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Do I Have to Wear Black?: Rituals, Customs & Funerary Etiquette for Modern Pagans

Do I Have to Wear Black?: Rituals, Customs & Funerary Etiquette for Modern Pagans

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Do I Have to Wear Black?: Rituals, Customs & Funerary Etiquette for Modern Pagans

419 pages
3 heures
Feb 8, 2021


A Guidebook for the Modern Pagan Funeral

Explore death and dying from the perspective of magical and Pagan communities. Filled with rituals, meditations, legal considerations, and practical advice, this book provides profound insights into death as a spiritual process.

Within these pages, you will discover more than fifty rituals for funerals, memorials, and remembrances as well as meditations for mourning and letting go. Each chapter shares the beliefs and specific rituals of a distinct tradition, including British Traditional Wicca, Dis-cordianism, Eclectic Wicca, Heathenry, Hellenism, Druidry, Thelema, and more.

You will also discover hands-on advice for creating shrouds, coffins, and death masks as well as tips for advanced planning, wills, and power of attorney. Whether you want to share this book with a non-Pagan funeral professional, learn what to expect at a Pagan funeral, or develop a ritual for a loved one's passing, the wealth of material within is designed to help readers experience final transitions in a spiritually meaningful way. With contributions from a variety of practitioners across many traditions, Do I Have to Wear Black? delivers a multitude of magical rites and detailed explanations in one thorough manual.

Feb 8, 2021

À propos de l'auteur

Mortellus (Western North Carolina) is a Mortician, British Traditional Witch, and High Priestex of the Coven of Leaves. She is a member of the National Funeral Director and Morticians Association.

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Do I Have to Wear Black? - Mortellus


Why We Need

This Book

When I began mortuary school, I had a lifetime of working with the dead behind me and was chasing the ever-elusive ritual-based life; becoming involved in the death profession was an obvious place for me to wind up. Starting out as a hospice volunteer, I realized after a while that it just wasn’t enough to satisfy my deities or myself, and that mortuary school was the next course of action. Having had all these ideas about the neutrality of death, it was tough for me to confront the depth of institutional prejudice against non-Christians inherent in the death industry. I was shocked at how openly hostile it felt, and how little information, and how much disinformation, existed in regard to non-Christian burials. This prejudice extended not just to practices that we classically think of as Pagan, but indigenous practices, secular burials, or really anything that sat outside of a comfortable, established, societal norm—and I wanted to change that. It became my passion to right that wrong and make certain that there was something out there for individuals with an end of life plan that didn’t fit the mold, so to speak.

One of my earliest confrontations with this way of thinking was in an essay from Traugott P. Bradtke, written in 1962, titled Christian Burial that found its way to me in one of my first classes. This essay, cited in textbooks produced by the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) and used for mortuary science programs all over the United States, states that everyone, regardless of their background or beliefs, deserves a Christian burial. Within it the author states that cremation […] has been frowned upon because of its pagan association but that we have […] advanced to that point where we no longer ought to regard everyone who requests cremation as being either a Heathen or a Pagan, and that the only reason such have for wanting their bodies cremated is that they want to destroy all evidences of human life and desire to be scattered to the four winds so that there could be no resurrection and no appearance before the judgment seat of Christ. ¹ It notes that Christian grief differed from the pagan […] by a cheerful and hopeful view of death, […] the terrors of the grave […] dispelled by the light of the resurrection. ² But what should it matter what a Lutheran minister said in the 1950s? What matters is the heavy citation of this essay and how telling it is in terms of how the death industry views non-Christian grief and funerary practices. It becomes apparent that to honor you in death the industry feels your beliefs must be ignored so that you might be granted the Christian burial you attempted to deny yourself. At least it isn’t the viewpoint of Bradtke, who suggests in his essay "dogs (should) eat (unbelievers) before […] burial [sic] after all. He says, It is not our business to worry about the burial of the dead who do not belong to us. ³ In the funeral industry Christian" has somehow come to mean dignified, as though non-Christian funerary practices are an aberrant display of otherness that no one should be allowed to foist upon the deceased. These prejudices perpetuate the idea that Christianity is the preferred religion, and that those of us choosing a different life have made an error; we all deserve a Christian burial, we’re told kindly, regardless of the life we have lived. Nay, they make it clear that it is the preference, to the exclusion of all others. Sociology for Funeral Service states, The religion of the United States is basically Judeo-Christian […]. The overall purpose of religion in the funeral service is to allow for the acknowledgement of the doctrine of atonement […] the doctrine of atonement states that the created is united with its creator at death. This reflects the […] belief that a person who has lived according to the standards of his or her faith will receive an eternal reward readied by God in heaven.

