Dame Cicely Saunders, midwife of the hospice movement said, “You matter because you are you. You matter to the last moment of your life, and we will do all we can, not only to help you die peacefully, but also to live until you die.” Similar can be said about stewarding souls, after death.

Real Wyrd - A Modern Shaman's Roots in the Middle World by S. Kelley Harrell

The other day in the Deep community of The Spirited Path, we talked about when we are unquiet, as in the “Today is not a good day to die” kind of unquiet. As someone who has spent years talking about the significance of deathwalking and the unquiet dead, and their impact of their restlessness on the living and the spirit world, I feel it’s fair to say that during COVID I recognized if I died right now, I would not die well. I recently completed Death Doula certification, which led my attention to specific areas where I feel unquiet about my own death, which prompted me to question who would be able to observe my needs after death and tend them. Those areas are manageable within my skills and Dream Team. Truly, no worries. I’m on it. Yet at this time, I fully recognize that I would need help dying well, and that this is normal.

In our group, the realization that we move into pockets of life in which we are more conflicted about our overall state despite a commitment to dying well became the discussion point. My response to that was, as it is with so many things, that we’re not supposed to have to die well alone. Period.

What It Means to Die Well

It’s true that in the kinship of All Things and through upheld interagency, humans must carry out certain duties that are solely human-born. They aren’t jobs that spirit helpers, godden, Ancestors, or Naturekin can do on our behalf. Among these duties is:

  • coping with the challenge of being soul-in-form
  • understanding how we must apply our agency to our calling
  • living well, so that we bear our calling to the world in a way that it blesses ourselves and our human and non-human communities
  • eldering well, so that we transmit our knowledge and wisdom to the Descendants
  • dying well, so that we reconcile our traumas and those of our Ancestors
  • Ancestoring well, so that the Descendants are witnessed and tended in their time

Most of these imperatives aren’t clear or easy to accomplish, they’re not culturally supported, and in many cases are opposed by settler culture. We haven’t had elders with an unbroken relationship to place-based rituals and helping spirit relationships that sustain rites fostering us to human well. Because of that lack we not only don’t know how to do these duties, through no fault of our own we also often don’t realize they are supposed to be our focus here. Because trauma is the sweeping reason for disruption from these duties, it is also the vehicle that bears the impact of that disruption forward to our Descendants. Traumatic disruption of these duties is why we don’t die well.

When I talk about dying well, I mean the ability to fully move out of the human layer, reconcile the inner cosmology, move what of the inner cosmology that should return into the ancestral lines and the elements, peacefully arrive at the threshold of What Comes Next, and fully go beyond that threshold into the next destiny. That is a good death. It may or may not include the ability to reconcile life, death, and ancestral trauma. In fact, it most often doesn’t (even though it should) because we have not culturally valued the reconciliation of these traumas as relevant to sacred order.

We all die; we do not all die well. There are many misconceptions around dying well, which I have discussed in other blog posts and classes. The most pervasive one is that we automatically know what to do after death. In reality, only folx who have devotedly lived through a supportive cosmology know what to do after death. They do not become unquiet. Those who have not lived through a supportive cosmology become stuck, the distress of which emanates into the living and spirit worlds and interferes with natural order. Because of that misconception, I’ve focused deathwalking teaching on helping others cultivate the skills, resources, and relationships to die well. What I realized in the death doula coursework is that is an incomplete approach.

Yes, we need the skills, resources, and relationships in place to die well. However, when I have talked about dying well in deathwalking discussions, it is often with the projection that we will always be able to continuously locate and use those skills, resources, and relationships, that we each are responsible for that work. And we are. No one can do that work for us — no priest, Ally, or friend. Part of our agency as humans is to create our strategies for how we live, and how we die. But what if we aren’t able to do it? What if we become unable to navigate our death well? Life happens. It traumatizes, disables, disorients, shocks, and shifts. Even if we know what we need in place to die well, that doesn’t mean we can’t still be affected in a way that disrupts how we are in relationship with our death.

