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Lilies by the Roadside

On the way home from picking up dinner yesterday, my partner and I saw something new at the intersection where we turn onto the road to home. It was an enormous teddy bear, brown and fluffy, propped up against a light post. We took a closer look, and we saw it: the roadside memorial, with flowers, toys, and a sign to the departed. The memorial was still there this gray, rainy afternoon. In fact, it had grown, and a small group gathered in front of it, the hazard lights of their cars blinking, their hoods drawn up. I passed them on my way to the supermarket.

Spontaneously, as I followed the winding road toward my destination, I burst into song. My throat is still recovering from a recent cold, but my voice was strong from beginning to end. I sang the song of the dead four times, until only a brooding silence lingered in my car. I pulled into the store’s parking lot and mentally added another item to my grocery list.

“If you don’t do this,” I told myself, “then you can’t call yourself a death worker.”

On my way back home, I brought white lilies to the shrine. The mourners thanked me as I reverently laid the lilies on top of a pile of other flowers. Their friend was only 21 years old, they told me, and he’d died in a motorcycle accident.

Once home, I opened my Book of Remembrance. It’s a plain notebook, protected and enchanted with sigils, in which I write the names of the deceased. It’s purpose: to ensure that the dead cross over peacefully to the afterlife, and to exist as a memorial for the dead whose names are written in its pages. People can volunteer names of their late loved ones for it, if they wish. It’s not much, but it’s what I can do, as a death worker, for my community.

I added the young man’s full name to the book and lit a candle.

What is remembered, lives.

A Game about Death

Last year, word got around the online #deathpositive community of a new Kickstarter called Morbid Curiosity. It’s a card game in the same vein as Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity. Friends sit around a table and take turns turning over the top card from either a pile of white cards or a pile of black cards. In Kimberley Mead’s game, black cards are trivia, featuring questions like, “Who first penned ‘dead as a doornail’?” The person with the right answer wins the question card as a point, one of seven. The white cards, though, are personal, intimate, and may require deeper thinking. Players who win the white cards as points are those with the most interesting answers.

Excited to include something else death-related into my life, I immediately backed the Kickstarter. $26 for card game is no big deal for me. And then, as with all Kickstarters I back, I promptly forgot about it until I got the email asking for my mailing address. I forgot about it after then, too.

Fast-forward to March of this year. Photos of the game started popping up on social media, especially Instagram. I had an “oh yeah” moment and waited for my package to arrive in my mailbox. All of a sudden, I knew what to do with the game. I daydreamed about hosting a small group of my friends at home, all of us seated around my dining room table, drinking from steaming cups of tea and eating pastries while talking about death. I imagined something like a proper Death Café but unofficial, a meeting only between friends. My excitement grew the more I thought about it. But I waited patiently. And waited. And waited. And waited.

March became April. Kimberley sent a message to all backers saying there had been a problem with shipping, but she had sorted it all out and held onto the tracking numbers. So I waited some more. And then she announced that all packages should have arrived at their destinations. My mailbox, however, remained empty, my living room less death-y than it should be. After a few emails back and forth with Kimberley, though, I got my box. The familiar and well-loved fragrance of new cardboard greeted me when I tore away the plastic and opened the case. I organized the cards into two piles and admired the minimalism, the imagery, and a couple of the questions. Finally, the game is mine.

Those daydreams of holding unofficial Death Cafés in my house will come true. Obtaining a copy of Morbid Curiosity was Step #1 of my plan to be more active in my community as a death worker — even if my community encompasses only my friends and me right now. Maybe we can start a #deathpositive book club or visit cemeteries regularly, like I used to do. These are all just fanciful ideas right now while I continue making changes to my lifestyle and schedule, but we all have to start somewhere. And a little box of printed cardboard is as tangible and as real as beginnings get.

O Lord in the Darkness, Lead Me on My Way

psychopomp (n.) A spirit, deity, person, etc., who guides the souls of the dead to the afterlife.

Last Saturday, I sat in the corner of a hospital room as the family gathered around the bed of their loved one. Clear tubing draped the elderly woman’s frail body, plastic tendrils hanging uneasily from the machines that flanked her. I watched lines of muted red, blue, and yellow slide across the first black screen, their patterns shifting as the numbers on the second black screen went up, then went down.

