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.