Death and Dying in a Pagan Context- Grief Rituals and Meditations

This was my homework for my recently completed class- on Death and Dying in a pagan context. I really should have come up with more ideas, though… so I am open to suggestions and thoughts on improvement, or other resources!

Rituals for the Transformative Nature of Bereavement

In our readings on the grief process and considerations of bereavement, we have been urged to “companion” the grieving[1]. This model teaches an active kind of listening- not trying to “insert” oneself into the grieving process, or hurry the bereaved, but to witness their process.  The Kubler-Ross grief cycle also us a good model for the types of mental states we might encounter, when communicating with the grieving.

As I read through the document entitled “Bereavement Counseling- A Framework”, I thought about the ways in which I am accustomed to create ritual.  I found the information challenging to my perspective as a coven leader and Priestess, so much of the power of pagan ritual comes from transformation and mystery- the core of what we do ritually and spiritually is express change in our lives-whether the rituals are seasonal or related to rites of passage. Implicit in this formula is the understanding that we must achieve “results.” How then to “witness” rather than “push” the grief process- how best to assist the bereaved in finding the change within and draw it from themselves, facilitating rather than dictating? We usually do this is  by inviting our deities to preside over the change we want to effect, according to their unique roles and stories and weaving our own needs into the power of those myths. This applies both to rites of passage and seasonal rituals. How then to focus on grief rituals with a healing aspect that do not “force” the change but merely witness and assist it, and bring in pagan myth besides?  The grief rituals mentioned in “Grief Counseling Resource Guide: A Field Manual”[2] are excellent resources for beginning this process. The manual describes four types of ritual- Rituals of Continuity, in which the deceased person is recognized as still a part of the bereaved life; Rituals of Transition, in which the acknowledgement of transition has occurred through a chance in the environment- such as cleaning out the deceased’ clothing; Rituals of Affirmation; in which the bereaved are able to write letters or express to the deceased the impact of their life on the bereaved; and rituals of Intensification- group mourning in which a common focus for those who have lost individuals to a common means of death (the AIDS Quilt and the Vietnam Memorial are cited) come together to express their grief collectively.

My goal was to reinterpret these types of rituals in a pagan context, making use wherever possible of existing myths to serve as inspiration and backdrop.

In order not to detract from the grief rituals themselves, I have not presented a set “opening” or ritual framework for their use. For example, in the Wiccan ritual framework with which I am most familiar, most rituals start out with a preparation of the ritual space (cleansing the space, censing the space with incense) casting the circle, inviting the 4 elements, and evoking or (in some cases) invoking the deities that will preside over the work of the ritual. Only then does the “work” of the ritual begin. Similarly, in ADF-style Druidry, the participants acknowledge the cosmos (Land, Sky, and Sea) and then make a series of offerings before the main work commences. I have decided not to suggest any hard and fast “openings” for these exercises, because these opening rituals vary by Neo-Pagan tradition. Moreover, this allows these grief rituals to adapted and changed according to the needs of the participants- they can be performed by the individual (in some cases), by his or her family and close friends, or as a component of a larger ritual conducted as part of a faith community.

These rituals are also chosen to be tailored to particular kinds of grief because of the nature of the mythological stories that I have chosen to match them to.

Grief Ritual I: Comfort to a mother who has lost a child in military service

Purpose of this Exercise

This ritual is a private grieving exercise for a parent mourning a son or daughter who has died in the line of military duty, This ritual is especially useful if the individual is a mother, and it is meant for a pagan family but can be adapted if the parents are not pagan but the child was. The inspiration from this piece comes from the following passage in the Battle of Mag Turead (often pronounced Moy Tura), relating to the Goddess Brigid, who triple function is in the realms of smith-craft, poetry, and healing (especially midwifery).

Brigit and Ruadan

“ they sent a man of them to spy out the battle and the actions of the Tuatha de, namely, Ruadan son of Bres and of Brig the Dagda’s daughter. For he was a son and grandson of the Tuatha de. Then he related to the Formorians the work of the smith and the wright and the brazier and the four leeches who were around the well. He was sent again to kill one of the artisans, that is Gobiniu (the smith). From him he begged a spear, its rivets from the brazier and its shaft from the wright. … Now after the spear had been given to him, Ruadan turned and wounded Goibniu. But Goibniu plucked out the spear and cast it at Ruadan, so that it went through him, and he died in the presence of his father in the assembly of the Fomorians. Then Brig came and bewailed her son. She shrieked at first, she cried at last. So that then was the first time crying and shrieking (keening) was heard in Ireland.”[3]

Keening is a kind of ritualized mourning and wailing that took place in Ireland as a funeral practice up until the 16th century. According to some sources, it was original the purview of royal bards who would speak about the lives of the deceased. Eventually, women known as the “bean caioneadh” would fulfill this function.  Some recordings of keening in the Irish language were preserved in a Smithsonian Folkways recording ”Songs of the Arran Islands” which can be found and downloaded on their website.