Further, it is flatly implied that it is only by virtue of Christian belief that the dead are treated to any dignity at all; Embalming: History, Theory, and Practice begins the section The Ethical Performance Standard, with the statement the Judeo-Christian tradition has fostered respect for the human dead. ⁵ It’s as though the industry believes us savage Pagans couldn’t find our way to reverence without someone holding our hand. Do I believe that all industry professionals feel this way? Certainly not, but that’s beside the point. If we shift the discussion away from these institutionalized prejudices to protecting the images of those industry professionals who aren’t that way we undermine the very real problems faced by those under the Pagan umbrella in planning their funerary rites.

So why does this matter? Why write this book? Why should you read it? Because, while it may be true that once you’re gone it won’t matter what the funeral industry says about your practices, I believe that every person should have the funerary rites of their choosing. Are we truly honoring the dead if instead of recognizing their faith, their identity, their beliefs—honoring their wishes, and the life they have lived—we paste something else over the top and call it dignity? As I began to research, railing against the problem in front of me and wishing to educate the industry in the Pagan way of death, I found that largely there were no guidelines for what those funerals would even look like and the ones we had didn’t approach the issue from the context of modern funerary practices. As a British Traditional Wiccan, I can’t even confirm for you whether we have death rituals as we are a mystery tradition bound by oath. So how do we include bereaved loved ones who aren’t initiates? We didn’t have public rituals—no disposition rites, no standard for the preparation of the dead, nothing. By contrast, I easily found guidelines for every kind of Abrahamic funerary rite you could imagine. As I researched, I slowly came to a troubling revelation: we didn’t know how to die Pagan. It seemed that all of us anarchic, reconstructionist upstarts knew how to live a Pagan life; we knew that if we wanted something to be a part of our spiritual practice we had to search, read, research. When all else fails, create it out of the ether, if we must. But when it came to dying, we seemed to have thrown up our hands in defeat, often not addressing the problem until we’d already lost someone and were unhappy with the experience we had. We sat down in a conference room and listened as the funeral director told us lies of omission, bending the truth around their own beliefs when it came to religious requests, and in our grief chose from the options before us. We had the good dignified Christian burial in the chapel like we were supposed to, ignoring the iconography, the stained-glass windows, the prayer card. We buried our loved ones in graveyards facing east—ready for the resurrection—and went home telling ourselves it’s what the law says we get to have. We grieved those rites of passage, trying not to look back.

But I say to you now, let us stand up as one voice, demanding not something new, but something old. Let us die the deaths of Heathens and priestesses and Druids; let us have our burial pyre, let us chant the chants and bang the drums! Let us go well into the darkness, honoring the lives that we have lived. Let us learn how to die Pagan.


Throughout this work you will find sections set aside just as this one is now. These sections will address behind-the-scenes-care of your loved ones remains, technical preparation notes, and generalized comments regarding arranging funeral services for families who fall under the Pagan umbrella. These notes are intended to address the funeral services professionals serving your family who may be reading along to help better understand the needs of the communities addressed within, as well as to help you yourself better communicate your needs to your funeral services professional. Hopefully, at the end of it all we’ll have better language for communicating with one another, and deathcare professionals able to become allies for Pagan families in their hour of grief.


1. Traugott Bradtke, Christian Burial, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Digital Library (June 11, 1962), https://essays.wls.wels.net/bitstream/handle/123456789/702/BradtkeBurial.pdf?sequence=1.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Sociology For Funeral Service, 3rd ed. (Dallas: Professional Training Schools, 2007), 31.

