Death sandwich

A sandwich is a thing framed by another thing, with the thing in the middle being the part that matters when it’s being named:  it’s a ham sandwich, not a rye sandwich.  This is why I find the phrase “compliment sandwich” utterly nonsensical; it should be called a criticism sandwich, a putdown hero, an insult slider, or something of that sort.

I can say with confidence that the warm part of this year, for me, has been a death sandwich.

To begin with, my wife and I bought our graves.  It’s the most expensive thing I have ever purchased as a result of writing an article for the Wild Hunt.  Spending is in my nature, which is why I focus a lot of energy on saving.  I bought something pretty much anytime I went on a trip, and any number of items in my possession resulted from an interview I did, like the Hermes oracle cards I got after lunch with Bob Place, the stone divination set I picked up at Changing Times-Changing Worlds, or the steampunk belt with thigh holster I ordered after seeing one at Rites of Spring.  It was when I wrote about my friend Deana Reed, and learned that she was buried in a natural cemetery just one town away from my own, that I knew it was time to invest in some real estate.


Not mine; looks like a neighbor is moving in.

My dear old dad used to say, “Just toss me naked in a ditch,” knowing full well that he had a guaranteed spot in a veterans’ cemetery which wouldn’t allow for that.  I’m not entirely sure he was joking, and regardless I find the idea appealing.  Certainly more appealing than embalming, or cremation (which can also include embalming), which are really quite nasty from an environmental perspective.  Now that we have the deed to two adjacent plots in the wooded natural burial section of this local cemetery, I’m that much closer to getting away with it.  Certainly I cannot be buried with any artificial fibers or plastic crap, and my only container options are a pine box or just a board.  If I outlive my wife, I think I can probably get away with naked, but it would certainly take careful planning.

A sandwich, I already noted, is a thing framed by another thing.  Purchasing a grave is not death, and even if it was this is the bread, not the meat.  The meat of a death sandwich is death.

I told my mother about my new purchase when we took our annual pilgrimage to my father’s grave around Memorial Day, when the flags are everywhere.  As was her wont, she looked at me like I had two heads, not for planning ahead (she’d planned and paid for her entire funeral some 15 years ago), but for my enthusiasm.  I was thinking her reaction two months later, when after a month of drifting back and forth through the veil, I was again at that cemetery to commit her mortal remains and rejoin them with those of her beloved husband.  I and others shepherded her as best we could in the weeks ahead, and I continued that work with offerings of tea with milk as she transitioned to being an ancestor.  She was ready to get to work in short order.

A death sandwich is death framed by another thing.  The thing which sandwiches death for me this year is the idea of death.  In the spring I purchased a grave, acknowledging death, and this autumn I acknowledge it again by inviting my co-religionists to honor Haides with words.

October 31 is when submissions open for The Host of Many: Hades and his Retinue, and it is long in coming.  I frequently see posts from Hellenic polytheists grumbling about portrayals of Hades in popular culture, or expressing frustration that his emerging cult doesn’t have a lot of historical sources upon which to be built.  This is an opportunity to change that.  At the same time, I know there are a huge number of underworld deities and spirits who might never see the cover of an anthology; they deserve honor, and I dearly hope to see as many submissions about these lesser-known gods as I receiver for Hades himself.

Do the research.  Write the paper.  Script the ritual.  Offer the prayer.  Help me finish making my death sandwich.

Standing between death and the dead

This time of year is when I most strongly feel the ancestors around me.  Memorial Day was yesterday, and tomorrow is the anniversary of my father’s birth.  Six years ago my cat went missing on June 9, and I wonder if he yet lives, or I may honor him among the dead.  This past weekend I helped adopt someone who lived in my town until his death four years ago as a community ancestor.

Perhaps that’s why I found myself weeping as I wrote yesterday’s remembrance of Taliesin Myrddin, who died trying to prevent hate.  I didn’t know the man at all, nor any of his loved ones; this was not personal grief.  Normally I don’t feel the deaths of strangers deeply; there are far too many people dying in the world for me grieve them all and yet live.  His death touched me, and divination confirms that my own dead wanted it to.

