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Reviews: The Pagan Book of Death & Dying

The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, Practice Rituals, Prayers, Blessings and Meditations on Crossing Over was released by Harper Books in the Fall of 1997. I hurried to the bookstore to pick up a copy on the first day to find that they had already sold out and I had to wait for the next order. Less than a week later I had the book in hand and with some trepidation delved into a subject that most of us would prefer to avoid, death. Or more specifically, dealing with impending death or the passing of a loved one. When I was a little over 2/3 of the way through the book I got a phone call that my stepfather had crossed over. The book was the first thing to go into my bags as I frantically packed for a cross country trip. During the flight I skimmed back over passages that had seemed distant at the time of my first reading and now were hitting home.

When I reached Colorado I was faced with an extended family of devout fundamentalist Christians. My mother and stepfather had only recently become enthusiastic converts of this type of faith. I felt very lost in a series of rituals that held no meaning for me and tried to provide support for my mother while I, myself, felt ungrounded. At the funeral service two step siblings and a step cousin approached me about an alternative ceremony for those of us who had a different spirituality from what had been offered in the church. We quietly left the crowded church hall and convened together in a hotel room with red wine, candles and the book. Spontaneously a ritual of remembrance and release was created. Contributions from the book spoke words that few of us had the resources to create out of our own feelings at the time. The book was a source of inspiration and comfort to me, and I am certain that Pagans and non-Pagans alike will find the resources in the book useful in a situation that we will all confront during this lifetime.

Following find an interview that I conducted with three of the major contributors to the book, Starhawk (author of The Spiral Dance), M. Macha NightMare and Vibra Willow. These three women, who are all members of the Reclaiming Community, talked to me about their personal views of death rituals and impressions about the book. Following the interview you can find a few of the numerous reviews about The Pagan Book of Living and Dying. The book is published by Harper and can be found in bookstores across the country.

Bright Blessings,

[Diana is no longer with the ECell so the posting of Macha and Vibra's interviews have been postponed indefinitely.]

Interview with Starhawk

Diana - You have mentioned in the book that, Starhawk the death of your mother and Macha, the death of your husband, were events in your life that prompted you to write this book. Did the idea of this type of a resource come to you prior to those significant events in your life?

Starhawk - For me, the death of my mother really precipitated the writing of the book. Until then, I felt uncomfortable with the idea of setting liturgy in stone for such a personal event, making Paganism more of a religion. I still believe that ritual is most alive when it's self-created--but my mother's death showed me the need in those moments of grief for something to turn to. Bereavement is not a state conducive to creativity--what we need in those moments is comfort, and to be taken care of. In a sense, having a body of liturgy and set tradition gives us something to fall back on when we need to be dependent.

Diana - How can the Pagan community come together to facilitate rituals for passing over when often it is not thought of until someone is in crisis? How should we be planning in advance?

Starhawk - This book is one way of "planning in advance." In the Jewish community, traditionally each village or synagogue would have a "Chevrah K'dishah" --a sort of affinity group of death tenders, who would come when someone died, ritually wash the body (which, in Jewish tradition, relatives are not supposed to do!), sit vigil with it, and generally provide support. We might consider something similar in our own communities--groups of people who might be 'on-call' to sit with the dying, comfort the bereaved, or take charge of funerals or memorials.

Diana - Have you done any work in your own covens to prepare for a coven member crossing over?

Starhawk - One of the members of my original coven, Compost, died many years after our group had dissolved. She was in another city, far away--but my coven sister Diane was able to be with her and see her through. Afterwards, we met for the first time in a decade for a simple memorial and the scattering of her ashes. What amazed me was how death brought us together and renewed some of the bonds that had long been frayed.

When Raven was dying, our preparation was more around helping him move, getting him settled in a hospice, taking care of details and spending time with him than preparing rituals per se. Again, he had long been estranged from many of us because his drug use and dishonesty ruptured a lot of relationships, but the community came together to support him in his last months and through his death.

Diana - Have you found yourself in a situation where you attended the funeral of a loved one in which their spirituality was significantly different than your own?

Starhawk - Most of the funerals I've attended have involved spirituality different from my own, not least my mothers. I was able to incorporate my Pagan beliefs very easily, however, into her traditional Jewish service by acknowledging that the prayers and liturgy we were using were honoring our ancestors. We also asked various people to come forward and speak about our memories of her, just as we would in a Pagan funeral, and this fit very nicely into the flow and was very moving. One difference--the rabbi coached us to ask people ahead of time, warning us that most would be uncomfortable being asked on the spot to say something spontaneous and would want time to prepare.

I also created a separate memorial for my mother, on her birthday about a month later. Since what she loved more than anything was to be in a group of intellectual women having a discussion, I invited a group of my women friends to gather for dessert, and discussion of the moments in our own lives when we had encountered the great passages of life and death. Again, the evening was both moving for all of us, and, I believe, pleasing to my mother's spirit.