5. Robert Mayer, Embalming: History, Theory, and Practice, 5th ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2012), 11.

Part One

Views of Death

and What Comes After

"If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what

to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly

for you; don’t you bother your head about it."


Chapter 1

The Underworld

The underworld, or really anything that might come after death, is a difficult topic to tackle. When I sat down to write this chapter, the only thing that I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt was that I wanted to share what I myself believe. There are common beliefs, sure, but I didn’t want to give you a lot of metaphors for this wispy thing we call the veil, while rehashing what has been said a dozen times before in a dozen other books. I wanted to give you what the underworld is to me, a picture of my personal belief, so that in the end we might all know each other a little better.

The hard truth is that I don’t have all the answers. Hell, I don’t have any answers. Nobody does. We all just have a lot of questions that simply won’t be answered until we’re on the other side of that wispy veil. Our questions, though, seem to be pretty universal. If some of what we are persists into some other form, some other place, some other being, then what is it? Where is it? How? There are so very many different ways in which those who fall under the Pagan umbrella have viewed an afterlife, reincarnation, realms of the dead, but what they rely on is universal; a pervading belief that the version of reality in which we now live, this world that we occupy, is but one plane of existence among many that are simply beyond our ability to comprehend. It’s easy as humans to argue away what we can’t see. Imagine seeing through the eyes of a reindeer, able to see ultraviolet light, or the python, able to see in infrared, or the mantis shrimp with its incredible ability to see colors that we can’t even imagine … and then trying to explain to any of them that what our human eyes see is all that there is. Just because something does not fall within our particular understanding or capability does not mean that it is not there. But how can we define a place so constrained to myth and metaphor? How can we imagine it being a tangible place to which we might travel in death? Being confined to the limitations of the human body in its ability to see and hear and interact in only these specific and limited ways—ways far outpaced by our kin in the animal kingdom—it becomes ingrained in our very culture to reject whatever falls outside those confines. For example, string theory (which is increasingly provable as scientific breakthroughs continue to occur at a rapid pace) states that there’s a near infinite number of realities, dimensions, and versions of time and space within which anything at all is possible.⁶ Though we certainly cannot see those realities, interact with them, or even quantifiably prove their existence, we are reasonably certain enough of them that some of the greatest minds in the world are devoted to testing and proving the theory. Who’s to say that one of these strings is not our land of the dead, the place where echoes of our former selves go to reside when we die?

Perhaps I’m getting a bit left of field here, but as a scientifically minded person I can’t help but couch my beliefs in all things, magical or otherwise, in logic, in science. I need that quantifiable foundation upon which to build the astral temple of my more woo- woo beliefs, and believe me, I have them. Ask me one day about my spirit familiar—a very real to me and sentient manifestation of magic … or perhaps a hallucination, and a canary in the coal mine for mental health issues. Only time will tell I suppose. So if I’m going to talk about the underworld, and delve into myth, which I will do, first I have to explain my own personal beliefs a bit for you.

I have always defined reincarnation in terms of the theory of conservation of energy. The idea, in utterly simple terms, is that energy cannot be created nor destroyed, only altered to take another form. You see, we are made of matter (a thing that takes up space) and of energy (as we can create change), so we ourselves cannot be created or destroyed. If energy is the ability to create change, is it truly the changes that we have made in this world that cannot be destroyed? Are these the marks that we leave behind? Creatures made up of leftover pieces of the universe, stardust, so very worried about what type of box we put what is left of us in when we die. When I am gone, if I do nothing more than go on to become compost, and that compost provides food for a plant that grows food that feeds another human being … well, look at how many times I will have been reincarnated already. For some who fall under the Pagan umbrella, there is a specific afterlife, such as Valhalla, the Summerland, or the Field of Reeds. For others, reincarnation; a rebirth into a new body. But for me, changing form is enough. In a past life I was a star, a building block of the universe. Perhaps in another I will be dirt.

