Cemetery Theory in the Upland South

From a blog about the archaeology of American cemeteries:

There are cemeteries that are formally laid out, for example, most city cemeteries (many of which follow the ideas of the Rural Cemetery movement, but that’s a topic for another day), then there are the folk cemeteries – those that follow a folk, or vernacular, pattern. The distinction is roughly analogous to that between Landmark Architecture (created by professionally trained and schooled architects) and Vernacular Architecture (everything else – often applied to barns, houses, and other structures). Like Folk/Vernacular Architecture, Folk Cemeteries follow a cultural pattern developed through tradition and practical experience. There are many different traditions in cemeteries, one of which is the Upland South Folk Cemetery as defined by D. Gregory Jeane. I’m going to prevent a sort of thumbnail sketch of the Upland South Folk Cemetery (USFC), if you’d like to know more check out suggested reading at the end of this post.

Fascinating reading.


Wiccan Green Burials Make Headlines

The Chicago Tribune’s Pagans-at-Halloween story focuses on formaldehyde-free “green burials” at Circle Sanctuary in Wisconsin.

“The thought of getting filled up with formaldehyde and being placed in a sealed, laminated casket and put into a cement box in the ground is not in keeping with preserving Mother Earth,” said [Ana] Blechschmidt, a volunteer chaplain at Northern Illinois University.

“We believe the soul is eternal and immortal. So we want to leave as small a physical footprint as possible. If you honor the Earth you live on, how can you desecrate her and still honor the person you’re burying?”

I absolutely agree. But I still don’t like the C-word: “church.” I don’t like the expectations of active clergy/passive congregation-with-a-rectangular building that it carries. I don’t know if the writer applied that term or if the Circle folks used it.

Gallimaufry with Forbidden Phrases

• According to John Rentoul of the British newspaper The Independent, these phrases should be banned due to overuse. He tips his hat to George Orwell, all well and good, but someone in the comments notes that the Irish satirist Brian O’Nolan also eviscerated bureaucratese in his day, which was even earlier.

• Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” is a staple of introductory psychology classes. But Gary Lachman (a/k/a Gary Valentine of Blondie, etc.) at The Daily Grail notes that it can take some odd twists in the world of the esoteric: “Maslow’s vision of a kind of Brahmin caste of ‘self-actualizers,’ uninterested in the kind of material gratification that most people desire, and oriented toward more ‘spiritual’ concerns, is a recurring fantasy in the world of occult politics.” Read the rest.

• If you have a book proposal in mind, does it include zombies? Get on the zombie bandwagon! Consider this one: “Christ, mythras [sic], and Osiris as zombie archetypes – a new spirituality for a new age…”

• Odd manners of dying in sixteenth-century England.

Practical Magic, a Blogging Roundup

• From Lupa at Therioshamanism, “How to Talk to Dead Things.” Dead animal things, that is.

• From Strategic Sorcery, on why setting goals is not the same as accomplishment.

• From Gangleri’s Grove, thoughts on working with ancestors and a ritual for “elevating” them.

• From Witchful Thinking, a reminder about the basics of Moon phases in practical magic.

An Old-Fashioned Funeral

In the southern Colorado town of Crestone, a woman gets an old-fashioned funeral.

Belinda Ellis’ farewell went as she wanted. One by one, her family placed juniper boughs and logs about her body, covered in red cloth atop a rectangular steel grate inside a brick-lined hearth. With a torch, her husband lit the fire that consumed her, sending billows of smoke into the blue-gray sky of dawn.

People do still occasionally light funeral pyres. The Pagan Book of Living and Dying (1997) describes one such in Texas. When I read that chapter, I suddenly understood references in Classical texts to “funeral games.”

It takes hours for the pyre to burn down, so what do you do in the meantime? Race your horses? Play volleyball?

But disregard the next-to-last paragraph in the Yahoo article—the legendary stuff.  Crestone is a quirky place—and people work to keep it that way—but overall there  is more “fakelore” generated about the San Luis Valley than about anywhere else in Colorado. People even say that I was born there.

Around the Pagan Blogosphere

Ways of leaving offerings for land wights, at Golden Trail.

Hermes versus the Internal Revenue Service (and a great poem) at The Alchemist’s Garden.

