Should We Honor All The Dead?

 The Honored Dead.

In modern polytheism and neo-classical shamanism, the two threads that weave together to shape my spiritual life, how we respect and interact with the Dead is very important. We lay out feasts in their honor, seek their council when appropriate, raise shrines to them in our homes, and invoke their names at sacred times. In my own spiritual practices, treating the Dead with respect is of the utmost import.

Unlike many of my fellows on this weird and wyrd journey, the Dead I work most closely with are the wandering and forgotten Dead. Those who dwell in the shadows and whispers of our own world, and whose ties to this world are often far stronger than those who’ve traveled beyond the final river. It is because one of my Jobs is to speak for these unclaimed, wandering, and forgotten ones, that I find myself in the uncomfortable position of writing this essay.

Recently I’ve been wrestling with a challenging spiritual question: Why do we honor the Dead? Do we honor them for their actions in life, or because they are the Dead?

To put it another way, if we honor the Dead, do we honor all of them, or only the ones we like? One obvious answer for many of you will be that we honor our Dead. However, as I’ve written about previously, I don’t have familial Dead to honor, and frankly the vast majority of my co-religionists do not restrict their practices to the recognition of their own ancestors anyway.

It isn’t nearly so academic as a question as you might presume, and the more I’ve tried to tease it apart with friends and colleagues, the more clouded the arguments have become. When pressed on specifics, many people will advance the idea that the those who were underserving of honor or respect in life should not be honored in death. That is to say, we should not pour libations for the murderer, molester, or despot, as we would for their victims.

Yet our own gods have dark sides and histories that may turn our stomachs, yet we honor Them just the same. Speaking personally, there are gods whom I actively dislike, yet I praise Their names when it is appropriate. My own patron Lady glories in destruction that often claim lives and livelihoods, and does so without apology. Moreover, if the wheel of life is ever turning, these ignoble Dead in question may have lived lives of honor in times past or may in the future.

As a speaker for the lost, wandering, and forgotten Dead something happened recently that has compelled me to shine a perhaps harsh light on this topic.

As you may have noticed, 2011 was a rather bad year to be a totalitarian dictator. That could be an essay in itself, but for the purposes of this discussion, we will focus on one incident in particular:

On October 20th 2011 Muammar Gaddafi was taken prisoner by Libyan rebels after a U.S. missile struck his convoy. He was severely beaten, stabbed, and according to some reports, sodomized with a bayonet, before being shot dead. Now, while I personally find torture distasteful in the extreme, I was not there, and cannot criticize his killers. Nor will you find me arguing that his death is any sort of tragedy. Admittedly, Middle Eastern politics is not a speciality of mine, but I don’t think there is any disputing that he was not a good man, or a just ruler.

After his execution, Gaddafi’s body, along with those of his son and his defense minister were placed in cold storage at a local market, where they were on display for four days while jubilant and vainglorious Libyans came from all corners of the war torn nation in order to view them. People literally climbed over each other for a chance to take a picture of the fallen dictator’s desiccated and battered corpse, posing gleefully over Gaddafi’s bare body to snap a photo with their cell phones. Across the world, including the United States, the corpse’s face stared out from nearly every newsstand and news website’s front-page.

I was hardly the only person who found this display distasteful. On his “2011 Wipe” British humorist and journalist Charlie Brooker had this to say:

“We used to believe if someone took your photo with a camera it would steal part of your soul. Watch the news today and it looks like the people taking the photos are the ones who’ve had part of their soul(s) stolen.”

What particularly bothered me about all this was not that Gaddafi was being made into a spectacle. Muammar Gaddafi’s dignity has never frankly been on my list of concerns. If it were, we would have had a long conversation about certain fashion choices he made through the years (ditto the also-departed Kim Jong Il of N. Korea). Rather, the reason I was distressed was that the revelers were disrespecting a dead body, which I felt fit within the definition of “pestering the Dead,” something I was taught to avoid whenever possible as the first and most important step in treating the Dead with honor.

I certainly do understand the motivations of Gaddafi’s former subjects. And I also must confess that biases held over from my milk religion, which forbids even the viewing of a dead body, inform my reactions even now. However, it was this incident and my immediate reaction to it that crystalized for me the aforementioned question of why and how we honor the Dead.

