The one certain thing in life is that we’re going to die. And yet, there is a huge dearth of Pagan literature on the subject. In doing research for this article, I found almost no information. Death usually only earns a paragraph or two in most books about Wicca. Starhawk and M. Macha Nightmare’s book “The Pagan Book of Living and Dying” is the only book that I am aware of that answers the subject in any depth (if I’m wrong, please leave the info about the book in the comments!). While it is true that Pagans in general focus on this life, the life we’re currently living now, almost all Wiccans believe in some sort of afterlife. So why is there so little information?

Some of it is that neo-paganism is, well, neo-paganism. While paganism is not new, the modern forms we worship in it often are. We simply have not had the time to develop an in-depth theology of dying like Buddhists or Christians have. It takes time for ideas to evolve, knowledge to be gained, and information to be synthesized. There also has to be people committed to this area of study and who become educated in it.

Some of it is the neo-pagan attitude towards death; it’s just another transition, another turning of the Wheel. You don’t fear death any more than you fear the leaves drifting to the ground in the fall- death leads to rebirth. Therefore, we need to focus on the time we do have.

Some of it is that the pagan beliefs on the afterlife take a lot of inspiration from various religions. Hinduism, for example, has very similar beliefs as Wiccans regarding reincarnation in a lot of areas. The idea of the Summerlands also is borrowed from Celtic spirituality as well as other pagan spiritualities.

And of course, some of it is the difficulty of defining anything as a “pagan belief”. If you’ve read at all on paganism in general and Wicca in particular, you know that nailing down specifics on beliefs is not a high priority. That’s not to say that Wicca is a free-for-all, but that there is a lot of wiggle room when it comes to the details.

I do think the neo-pagan community is a little shortsighted when it comes to the issue of death. The facts are that we’re going to die; for many people dying is a process that they need help and support through, and that peace of mind about death is one of the major reasons people seek out spirituality. More information and guidance for seekers are desperately needed. Brushing it off with “live for the now” doesn’t deal with the complexities surrounding death.

To sum up, here is an overview of beliefs held (often) by Wiccans:

Wicca:

  • Believes in reincarnation
  • Believes in a soul
  • Believes in the death of the ego*, but not the self
  • Believes that souls rest between incarnations in a place called the Summerlands
  • Doesn’t (usually) believe that human souls reincarnate in other species
  • (Usually) believes that at one point, you unite fully with the Source, the God and the Goddess, and the cycle of reincarnations stops. However, reincarnation is not a “punishment” or something to avoid, as it is in Buddhism and Hinduism. Being back in this world is part of the circle of life and is something to be celebrated.
  • Believes (often) that you have a choice as to whether or not to incarnate, and if you do, how you do it.

* Ego in this context means personality, who you would view as your ‘self’. In religions that believe in reincarnation the ego, things such as likes and dislikes, being introverted or extroverted, being gay or straight, etc.- all these kinds of things make up the ego, and, for some religions, it is believed that the essence of who you are is behind all of that.

How can Wiccans face dying themselves? How can they help other Wiccans who are going through the dying process?

In many ways, just as Buddhists “practice” dying through various stages of meditation, so too do Wiccans “practice” dying when they celebrate the Wheel of the Year. Every year, as we go through the different stages of life, death, and rebirth, we are identifying ourselves as part of that process and learn from the mythology associated with it. The dying and reborn God, the Goddess’s journey into the underworld and back again- both of these cycles, linked to what is happening in nature, mirror our lives. Wicca teaches that we are not separate from nature. We look to it as a teacher, the best teacher. And when Wiccans learn from nature, they learn about the patterns of the natural world, of which we are a part.

Wiccans do not believe dying is a potential gateway to hell or any state of punishment, and that is something that might comfort those who are facing dying, especially those who have come from fundamentalist backgrounds. Fearing hell, after you’ve been raised in it and/or believed it for a long time, is often a very hard thing to shake off. Emphasizing the love of the Goddess and the God and reminding them that there is nothing to fear is something that may be comforting to those who are dying.

Some may find the idea of reincarnation extremely comforting. They may feel that since they have died before and came back, that there is nothing to fear in doing it this time around. They may feel as though they won’t really lose contact with their friends and family, that they will meet them in a different time and a different place. And they may look forward to the Summerlands, which they see as a resting place between incarnations.

Others find the death of the ego extremely frightening. The idea of losing who someone sees themself as may make them feel like life does not truly go on after all. Being one of these people, I don’t truly have an answer for this. Reminders that all will go to the God and the Goddess may be helpful. Also, it may be helpful to emphasize the choice involved in the belief in reincarnation. Most Wiccans believe when we incarnate and where and how is a matter of choice. We do not believe, like Buddhists and Hindus, that karma throws you into a particular type of rebirth automatically. If someone has a belief other than reincarnation that brings them comfort, encourage them in that. There is room for many beliefs on the afterlife in Wicca.

“The Pagan Book of Living and Dying”, which I mentioned earlier, has a great deal of quality information on how to help the dying and how to help someone deal with sudden deaths or deaths such as suicide. If this is a subject you are interested in, I highly recommend getting this book.

This article doesn’t even scratch the surface. I encourage anyone who has thought deeply about this subject or who has websites or reading materials that might be useful to leave that information in the comment section.