about the Mari Lywd, with music and performance by Chris Wood and  Lyrics by Hugh Lupton. The lyrics are quite moving (read them in the column to the right.)


So as we approach Samhain this year, consider helping your family and friends by preparing for your death, be conscious that you are becoming an ancestor, frame your understanding of death, and work with the gods and goddesses that comfort you. Go to a grave and leave Halloween decorations or LED lights (like the ones I saw around Indianapolis this week). And say hello to your ancestors, and set a plate out for them at dinner.



From Kristoffer Hughes

These are the words from the Mari Lwyd song:

The Hoodening Oss the Marbury doon,
Old Bone Face the deathless am I,
Heavy with foal, two thousand years,
Bridled with sorrow, saddled with tears,
I canter through pastures of tremble and quake,
I gallop the track between sleep and awake,
Seeking the deep of welcome,
And stint for my tears.

The Mare-headed Queen, the Mari Lwyd,
I was mother of all of the herds,
For ten thousand years, my shining foals,
Were bridled with starlight, saddled with gold,
I leapt the divide between living and dead,
I quickened each year with a toss of my head,
Seeking the deep of beauty,
And never grow old.

But mother of God, the Mary mild,
The pregnant virgin came,
Busting with Jehovah’s seed,
Entered my stable, cried out her need,
With rope I was dragged from the birthing straw,
Aching with foal I was heaved to the door,
Swapping warmth for bitter weather,
And the birth of a rival creed.

So now I am nightmare, I am rattling womb,
The Uffington wraith I’ve become,
Forced into dark, you’ve made me a fiend,
Bridled with shadow, saddled with screams,
From window to window, traversing the night,
My face in your glass in a shudder of light,
Seeking the deep of welcome, befitting a Queen….
Let me in once again,
Will you……let me in?