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RE/Search: Let’s discuss death–
Joi Wolfwomyn: Over the past ten years I’ve done a lot of work with the dying . . . dealing with death, doing grief counseling. I’ve handled many bodies, including the bodies of friends of mine.
A friend of mine named Crystal died. Those of us who were the Glamazon Warriors had been in the caregiving circle of Crystal when she died. In the drag queen pantheon we’ve created, she is the ascended Goddess of Glamour. She was very much into Egyptian magic, so my friend Goneaway and I ripped up 15 yards of black silk into strips, went into the mortuary and wrapped Crystal’s body Egyptian-mummy style. Here was our best friend who was alive a day and a half ago–although not very. So we burned incense, rang bells and wrapped her body. On her chest we bound an owl feather and a peacock feather for wisdom and glamour. A lot of people sent things to be wrapped up with her: her teddy bear, glitter, coins to go over her eyes and mouth. Everybody had put something in there, including Crystal’s parents who had known her as “Eric.” This was an incredible bonding moment.
Before she had gotten sick, she had designed a copper death mask for herself much like the Egyptian masks on mummies. It was a copper skull with two tubes coming out it, and those came down and crossed over into a copper heart that was filled with her earrings, her favorite perfume, and really bad leaf, because that’s what she smoked a lot of when she was sick. Goneaway and Cirus carved the eyes of Horus and runes into the outside of her casket.
The morticians were great. They had put her up on blocks so we could get the fabric under her. They warned us, “Be careful you don’t drop her head, because her mouth is glued shut. If you drop her head, the lip will give before the glue does”–meaning we might rip her face open. So of course we did drop her once. That was a defining moment–when that happened, and her mouth didn’t break open, it broke the tension and we laughed. But we were still able to maintain magical focus. The day after her death, the five of us went to the beach and did circle ritual there, including running naked and screaming into the ocean at 1 A.M. on New Year’s Eve.
Just this past year an old, dear friend named Maudie died. This was the first time I have tended, bathed, and dressed a body alone. It was more intense because she had been autopsied–she had these whip stitches all up her chest and her body. She looked like a big rag doll. I just thought, “This is really strange.”
So much of this culture is invested in avoiding death; people don’t touch their friends when they’re dead. It’s like, “Okay, somebody else take it away and deal with it.” If it’s a casket funeral the attitude is, “Okay, we’ll look at them after they’ve been made up and dressed to look like something they aren’t. Then we’ll close it, lock it, and seal it away in cement.” Or, “We’ll burn them and put them in this little sealed jar and never handle them again.” And it’s wrong–people should not disconnect. Even though the Pagan community vocalizes about how “Death is just naturally part of the cycle,” there is still avoidance, with people feeling guilty because they’re hurt and upset. No–we still need to make death more of a part of our life.
There has to be a way and a structure whereby we bring death back into everyday life. I’ve dealt with people who have been Pagan for thirty years, but when they die, that little seed that was planted by their monotheistic upbringing springs back to life: “Am I going to be judged on Judgment Day?” People who weren’t brought up with that “judgment” notion don’t seem to go through that fear phase.
Ultimately I’d like to see our Western Culture accept death as a normal part of everything else–not have it be something that’s hidden away, not talked about or dealt with. The death of my friend who had that autopsy was a kind of rite of passage for me. Previously there had been a co-priest in attendance whenever I had dealt with friends’ bodies, but this was the first time I had gone into a room containing a dead body all by myself, dressed her in her ritual drag and done her ritual make-up. I veiled her face and then wheeled her out into the room where the wake was to take place. And not only her Pagan family but her “straight” family were there. Her partner brought their son up to her body and lifted the veil so that the boy knew that his mother was dead. It was not horrible; it just was. This was definitely something to grieve and be sad about–it wasn’t, “No, you can’t feel anything.” It was also very much a feeling of “She’s dead; her body is leaving us.”
We packed all of her ritual tools, including her staff, wand and broom into her shroud. The crematorium was wonderful, because they didn’t interfere and allowed us complete freedom to dress her body in full ritual garb and make-up before putting the body into the crematorium oven.
