If someone you know has died who practices the Wiccan faith, you may be wondering about what happens at a Wiccan funeral. Like any other spiritual tradition, Wiccan funerals have practices that support the beliefs of the faith.
Wiccan Funeral Practices Support Beliefs
Mortellus, the High Priestex of the Coven of Leaves in Western North Carolina, shared incredible insights into the ceremonies, rites and rituals for Wiccan funerals. In addition, Mortellus is a mortician, author, medium, and necromantrix. Her book, Do I Have to Wear Black?: Rituals, Customs, & Funerary Etiquette for Modern Pagans, aids in dispelling some of the common misconceptions about the Wiccan funeral. Mortellus articulated, "Most religions follow the pattern of orthodoxy - you are supposed to believe the right things. Wiccans tend to promote orthoproxy. It is important to do the right thing, then the right beliefs will follow."
The Right to Grieve
Psychiatry and counseling have long accepted the premise that everyone processes grief in a unique way. Mortellus suggests, "The funeral industry has long been influenced by Christian beliefs and practice. A Christian funeral is proper; other choices embrace some kind of error." As culture becomes more diverse, it becomes vital for society to embrace funeral practices which support different belief systems. "When families fall under the Pagan umbrella of beliefs, communicating their desires and wishes clearly nurtures better understanding in the industry and allows for comfort during their time of grief," says Mortellus.
Each Death Is Unique
Just as each life is unique, the circumstances and moments of death are marked by the individual. Funerals and burials differ, depending on the wishes of the deceased and the family. Though many follow funeral industry traditions, the actual disposal of the remains allows for several options. Regular cremation, open-air cremation (a funeral pyre), resomation, aquamation, and natural organic reduction are some of the possibilities embraced by Wiccan traditions.
Defining life as cyclical is a bit simplistic. What the afterlife means varies from individual to individual. The Wiccan practices that life changes and continues. "Each group teaches different things about reincarnation. For some, reincarnation is a specific life, for others it may be the dirt that gives life to other plants, animals or beings," offers Mortellus. "It changes, grows and regenerates."
A common misconception about Wiccan beliefs affirms a Wiccan funeral mimics a green or environmental funeral. Many Wiccan funerals are held in a natural setting. Few would be housed inside a funeral home. "But the difference," said Mortellus, "is the difference between being nature based and nature-aligned." The fact that nature is such a part of the process dictates that a more natural burial or cremation is the norm.
Rituals and Rites of the Wiccan Funeral
Wiccan funeral practices and rituals can be quite different from other religions. Beliefs can also vary within Wiccan traditions. "Just as Christianity has different denominations whose beliefs and practices vary considerably, Wiccan and pagan beliefs have sects or covens who share different practices and beliefs," explains Mortellus. Several customs have common threads.
Wiccan beliefs see death as a transition or change. Just as pre-planning a traditional funeral has become popular, pre-planning for Wiccans is vital for making their beliefs and personal preferences known so they can be incorporated into a service. Other funeral celebrants may perform the ceremony as long as respect, empathy, and care are offered toward the family's preferences.
Wiccan funerals usually involve a ceremony created to help the deceased in their journey and to help the family and loved ones heal through the grieving process. The ceremony is usually conducted by a priest or priestess. "Although services tend to be small, friends and family are welcome to attend. There may be portions of a service that are not open to the public, not to be secretive, but to help others not be left out or confused because they don't know what to do," mentioned Mortellus.
Another rite or ritual is the ceremony focused on the burial. This portion of the gathering continues to be conducted by the priest and priestess, but other members can participate. Following the burial, loved ones share stories, offer chants, and pray.
Prayers and Chants
The prayers and chants used will differ, depending upon the desires of the deceased and the family. Often Celtic or Pagan blessings, chants, or prayers are used. The priest or priestess who is officiating may offer Wiccan-specific prayers or an individual prayer. Families are encouraged to be specific in a will regarding the wishes for the funeral service.
Lighting of Candles
In many pagan or non-pagan traditions, lighting candles for the dead is a vital part of the ceremony. Candles are used to contrast light and darkness, and are significant in crossing-over ceremonies. Many Wiccan funerals will use a variety of candle lighting and burning rituals in the service.
Rituals are based from the observance and practice of life. Some rituals are a part of the pre-planning for the funeral, and others occur during the service itself. "For example, seating most likely will be in a circular setting rather than linear. Things don't nicely fit into rows," commented Mortellus. Here are a few examples.
- Creatively working with your hands. Building your own coffin can produce a reflective and thoughtful experience. The coffin can be used as a bookshelf in the interim.
- Life and Death Masks add to the process. A plaster cast can be made earlier in life and then again after passing. The masks can become a part of the family heirlooms and legacy.
- Sewing together a shroud that can be used during the services provides another opportunity for reflection and communication.
- The priest and priestess will have specific rituals to be used for exceptional circumstances, like the death of a child, a death by suicide, an unexpected death or the death from someone whose illness had lingered.
Rely on Respect
While it is challenging to know the customs and traditions of every religious and spiritual system, entering a funeral ceremony with respect and care provides a starting place which unites all. When participating in a Wiccan funeral, respecting the preferences of the family commemorates the life and death of the deceased. The focus on change, nature and tradition brings comfort and encouragement during a time of grieving.