• “Animist Human Diplomats”  at Adventures in Animism. Are you asking more than you are giving?

• Still on the theme of place: Dealing with a psychically hostile place of the dead, from Three Shouts on a Hilltop.

The Revenants’ Tales and What They Tell Us

A few key ideas hold the promise of keeping Pagan religions distinct from the people who go around claiming the “all Truth is one” etc. (When I hear that, I also hear “You will be assimilated.”)

An obvious one is polytheism.

Another is the concept of the multiple soul, which wends its way through Claude Lecouteux’s The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind, published by Inner Traditions.

Focused mainly on Indo-European traditions, this attempts to illuminate a “complex belief system at whose heart reside the fundamental beliefs touching upon the soul, the beyond, and ancestor worship” (vii).

Lecouteux, a retired French medievalist, relies heavily on old stories and sagas and a little bit on archaeology  to seek the premodern “Pagan” experience of ghosts, the virtuous dead, the unquiet dead, and other revenants—those who return from the dead for whatever reason.

Not surprisingly, the increasing influence of Christianity led to changed attitudes, with a little top-down guidance:

The notion of suffrages [prayers, petitions] helpful to the dead gave birth to the directives serving to eliminate worship of the dead, a core feature of paganism. It was adulterated and recuperated with great subtlety and wherever possible, the saints replaced the good ancestors—the objects of a cult connection to the [Indo-European] third function (fecundity/fertility)—and liturgical feasts replaced the pagan festivals (50).

Naturally, the concept of multiple souls familiar to more shamanic cultures had to be dampened down to the Christian norm, although some ideas of “the double” lingered.

Nonetheless, both these early-medieval  European Christians and their Pagan ancestors shared a pre-modern world view that was more alike than ours with theirs. In the author’s words, they participated in “a divine cosmogony: [where] perpetual motion animated the world, pulling men and things; everything fit inside a perfect circle encompassing the visible and the invisible; human beings and gods; the real and the possible; past, present, and future” (153).

We try to return to what we imagine that pre-modern “wholeness” felt like. Indeed, such a return has been a theme of art and religion for several centuries. Through ritual, magic, entheogens, or extreme experience we cross the divide going backwards, but it is very very difficult to stay.

Perhaps that longing for the “perfect circle” is why one colleague argues that in contemporary Paganism, the calendar—the wheel of the year—is more important than the gods.

One digression: through reading The Return of the Dead, I understand better why people being executed are often given hoods or blindfolds. It is not to spare their feelings, nor even is it just to depersonalize them and make the the executioners’ job easier. It is to prevent the dying person from casting the Evil Eye upon the living.

I am keeping this book at hand for reading on winter nights.

(For the grammarians reading this: The vague pronoun reference in the post’s title is deliberate.)

Departed Pagan Elders

On the home page of the Green Egg (now free for download), see a list of “departed Pagan pioneers, founders, and elders.”

I do not think that Dorothy Clutterbuck belongs there, however. She was the unwitting victim of Gerald Gardner’s Gemini sense of humor, I think. But aside from her, these pioneers deserve to be remembered.

Falling Stars

A multicolored, long Perseid crossing the sky (from Wikipedia).

A multicolored, long Perseid crossing the sky (Wikipedia).

Last night after walking the dogs I spread an old blanket on the ground and lay watching the stars.

The Perseid meteor shower is under way, and in 15 minutes I saw five meteors.

One was just a blip of light, two were quick, and two left long streaks.

I had felt emotionally low all day. Isaac Bonewits’ passing was part of the cause, but only part, I think.

We were friends at a distance, but rarely saw one another. He moved East, and I have attended only one festival there in my life, and it was not one that he came to.

The time of year is part of it. After all those years in the classroom, mid-August still seems like the end of summer.

Last week I was talking with a friend at the university library. She mentioned that university convocation, which is followed by college and department meetings, comes next week. She said that I flinched when I heard that—even though it no longer affects me, even though it no longer means the end of summer break.

Back when our ancestors chopped with stone, they no doubt watched the night sky much more than we do. And they saw falling stars, of course, and no doubt they made analogies between meteors and human lives.

Isaac’s was one of the long streaks—at least so far as we Pagans are concerned. But there is so much black between the stars.

Still, watch the sky-show if you can. It is all that there is.