The sun grows dark, the world sinks into the sea,
Bright stars disappear from the sky;
fire and smoke rage,
the heat plays high with the sky itself.
– “Völuspá” (English Translation) by Wardruna
The headline reads “The Great Barrier Reef Was Just Hit by a Flood of Polluted Water Visible From Space” while Einar Selvik’s haunting vocals recount the völva’s words to Odin, retelling the creation of the world and its destruction before the Twilight of the Gods.
We glimpse so much death and destruction of divine wonders that sometimes we feel we can only witness, devastated by the thought that soon all the wondrous things of the Earth might be gone. Some of us–heck, myself included–fall into long stretches of dread and grief, desperately clawing our way out of it to push on into a world more increasingly dead. It seems, perhaps, that we are the walking dead in a landscape that will neither embrace our return to the soil–for there might be no soil–nor remember us.
Over my last few posts, I think the theme of environmental destruction and our role in it has been explored sufficiently. There is no need to linger and I have already turned the corner on my grief, though not on disillusionment with my community’s response to the crisis. Perhaps it is because, like myself, they are paralyzed by the grief and the immensity of it all. If that’s the case for you, listen up:
It’s time to bring back the death rites and this time inter the World.
Not all of Nature, no. Xe is a majestic entity that surpasses our every consideration. Xe has been through worse. Father/Mother Nature will go on beyond even our species’ last gasp of air. It will regenerate and populate itself again, much like the prophecy above. But if we are to witness the end and still make a life free of the shackles of grief, then we require ritual: to cleanse, to reassert kinship, to mourn the loss, and to conceive of a new world before it’s bloom.
Our ancestors knew of these waking rites that helped the diseased to pass into another existence. Whether they acted out of the desire to process grief, cleanse and ease the passage into the afterlife, or form new bonds with the worlds beyond, the death rites of our myriad cultures were necessary components of life. So much so that even the Catholic Church recognized their importance and incorporated them into their faith, after a fashion.
Therefore, let all of us step into this path and walk together. We have much in common. The blue and the green and the joy of the old world is leaving.
We might start by assessing our personal and community’s attitude toward death. This may differ greatly so long as there’s an acknowledgement that we each suffer, one way or another, whether in the abstract sense or in the immediate impacts of a climate disaster. Suffering paralyses. This work is meant to move beyond the loss, toward the embrace of a new reality already dawning all around us. More importantly, it is meant to lead individuals and communities to find an dignified and profound sense of purpose.
Next, it is important to recognize the ritual patterns that have never failed to move people throughout time and place. There is the beating of the drum, the heartbeat of life itself, that connects all beings in all states of being. That is the conduit. There is the dreamlike enchantment of art and poetry and music that transports and elevates us. There is the warmth of community (as the UU’s are fond of saying), that reminds us we are strengthened from our bonds with others walking the path along side us. Gather all these spiritual technologies, and so many others, ancient as the world itself, and mix until a vehicle appears for our grief.
Gather the folk and state our shared purpose, next. It is important to set the stage and even discuss what is to be expected. Some may want relief from imagined guilt–none of us are truly guilty of this moment in Earth’s history–and others that may wish simply to escape the crushing burden of the Anthropocene. Be gentle but be firm. Only through the gateways of death does the spirit come back into the light of the world, reborn. Decide, also, whether this ritual will be public or private to match everyone’s comfort level. Perhaps there’ll be an expressed need to repeat it many times, as each new living wonder of the world passes. Perhaps a day can be designated out of the year for the work of passing.
What will be the physical aesthetic of the rite? Decide that, next. Will there be masks to wear, and furs? There is no judgment in how the ritual must look, so long as it is accessible to those who participate. Some communities might wish to dedicate weeks of crafting and costuming and elaborate staging to pull off a transformative experience. Others might simply gather as their means allow, and carry out the same task with equal success.
Finally, carry out the death rites. Allow those gathered to express themselves as fully human and support their process in predetermined ways. Offer comfort in these very human moments, where we are most nakedly embodying kinship with the Tree of Life. Beat the drums, cry, dance in ecstasy, imagine a future worth living in, reaffirm connections with the lost–make sacred space and time like our ancestors did.
Always, always end in reasonable hope so long as our breath endures.
Sometimes we get caught up in the fight to mitigate climate change–I doubt anyone is seriously trying to stop it, anymore. Sometimes we forget that while we might in the end succeed, great changes would have taken place on the planet. To ignore those passings is comparable to never having cared in the first place: it would make motivations hollow. So must we remember what dies, what goes away forever. We remember how it made us human in the most uniquely human way possible: through ritual. But, above all, we must imagine that their passing doesn’t diminish us because one day, they may come back again.