The ancient Egyptians ensured that the body was carefully prepared. Magic and lengthy rituals were essential to prepare each person for their eternal existence. The journey was fraught with perils, and to reach the destination the dead person needed ample provisions, the help of rituals and magic spells. In the end, if everything was done properly, the deceased had an opportunity to become a transfigured spirit, blessed with magical powers and ready to live forever among the gods.
The Egyptian concept of the soul, which may have developed quite early, dictated that there needed to be a preserved body on the earth in order for the soul to have hope of an eternal life. The soul was thought to consist of nine separate parts:
The Khat was the physical body.
The Ka one’s double-form.
The Ba, a human-headed bird aspect which could speed between earth and the heavens.
The Shuyet was the shadow self.
The Akh, the immortal, transformed self.
The Sahu and Sechemaspects of the Akh.
The Ab was the heart, the source of good and evil.
The Ren was one’s secret name.
The Khat needed to exist in order for the Ka and Ba to recognize itself and so the body had to be preserved as intact as possible.
The belief that the spirit of the person never dies but will in time return again to learn the lessons missed until they reach perfection.
(documented by Raymond Moody).
I follow a broadly nature based spirituality and believe that death is not the end of our existence.
That all creatures possess a spirit or soul and that spirit or soul is eternal therefore when the body dies it is only a physical death and our spiritual journey continues.
If we look at nature we can see in all things a cyclic pattern. It is so, I believe, with our lives. Many honour this circle of birth, infancy, childhood, youth, maturity and old age. I believe they should also find honour in death, knowing that although the body undergoes physical Transformation, the Spirit remains unchanged.
I understand that those who have no belief in the continuation of the spirit may find death frightening, as the self they know will disappear forever. However, I’m convinced that when the spirit leaves the body it doesn’t necessarily mean that all ties to those left behind are disconnected. I know that Spirits have the power to manifest themselves to us and in some instances they also communicate with us. From my experience, specific Spirits are called upon to provide us with assistance relating to a particular need. They may be from our own family and can come to us during dreams or in visions.
When the individual is dead a light is lit which will represent the deceased person, and be a focus to remind friends and family that the spirit is still there. This soul/spirit requires help to undergo transition, a task usually done by the Elder, Shaman or senior member of the family while preparing, washing and anointing of the body. Incense is used to cleanse and to bring peace and harmony to the place where the body is laid out.
Cleansing and purifying the deceased
On the altar place two earthenware bowls, two flannels, and two towels.
Place to one side a clean winding-sheet or shroud (and coffin).
Have ready a candle, incense, oil – frankincense, (for birth) myrrh (for death), water in a jug, rosemary leaves (antiseptic) or similar sweet-smelling flowers and a piece of Yew.
Explanation of ritual
In this ritual we honour the one who has transcended the mundane and stepped through the threshold of life into the realm of death. In many spiritual traditions the soul/spirit does not leave the body for three days, in others it stays close to ensure that those left behind can cope.
As guardians of the gateway we seek to ensure that our charge is ready to face the world beyond. Therefore, with full ceremony we wash and dress them as they would wish to be. They may then stand cleansed and pure before their Divine Ones and Ancestors.
The sacred flame has been burning since they died, or if not will be lit at the beginning of the ceremony. Three drops of the three oils are added to the water in the jug, which is then blessed and poured into the two bowls and the incense is lit.
The clean robe/ sheet is placed next to the body and the following words recited:
“We acknowledge the sacred journey of your life, and wash you so that you may step through the gateway into the next world and face your ancestors and your Gods cleansed and with dignity.”
Take one flannel and start to wash the deceased. Start with the face, and neck, hands and arms and them torso to the waist. Take the other flannel and start at the feet and wash and dry up the torso, the genital area last.
* If the deceased has been at home and is not suffering from a contagious disease there is no need to take special precautions. However if the deceased has recently been in hospital it would be appropriate to wear gloves and cover all exposed skin as MRSA lasts up to 8 weeks and is easily transferable and CD lasts even longer.
Then place the right leg over the left leg, turn the deceased gently on the left side and continue as before, top to middle, then feet to middle. Once you finish washing then place the sheet down the side ready to slide into place.