Each time I handle the bodies of my friends, I feel a power arising that’s unlike other magical powers and energies–you feel fully yourself in that state of presence. This level of awareness is absolutely required to deal with the dead–especially dead that you know. As part of the Faerie community, there were several years when I had ten or more people a year dying in my lap. And people wonder why I’m an extremist!
It’s a gift that I can go in and hold people when they die–not everybody can do that, although it would be nice. As word got around that I was willing and capable, strangers started calling me: “Hi, I’m dying. Would you come sit with me?” That has been interesting in and of itself.
I want to see people and the culture at large embrace death as part of life, instead of being afraid. People don’t want to think about dying and not existing anymore. People have an ego need to perpetuate the individuality of self, whether it’s manifested as “I’ll go live in Heaven!” or “I’ll be reincarnated!” But fundamentally, death happens and the world goes on.
Personally, I don’t buy the reincarnation theory, because that’s still an ego perpetuation of the individual. A part of me thinks I’m having all my lives at once! I believe that the evolution of humanity will go on. It’s all just theory, and none of us really know. And it has to be okay to not really know.
The whole profit-making industry that’s built up around death is insane. In Tibet, people staged open-air mountain top burials, and after the vultures picked the bones clean, you made ritual tools out of the bones. Some people think that’s weird, but it makes total sense to me. I’ve made ritual objects out of the bones and hair of my pets, familiars and friends for the past ten years. I have wands with hair from dead friends woven into them, and jars on my altar containing the ashes of friends.
My friend Daisy was a “rave” kid, and he wore these little bottles containing glass beads, stone chips and tiny objects in them. After he died, I took his ashes and made a bunch of little reliquary bottles, because that’s what he wanted. I had to search all over for Mardi Gras supplies, plus little plastic babies, and crack them up with a hammer and mix them in with his ashes. I made these little bottles and gave them to all of his friends and his relatives.
As a graduate of a Pagan Seminary, I’m actually a credentialed priest in California. So I get to go in and handle the bodies. A couple of hospitals know me now; I’ve done rituals in more ICUs and hospital rooms than I care to think about. When my partner Kalyn died at Alta Bates, several of the nurses told me they really liked hearing my chanting coming from his room. They said it was soothing, and that everybody on that floor slept better.
R/S: Doesn’t it feel strange: handling the body of your friends?
JW: It’s always odd; I’ll never say, “Yeah, I’m used to it.” It’s weird and strange, but somebody has to do it. Personally, I’d rather it was me doing what I know they wanted, rather than have some total stranger involved.
Occasionally I sit down and think, “This is not what I thought my life would be: handling dead bodies all the time!” But if I can do it, then it is what I should be doing, because not everybody can. Lots of people see a dead cat and flip out.
I’ve had many people die in my lap. That’s how it started: I would hold people as they were dying and they would die in my lap. Over the past few years I’ve been called to attend a lot more people who have died, which meant I wasn’t always part of their death. Maybe I last saw the person perfectly alive and now they’re a stitched-up body–and that’s strange.
I keep my focus by chanting a lot, because all these mysterious things happen. There is an energy field surrounding dead bodies that is intense; all this energy in the cellular structure of the body is evaporating. Most cultures assume that process takes at least three days.
At this point my life project is to open a Pagan cemetery. There are religious exemptions permitting cemeteries to do burials without embalming chemicals and a foot-thick cement box, which is the normal regulation–most Pagans would rather go back naked to the earth. You have to qualify for a religious exemption, which basically requires founding a church–that’s a 501c3. So I’m basically founding the Church of the Androgyne. It will be a church for people who live their lives and worship deities outside of the polarized gender spectrum. The biggest regulation for cemeteries is that you can’t be anywhere near a water table, which makes complete sense. I’m looking into Eastern Washington, New Mexico and possibly Tennessee–the latter two states already have home burial laws. Who knows? I’ve got a few more years of research to do before I really decide. Which is fine, because that will give me a chance to get an established church together beforehand.