by George Cooney
In order to be at peace, it is necessary to feel a sense of history - that you are both part of what has come before and part of what is yet to come. Being thus surrounded, you are not alone; and the sense of urgency that pervades the present is put in perspective. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
Pagans know life as a process rather than a stasis. For us, being is always in motion. Even when our lives seem steady and predictable, our beliefs tell us we are moving towards the next transition: the Corn plant stands under the Sun, day after Summer day, on its way to the time of seed-making and dying; later, the dry frozen seed will endure for months in the unchanging dark under the Earth, on its way to the time of sprouting and ascent. Our liturgy is based on these transitions; by our ritual celebrations of the turning of the Wheel through the cycle of the year, our minds and spirits are led to rehearse our own journey through growth, death and rebirth.
Issues of death are much in the world's news these days. When should a patient, or a family member, reject medical treatment intended to prolong life? Will assisted suicide become an accepted part of the physician's repertoire? On one hand, we hear of brain-dead individuals kept alive by machines; on the other, we see the prospect of medical rationing, with insurance companies deciding where to allocate scarce treatment resources. Opinions are offered from a multitude of perspectives: social, moral and economic. We must decide where our own beliefs lead us; what is to be our attitude towards death?
Our Pagan tradition reaches back a long time for answers, back to the days when humans first awakened and began to wonder about the Goddesses and Gods who turned the Wheel. From the teachings of our fathers and mothers in those early days we learn that life and death are a polarity, like a two ends of a magnet; we see this polarity in our everyday lives, manifested in a constant tension between that which builds and that which breaks down. The familiar yearly cycle, from the rising sprout to the rotting stalk, moves in the space between those poles; and that cycle is reflected in the longer story of our own life's progress.
First, we are conceived and birthed; our potential becomes specific; Spirit forms the word that is us.
Next, we grow into maturity; our life gathers experience and takes its shape; our activity adds to the complexity of the world around us.
Finally, we die; we release our life into Spirit's unlimited potential.
In practice, of course, moving along the Wheel is not easy. Even though we know that death has its place, most of us are not ready to embrace it nor even to think about it. Instead the desire for continued life occupies our will. From the depths of our nature we resist death, and we rage against its approach. When death seems to come too soon, we protest, saying "Oh no! Not yet! Not now!" and there is the sudden desperate screech of brakes, the clawed fingerhold on a rock face, the heart jolted back into rhythm in an emergency room. Instinctively, we act to preserve life. Lugh the Lightbringer, the god who ripens the Corn, symbolized this instinct, and we call upon him in our fight for life.
Yet die we must. As Sherwin Nuland points out in his book, How We Die, we must die for the sake of our species; if somehow we contrived to live forever, we would quickly overwhelm our environment's carrying capacity and all perish like lemmings. "Must," in biological terms, thus carries not only its ordinary meaning of inevitability, but also a sense of appropriateness. Our need for death is personified in Herne the Hunter, sometimes called Cernunnos by the Celts. He is the god of culling, who takes away life for the sake of balance and health in the world.
There is even a point where we know it is time for death. Those who work with elders or with the terminally ill have seen people come to that point: the demands of continued life become unreasonable in terms of pain, bodily dissolution, failure of dignity, and loss of contact with one's surroundings; when life no longer returns value in measure with those increasing demands, then we begin to see death as timely. Herne's approach does not inspire the same rage and resistance when our instincts tell us death is timely; and when the Hunter has finished, even our mourning has a different flavor. We still grieve the empty space the dead person has left in our lives, but the other, angry sense of life unlived - of death cheating life - is absent. When someone we know has a timely death, it is easier for us to give inward assent to the ancient truth that life and death - Lugh and Herne - are really showing forth the same Spirit.
What distinguishes the Pagan moral attitude about death is that it affirms the polarity between death and life, without making that polarity into a duality. We do not label as "evil" the force that moves living things towards death. At one moment we might be fighting with all our strength to save our own life or someone else's; at another moment we might be struggling to let go, so death can play its part. Both efforts are "good" in their season. It is our perception of the timeliness of the death that makes the difference. When death approaches out of season (as we perceive it), we struggle against it at the side of Lugh, the Warrior who brings Light and Life. When we believe life is completed, we are ready to call upon Herne the Hunter.
As the world struggles with present-day death issues, it has much to learn from our old religion. For example, if our health-care delivery system learned the appropriateness (and sacredness) of a timely death, emphasis might shift away from hopeless intervention, and move rather in the direction of honoring the transition. Good pain management, home surroundings, and time for parting interaction with family and friends can help a patient wind up this round of living and get on with his or her death. Perhaps such a shift of emphasis might reduce the demand for assisted suicide, once patients realize that a timely death is available through the mainstream health-care system.
For each of us, it is important to decide the place of Lugh and Herne in our lives. What is "timely death" for us? Will we call the hunter when we can no longer
play a round of golf?
sit our grandchild on our lap?
recognize our friends?
Where do we draw this important boundary? The persons closest to us must be part of the decision-making process, as must be our medical caregivers; because when the time comes, we may not be able to express ourselves. Our wishes should be in writing (some states have laws about how the writing is put together) and our friends and doctors should be well aware of what we want. As far as Fate permits, the life-death decision is our own; we should do everything possible so that our journey from this life reflects our beliefs, and honors the Lightbringer and the Hunter between whom our Wheel has turned.