My Ancestors tell me that the observation that we can have the skills and still not die well is not a new concept, though I feel strongly that it is one that has most been exacerbated in settler culture. We haven’t died well en masse in 4–6k years. As a result, we deal not only with a lack of understanding around it and with intentional cultural blocks around gaining that understanding, but also with the backlog of unquiet dead tugging at our nervous systems around all of the above. That said, our Ancestors certainly would have confronted similar though more limited situations, and they would have had a plan in place to deal with it. There’s no reason to think that such a plan can’t be in place now, we just need to engage it.

We All Need Deathwalking

I have thought of deathwalking as a service done for the unquiet dead when knowledge of what to do after the point of death isn’t or can’t be available. The truth is, we all need tended deathwalking, even if we’ve done the work and know what to do. We deserve to die with the peace of knowing that someone will walk with us, post-transition.

One of the things I continue to learn in how I have moved among settler culture is where I have internalized that I’m the only one who can accomplish some needed thing in my life. That habit has been reinforced with real and true dilemmas in which I had to provide for myself in some way that I truly shouldn’t have. There should have been support. The understanding that this is culturally inflicted trauma has also taught me that believing I’m the only one who can tend my own death is a supremacist projection that undermines health, interdependence, and belonging. And that inability isn’t a judgment or invalidation of my work as a deathwalker. It’s being a human raised on the broken path.

I realized in the death doula coursework that we won’t all be able to deathwalk ourselves, and so we must have clear consensus about how we check on our dead to make sure they are moving on. That coursework beautifully conveyed to me that just as we all deserve a dignified death that allows us the assurance that our desires around our departure will be carried out, so should we also be at peace knowing that the details of companioning our soul from our body are followed through and witnessed. Just as Dame Saunders spoke so affirmingly of our needs through to death, we need a similar assertion for the needs of the dead.

For me that companing is: in kinship, we will do all that is ours to tend your journey from form, until you are peacefully met by and prepared for What Comes Next.

The way that we assure that after-death companioning can happen is exactly as was taught in the death doula coursework — through communication and community. We need to talk about what we want at our death, including estate and directive logistics, and to grant permission to the appointed folx with the skills to check on our procession from form. We need to know who the people are who can tend that twilight aspect of our soul’s trek, and while we are able, communicate to them the appropriate parameters for helping us move on, should help be needed.

We won’t all die quietly, despite our education, privilege, commitment, and best efforts. That we should have to carry the burden of full reconciliation of our own death as well as tend our journey back to spirit alone — is just another kind of trauma. And even if we do die quietly, we still deserve human companioning after death. Such is the knowledge of our Ancestors, who kept intact for generations death rites tied to place, season, Naturekin, and lineage. Rekindling that wisdom by laying out plans to meet our needs after death preserves the spirit of dying well in community, establishes ritual that we can hand down to the Descendants, and appropriately centers our wellbeing in a culture that would otherwise keep us unquiet.

To die well is a right and a requirement. That we can make ourselves fit to die well is a privilege. Shepherding others to do so is compassionate interdependence, even beyond.

Runes for Change community, Soul Intent Arts, Kelley Harrell

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S. Kelley Harrell, M. Div.

I’m an animist, author, deathwalker and death doula. For the last 25+ years, through Soul Intent Arts I’ve helped others to ethically build thriving spiritual paths as fit, embodied elders, who upon death become wise, capable Ancestors. My work is Nature-based, and focuses soul tending through the Elder Futhark runes, animism, ancestral healing, and deathwork. I’m author of Runic Book of Days, and I host the podcast, What in the Wyrd. I also write The Weekly Rune as a celebration of the Elder Futhark in season. Full bio.

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The Spirited Path Soul Tending Intensive
Reawakening with the Runes mini class

Elder Well

To bear your unique gift to the world.

Die Well

To leave the planet better than you found it.

Ancestor Well

So that your descendants never elder alone.