Rituals and Comfort in Grief

Two hours before the sunrise on May 23, my great-aunt Anne, True of Voice, Justified, died of pancreatic cancer.

Three days had passed between diagnosis and death. She hadn’t told anyone how sick she was. She hadn’t wanted anyone to worry.

Late that evening, I found out about her passing from a Facebook post, of all places. It had been several years since I had last seen her, and time had gotten away from me. After a few numb moments (or maybe an hour — hard to say) staring blankly at my phone, letting the denial stage of grief take the reins, a quiet thought formed in my mind: it’s time to make some offerings.

Technically, my timing wasn’t perfect. In Ancient Egyptian thought, the dead did not instantly become ancestors readily awaiting our devotion. Instead, there was a transition period, as “the dead became blessed or effective akhu only after mummification and proper burial rites were performed on them and after they had passed through obstacles of death and the trials of the underworld.” [1] This was not an instantaneous process. The first three to four days consisted of gathering and preparing the body, performing preliminary rites, and collecting professional mourners, after which a long preparation period followed. “Texts indicate that the embalming process usually took forty days. The seventy days that are mentioned in many texts (“A good burial comes in peace. Your seventy days have been completed in your wabet”) was often considered an ideal interval,” but in some cases lasted as long as 500 days or as short as two. [2] By that reckoning, Anne was probably still making her way through the trials of the Duat, too busy to listen to praise offerings from a grand-niece she hardly knew.

I thought about all this, still faintly numb, as I took a purification shower in preparation for making the funerary offerings. And then the detached, rational part of my mind that has been force-fed Stoicism for the past year and a half calmly thought: “how interesting. This is your first experience of the death of a family member since you’ve become a polytheist. Let’s see how you handle it.”

A photo of a wooded cemetery with old gravestones and large evergreen trees.
An older section of one of the oldest cemeteries in my city. She won’t be buried here, but it’s a lovely, peaceful place.

Rituals and Comfort

Ten years ago, the last time a family member had died, I was a materialist atheist who had no interest in “spirituality.” When my grandfather died, I was immediately instructed by his son (my father) not to mourn him; I was to carry on as usual. In an odd way, this was a relief, since feigning normalcy was easier than the alternative. (That was enormously damaging in itself, but that’s a story for another time.) So I fretfully did nothing except anxiously push this situation to the back of my mind, and distracted myself by focusing on a vacation instead. I didn’t know how to mourn, so I did nothing — years’ worth of nothing. A decade down the road, guilt and shame still bubble to the surface when I think about my grandfather and his lack of mourners.  

In contrast, as a polytheist, I instantly did something once I understood my great-aunt was gone, and I barely had to think about the process. It was automatic and practiced. Regular ritual practice can provide rubrics for most of life’s difficult situations, and the more we practice them, the easier and more comforting they tend to become. My kemetic and ADF practices have given me a toolkit of rituals big and small for challenging circumstances, ranging from quick grounding and centering rituals when I’m stressed to lengthy healing rites for people in need who I cannot otherwise assist.

For someone with an anxiety disorder, this ability to instantly do something, anything when I’m otherwise powerless provides an illusion of control in a chaotic situation. Any modicum of control can be a source of comfort.

Funny enough, it was this exact mindset that I used to mock when I was an atheist. “Look at those weak-minded religious people with their silly fake rituals designed to make them feel better. We atheists don’t need that! We’re strong enough on our own to face life’s challenges without pretending an imaginary friend is listening to our useless rites.”

(Did I mention I was also a big fan of Ayn Rand during this period of my life? That’s probably the most embarrassing part of my young adulthood.)

But what I didn’t realize back then is that most human beings do have rituals, regardless of their spirituality or lack thereof. Rituals needn’t be religious; Merriam-Webster defines a ritual simply as “a series of actions or type of behavior regularly and invariably followed by someone.” As an example: in college, whenever I was feeling especially stressed and powerless, I would always bake some kind of dessert. It gave me a sense of control, provided an activity to mindfully focus on, and then produced something positive at the end — a plate of cookies and a calmer demeanor. Not terribly different from my current spiritual practice (except the latter doesn’t spike my blood sugar!) Using that definition, even a nightly 2-minute-long tooth-brushing routine could be considered a bedtime ritual. Writing this blog post is a ritual in itself, part of the grieving process.

