The following are a set of ritual outlines meant to cover the most common situations. In a funeral or memorial service, it is appropriate to start with a safe place to grieve and then finish with a more hopeful tone.
Details and Examples
Most funerals include both an indoor and a graveside ceremony. The indoor service provides a safe haven for the community to meet and mourn the dead without worrying about the weather. Neo-Pagans should not shun such practices, as we see many examples of such indoor rites in our Pagan past. Examples of these include the long borrows found in England, where the bones of the Blessed Dead were laid to rest, and the tents raised by the Athenians to honor fallen soldiers.
For many Neo-Pagans, it is more appropriate to decorate a hall or chapel with potted plants or small live trees than to cut flowers or wreaths that will die. In this way, the live plants and trees can become their own memorials to the dead, living on to represent that the cycle of life still goes on.
It can also be appropriate to incorporate the person’s astrological sign into the decorations by utilizing associated colors or elements. For example, for a Water sign, you might display a bowl of water with the proper-colored floating candles in it and light the candles as part of the funeral.
Additionally, having representations of the four elements can be appropriate. Here is one set of items that could be used in any setting to represent the elements:
- Water — bowl of water with flower petals
- Earth — seeds, potted plants, a potted tree
- Fire — yellow candles, stones like garnets, a bowl of sand with cinnamon sticks
- Air — a quill feather or a pen
Place pictures of the deceased and objects that he or she cherished in life where they can be seen by those gathering for the funeral. You can also include “offerings to the dead,” such as seeds to represent rebirth or other small objects that can be safely buried in the grave or given to the family.
Preparation of the Body
Two forms of funerary practices are common: burial and cremation.
In the case of burial, the body should be washed in water* if at all possible and thanked for housing the soul that no longer requires it. If the body is not going to be embalmed, this must be done with some haste as the body begins to decay immediately. In addition, the body may have been damaged by the injury that was the cause of death. Handling a damaged or decomposing body may be traumatic for family or clergy not used to this practice.
In the case of cremation, or where washing the body is not possible or desired, then you may recommend the washing of some representation of the body, such as a stone. Check to see if any of the family members wish to be there during the preparation of the body.
Depending on the condition of the body and the wishes of the family, if an open casket is used, it may be most appropriate to have an open–casket ceremony with the opening set away from the other mourners. This gives an opportunity for those who wish to view the body to do so privately and shields the open casket from those who do not want to see the body.
People require different expressions of grief to find closure. Some need to see the body and even touch it to ensure that the spirit of the person has left the body, while others wish to remember the person in life and are uncomfortable with seeing a dead body.
It is best to not embalm the body, unless this is done in accordance with the deceased’s tradition. Embalming is a very unnatural process that replaces the bodily fluids with chemicals. Instead, family or clergy may want to check with the funeral home to see if the body can be kept at a low temperature.
As for the casket itself, you may want to recommend caskets with holes in them, such as those used in traditional Jewish burials. These caskets allow the body to decay naturally and thus return to the earth from which it came. Another appropriate option is to use eco-friendly caskets, which decay over time.
Cremation is also a popular choice for funereal rites. Many Pagan societies, including the ancient Greeks, Romans and Scandinavians, used cremation.
One way to view cremation is as a separating of the body and the spirit, with the body being returned to dust.
In most Neo-Pagan practices a beloved animal is seen as being a part of the family. Given our view of animals as sentient beings who share this Earth with us, many of us may want to hold a service for an animal.
While the rituals here focus on humans they can also provide inspiration for funerals for animals. There is some wisdom in making a ritual for an animal be of shorter duration than for a human. As an example of a ritual that was written to be given to a mixed religious audience I am including a ritual I wrote in honor of a dog. I have changed the names to protect the privacy of those who remember her.
* There is no archeological proof that I know of that ancient Pagans washed their dead. We do have extensive archeological evidence of various Pagan funerary practices, ranging from burial of the dead in a fetal position, cremation, embalming and housing bones in burrows.
Having said this, washing the deceased’s body or a representation of the body can be healing as it helps us to deal with the reality that the person is no longer alive. If dealing with the actual body, this can be very effective, as loved ones observe the profound differences between a live and a dead body.
Additionally, it is a nice way to spend some time with the body and thank it for housing the person. Obviously, there may be many instances where this cannot be done. Since the body is so connected with the earth, a stone can be an appropriate substitute.