Review: Starhawk, The Pagan Book of Living and Dying

I have not had new posts for a while because an uncle of mine died, and I was spending time supporting my mother and being with family. As a result, I drew heavily on this book, which I had had for a while but hadn’t read. I hope to resume something like my usual pace this week.

Starhawk, M. Macha Nightmare, and the Reclaiming Collective. The Pagan Book of Living and Dying: Practical Rituals, Prayers, Blessings, and Meditations on Crossing Over. HarperCollins, 1997. Paperback, 353 pages.

I turned to this book when I needed resources, and it provided. If you’re going to be in a leadership role in the Pagan community, you should at least have read this book, and I strongly suggest you should own it. If you’re a Pagan, you may not see it as important, but it is a handy thing to have around and could provide interesting resources and challenges for you around Samhain.

This book is a compilation of articles, meditations, rituals, prayers, chants, songs, poetry, and more. It manages somehow to be both wide in scope and deep in content, and although it is not assembled for front-to-back reading, I found the comprehensive table of contents easy to use.

Part one, The Pagan Tradition, has thealogical material, reflections, and meditations. Uncharacteristically, this is the part I have read the least of, because it wasn’t what I needed when I pulled this book off the shelf. What I have read looks thoughtful and articulate, and comes from a variety of writers, without trying to express a monolithic view of what Paganism is or ought to be. Part two, The Pagan View of Death, has some very useful discussion of specifically how Pagans can understand death, again, with respect for a variety of viewpoints.

Part three, The Dying Process, and part four, Death Has Many Faces, are the “meat” of the book. The section on the dying process includes many personal reflections, some of which will bring tears to your eyes and others which will make you laugh aloud. The summary material provides good advice of several kinds to those working with the dying or the grieving, and generally advises an approach that lets those closest to the situation take the lead, with others providing support and nurturing, while making sure to take care of themselves at the same time. It addresses issues relevant to people in a wide range of grief situations, including sudden or violent death, the death of a child, deaths from HIV, and abortion. Specific suggestions give concrete options while the general themes are consistently carried throughout.

Part five, Carrying On, has other advice that is invaluable, especially for Pagans who may find themselves counseling or consoling people who are still working through the grieving process weeks, months, or years later. This section may seem almost irrelevant to someone who has not experienced the death of someone close, but it is one more indication that this book was put together by people who have experienced that which they write about.

The real treasure in this book is the stock of rituals, prayers, songs, poems, meditations, and visualizations. A lot of material here comes from Starhawk, especially prayers, but plenty of it is from other people, largely from the Reclaiming Collective. Again, the breadth of material is impressive, including a prayer for cleaning the rooms of someone who has died. I found the resources easy to modify, to pick and choose and reassemble something that worked for the situation I was in.

I have not done many of the meditations, but I look forward to trying them, and I think that some of them could provide great pieces for Samhain rituals, even for a solitary who has little to grieve. There are also excellent starting points for Pagans to think about and prepare for their own deaths, including basic suggestions about legal issues to consider, as well as practical and magical ones.

I would have liked to see more material about hospice and palliative care, and how to work with the medical community to achieve the goals of the patient in the case of a long and debilitating terminal illness. I don’t know if that omission is the result of a lack of awareness and experience with hospice and palliative care; that area of care has certainly grown and developed in the last decade. Another factor may be that this book does provide the kind of “need it now” resources that I praise. But there is also plenty of material for longer-term reflection, and I think a chapter on what hospice care is, how it works, when you or a loved one might choose it, and how to define the goals of care and get them met would have been a tremendous addition.

You may not like or enjoy all the material presented in this book; almost certainly, you will not agree with all of it. But I found that it had adaptable resources when I needed them, and that even the material that I found jarring was a useful stimulus to additional thinking and meditation.

In order to be in concert with natural cycles – the whole cycle, from beginning to end to new beginnings – even Pagans who are not grieving or have never grieved should face the existence of death, including their own. This book is a good place to start that process, and a tremendous contribution to the Pagan community’s shared pool of knowledge, understanding, lore, and ritual.