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Death and Loss: Creating the Tribal Cult of the Dead

Yesterday morning as I walked into my home gym area, I noticed that something was out of place. A wooden plaque, carved for me many years ago by my friend, that has made many journeys with me, lay there on the floor- quite a ways from where it should have been hanging across the room on the wall.

Picking it up, I turned it over in my hands, as I had done a hundred times before, and read its hand-painted face.

“Whereupon a river of everything-ness and nothing-ness flowed forth from my skull
bathing me in Pain and Wonder.
The screaming of silent songs unto a pale, morose, celestial orb:
Tide of time and way of world. :ALU ALU ALU:
Rending and ascension of mournful mind,
weighted heavily by bitter thoughts- signs to darkness and flesh.”

The whole piece is shot through with symbols and bindrunes, and refers to a shared experience the two of us had years ago, one I will never forget. The friend who made this gift for me died January 7th, 2016. I had known him since he was 15, and watched him grow up around the Wolves, prospect, patch in to our organization.

His death had a hard impact on all of my friends- we all had known him for a long time, and loved him very much. Seeing a young man who all considered to be a brother, as close as blood, die- life unrealized, full of potential that would never be made manifest, is a difficult thing.

He had done so much, but there was so much more undone.

A select few of us were allowed to view the body, to say words to him, and place a few items with him for his cremation. That day, and those moments are burned into my brain forever. The way his body looked, so unlike him, solemn, something not quite “right” about the way he was positioned.

I shed a lot of tears with my brothers that day, and exchanged stories, and stayed at the wake to play his favorite songs on the guitar for his mom and dad, and extended family.

At the wake. January 2016. At the wake. January 2016.

Some time later, we threw a show in his memory at Ulfheim, the Appalachian Wolves’ tribal property. His father attended, drank with us, and gave us ash and bone from the cremation to place inside a stone cairn at the foot of our altar- a piece of our little brother there, where he liked to be the most.

My brother Coyote and I began a tradition, to go down there in the dark when we spend time at the land together- we take down a drink for Njal, or some smoke, and we sit together and tell stories and play songs that he loved, and converse with him, because we know that in some way, he is there.

Easing sorrow with songs.    Easing sorrow with songs.

During one of these conversations, with my brothers Hjalti, Galdr, and Coyote, we discussed death, loss, grief and tradition within our tribe. Njal is the first of the Wolves to die in our time as a tribe, but we know there will be more.

The feeling of loss is sharp, and the grief at first is overwhelming. For the first few weeks after he died, there was a feeling of such unbelievable sorrow that had settled over the tribe, it was hard to see moving past it.

Slowly, as stories were told, toasts made at our ritual drinking rounds in his honor, and traditions began to spring up around his death, we could see that organically, the way we dealt with death and loss was making itself ritualized, and becoming part of the greater expression of tribal life. His name became a thing that meant something more than it did in life, and in many ways, his death had brought the brotherhood together closer than it was before.

Through this painful experience, the group of men who went through it together were different than they had been. We have laughed and cried together telling stories, and we imagine our brother there with us still, painted in the ritual ash, walking with his strange, crooked-footed walk, his big, larger than life presence there at the edge of the firelight.

The grief is now a “sweet sorrow,” softened by time, but despite the modern admonition, we have not “let go.” We choose to believe he is there with us- that he followed the silver sun placed in his coffin back home, so that he can sing those songs in the woods with us, and be spoken of as something more than a man. Through death, my brother has become an ideal, a concept of togetherness and shared pain, and fellowship so strong that it often hurts.

I paraphrase my brother Galdr, saying that, Valhalla and immortality are just a man’s greatest stories being told by the voices of his sons and brothers after his death.

Tribes like ours, and yours, who are reading this, owe it to their brothers to make a better thing of a man’s death than the modern world- tearful men and women around an expensive casket as it is lowered into the earth. Hushed voices at a wake, and a few stories over the years.

The cult of the dead should be alive in our tribes, vital and strong- because our friends, our brothers, fathers and sons will die. When they do, what will we make of them? Corpses in the earth, or legends? We should light the fires for them each year on the anniversary of their death, and sing their songs, tell their stories, laugh and cry for their passing- celebrate them as gone beyond a mere life and become a tribal hero, eternal.

What should the hero cult look like, when it honors those who have died? What will your rituals and traditions be surrounding these concepts? How will you ensure that these names live forever?

What better place to die than within a cult who holds the dead as living among them?

What better way to live than to make certain there are more stories about your life than can be easily be told?

Hail the dead, who have lived a life worth telling of.

-PW 92