Before I get too far along that subject, I want to emphasize that I do believe our spiritual rituals are doing something besides comforting us — I’m a polytheist, not an atheopagan. When I pour a libation to my akhu, I expect that they in some way are benefiting from this as well, even if it’s only the maintenance of our relationship. That interaction and mutual benefit is a given in kemeticism, as “the akhu and the living represented co-dependent communities, and their mutual relationships and cooperation formed one of the pillars of ancient Egyptian religion.” [1]

Photo of a reproduction of golden funerary goods depicting a barque full of gods.
Photo I took from a recent exhibit featuring reproduction of King Tutankhamun’s funerary materials. Barques are a common theme.

Guides and Books

After my purification shower, I gathered my supplies –incense, bread, cool water– and began my ad-hoc rite to the honor Anne on her journey West. I didn’t have an exact ritual prepped and ready to go, but I knew I wanted to focus on petitioning Anubis to guide and protect her. I hesitated at first, since I have a closer active relationship with Wepwawet, and He, too, is a psychopomp. Indeed, “spells in the Pyramid Texts and the Coffin Texts record Wepwawet helping the dead ascend to the heavens and opening ‘a good path’ for them through the dangerous landscapes of the afterlife,” [3] making Him just as much of a capable psychopomp as His more well-known colleague Anubis. But in my personal practice, I see Wepwawet far more associated with journeys in life rather than death, and historical evidence suggests the same: “while the principal function of the Opener of the Ways is to protect the king and his territory in this life, the role of Anubis is to look after the transition to the beyond and events on another plane of existence.” [4] In short, death is Anubis’s core competency, and so I turned to Him. Plus, it simply felt right.

I also felt compelled to do a reading from the Book of Going Forth by Day, commonly known as the “Book of the Dead.” The Book is essentially a combination roadmap/spellbook to protect the deceased from the dangers of the journey through the Underworld, and ensures that they are able to successfully pass the famous weighing-of-the-heart ritual that transfigures them into an immortal akh. Wealthier individuals were often buried with these spells written on rolls of papyrus, and there was quite a bit of variation in wording, spells included, iconography, etc.

I own a beautiful translated copy of the Book of Going Forth by Day that belonged to a man named Sobekmose. His includes quite a few unique spells alongside the more “standard” variants. In my first use of the Book for bibliomancy, I selected a passage at random, asking for Anubis’s guidance to pick the ideal spell to suit Anne in her journey.

I landed on the following section of Chapter 39:

“O you gods who are in their primeval places, who encircle the pool of turquoise. Come, let the adoration be great [and] let us rescue the great one [in] his shrine from whom the gods came forth. Let what is beneficial be done for him. Let praises be given to him. Announce him to yourselves and to [me]. So says Nut of that pleasant one. Those who are among the gods say: may he go forth [and] may he find the path. May he make plunder from the gods. May he set in motion the one before Nut [so that] Geb stands up. O Terror, the Ennead is hurrying, the mouth of Hathor is trembling. Ra triumphs over Apophis.”

O’Rourke, P. F. (2016). An Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Papyrus of Sobekmose. Brooklyn, NY, USA: Thames & Hudson, Brooklyn Museum.

“Let the Adoration be Great”

It’s an intense, jubilant, and triumphant chapter, with the rest of the paragraphs repeatedly reinforcing the triumph of Ra (and the speaker) over Apep, the enemy of creation and ma’at, and personification of entropy. This is perfectly fitting for Anne, who was one of the most passionate advocates for LGBTQIAA+ rights and other social justice causes who I have ever known. During the Trump years in particular, her weekends were packed with marches and demonstrations in which she dressed up as a “pussy cat” (referencing his disgusting comment about “grabbing women”). And again, she was in her 70s at this point, which flies in the face of arguments that BLM and other social justice causes belong exclusively to “millennial snowflakes.” She was also a fierce advocate for the bodily autonomy of people with uteruses, and a regular donor to Planned Parenthood — all while being a passionate, devoted Catholic.

Anne never stopped learning and growing, and the world of webcomics was a perfect example here. When her daughter started getting intensely into the comic scene, eventually becoming successful enough to work full-time as webcomic developer, it was a world Anne wasn’t familiar with. People pay money to read cartoons? And everybody goes to conventions to dress up like these characters? It was confusing, at first. So how did this “boomer” react to this strange new millennial geek culture her daughter had pulled the family into?

Why, she put her sewing skills to work and started cosplaying.

Anne started cosplaying in her 60s to support her daughter’s webcomic, and became a regular fixture at comic cons throughout the US. She remained the most passionate cheerleader for her daughter’s webcomic, but also supported creators in general whenever she could.