First, a little something about Ludwig Montesa, a man “whose unconventionality, both mentally and physically, sometimes unsettled people who didn’t know him,” according to one obituary.  He died in 2013, while I was at a point in my studies of Hellenismos at which I was learning about Hekate, the Deipnon, and ancestor veneration.  I knew him as a friendly, if slightly peculiar, man who was a constant presence in our downtown; when news of his death spread, I found stunned to discover the number of people whose lives he had touched.  My first ancestor offering was made at the impormptu shrine which emerged not far from where his parents ran a gift shop.  It had much the look of many impromptu shrines:  flowers, candles, heartfelt messages of grief were included, but also Metro cards, which to him were the connection to his favorite metropolitan area.

In the years since his passing, I have come to know Ludwig Montesa better than I did in life.  He transgressed boundaries of gender and personal space, ignored the hobgoblins of shame and comparison to others, and embraced himself with joy and abandon.  He was known for high-fives that never seemed to end, karaoke performances unfettered by self-consciousness, and an enduring love for New York City (which to me was the most alien thing about him).  Each May since he died there has been a Ludwig Day replete with games, musical performances, and remembrances.  I’d never been able to make it for one reason or another, but it was clear that Ludwig Montesa had a festival in his honor, much like the heroes of old.

This year I decided I was going to lead an ancestor-veneration ritual for Ludwig.  It meant forgoing Rites of Spring, but local praxis should take precedence.  Family members were on board, and one of them was in attendance.  A photographer for our local paper was also there, and gave me some images from the event.

It was a short ritual, with about fifteen people in attendance.  I set up a low table as a shrine, using a black cloth and candle mostly because people in this color associate black with death.  Before it was a really stunning framed portrait that captures Ludwig’s eccentric flair.  I did a brief overview of ancestor veneration and how in Hellenic tradition the dead are down in the underworld.  I invited him to attend and poured out an offering of Diet Coke, one of his favorite beverages.  Participants were invited to offer flowers, Metro cards, and brief remembrances; I had some of the first two for people who were unprepared.  (Cards with money still loaded on them will be distributed to those in need in his name.)

This was the first public ritual I’ve ever led, and it went quite well.  I felt Ludwig’s presence and had the opportunity to honor him in a way befitting his near-shamanic life.  Our communities all have local heroes, and it’s appropriate to identify and honor them.

Coming off of that experience, and readying myself for this annual pilgrimage of mine, I found myself learning about a young man who stuck is neck out to help some strangers, and got a knife in it for his trouble.  It’s both hard to bear and completely inspiring.  How many of us would put their bodies between hate and harm like Taliesin Myrddin did?  Who among us truly knows the answer to that question without it being tested like it was for him?

There’s more to tell in that story, to be sure; a member of his family may be speaking with me soon, and his mother seems to be responding to this tragedy with a combination of love and activism.  Like her son, she inspires me, and I hope to be able to speak to her at some point.  Even if I lived in that town, I am not the kind of reporter who could knock on a door and say, “Your son was just violently killed.  How do you feel?”  There is a need for personal space and time which transcends freedom of the press.

For me, the time for honoring death will continue through July, as I intend on undertaking the Vigil for the Bulls again.  It’s curious that it is now, as spring bursts into life, that death is closest to me.  Such is the mystery.

In closing, some pictures of the ancestor rite for Ludwig Montesa.

Cultivating sources


Paul Beyerl [Wikimedia Commons].

When I asked to interview Paul Beyerl for this week, it was because I strongly believe in preserving the wisdom of our elders.  Now in his seventies, Beyerl was easy to talk to in part because he’s not put off by the idea that he’s an elder.  What I wasn’t expecting from the conversation was news that his church’s center would be uprooted and moved in the near future, after 24 years establishing a botanical garden in the suburbs of Seattle.

That’s the joy of journalism: discovering interesting information that the people holding it don’t necessarily think is newsworthy.  It takes good questions, intuition, luck, and often a lot of time to get those answers.