(My song is inspired by the English translation of that song found in the liner notes of the recording) (my voice and “composition”

The people who facilitate this ritual are the pagan equivalent of “Gold Star” mothers- that is, they have lost their sons or daughters to combat, and they are facilitating the ritual not to force the person to grieve when they are not ready, or in a manner that is uncomfortable to them, but to give them support and assistance and to provide a bond. According to the website for this military service organization, Gold Star Mothers are an “organization of mother who have lost a son or daughter in the military”[4].  They participate in events around the country and have local chapters, offering support to veterans and to each other. In the sense that this ritual provides a connection from people who have suffered a common kind of loss, it can be seen as a Ritual of Intensification.

Room Setup:

The Ritual is set up with a large table on which a glass bowl has been situated. Around the bowl are images, chosen by the bereaved, of the person who has passed- along with tokens from the sons/daughters of the other mothers. To the side or in the back, there is a smaller table, with a pitcher of water, perhaps some flowers, and some glasses which have been brought by the participants. There is also a large plate of bread and cookies (the use for this will be apparent later)

One by one, each of the participants relates the story of how their own son or daughter can was lost and who that person was. They relate their personal story, and pour their water in to the large bowl.


Brigit, daughter of Dada, and Saint Brigit, the Abbess of Kildare, was known for her compassion. She was in the ancient tales a grieving mother, but she was also a compassionate healer. Many wells throughout Ireland were dedicated to her, including the Well that is still visited by many pilgrims today in Kildare. We invite you to take of this water of this well. It has been tended to by your sisters; it contains not only our grief, but our healing wishes.

(At this time the “mother” is invited to either drink from a cup, or, if she is not able to/is overcome with emotion to take some water from the well and bottle it later)

The Participants sing this song:

The First Keening

Oh, Oh Ochone,

Oh grief in the night and the morning.

where is he that tore a river from my eyes?

My son no more shall see morning.

Oh, Oh, Ochone,

Oh grief in the night and the morning

Why was he sent, a spy to his own

Our kings are thieving the mothers.

Oh, Oh, Ochone

Grief at the Day and the Morning,

What song did it sing, what shriek from arrow did ring?

Oh Glory, vain Glory, has forged it

Och, Och, Ochone,

Grief at the Day and the Morning,

What has made ashes of my soul?

The fires of conflict have made it.

Och, Och, Ochone

I’ll shriek at the Day til he comes

They tell me he’s gone gone away to glory

I forge tears for my children in vain

Och, Och Ochone

There is dawn at the day, and warmth in the dark

We sing to make you, make you whole

We sing that you will never forget.

After the singing of this song, which the bereaved person listens to but does not participate in, the bereaved person can pass bread to the others, perhaps something she has baked, in order to share thanks and return the bond.

Grief Ritual II- A Ritual of Affirmation

The Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is found in many sources, but one of the loveliest versions is in Book 10 of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. The tale is told of how Orpheus, who was taught the lyre by Apollo, loved Eurydice, a wood nymph. On their wedding day, the omens were unfavorable; she was bitten by poisonous sake and forced into the underworld. Such was the skill of Orpheus’ skill on the harp, the Hades agreed to let Eurydice follow him out of the Underworld provided he did not look back. Orpheus was unable to contain his excitement; he looked back, and lost his bride forever.

The meditation/exercise is inspired not from Orpheus’ point of view but from Eurydice’s but from the Experience of Eurydice. And since music is an important component of that story, it figures into this exercise as well.

This exercise is suitable especially for someone who has lost a life partner such as spouse, or lover.


Breathe Deep. Ground and Center. Become more and more relaxed. In the screen of your mind see you a deep, dark, velvety blackness. As you focus on that blackness, which is warm and comforting, imagine yourself being lifted up and carried. You are as light as air, your mind has the capacity to travel wherever it needs to. After a while, you get the  sense that your feel have gently touched the ground, and the awareness of your other senses awakens until you sense that you are in a warm place, a kind of grove that is kissed by summer. Your eyes grow accustomed to trees that have the most delicious fruits hanging from them, and there is a marble bench here, which is situated next to a brook.

You feel a sense of calm and peace here, that this place has been crafted almost our of a storybook just for you to step into. Let every detail reflect that peace as your construct it in your mind.

After a while, the song of a bird stirs your revelry and you follow his meanderings until he alights once more on that bench. You do the same, and as you settle there, you start listening to the songs that that the brook makes as it bubbles along the course. In between the typical songs of bubbling water and the rush of stream against rock, a strain of music develops. Listen carefully. This is a strain of music that, as you listen, contains the favorite music of the one you have lost. It can be either “your song” the music that you recall together as playing when you first met, or it can be a unique song that is playing now for the first time. Take time to find the song in the rushing of the waves. If it helps you to hum this song once you find it. Please do so. This is the way that Orpheus communicated to his love; even while separated, music has the ability to trickle down into every soul; it is the greatest gift of those who have loved one another, their memory of shared music. Allow yourself to be refreshed with the music and the memory you experienced here.