Take the myrrh (to mark and to honour the completion of life’s journey and the beginnings of a new life). Anoint the chakra points on the body plus the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet, and the lips. Recite appropriate words, e.g. may these feet that have walked the sacred paths be blessed.
Position the left leg over the right, gently roll to the right and pull out the sheet. When the body has been anointed, fold the blanket right side first. Over the heart place a sprig of rosemary (for remembrance) or similar, then fold in the other side and place a spring of rosemary there. Continue to fold the sheet until it covers the body leaving the face free. Cover it with muslin (if the body is to be there for a few days it may be best to cover with a light blue muslin) until the time comes for the final journey. Place the body in the coffin or bed, preferably on a hard surface, or board which will be used to carry the body to the final resting place.
Place flowers inside the coffin, or on and around the body – a sprig of yew is also often placed on the body to denote that death is not the end but a beginning and to confirm that like the yew each year the deceased will return anew.
Prayers can then be said to the deity, ancestors, spirits of place or those who watched over the deceased in life to thank them for being with them throughout life and asking that they watch over them as the await transcendence, renewal or rebirth. Many will hold a 3 day vigil- singing, talking to the deceased and sharing with family and friends stories of their journey of life, covering the shroud with reminders, or the coffin, with reminders or writing and drawings. (In this way even the children can have a part in making the coffin ready).
At the end of this period the body is taken to its final resting place, and the deity and spirits thanked for their help. Those whose job it was to help the deceased through life will also be thanks and given leave to depart. If there is to be no vigil this will be done at the end of the washing ceremony.
The body is now ready for the Vigil or the Wake or if none are being held – ready to be placed in their casket for either burial or cremation.
Some Native American tribes still put grave goods and gifts with their deceased as do some Pagans, and other nature based spiritualities. Buddhist monks will chant when preparing the body for the funeral fire. They don’t call it magic but that’s what I would see it as. The reason for doing this is to help the dead person to be released from their fading personality.
A third magic is sometimes used to ensure that the spirits of the dead do not come back and haunt us or seek vengeance on those they think are responsible for their death.
Sometimes this third layer of magic is used in conjunction with the other magic. The main reason for using this is to keep the spirits focused on their last journey. This ensures that they pass over without turning back, and that they have nothing which continually calls them back.
Many spiritual traditions believe that if the rituals are not done correctly, the spirit can return to cause mischief. This belief has led some cultures to burn the deceased’s house and all of their possessions. The family would move to a new house in a new location to escape the ghost of the deceased. The Roma also had similar practices with the burning of the caravan. The ancient Egyptians laid curses on the tombs so that the deceased would not be disturbed, and come back to haunt the living.
Our own Anglo-Saxon Ancestors funeral rituals placed grave goods with the departed spirits and these were also protected by curses. A runic inscription found reads:
“Ragnhildr placed this stone in memory of Alli the Pale, priest of the sanctuary, honourable þegn of the retinue. Alli’s sons made this monument in memory of their father, and his wife in memory of her husband. And Sóti carved these runes in memory of his lord. Þórr hallow these runes. A warlock be he who damages(?) this stone or drags it (to stand) in memory of another”.
This last sentence puts a curse upon anyone who damages the stone or places it as a monument to another person.
Across the world there is a strong tradition of not speaking the name of a dead person at least until they have departed, as it will keep them bound to us. Photographs or depictions of a person who died may also be seen as a disturbance to their spirit. Often some families will put the photos away or will cover them. Echoes of this are in the Jewish religion where the mirrors are covered and in our own traditions, made popular in Victorian times, closing the curtains and covering the mirrors. Some African cultures carry the coffin over water so that it cannot return; other take it to a cross-road and turn in around three times so that the spirit won’t be able to find the way home. Our fear of the dead is just as strong in the west but we hide it under a show of sophistication.
We don’t embrace death in our culture and we have so many ways to avoid talking about it. However, it has been proven in very real terms that a good funeral eases the grief and can bring peace to the family of the departed.
A beautiful ritual as well as bringing peace to the congregation reminds those left behind of the life that was, and it brings hope and even joy to those who remain. Perhaps this is yet another kind of magic.