By continuing to learn and grow all throughout her life, Anne exemplified zep tepi and rebirth, like Ra. By fighting for the rights of disenfranchised people, she fought for ma’at, like Ra. And I am confident that she will rise again in the world beyond, like Ra, like Osiris.

Sometimes with my Christian ancestors, I hesitate to perform rituals in their honor — in many cases, I know they would not have approved of being approached in a pagan manner. But with Anne and how open-minded she was throughout her life, I got the strong sense that it was appropriate to celebrate her in my own religious framework; her Catholicism was an open and inclusive one. And while I’ll keep the details of my experience in the ritual private, as they’re still a bit raw and personal for me, I will share that I felt a deep, heavy presence of Someone — of Anubis — there with me. It was a comforting sort of heaviness, like an all-encompassing weighted blanket. Maybe He was only there for me, as Anne’s cosmology had its own set of messengers and psychopomps to lean on; I remember her being fond of angels. Either way, I was grateful for that presence.

I’ll also virtually attend her funeral next month. She was so popular and well-known in her many communities (churches, political groups, comic cons) that her son decided to broadcast it live to whoever wanted to attend. Dozens of passionate eulogies have already poured in, and they all have the same theme: Anne cared about people. For her, “the adoration is great.”

When I’m in my 70s, I hope to have even a fraction of the limitless love and open-mindedness that she did.

And even if my funerary rites did nothing but say “I love you” in a rather elaborate way, that is enough for me.

Photo of the sunrise over water and hills, taken from an airplane.
Photo of the sunrise that I took on a trip years ago. The sunrise is associated with rebirth and is immensely sacred in kemetic thought.



References

[1] Janák, J. (2013). Akh. In Dieleman, J. & Wendrich, W. (Eds.), UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA. Retrieved here.

[2] Teeter, E. (2011). Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] Pinch, G. (2004). Egyptian Mythology: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc. Kindle Edition.

[4] DuQuesne, T. (2007). Anubis, Upwawet, and Other Deities: Personal Worship and Official Religion in Ancient Egypt. Cairo: Supreme Council of Antiquities Press. Retrieved here.

[5] O’Rourke, P. F. (2016). An Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Papyrus of Sobekmose. Brooklyn, NY, USA: Thames & Hudson, Brooklyn Museum.

Note: All photos included in this blog post are property of the author. All rights reserved.

11 thoughts on “Rituals and Comfort in Grief

  1. Condolences on your loss. Your tribute is lovely and really gives, even to a stranger who never met her, the sense of a wonderful human being who has crossed. I am glad Anpu was strongly present with you!

    I can relate to a lot here, including not being given any real chance to mourn my artistic paternal grandmother when I was a kid (parents just did not want to talk about it at all… I was also Atheist by choice at the time), and later having an entirely different experience with a very close family loss as a Polytheist–a much more supported one, in large part thanks to the Gods’ presence.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ugh, I’m so sorry to hear that you went through the same situation with your paternal grandmother, but I’m glad to hear the later loss was easier. Were you perhaps able to more fully process your grandmother’s death later on? I’m still working on that, on my side…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you… still working on it too, I think. I didn’t even consciously realize how much her death had been swept under the rug until I had an odd, seemingly unrelated dream within the past few years and put the symbols together. Then it made sense. I’ve found great healing and/or release of a sorts in some dreams. It’s like deep parts of the mind and soul are able to work on things that I may or may not ever be able to fully grasp in a waking state. Best wishes.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m so sorry for your loss. Reading this brought me to tears.
    Thank you for being willing to share this. You honor us.
    May her journey be easy and swift, and may appropriate reward be laid out for her at its end.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Lo

    So sorry for your loss, though I’m sure that she is honored by how you’ve spoken of her and made offerings! I’ve no doubt she’ll become a good ancestor.

    This was a heartening and informative post – I can only imagine the feelings bubbling up in you as you re-process the death of your grandfather too. Ignoring death and the dead is violence done to them and ourselves. I think polytheist closure is easier to achieve, in a sense, than atheist or even monotheist closure – there are many paths for the dead to travel, many ways to be remembered, and no guilt to be had in getting the most out of our time here on the earth.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Wow, you hit the nail on the head with “ignoring death and the dead is violence done to them and ourselves.” I hadn’t heard it so succinctly phrased before, and it’s powerful.

      Thank you so much for the thoughtful comment, it means a lot.

      Liked by 1 person

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