Does Muammar Gaddafi in death deserve to be treated with honor and respect that we would have withheld in life? If so, where is that line drawn? Do we say that death automatically conveys an honored status upon the spirit of the deceased, independent of a life suffused with cruelty, hatred, or violence? If not, then who is to be the arbiter of who is and isn’t one of the honored Dead? Are we each to presume Osiris’ role and measure the individual Dead against a feather of our own making?

It is certainly not my place to write the dictates of another’s heart. I do believe it would be a cruelty to force someone to pay honor to the spirit of one who had tormented them in life. At the same time, I do not know if I could actively disrespect the Dead. I am not empowered sit in judgement, and doing so would require assuming both a responsibility and a presumption of status that I would not wish to be saddled with. In the end, death deals with all equally, and so must I, whether they be murderers or matriarchs, philanthropists or pedophiles.

Am I comfortable arguing that as one of the Dead, Muammar Gaddafi’s spirit and former vessel deserve a measure of respect? No, I’m not. However, here I am doing so anyway, because sometimes this Work isn’t comfortable. Of course, my position is born out of the nature of my Work and my relationship to the divine and the Dead. I should be clear that am not asking anyone else to agree with me. My path is hardly universal, and how I interact with the Dead is not automatically how others should.

That said, it bothers me when I see friends, colleagues, and co-religionists, who wish to have it both ways at once. The Dead are deserving of respect and honor, yet people think nothing of wishing ill on specific individuals who no longer walk among the living. Can we curse the name of the deceased saying “this person is underserving of honor or acknowledgment” or even “may their soul wander forever, never finding peace” while also saying “We honor the Dead as a whole, for they walked these roads before us” without declaring that we are empowered to usurp the place of the Fates in passing judgement?

I doubt it is a question with any simple answers. What I would like to ask is that people not hide lack of consideration and forethought behind a veil of having positive intentions. The nature of why and how we honor the Dead is fraught with issues of ethics, morals, and our own biases and experiences. Like many matters that are truly important, these are not easy questions to resolve in the context of the multifaceted world we live in.

On behalf of the Dead, I would encourage people to take the time to seriously examine this issue and weigh its complexities against the dictates and burdens of their own hearts in the pursuit of clarity in our beliefs and practices.

8 thoughts on “Should We Honor All The Dead?

  1. So I don’t know if you’re aware, but the moments immediately before and after Gaddafi’s death are available on YouTube, or at least they were two weeks ago. I really debated if I should watch it; I will admit that I had some grotesque curiosity, as well as some doubt as to the video’s veracity. I ended up watching it mostly for the second reason, and I can say it is, in fact, real. Or at least, if it’s a fake, it’s so incredibly elaborate that I can’t imagine why someone would bother.

    I won’t link it, because I’m torn as to whether it’s a good thing that it exists for free on the Internet. Regardless of who he was, he has family and friends (presumably). Now, my birth father was not a very nice person, and when he died I have to admit I was very torn because I wasn’t entirely sad about it. But I wouldn’t want his last moments a google search away, for the whole world to gawk at, because it satisfies some weird feeling they may have.

    One of the things I have come to love about the dying and death processes are that in those moments, you are stripped of every artifice you have grasped with both hands and refused to let go of. Whether you die in an instant or it takes years, the moment you realize that this is it, you’re probably going to die *right now*, you are no longer someone’s lover, or a shaman, or a trans* person, or a kink educator, or a blogger, or anything at all: you are a lump of human meat, suddenly aware that you’ve been rotting all this time. You are your heartbeat, your breath, your fading vision; you become reduced to your autonomic senses.

    So whether you’re an abusive asshole like my birth father, or Mother Theresa, when your consciousness crosses the veil something powerful happens that makes us more or less equal, at least for a short time. You and I will likely have discussions in the upcoming years about what happens after that, but of this I am pretty certain. So although I don’t have strong ties to an earthly ancestral bloodline, I still leave offerings for my father on his birthday and Samhain; I still take his ashes to places where he has always wanted to go but didn’t before he died. I do it not out of love of who he was, but of who he is now. I don’t know if passing through the veil is a redemptive act in and of itself, but I do believe that it is a transition that equalizes us all as mortal beings, and if we want others to venerate us when we die (especially those of us for whom there are no children to carry on our line), then it’s up to us to venerate those who have no one else to do it for them.

