My older sister, Heather, started practicing Wicca while she was in high school. One of the books I always remember seeing on her shelf with Pagan books was the Pagan Book of Living and Dying. It looked thick and meaty. Heather’s copy was well read with dog eared pages, highlights, and notes in the margin. Heather also lived with the idea of death in a much different way than most of us do. She had a disease called FOP, Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva, which is a genetic mutation which causes muscles and ligaments to turn to bone. There was very little research or support when she was first diagnosed. It was a lot to handle growing up for her, I think.
I finally read Starhawk’s The Pagan Book of Living and Dying as my sister lay in Hospice Care. I wanted to honor my sister’s wishes for death, and I knew that this book had had a huge impact on her desires. What surprised me while reading this book was how useful it was. Not only did I discover why my sister wanted the things she did for her death, but thought about the things I wanted. I discovered a whole world of legal issues surrounding how our culture and country handles dead bodies, burial rights, and the care for those dying. It was eye opening.
Beyond what was useful and insightful about the book was the enchantment. I found myself delighted by the music, real sheet music for chants during rituals. There were ritual ideas to help those transition to death and majestic rites for those still grieving. All of these ideas and aids were presented by not just Starhawk but by other voices in the Reclaiming Collective who could share stories of other deaths and other griefs. It would be impossible to cover every situation that might be presented around those dying and those grieving. However, so many heartfelt stories were shared by these authors, that one felt as if the whole picture of this process was presented all while giving voice to the silence and mystery of death that we do not yet understand.
I think that this is a book that everyone should read, hopefully before they find themselves confronting death. It is also a book that I think deserves to be on every Pagan’s bookshelf. For I have yet to find another book that presents as much practical, spiritual, or beauty for working with and around death from a Pagan viewpoint as this book. I hope it inspires our community to take these gifts out into the world and bring a more balance viewpoint around the culture we have with death.