Remembering the Dead in Community
by M. Macha NightMare
© The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, p. 294-96
Permission to Reprint Granted by HarperCollins New York
Over the past many years I have had the honor of calling the names of our beloved dead into the Samhain circle at our large community ritual called the Spiral Dance. Over the years the Spiral Dance has evolved and reinvented parts of itself (and changed emphasis and some techniques), but during at least the last eight or nine years we have invited people to call or write us with the names of their Beloved Dead to be included in the ceremony.
I have collected the names and then spent some time assembling them, arranging them, checking to see if any appear several times (different people often call in the same loved one). And always, of course, people give me additional names just before the start of the ritual, so I add them to my list.
During the Samhain sabbat ceremony, after the purification and the circle has been powerfully sung and drummed and danced into sacred space, and while litanies are being offered, we call the names of our own Beloved Dead, to be with us, to witness our rites in their honor.
For many years there was a special litany that honored political and artistic losses along with events of the past year, while the calling of the Beloved Dead (a separate litany) was for personal Beloved Dead. It was nearly impossible not to overlook some public figure who had died who had significant personal meaning to one or more of the celebrants of Samhain.
Meanwhile, as years passed and we all lost more loved ones to death, I began reading the death notices in the local metropolitan paper every day – and still do. (My Witch sister Val says that when she grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District in the fifties and sixties, the obituary column was called “the Irish sporting green.”) This task seems to suit me fine; I have always been fascinated by the snippets of someone’s life reduced to a few lines in the newspaper in an attempt to convey who that person was.
So, as the Lady would have it, I began to collect names from the paper – from the obituary column, the death notices, and the news at large. This I still do. Every week or so I add a few more names, and sometimes even bits of information about the people that I feel really should be remembered and honored at this sacred time of year. Sometimes it is a dancer, a labor leader, a 112-year-old Amazonian aboriginal shaman, a murdered child, a distinguished scientist – all people whose lives should not be forgotten. Needless to say, the list grows long.
The Reclaiming Newsletter and the posters and flyers and other announcements for the Spiral Dance always invite people to call my number to leave names for the list. For several weeks immediately prior to each ritual – and off and on during the entire year, at any time of year – people call and leave names on my answering machine. I add these names to my growing list almost every evening.
Then a week or so before the Spiral Dance ritual I go through the list and arrange it. I take great care to intermingle “ordinary folks” with celebrities so that the better-known figures do not get preeminence over anyone else who died. I often include public figures whom I believe to have been a presence in many people’s lives.
People have called and asked me if I would take a pet’s name. Others have simply left a pet’s name on the answering machine. While I do not encourage pet names because the list gets so long, neither do I decline to include them. I feel that if a pet were significant enough in an owner’s life for the owner to want to mourn the animal in community, then it is not my place to censor.
Over the years the litanies – political, artistic, or otherwise – that included names of prominent people seemed to change. And as I said earlier, we always missed someone who should have been called. So I gradually came to include those names along with our personal beloved dead. I believe that many of these people are our common loss. Many of them are figures who colored our childhoods or inspired our professional, artistic, or personal pursuits.
As celebrants assemble in the hall for the ritual, I wander around the space. I take notice, when I can, of where people I know who have lost a loved one that year are standing or sitting. I continue to take mental note of this as the ritual progresses. I do not obsess over it, and I certainly do not know everyone (or know of all the losses); but I keep it in a bit of my consciousness for later use.
When the time comes for the beloved dead to be called into the Samhain circle, I take a deep breath and walk into the center. I begin with more general words of honor and invocation, talking about why and how very much we want these souls present. Then I begin to call the names – not too fast, and as carefully and accurately as I can. (Some of the names do not come easily to the tongue of a native American English speaker; they require attention. That attention is important to the honor we wish to give our beloved dead.) Sometimes I need to pause a bit to let the names ring in the air. If I know where someone who has lost a loved one is sitting, I try to direct the focus of my voice toward her quadrant of the room. There are two reasons why I do this: I feel that a Beloved Dead will be more attracted to his living loved one with my voice as guidance, and I believe that the living person’s grief is aided/encouraged/loosened by hearing the name so clearly.
People often wail or cry quietly. Graces (priestess who welcome celebrants, tend to those in need or openly mourning, guide people in the spiral dance, keep aisles clear) throughout the space watch to help mourners with embracing arms, tissues, and sometimes ashes. As the list goes on, grieving builds. Those who have nothing to grieve this year help those who do. We ask those whose loved ones have not been called to name them, to call them to our circle. Our Beloved Dead come among us for a last parting before the final crossing over. We have them with us this night when we are all between the worlds – to tell them one last thing, to ask them one last thing, to give them something or to receive something, or to love them one last time.
People have told me that they saw their Beloved Dead one at the Spiral Dance; they have thanked me for calling their loved one’s name; they have thanked me for my correct pronunciation; they have even told me that the moment I called their beloved dead was the single most moving part of the ritual for them. Some people, when they call names to my answering machine, weep or choke up speaking the name, others are abrupt and controlled when saying the actual name. And many thank me over and over again. This feedback convinces me that the work I have done in evolving this rite for communal grieving is valuable. I consider it a great honor to be able to summon the Beloved Dead. I take my charge seriously.
I also believe this works from my personal experience of mourning and honoring my own beloved dead at the Spiral Dance. Somehow it seems easier to let of and to reach closure when it is done in community.
I offer this tale of my finding my way to sharing grief with my community in the spirit of a gift. I hope that my experience inspires you to share grief in community with your loved ones at Samhain.