When it comes to an afterlife, the underworld as it were, or the many halls of the deities that we hear tell of in so many legends, myths, and cultures, that is string theory to me; a thousand worlds that we can feel, but cannot touch. Past lives? Memories of other places and times? A well of creation from which all things might derive? Well that’s a little harder to explain, but I’ll try. For those of you who are not familiar with the Akashic Record, it’s an idea espoused by some that there is a nonphysical plane of existence upon which all of human existence has been recorded. All our thoughts, feelings, words, actions, and so on—marked there for all of eternity.⁷ I’m not certain I quite believe that, but I’m also not certain that it’s entirely wrong. Nobel Peace Prize winner, philosopher, integral theorist, and, if it means anything to you—classical pianist—Dr. Ervin László preferred to conflate the idea of the Akashic Record with that of the Zero Point Field theorized in quantum physics—a known force that remains unproven outside of theory.⁸ Essentially, there is, at the bottom of all things that we know of as reality, a flat plane from which all things come, and to which all things must return. Dr. László referred to this hive of energy as the original source of all things, the birthplace of all things, the great cosmic mirror of existence, a churning cauldron of eternity, the womb of time, a sea of energy giving birth to the very stars.⁹ I don’t know about you, but I find that beautiful. Once on a National Public Radio broadcast, comedian and satirist Aaron Freeman stated that you should have a physicist speak at your funeral:

You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every BTU of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got. And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever. And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.

And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly.¹⁰

So many of us are built on contradictions, and I am no different. My personal beliefs about what comes after life may be rooted in science, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a picture of what my underworld is like. So if you’ll allow me, I would like to share a story with you about a time when I visited that place. How it changed me, shaped me as a person, and how it came to fit inside those beliefs I just shared with you. There aren’t beginnings without endings, after all, and I find that I can never manage to talk about death without putting it in the context of my own. This is the myth of my own descent into the underworld, and how I came to be.

I was a young girl and it’d been only three days since one of the worst experiences of my life—I’d been sexually assaulted. In trying to tell my family what happened, I was met with accusations. I was told that I needed to pray and ask forgiveness, and that it was possible that I wasn’t saved. Every word, every dismissive action, made it clear that I was not believed. Worse, it was also made clear that I should want it to be untrue, because if it happened, I would be deemed worthless, and who would want to marry me knowing I was dirty. I felt utterly alone in my suffering, adrift in a sea of darkness.

The day in question was a Sunday morning, and we headed off to what would be the most memorable sermon of my life. For reasons unknown to me, the pastor on that particular day was giving a sermon on the sin of suicide. He spoke of it as the worst sin that you could commit. You would go to hell, unable to spend eternity in heaven with your loved ones. That simply rocked the foundations of my little world, because it had never occurred to my young mind that I had any power to change my situation until just that moment. If you commit suicide, you don’t go to heaven, and I recall thinking in that moment that going to hell was the most wonderful thing I could imagine. That perhaps the Devil wasn’t a villain after all, that maybe he was saving people like me from the unforgiving eyes of God’s children. That he took them somewhere that the good people would never want to go. No matter the price, at that moment, I was willing to pay it.

Having been told, as many children are, that if I ate pills I would die, one night after everyone was in bed I searched for the bottle that I’d been told wasn’t candy. Funny the small things that stand out in a memory like this, but I recall thinking to myself that a hallway was a place where people traveled, and wanting to be purposeful about my journey, that was where I ate the contents of the bottle. In the morning I was found unresponsive and was rushed to a hospital where I lay in what I’m told was a coma, at the end of which I opened my eyes to a doctor leaning over me, belt in hand. He brandished his prop threateningly as he told me that if I ever did something like that again, he’d personally give me a spanking. I was reminded that pills aren’t candy.

What’s important, though, happened between taking the pills and waking up in the hospital.