The doctor entered. His nurse and I were wraiths against the privacy curtain, purposefully unseen yet seeing everything. The doctor gave his prognosis in the gentle, honest, practiced style of the ICU: 48 hours and a zero chance.

After he and the nurse left, the family prayed together. Then they left to discuss private matters in a separate room.

I stood, silently, reverently. I hovered at the woman’s side and looked, for the first time in my life, upon the dying. Her skin was pale and sickly; her cheeks were sunken; her small mouth hung open and was black inside. Taking a deep breath, I leaned in to stroke her smoke-gray hair, and I began to sing.

The time has come; the doors are open.
The stars are shining fierce and bright.
Go, O loved one, to death’s embrace;
May you find peace and joy.

Twice, I sang my prayer, never raising my voice above a whisper. I refrained from the final repetition; I’ll sing it again when I hear about the old woman’s passing. I’ll sing it in full force, letting my voice carry her soul to the gods. And then I’ll write her name in my book of the dead, so that until I die, she can continue to receive the spiritual nourishment that comes from being remembered.

Irreversible Mistakes and New Enterprises

Last week, as I was cleaning up my Tumblr accounts with the intention of moving one blog’s contents to WordPress, I made an irreversible mistake.

I deleted my entire account.

My excuse was that I was in a rush. I thought one button meant something else, and before I knew it, the list of death workers on Tumblr (as well as most of my other original content) was gone. I briefly contemplated emailing Tumblr staff to explain the predicament and ask if they, somehow, have a way of restoring my main Tumblr blog from a backup. Then I realized that they probably don’t; I’m pretty sure the ability to back up Tumblr posts exists already and I never took advantage of it. Frustratingly for some, I am a person who accepts misfortune and tends to roll with it. And so I’m rolling with it.

Ultimately, deleting my Tumblr account is a good thing. It’s one less blogging platform, so I can focus all of my efforts on this one. I’ll make a list of topics on which I’d previously written and see if I can expand on them here. One is already sitting as a skeleton in my drafts, waiting for the right time and experiences before it can fully manifest. Others will require more thought — and possibly a time when I am less burdened by other responsibilities.

In the meantime, I’ve acquired a new tool for my religio-magical arsenal. Last weekend, my friends at Serendipities ran a Reiki I and II class. Though I went with the intention of only taking the Reiki I portion, I left the class attuned up to Reiki II. During the attunement, I discovered that one of my reiki guides is yet another ancestor, someone more ancient than Jorge and Margarita, who I later contacted. Réaltán also remarked that I should be able to use reiki to psychopomp the dead into the afterlife, or to make offerings to the dead. My new guides should be able to aid me with this. All I can do is practice and wait to see what the future holds.

A Spirit Dilemma, Part II

Back in September, I wrote about my troubles forming relationships with my ancestors. I’d also promised to follow up once I’d returned from my trip to Philadelphia for the consultation with Ariadna. Unfortunately, a combination of factors prevented me from updating this blog. Not only was my schedule at the end of 2016 quite hectic, but I also felt compelled to put off writing and sharing the conclusion of this journey until I had set up a proper ancestor shrine. To do that, I needed wooden representations for what have become two very important figures in my practice. I’ve finally found and purchased those items, so it’s time, at last, to write.

Ariadna’s house is narrow and richly decorated with religious iconography. A statue of the Virgin Mary gazes with serene smile and open palms upon us as I sit on the floor across from my host. I’d brought a bottle of Apothic Red wine as a tribute to the espiritista, for one should never seek the services of a seer or witch without providing sufficient payment. She took a sip, then another, of the offering. On the table between us sat a lit candle and a full glass of water. Ariadna sat on her sofa with a notebook in her lap, pencil in hand.

She closed her eyes and fell into trance. The rest of us waited in silence: myself, Ariadna’s wife, and our mutual friend Brooke. For the sake of privacy, I won’t go into detail about what exactly transpired, but I will share the message that Ariadna relayed when she finished.

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Samhain Celebration 2016

I always find October weather to be fickle: freezing cold on some days, deceptively warm on others. For someone such as me, who thrives in heat and humidity, such volatile temperature changes usually bring the first inklings of my Seasonal Affective Disorder. Suffering under its full force, I retreat into my home, desiring to shun social activities and responsibilities (though knowing I cannot). But this past weekend, the air warmed. The sunlight coaxed me out from under my blankets. My boyfriend declared it to be, in all likelihood, the last warm weekend of the year, so I decided to make the most use of it. On Samhain Eve, I rose as the morning hour approached eleven–normally a late hour for me, but work had kept me up the night before, so I had allowed myself the luxury of sleeping in. Aware of the ticking clock, I washed and dressed, then began the first of my many tasks for the sacred day.