Earlier in the week, The Wild Hunt posted an update about the Druid Daniel Scott Holbrook, based on a court transcript in which the prosecutor asserted in closing arguments that Holbrook had not downloaded hundreds of images accidentally, as he’s claimed.  There were people who had that information when I wrote the original article, but for various reasons didn’t believe it to be newsworthy, ergo I didn’t find out until I saw the transcript, and only then did I start asking questions.

The occasional detractor of the news site for which I write will complain about a lack of investigative journalism.  I have to wonder if such people understand what that kind of work requires.  While it’s not technically difficult, conducting investigations takes quite a bit of time.  Back when newspapers were the go-to source for news, there were reporters who spent weeks or months on a single story, talking to people and sifting through documents in search of the truth.

I would love to throw myself into that kind of work, but if I spent 40 hours a week on chasing down mysteries in the Pagan community, I wouldn’t have time for any other writing.  I contribute to several other news sites and publications, all of which pay me a flat write per story, stories which take time to research and write.  The Wild Hunt is no different in that regard.  My family couldn’t afford to give up those other sources of income, and The Wild Hunt treasury isn’t big enough to pay me what I would need to do that full time.

What’s required for deeper, more thorough investigations?  Money.  Lots and lots of money.  To turn just one reporter into an investigative machine would require more than doubling how much money is donated during the annual fund drive.  I base that on my own situation, which is unusual because I’m not the primary earner.  Replacing my lost income, plus adding a new reporter to the weekly rotation (because I likely wouldn’t have a finished story every week, and the ten-year-plus tradition of new content daily could not be broken) would run about $20,000.

I stand ready to do more for the Pagan communities.  Are Pagans and polytheists willing to step up and make that possible?

Not knowing is the worst

Today marks a week since I’ve seen my cat . . . and five years since my father finished dying.  There are a lot of unknowns associated with loss and death, and they really speak to the human condition.

Myrlyn was meant to be wild and free, that much I know.  His mishaps and maladies have come mostly from the human intrusions in his life.

  • He nearly fell out of a second-story window right after I got him.  I was petting him and he was stretching into it, so when the screen gave way I caught him.
  • He did fall or jump off of a second story balcony a couple of years later.  He was terribly lonely because I had taken him from a home of constant companionship to an apartment where he was stuck for hours on end while I worked and socialized.  He was missing for three days that time before a friend of mine helped me find him.
  • The last time he was missing was particularly bad, because he’d never been outside in the time I’d known him, and he had a radar-dish collar on which made it probably impossible for him to hunt or fight.  The collar protected a massive wound he’d given himself by excessive grooming between his shoulder blades.
  • That wound was caused by vaccinosis, a condition not accepted by the medical community.  I didn’t understand that the irritation and increased aggression was in part due to me getting him rabies vaccines, year in and year out, despite the fact that it’s been established that one is enough for a lifetime.  His loneliness may have pushed him over the edge.
Once we finally started letting him out when we owned a home, he did get into some fights as he established territory, but they were all of his choosing and he was happier for it.  He established himself as an accomplished hunter and railed at our desire to keep him in overnight.  He sometimes would not come home for dinner if he’d caught his own, but he’d always be back by morning.
Until last week, of course.  Was it the storm?  Did he get his collar off again, and get caught as a stray?  Was he trapped seeking shelter?  Hit by a car?  Forcefully adopted?  I just don’t know, and I really don’t care, as long as he comes back.
Posters and knocking on doors hasn’t worked.  Offerings to Poseidon, Artemis, Hermes, and Hestia Caffeina  have yielded only troubling results.  Every offering to Artemis in particular results in me seeing deer, most strangely a doe and two fawns in midday grazing and playing near a backhoe.  Is that a hint that I should look to new life?  I’ve certainly seen many kittens as I’ve searched what I know of his territory.  The fliers I hung over the mailbox and altar keep falling down . . . is it that the tape won’t stick, or is that to encourage me to look downward, to where his spirit now rests?
I’ve always believed Myrlyn to be the sort of cat who would simply never come home one day, but I can’t say I am ready.  He’s not even ten years old, dammit.
That this is happening during the anniversary of my father’s death-cycle is also on my mind.  I gave him offerings on the anniversary of his birth, which is also the anniversary of the day he fell and sustained a subdural hematoma – bleeding in the brain.  Today marks the day that we took him off life support.  I was his health-care proxy and held the power of attorney, and I believe I failed him.  I knew that he didn’t want to be on machines, and I knew within a few days that he wasn’t going to get better.  I had the legal power to end it, but I didn’t press the issue because our family just wasn’t ready to shift into mourning.
At the very least, my mother and sister and I were very clear about his wishes, but I alone was able to see the truth in the moment.  That’s why he trusted me to do the right thing, and I feel that I caved to pressure and didn’t follow through soon enough.  When the brain surgeon described how patients who recover act, I understood that my initial instinct was correct, and yet here we were ten days later and I hadn’t had the guts to give my father the peace he had asked me for.
What lies in death is unknown, so we react to what we know, the living people, and thoughts and hopes of the breathing ones.  I am filled with doubt about how good a son I was, and doubt about how good a cat companion I am.  There’s just so much that can only be taken on faith.
Just as I did with Dad, I’m not giving up hope for Myrlyn even though the gods and logic both tell me that our chances of being reunited are slim.  I guess that dichotomy is just another puzzling part of the human condition.