When you feel you are ready to go, you can leave this place. You may want to leave an offering of a physical nature (that you leave in your minds eye, such as a rose), or you may leave a tune of your own. You can come here during any season, and repaint the landscape in your mind.

NOTE: Another good option for this meditation, particularly if the individual feels unskilled at creative visualization or needs a backdrop to get started, is to play a cd of running water such as might be available in a new age shop. I would caution against anything else besides actually recording of running water- no musical or synthesized musical overlay.

Grief Ritual III- A Ritual of Transition:

Although the focus on this class has been on human death and dying, we did touch upon the catastrophic changes to the environment- natural disasters, fires in the home, et cetera. Although these life events may or may not involve human casualties, they also merit their own treatment as a grieving ritual.

One of the things that is apparent from the literature on grief counseling is that any witness to the stages of grief must understand that the individual is not just losing a loved one, they are using a world view, and entire cosmos. One way to counteract this is to give the person power to create their own cosmos.

Sit them down in a creative visualization in which they are given the power to create a landscape out of air, fire, earth and water.  With instruction to make a safe home, they can create a new image of what an inner meditative home would look like. A safe space to go towards for creating meditation.

Once out of trance, they can draw this picture. If it starts out abstract, as the person begins to re-build their life they can put cut out images from a magazine, even re-imaging or reclaiming parts of their old home via surviving photograms, to assist in the healing process.

There are many good creation myths including in Egyptian mythology, and Norse Mytholgy,  that describe how the world was made and can be read for inspiration. Even Tolkein’s Silmilarillion contains a creation myth that can be used for this purpose; not all the myths have violent undertones (as several of the versions of the Greek Creation myth do)

Grief Ritual IV- Death of Parent (for use of a young child)- A Ritual of Affirmation

In Greek Mythology, figures in mythology were placed amongst the stars. This is a device used for many myths-including Ganymede, Andromeda, Perseus.

Stars engender a sense of wonder in children. A creative art project might be for the child to produce artwork that represents a constellation, with each star representing a good memory of that parent. If the child is old enough and can be explained the difference between ancient astrology and astronomy, a trip to the Planetarium might be useful. The finished piece can also be collaged with actual photographs of the adult with the child, or with other images, and framed and put on the wall.

Great Ritual V

A Ritual of Continuance

An Offering Bowl for a specific ancestor (this has no myth tied to it per see, but it makes sense to me because many religious traditions recognize food as a tie the sharing of food with the connection to the dead)

In many Wiccan traditions, there is a dumb supper laid out for ancestors at Samhain, the holiday most associated with the dead. Frequently, this is just a meal that is eaten with a plate of food set aside for the ancestor that is then left out (as an offering) or sometimes there is a silent supper that attends as well.

An offering bowl for a particular ancestor can be used on special occasions- such as birthdays or at Samhain- and filled with their favorite food. Setting aside such a bowl, decorating it, (or even having the deceased person decorate it with their own hands before death) could provide a powerful tool for remembrance.

The items in the bowl can be disposed off in nature or left for animals to eat(assuming they are organic offerings)


There are many ways in which grief rituals can be adapted and changed to fit the pagan mindset. Since myths are timeless expressions of the human condition, they are apt metaphors to aid in the creative process of producing grief rituals.  Care must be taken not to push the individual, and sensitivity to the state of mind must also be taken into account. Some myths and the cultures that they arose from may not “gell” for all people- but they can be part of a useful “toolbox” of exercises to aid in the witnessing and the transformative power of healing.

Sources and Bibliography

“American Gold Star Mothers – American Gold Star Mothers Inc, Home,” n.d.

Cross, Tom Pete, and Slover, Clark Harris, eds. Ancient Irish Tales. Henry Holt and Company, 1936.

“HALos-Help After Loss- Grief Rituals.” Welcome to HALOS- Help After Loss, n.d.

Ovid. “CHAPTER XXIV. Orpheus And Eurydice- Aristaeus- Amphion- Linus- Thamyris- Marsyas- Melampus- Musaeus.,” n.d.

Sharon Carpinello, RN, Ph.D. “Grief Counseling Resource Guide: A Field Manual.” New York State Office of Mental Health, 2004.

“The Irish Funeral Cry (the Ullaloo, Keeners and Keening at Irish Funerals,” n.d.

“The Kübler-Ross grief cycle,” n.d.

“YouTube – Kim Mooney, Grief Rituals,” n.d.

[1] Sharon Carpinello, RN, Ph.D, “Grief Counseling Resource Guide: A Field Manual” (New York State Office of Mental Health, 2004), 1.

[2] Ibid., 13

[3] Cross, Tom Pete and Slover, Clark Harris, eds., Ancient Irish Tales (Henry Holt and Company, 1936).

[4] “American Gold Star Mothers – American Gold Star Mothers Inc, Home,” n.d.,


copyright, December 2010 Valerie Freseman

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