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The Best Thing About Death

Author: Janice Van Cleve
Posted: November 15th. 2009
Times Viewed: 9,054

What is the best thing about Death? That’s a very unusual question and not one I had ever heard before. It came as quite a shock. We were sitting around in the living room planning our Samhain ritual – by “we” I mean the women who make up our Dianic Wiccan circle. We gather two weeks before each Sabbat to plan our rituals. All of our women are welcome and encouraged to participate in ritual planning – newcomers as well as veterans – to underscore the fact that we create magic entirely from ourselves and from our own energies. All voices are heard and all ideas are welcomed.

We have a basic structure to our rituals, so most of our effort is spent figuring out what the intention will be, because intention is everything. Then we craft a Sacred Question, based on that intention, that each of us must answer during the ritual.

Samhain by its very nature carries themes of Death and the beginning of the Dark season of the year. So we were murking around in deep and serious thoughts about honoring the Dead, what Death means to us, and how we would survive, dead and empty, like Inanna on her hook, when one of our bright young newcomers popped the question: “What is the best thing about Death?” It was bold. It was direct. It was entirely novel and even positive. We decided to use it.

The temple was dark with only the central candle and four directional candles on the altar for illumination. After we invoked the Goddess and blessed the athames, we sat around the altar to answer the Sacred Question. Several women said the best thing about Death was the ending of things – like illness, aches and pains, cares and worries, debts and the like. Others took a different tack and they spoke about being free of the body and its limitations, free to wander and explore. Yet others spoke of transformation or new beginnings.

For me, Samhain is never a new beginning. It is a death, a little death that foreshadows my final death. It is an ending with no beginning, no future in sight. There is nothing to transform unless it is the transformation of something into nothing. It is a step into the Void – into my complete dissolution.

I like that. That is one of the best things about Samhain. I leave behind all my mistakes and my successes, my blunders and my achievements, the guidelines by which I operated over the last year, and I completely empty myself. All those things around my house that have bugged me or gotten in my way during the year I toss out or finally fix. All those clothes that I have not worn in twelve months or more go back to the recycle store. All the assumptions, enmities, infatuations, and energy investments of my past year are up for scrutiny and not a few of them are discarded. Samhain, the little death, is a rich cleansing and invigorating and unburdening experience. It is an opportunity to wipe the slate clean . . . and then perhaps even to throw away the slate!

This is not what some call their “dark time of the soul” in which they find no meaning or purpose to Life and struggle with what is real and what is not. Usually the only people who talk about dark times of their souls are those who have emerged on the other side and have found a new future. The little death of which I speak does not have an exit. Nor is this nihilistic – the total denial of the reality of experience.

Quite the contrary, the little death is a very highly charged experience. It is energizing to be unburdened. That energy is doubled and tripled if no new burdens are placed upon it like hopes and dreams or wishes for the future. Why limit the future like that? Why not instead enter the Dark Time on its own terms as if it were the last time, the Void, the big Death?

In our circle we stay in the dark and void until Candlemas, honoring the dark and its gifts as much as we honor the other seasons of the year. That’s what I find to be the best thing about Samhain’s “little death”.

But what is the best thing about the big Death? There are those who believe in a life after Death. They may believe in an afterlife, a Summerland, or in some form of reincarnation, but I find it much more exciting to see the end as THE END. That is my answer to the question. It is its finality. Instead of stepping through a door, going to a “better place”, or achieving some kind of reward or punishment for the kind of life I have lived, the finality of Death tells me there is nothing beyond my physical demise. There is no reward or better place or white shores and a swift sunrise. There is nothing to which to look forward. Rather, the finality of Death forces me to turn around. It forces me to look backward from its standpoint, to see with its clarity, what remains of my Life.

What a gift this is! What a new perspective this gives to my existence! I don’t have to go through life again in some sort of reincarnation. I don’t have to spend an eternity in somebody else’s heaven or hell. In fact, it has been said that heaven and hell are not places but choices. We choose to live in them right here in the present. With the perspective of Death, I don’t have to wait for heaven. I can choose it now and make it what I want it to be.