  2. Pingback: Reblogged: Should We Honor All The Dead? « Dying for a Diagnosis

  3. I mean no disrespect, but I’m personally sick of the dead. They’re dead. Yes. Yes they’re dead. Are they any less important to us? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t work with the dead. I did while I was Catholic. That’s all a Catholic or a Christian really does; focus on death and dying and what’s going to happen after our lives are over. I became pagan and maintained my Paganism because of my wonder about life. I have one dead ancestor that I was personally close to that I revere greatly, no matter his faults, because no matter what, he still loved me. Other than my personal connections to the dead, I don’t feel any necessity to work with death at all. I want to know the dirty things about life that Catholics denied. I want life, and I want my music and for my dreams to come true. It’s hard to make my life meaningful while spending my time working with death energy. There are plenty of folks doing that already in my opinion. I want sex, wine, fruit, bread, gods and goddesses, gold, fabric, velvet and steel. I’d like just a few moments of life where I could stretch out on a velvet cushion near a warm fire and feel my breasts stretch against my mate, with music and friends and poetry around me. Maybe even to dance naked under the moon, like so many witches are said to have done before me. to really BECOME. Live in the moment. death is one of the spices of life, however bitter. I don’t think we should seek it out, so much as we should understand its meaning when it touches us.

    • Perhaps I should have been clearer in exactly what issue I was addressing.

      The essay is intended primarily for people for whom interacting with the dead or the ancestors is already an element in their spiritual practice. I certainly wasn’t intending to criticize anyone those who *don’t* incorporate those practices. Personally, I don’t believe that working with the dead or worshiping the ancestors (which I do NOT do) is a requirement for having a “legitimate” or fulfilling pagan and/or polytheistic life.

  4. I would say that not everyone has to honor all the Dead but everyone should show them respect. Showing honor to a particular Dead or even a particular living being is a personal matter but everyone, in my views, is owed a certain amount of respect. Once a person is dead, it might seem that all is left is rotting flesh, but that flesh still has a connection to the spirit and treating it poorly just seems wrong. You don’t have to respect Gaddafi for who he was and I’m certainly not going to say whether you should or not you should honor him, but one should respect our fellow living beings and continue that respect through the journey of death through to proper burial. It’s a transition we all will make, in the end.

  5. I apologize if my post came off as ridiculously insensitive. Is it mercury retrograde AGAIN? lol anyways, namaste, for I didn’t think ahead before posting and I would like to say that I did not interpret the essay as criticism at all, and I do think you have a valid point. I think i’m just taking this essay as an opportunity for me to express my feelings about death.

    What I really meant to do was come from a different area, a different perspective on death; that maybe it’s okay to feel that once someone dies, they’re dead and it’s ok to move on. The greek myths do say that too much contact with the dead is a bad thing. The dead are blood drinkers, they will take you if they can, and I think that that danger should be considered; that even one’s own dead relatives can fail to recognize you and hurt you should you make a misstep. (Homer’s Odyssey; Odysseus calls up a fellow warrior from Troy for divinatory purposes and is almost victimized himself.)

    It’s important to be able to lower someone into the grave and to walk away. If he’s dead, he’s dead. Burial procedures are different from funerals. Burial procedures are for the physical health and safety of the community. Funerals are for the emotional health of relatives, friends, and family.

    It makes me wonder how death affects us as injury, and how it affects us as benefit. Just my two cents.

  6. No one holds reverence and worship for every single deity that exists and no one loves intimately every single human being in the world. So why would someone who does work with the dead have honor and respect and a relationship with every single person who is dead?

  7. We can’t harm or honor the dead because they are no more exist and they have no feeling about harming or not harming. For example, if someone sleep with your wife and you want to kill him but before you reach his house the man is dead and you still shoot him with gun, that mean you are wasting your bullets because they can feel any pain again.

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