I remember getting very sleepy, lying down in the hall, my body heavy and warm. The floor felt as though it became softer and softer until I slipped through it and began floating forever downward. Many survivors of near-death experiences report seeing a light, something to move toward. Not me. I recall feeling like I was in a lake of dark water, floating toward the bottom. There was a light above me, the hallway night-light glinting off of the surface of the water like a gem, but I was eternally moving away from it. Whatever substance I was in, be it water or air, was warm and comforting, and never in my life have I felt so assured that the darkness was there to hold me like the arms of a loved one. It knew me in ways that no one had, and I felt safe floating softly down into the darkness with nothing but the occasional fluttering of wings to interrupt the silence. At long last, I could no longer see the light above me, and I landed, soft as a feather, onto what seemed to be a pile of furs. I was enveloped in darkness thick enough to slice like chocolate cake. And there I lay, on those furs, sleeping for days. For a lifetime. Forever. For a moment. I was always refreshed. Never hungry, never angry, never afraid. My only feelings were of love, and of comfort, and I slept the kind of sleep that only children can, healing and dreamless.

Eventually a time came when I knew instinctively that I could no longer remain there, and I began walking in a direction known only to my feet. I recall feeling cool stones beneath me, and thinking that I must be in a castle, or a cave, or maybe even a tomb, walking ever onward until eventually my eyes found a light in the distance. This, however, was no hallway night-light glinting on the surface, but a different kind of light altogether. Cool and blue, like a candle adrift in a vast sea of night.

Eventually, as I moved closer, I found myself recognizing the shape of a woman in the distance. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, and She glowed with a kind of light that nothing else has. Her hair a rich black, Her eyes a glowing green. Her woolen robes richly made, but well worn. Her scent earthy and sweet, like the forest after a rainstorm. A knife at Her hip. Her feet, bare. When I approached, She wrapped Her arms around me in a hug, and held me for what felt like forever. Sometimes to this day, when things are tough or I’m frightened in the dead of night, I can still feel those arms around me. Her hands still firmly on my shoulders, She knelt to eye level with me. I recall this meaning so much, because She seemed so powerful, so grand, and had done what no one in my life ever had—She got on my level, She looked me in the eye.

Her exact words to me I’ll keep private, but the spirit of them was this: that I belonged to Her now, born again in the darkness, and that Her children were warriors. She told me I could survive anything, and that my trials would only make me stronger.

And just like that, it was time to wake up.

I knew that everything from that moment forward was to make Her proud. It was a long time before I knew Her name, but I saw Her in the ruddy harvest moon, and could feel Her when the sky was dark. I knew Her face when I saw crows in the garden or found a black feather on my path. I knew that I had Her love, and that I was Her child. To this day I don’t know why the Goddess came to me then, why She would have chosen that broken little girl and claimed her as Her own, but I am eternally grateful for it. So, perhaps the underworld is just that—a place of refuge, a haven for the dead, a domain of the gods. There in the darkness, a respite from our troubles, our pain, and from the life that we have lived. The gods await us there on cool stones, welcoming us at the end of this life, and bid us to lie down on soft furs to rest. We, the living and the dead, but islands in the sea—separate on the surface, but connected in the deep.¹¹


6. Sebastian de Haro et al., Forty Years of String Theory Reflecting on the Foundations, Foundations of Physics 43, no. 1 (November 28, 2012): 1–7, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10701-012-9691-3.

7 . Drury Nevill, Stealing Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Modern Western Magic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 308.

8 . Laszlo Ervin, Science and the Akashic Field: An Integral Theory of Everything (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 2007).

9. Ibid.

10. Aaron Freeman, Planning Ahead Can Make a Difference in the End, National Public Radio, June 1, 2005, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4675953.

11. William James, Confidences of a ‘Psychical Researcher,’ The American Magazine 68 (October 1909): 580–89.

Chapter 2

Myths and Cycles

Kierkei co-wrote the myths of Dionysus and Frankenstein included herein. Kierkei is a 2° Priestess of Gardnerian Wicca, librarian, fiction writer, graphic designer, and former high school English teacher.

You’ve heard my thoughts on the afterlife, reincarnation, the underworld. You’ve heard my own personal myth of descent. In terms of classic myths and what we can get out of them, it’s really important to me that you know that I truly believe all of these stories. After all, in an infinite number of universes, all things are not only possible, but certain. Somewhere, in some version of a world that we cannot touch, these stories are true in the most literal sense of the word. Are they stories like my own? Someone’s

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