Sure, I still have aches and pains and some mornings they are worse than others. I still have demands on my time not of my choosing and financial limitations that preclude any wild abandon on my part. Yet from the perspective of Death, these are minor things. Death clarifies priorities. It helps me see what books I really want to read before I die, what places I really want to see, which people I really want in my life. It gives me impetus to continue learning and growing and exercising my body – not for some future goal – but for the sheer joy of doing these things now.

One of the greatest joys of any heaven we can create is the joy of our friends. The giving and receiving of love and the open handed generosity of feasts and celebrations seem particularly appropriate during the Dark Time of the year. While I am sure the Pilgrims didn’t plan it this way, it is a touch of magic that we gather for Thanksgiving so soon after Samhain. And after that is Yule with all its parties and celebrations. People seem to feel an instinctual urge to reach out and connect in the Dark season. The experience of our little death at Samhain seems to help us appreciate our friends and loved ones all the more. As we are driven inwards by the cold and dark, we begin to see the light within ourselves and within each other. If this is the result of a “little death”, how much more love and light can we see from the perspective of our final Death?

By some perverse logic, Death can be the instrument from which we fill our remaining years with Life. For me, that’s the best thing about it.

Janice Van Cleve is a priestess of the Women Of The Goddess Circle in Seattle. She wrote the following prose poem several years ago from that place brightened by the light of darkness.

by Janice Van Cleve

It was a well-made candle. The wax was fine paraffin melted to 160 degrees and smooth dipped by hand. It contained candle white to keep its shape and a mild fragrance to enhance its appeal. The wick itself was a flat braid of a thickness that matched perfectly the diameter of the taper. The tip was properly trimmed to a quarter inch and the base was razor cut. It was a well-made candle.

The candle stood up tall and straight. Yet for all its beauty and craftsmanship, it was lifeless and useless. Its wick was white and cold. Then came flame. Flame is different than candle. Flame is neither crafted nor molded. It has no ingredients. It has always existed, a timeless elemental, yet it never appears without fuel. Flame seeks fuel in order to manifest. Flame found candle and candle accepted flame. Through their union, candle came to life and flame found a form. A light was born.

The light was not the flame nor was it the candle. The light was unique and individual unto itself. It burned and glowed in its own way. It flickered in response to breezes it alone felt. Flame finds many fuels and burns differently with each of them, yet flame is always the same. Candles, on the other hand, even those made in the same batch, are never identical and therefore each burns differently. Thus each light is singular. Each light brightens its part of the world in its own way and each chases its own shadows.

Candle needs flame to come to life. Flame needs candle to show itself. Light is distinct from both but independent of neither. Eventually flame consumes candle. The wax melts. The wick gives out. Flame sputters and vanishes into smoke. Light cannot remain in the wax, for melted wax will hold no flame. Nor can light leave with flame, for flame gives no light without fuel. Light does not go anywhere. Light ceases.

Someday perhaps the used up wax may be recycled or new wax generated. Someday a new candle may be smooth dipped by hand, with candle white to keep its shape and a mild fragrance to enhance its appeal. Someday flame may come again and find this candle. Perhaps they will accept each other and, for a brief time, give birth to a new light – a light that never existed before. Eventually this union will also spend itself. The wax melts. The wick gives out. Flame sputters and vanishes into smoke. Light ceases.

Who knows how long a candle will burn or what gust of wind may extinguish a flame before the wick is spent? Therefore little light, while you exist, shine with all your heart. Shine with passion. Shine with joy. Shine with exuberance and wonder, with playfulness and delight.

This is your time. This is your place. Now is your chance. This is your only existence. Seek out other lights and add yours to theirs. Make the world as you find it a brighter place. For even one tiny light shining for all it is worth is a light for all.

Janice Van Cleve is a writer who sometimes burns her candle at both ends. Copyright 2004.


Janice Van Cleve

Location: Seattle, Washington

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