Letting a pet die

Pagans like to think that we have a healthy view about death, but it’s still a painful thing to say goodbye to loved ones.  I’ve been confronted with the passing over of animal friends recently, and I think it’s even more difficult when you’re dealing with a pet, companion, or familiar.  Most of us don’t make the decision to end the life of our human loved ones, but doing so for an animal is much more common.

I was talking with a friend of mine about how difficult it can be to help a pet through its end of days.  She was telling me how her cat Nate had stopped eating, and that they decided it was time.

“You did the right thing,” I told her.  “Once they stop eating, it’s time to help them go.”

Tears welled in her eyes as she said, “You think so? . . . because the last day he ate again and was acting better.”

“That happens all the time,” I explained to her.  I told her about my brother’s dog, who had stayed with my parents and I when he moved out of state.  Plato loved his back yard and loathed both cars and vets, and although he adored my brother we decided that asking him to go hundreds of miles in a car to live with him would have been cruel.  When he reached the point where he couldn’t stand up to go outside (another clear indicator that it’s time), we called my brother and he made arrangements to drive up to see his dog one final time. I whispered this information into Plato’s ear, and he struggled to his feet, went for a walk, and ate a meal.

A last-minute burst of energy often accompanies the knowledge that death will be soon; I think the relief that the burden of carrying about one’s body is a big factor in this.

My friend was reassured by my words. It’s not easy to decide to euthanize.  Are you going to cut a life short, betraying this creature which loves and trusts you completely?  Will your hesitation cause undue suffering?  Another friend of mine is wrestling with her dog’s end-stage kidney failure.  She gives him fluids every day, he’s losing weight fast, and it’s tough to tell from the outside if he’s having any fun anymore.

It’s really bloody awful tough to make such a powerful, permanent decision.  In fact, when the late Cleveland Amory wrote the final book about his cat Snowball (who shared a name with my own first family pet), I was moved to tears and wrote him to tell him so.  My own Snowball was the only pet who just up and died on me; in addition to Plato I’ve helped two of my own cats and several friends’ pets pass over.  Plato probably had the best passing, because it happened in his own back yard on a sunny day, no stainless steel tables and no cars to stress him out.  My wife’s cat Gremlin also had a home death on Samhain two years ago, and the vet who shepherded her over always made a practice of saying, “Merry meet, merry part, and merry meet again” when the end came.

I even was trusted with making that decision for my father, and I am grateful that he placed that level of trust in me.  In that case, my decision could not be unilateral; if it were I would have allowed him to go two weeks earlier, but my family needed to time to come to terms with his brain injury and I don’t believe he suffered in his coma.  I feel blessed that I have never wavered or doubted when I have needed to make that decision; I have a clarity in that moment and know that it’s time.

I can only hope that my clarity will be passed on to whoever must make the decision to allow me to pass over.