I removed a package from our freezer, poured oil into a saucepan, and clicked on the stove. Once the oil had heated enough, I threw in sticks of frozen food, a few pieces at a time. Within a few minutes, the distinct aroma of deep frying lumpia filled my apartment. The Philippine equivalent of egg rolls, lumpia fills me with a simple joy, a simple comfort. Served with rice and dipping sauce, it easily connects me to my parents’ culture. Vinegar and soy sauce flows over my tongue, ocean salt fills my nose, summer heat beats down on my shoulders and back–a mix of memory and distant knowledge. I haven’t been to the Philippines since I was very small, so food is all I have from this heritage.

Once finished in the kitchen, I set a plate for myself at my work desk. Positioned on the windowsill above it is the ancestor shrine, decorated with a false crocodile skull, seashells, and a picture of my great-grandfather. I lit a candle and sat to eat. I savored the lumpia and rice with every bite, looking ahead to the spirit reading/consult that Ariadna promised me. Our meeting is less than two weeks away. I thought about bringing wine in compensation for her service and filed that mental note away for later.

After lunch, I left the apartment to enjoy the weather–and to vote for the next United States President. Initially, I hadn’t considered early voting, but then I realized how appropriate it is to vote on Samhain Eve. After all, our ancestors are not simply those who share our blood; we have cultural, historical, and spiritual ancestors as well. Mine range from Lapu-Lapu, the Visayan hero who repelled Ferdinand Magellan from the Philippines in 1521 at the Battle of Mactan, to America’s Founding Fathers, who established the country of my birth. I had already honored my blood and cultural ancestors with a traditional meal, so I downloaded the full Hamilton musical soundtrack onto my phone and drove to my polling station.

Despite the crowd of people, voting took only a few minutes of my time. For the rest of the day, I listened to the Hamilton soundtrack as I ran errands, baked cookies, and relaxed at home. Before yesterday, I had only listened to a few songs–the first 11 or so, actually. So I was familiar with the upbeat, hopeful notes of the musical’s opening, but I had not been prepared for the the heartbreaking tragedy in the second half. At home once more, I listened to the last notes of “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” I dried unexpected tears and joked with friends that Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton deserves a place on the ancestor shrine. We laughed, but I reiterate: ancestors are not just those linked to us by blood. Those who inspire us, those worthy of honor and remembrance, deserve veneration too.

I went to bed with echoes of the Hamilton musical ringing in my ears.

Look around, look around at how
Lucky we are to be alive right now!

How lucky I am indeed, that my forebears came together in seemingly chaotic, unpredictable ways to bring me to this circumstance. I know I’m luckier than others in this regard. That’s why honoring them is so important to me–not just on Samhain, but on all days.

A Spirit Dilemma, Part I

Necromancy comes in all shapes and forms. One person might work exclusively with spirits of dead animals, while another person might practice sin-eating as a service to their community. From my experience, it is difficult to practice all forms of necromancy to any great extent; focusing on two or three specialties seems to be more commonplace among those who call themselves necromancers. My specialty, for instance, is the advocacy of the alternative death and death acceptance movements. But to a lesser extent, I have always wanted to be a grave-tender and spirit worker. I have one foot in those doors already. I can go to any cemetery, reach out to the spirits there, and sense their mood. But there is a certain subset of spirits with which I’ve always had difficulty connecting: my own ancestors’.

Both of my parents hail from the Philippines, and DNA testing has revealed that my genetic makeup consists primarily of people living in East Asia, the Pacific Islands, and South Asia. A sizeable, yet unknown, percentage of my blood is specifically Chinese, too. I am extremely proud of my ethnic heritage and want nothing more than to have relationships with my ancestors, but several things contribute to the disconnect.

