My mother-in-law passed away quite suddenly last week, and in the wake of her death I have been pondering the nature of mortality. Two sides of the same coin, the meaning of life and the meaning of death are both difficult to ascertain. Both are questions that may take a lifetime to grasp, and we may never be fully satisfied with whatever answer we cobble together. It is in times like these that we look to our values and beliefs to point us towards clarity.
Death is perhaps the surest thing in the world. Each of us and every living thing we know will eventually meet its end. But death cannot truly be considered an end, because nothing–not time, space, or the particles of energy in the universe–ever truly perishes. Our bodies do not disappear upon the moment of death never to be seen again, and neither do ourselves.
You are not only a body but a memory existing in the minds of everyone you’ve ever touched. You are not only one person, but a collection of persons depending on who is thinking about you. Your mother might have one idea about how you are, while you show another side to your spouse, and the mailman has another recollection about your demeanor. Even your dog or cat calls a different image to mind when he sees you in his memory. Each of us will surely be remembered; you cannot live in this world without touching others with every move you make. Since we continue to exist in the minds of others long after our bodies are deceased, we know that death is only a transition out of the corporeal plane.
Whether or not our consciousness survives the transition is the subject of every religion on the globe, and what you hold to be true about your ability to think or remember after death is a very personal belief. Many religions believe that the consciousness remains after the physical body perishes, and is transmuted to heaven or hell. Others believe that the consciousness is reborn into another physical body through reincarnation. Still others believe that once the electrical impulses in the brain cease to fire, our consciousness ceases to exist. There is no way of knowing whether any of these are true. However, we can be sure that whether we are aware of it or not, people are thinking of us after we die. Once the memories have faded, the things we have taught others and the impressions we have made live on.
There are as many beliefs about the afterlife as there are religions, and pagan religions are no exception. Paganism does not hold one universal belief regarding the location of the consciousness of the deceased, but most pagan religions agree in their view of death as transformative. To put it simply, death is not an end, but a change. It is not inherently negative or positive, but merely an item in a universal (and expected, and predictable) sequence of events.
As we see in the wheel of the year, darkness overtakes light after Mabon. The earth grows cold and the trees seem to die. At Samhain, the God (the masculine element; the Sun) is slain and enters the underworld. But by Yule, or winter solstice, the God is reborn. The days grow long once more. By Ostara, night and day are in balance again. Light overtakes darkness by Beltane, and the earth is rich with blossoms and fruit. The earth remembers what it can be, and the Goddess becomes pregnant with life once more. From an ending springs new beginnings, and from darkness comes light.
This interpretation of death as cyclical is evident in the tarot card for Death. Though Death reaps what has been sown, new life springs in the fields. We could argue that the sun is both setting and rising behind Death: as one cycle ends, another begins. This transformation affects both those who pass and all who they have touched as the world adjusts to the absence of the dead person’s physical being. While the sun sets on one person’s life, the living reorganize their lives and their minds and begin again without that person. The living reap the memories the dead have planted once they are gone, and in this way we can continue to bring joy when we leave this world, no matter where our consciousness ends up.