A neo-pagan religion, Wicca is a rapidly growing spiritual practice in the United States. Like most religions, it contains a series of ceremonies or rituals marking various life milestones. And like all religions, it addresses the idea of mortality, what comes after death, and the ways in which one should mark the passing of a loved one.
Wicca in Brief
Wicca is a neo-pagan religion — an attempt to connect with and reconstruct Europe's pre-Christian spiritual past. Developed over the first half of the 20th century in Britain based on research by Dr. Margaret Murray and Gerald Butler, among others, Wicca posits that a pre-Christian "witch cult" persisted into modern European history. In their view, the women persecuted during the witch hunts of the Medieval and Early Modern periods were not Satan worshippers, as popularly supposed, but witch cultists.
Over the course of its development, Wicca has diversified and a number of different approaches and schools of thought now exist. While they share a common and unifying heritage, there is no single authority directing or organizing these different groups. Additionally, Wicca is a young religion, practiced for the most part by younger people, and lacks experience with codified funerary rites. As such, any discussion of Wiccan practices must be tempered by the understanding that different groups may have different ideas or customs, and that such diversity is natural.
Wicca and the Afterlife
Wicca's approaches to death and dying are shaped by Wiccan ideas about the afterlife. Generally speaking, most Wiccans believe that the deceased move on in incorporeal form to another plane of existence known as the Otherworld or the Summerland. Ideas about them differ, but the Otherworld/Summerland is generally held to be a place of rest and reflection, not judgment. It is a spiritual space in which the deceased may reflect on their life experiences, what they have seen and learned, and add their knowledge to the aggregate wisdom of the whole. Many neo-pagans of all stripes believe that one may contact those dwelling in the Summerland using certain rituals or at various times of the year, in search of their guidance.
This Otherworld is not the only Wiccan concept of the afterlife, simply the most common. Many Wiccans believe in various versions of reincarnation, which may involve the deceased spending some time in the Otherworld/Summerland before moving back to the corporal world.
Preparing for Death
Wiccan last rites ceremonies may begin before death. If a practitioner of Wicca is known to be dying, she may take steps to prepare herself and her loved ones for the passage. Typically this will involve setting this right: visiting with loved ones and saying whatever needs to be said, settling disagreements peaceably so that the soul is unencumbered.
Prayers and cleansing rituals may be performed to drive away any spiritual impurities or unwanted baggage. The ultimate aim of all of these processes is peace of mind: for the dying, for their friends and family, and for the community of believers as a whole. In this, Wiccan rites of passage join those of most religions, in that they are intended to provide closure for all involved.
Funerals and Burials
Wiccan funeral and burial rites are perhaps the least codified part of the practice. Typically, a prayer will be said by a fellow Wiccan or group thereof. While the wording will vary, the prayer will generally invoke the deities of choice, describe the cycle of living and dying, express a desire for the divine to act as a psychopomp — an escort to the afterlife — and move the deceased to their next destination.
In the event of a sudden or traumatic death, prayers and rituals may be performed to calm the spirit of the deceased. Smudging — the ritual burning of herbs or incense — often plays a role in this. All of this is intended to focus the energies of those in mourning for healing and guidance.
There is no clear Wiccan preference in dealing with a corpse. Wicca is a nature-based religion, and many Wiccans are environmentalists. Thus they prefer cremation as a more ecologically friendly option. Normal inhumation, the burial of a body, is also a common choice. Burial may include markers of belief or faith, flowers, or offering of other kinds to the relevant deities or spirits.
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