First, I was the first child in my entire family to be born in the United States. I was raised there. I have not met most of my aunts, uncles, and cousins, and I barely know all of my grandparents. Though I’ve asked my own parents about my relatives, their knowledge about their grandparents and great-grandparents have faded with the passage of time. I’ve tried reaching out to my other relatives via Facebook, but nothing will be quite like sitting with them in person and writing down the stories. I could visit them, but the current political climate of the Philippines is too dangerous for tourism. Second, I have the unfortunate circumstance of being mostly headblind. Regular practice and great effort allow me to commune with the gods and spirits I currently have relationships with, but trying to tune into rocks, trees, and my own ancestors has always been difficult.

Therefore, when books on necromancy and related divination techniques recommend building strong relationships with the ancestors first, I stop dead in my tracks. (No pun intended.) This has happened to me with Michele Jackson’s Bones, Shells, and Curios: A Contemporary Method of Casting the Bones and with Martin Coleman’s Communing with the Spirits. Both lessons begin with establishing this relationship. Coleman even recommends writing full-page biographies of ten ancestors, three of which must be deceased, in order to understand them as people instead of as merely concepts. The idea is really good, and I wholeheartedly agree that this should be the first step. But for me, it is less of a step and more like trying to eat a bowl of delicious soup with only a knife. It’s really hard.

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My half-finished ancestor shrine, featuring a photo of my great-grandfather, Agustin Lo.

In an act of desperation, I reached out to my friend Ariadna, a student of espiritsmo living in Philadelphia. She has had success revealing the spirits influencing other people, so I figure she’s the best (and most accessible) person who can help me connect with the spirits in my life, ancestral or otherwise. She has requested that I travel to Philadelphia soon for a spirit reading/consult, which I plan to do this November. In the meantime, she provided me techniques which I can try to use to sense spirits better. Once my schedule dies down with the end of Pagan Pride Day this weekend, I also want to try devoting time every weekend to sit with my spirits and start forming a bond. Ariadna says that even if we do not know the names of our spirits, they are there influencing us, eager to form relationships with us. And I must start somewhere.

Expect Part II of this series after I return from Philadelphia this November.

You, Me, and the Death Acceptance Movement

Yesterday, a good friend of mine sent me the following text:

There’s a dead bird here and a bunch of bugs eating it and I had two simultaneous thoughts: this makes me think of Ange, and Ange is the only person on earth who would find that flattering.

And he was right. I was absolutely tickled. I realized I have become That Friend™ with my unique (or, to most people, weird) passion for death.

A decade ago, if you’d told me that I’d stand out by being so vocal about death and dying, I’d call you a liar. Back then, I wanted nothing more than to keep my head down, blend in, and make as few ripples as possible. But two years ago, I read Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, and my mind opened with revelation. Death is a beautiful, natural part of our fleeting lives, I realized. And talking about death is important—and it isn’t happening.

In the United States, where I was born and raised, and where I currently live, death is a taboo topic. Many people consider it too morbid for polite conversation. When relatives die, parents might tell curious children that the deceased has “passed on” or “gone away”—troublesome euphemisms that hide the reality of human existence. Many people act as if they will not die, as if the world is theirs forever. Moreover, society encourages a person to soldier through their grief, so most bottle it up, not knowing how to healthily express it, suffering alone.

But when I shared a screenshot of my friend’s text on Facebook, the reaction received was neither awkward nor dismissive. People loved it. They thought it was hilarious. And it’s because they know me, Angelica, the “deathling.” They see the essays and articles I share about death doulas, alternative burial arrangements, and home funerals. They’ve read accounts of my experiences at Death Cafés and cemeteries. My cover page on Facebook is a photograph I took of a deer’s spine with one of my favorite quotes superimposed on it.

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My Facebook cover photo. Credit: Angelica Martinez.

And I would not have received such positive reactions from my friends—or even the original text at all—if I hadn’t been so vocal for the past two years. Perhaps some of my friends already viewed death positively before I started talking about it. What’s more likely is that they did not think much of it at all. And now? Now people tag me on posts about death culture. Now people send me links to free, online college courses about death. Now people text me that insects eating animal corpses remind them of me.

Now people are thinking about it when they weren’t before.

I know that I’m one person. In my position, I only have a certain capacity to influence society; beyond that, I am powerless. But humanity is a network, and changing the way one person views death and dying potentially changes the way a dozen people view death and dying. And allowing people with similar views to share and discuss them without shame will slowly dismantle the misconceptions and taboos plaguing our death culture.

If I can do that, even on the smallest scale, that will be enough.