Diana - What lessons did you learn in preparing this book?

Starhawk - Working on this book forced me to hone my own theaolgy around death and come to clarity about what I believe.

Diana - What has the reception to the book been like outside of the Pagan community?

Starhawk - Overall, we've had very good reviews although not a lot in mainstream papers or magazines--even places which have reviewed other books of mine. I've received a lot of gratitude from individuals, and the response has been very warm from many sectors of the Pagan community.

Diana - At many of the book signings you have scheduled you are also holding workshops on these issues. What work do you do during these sessions and what has been the reception to the classes?

Starhawk - Macha has been doing more of this than I have--but the ones we've done together have mostly provided a forum for people to talk about their own experiences with death and grief. Even in the regular booksignings, we often find the question and answer period takes on a life of its own. My mother was a therapist whose area of expertise was loss and grief--so in an odd way this book gives me a chance to pass on some of her wisdom and carry on her work.

Diana - If you could include one more thing in the book, now that it has been published what would it be?

Starhawk - I wish we had something more about El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead which is the Latin American halloween. Our community has been support for some of the Latino Pagans in this area who organize the procession and ritual, and someday I would like to see those rituals written up.

Reviews about The Pagan Book of Living and Dying:

From "Booklist", a library review journal review by Jeff Ahrens

The several books about wiccans and pagans only briefly mention beliefs about an afterlife. Wiccan and pagan funereal rites seem practically nonexistent, a fact Starhawk and company discovered when her husband died, (** editor note: actually it was Macha's husband who passed away, not Starhawk's) and that spurred them to assemble this useful resource. It is a collection of essays that begins by explaining pagan thealogy (the distinctive spelling indicates goddess study) and proceeds to actual rituals and chants, a discussion of symbolism, and the personal experiences of pagans and wiccans. There are several types of wiccan and pagan sects, and although there are connections between them, there is nothing like a synod to establish dogma or particular rituals. Yet any religious tradition must meet its adherents' strong needs for dealing with grief, which Starhawk and her coauthors answer by drawing on ancient and global mythologies. Virtually every modern mortality issue is covered in this book--physician assisted suicide, dying from AIDS, and care of the terminally ill, among others. This is a beautiful and unique book on a very important topic.

This is from a website for Growth House Books in San Francisco. Tove Beatty of Maitri Hospice alerted them to the book. You may wish to check out other info. on death and dying that that have at

The Pagan Book Of Living And Dying
Practical Rituals, Prayers, Blessings, and Meditations on Crossing Over
by Starhawk, M. Macha NightMare, and The Reclaiming Collective

Paperback, 288 pages (**editor note: actually it is 353 pages)
Published by Harper San Francisco
Publication date: October 1, 1997
25 line drawings
ISBN: 0062515160

This book is the first comprehensive guide to contemporary Neo-Pagan beliefs and practices in facing death. The first edition of this work, entitled Crossing Over, was published by the Reclaiming Collective in 1995. This is an expanded edition intended for a broader community including both self-identified Pagans and non-Pagans who are interested in this modern spiritual movement.

In her introduction to the book the author notes that no one person can claim to speak for the diverse Neo-Pagan community:

"I started to wonder what prayer might serve as a core statement of Pagan belief -- should a tradition as anarchic as ours ever want one. Perhaps we do not; our tradition strongly resists any centralization of creed or imposition of authority. We encourage creativity and spontaneity."

In that light, the book provides an eclectic compilation of Craft resources for those who are assisting a dying person, grieving a loss, or planning a funeral or memorial service. While it could be useful to someone who is dying, it is more likely to be useful to caregivers who work with dying or bereaved persons from this spiritual background.

The book is noteworthy for its earth-centered spirituality, a careful attention to non-gendered language, and a welcoming approach to human diversity of all kinds. It views birth, growth, and death as parts of a natural cycle.

Many different prayers, meditations, myths, and rituals are included to give meaning and reassurance to those facing loss. The Neo-Pagan, earth-centered, Goddess tradition expressed in this deeply spiritual book is strongly committed to intellectual freedom. The reader is encouraged to modify the materials as needed to accommodate personal needs.

This non-dogmatic approach makes it a handy source book for clergy of all denominations who need to arrange funeral and memorial presentations for audiences with diverse spiritual backgrounds. Some of the beautiful and comforting meditations on Nature could easily be integrated with liturgy from other spiritual traditions. Many of the passages give a clear, contemporary voice to the sometimes poorly defined spiritual feelings that people often have when faced by death.

Special chapters deal with the dying process, working with the dying, the moment of death, caring for the dead, and funeral and memorial services. Specific issues associated with AIDS, children, violence, and sudden death are also noted. Practical approaches to grief and bereavement work are given.

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