Death and the Gilmore Girls

Death and the Gilmore Girls

One of my favorite shows for years was Gilmore Girls. Snappy patter, pop culture references galore, a brilliant woman chef for me to identify with, and a close mother-daughter relationship contrasted with sharp conflict between the mother and her own parents. What’s not for me to like?

When the show ended almost ten years ago, it was on an upbeat note. Rory, the youngest generation of the Gilmores, was off to cover the first Obama campaign for a newspaper, pursuing her dream of being a great journalist. Lorelei, Rory’s mother, got back together with Luke, the man she was obviously meant to be with. She even made a kind of peace with her own mother, Emily, and with her father Richard.

When Netflix announced that they would be producing a revival miniseries, many fans wondered how the show would handle the death of Edward Herrmann, who had played the role of Richard Gilmore, Lorelei’s father and Rory’s grandfather. As it turned out, Richard’s death was the prime mover for much of the series.

They could not, of course, show the death. Herrmann died on December 31, 2014. Even the funeral was shown primarily in flashbacks. Instead, what we see is three women in mourning. Emily, her world shattered by the loss of her husband of so many years, trying desperately to cope with life without him. Lorelei, mourning the loss of the relationship she never had as much as the father she did, while trying to deal with chaos as work and uncertainty in her personal life. Rory, caught in the Millenial’s dilemma, and never having had to deal with grief like this before, finds her life spinning out of control.

Each of them is mourning in her own way, but all of them have trouble mourning together. Emily and Lorelei are driven farther apart than ever by something Lorelei did after her father’s funeral. Lorelei and Rory have one of their vanishingly rare huge fights, and do not communicate for months. Emily and Rory barely see each other.

In many ways, the miniseries shows what’s wrong with our society’s handling of death. No cultural structure for mourning. An expectation that one should simply be done mourning at some points only a few months after the death. Little or no planning for one’s own future death, unless the idea is brought home to one by tragedy, and a resistance by family members to discussing the matter. The burdens that we place on one another.

It is, in many ways, a very dark little series. It faces up to death and mourning in a way not much in pop culture does, and many fans have been distressed or disappointed by that.


Writing Graveside Offerings

One of the most important things in all of Hellenic culture was veneration of the Dead. Not having proper observances paid in your honor was a thing of horror for many people. Childless men would adopt younger men, just so that they would have someone to perform the rites after their deaths. A funeral was held only once, but rites to honor the Dead happened at least once a year, and usually more often. So of course the graveside offerings, both those to be performed in the days and weeks after the funeral and those performed on special days, were going to be very important things.

I started with two things. The first is an excerpt I found in The Greek Way of Death by Robert Garland.

(Athenaeus IX. 78) However there is a unique use of the word aponimma [normally ‘dirty water’] among the Athenians, where it is applied to the ritual actions in honor of the dead, or to the purification of those who are enageis, as Kleidemos says in the work called the Exegetikon. For, having made remarks ‘on sacrifices for the dead’, he writes as follows, “Dig a trench on the west side of the grave. Next, [standing] right next to the trench, look toward the west. Pour water down, saying the following, ‘For you the water of purification, to whom it is necessary and for whom it is right.’ Then immediately pour down the scent.” Dorotheus also cites this, alleging that such things are written down in the ancestral [laws] of the Eupatridai [FGrH #356 F1], concerning the purification of suppliants, “Next, after you yourself and the other persons taking part in the sacrificial ritual have received the water of purification, take water and purify; clean off the blood-guilt of the one being purified, and after that, having shaken off the water of purification, pour it into the same place.”

And the second was a Starry Bull offering ritual written by our founder, Sannion.

Cleanse with chernips.
Apply titanos.
Ring a bell seven times.
Light a candle.
Inscribe or trace a labyrinth.
Offer incense.
Make a triple libation of:
– wine
– milk
– water
Offer grain.
Offer fruit or flowers.
Offer honey.
Offer an egg.
Recite a hymn.
Ask blessings for your community.
Thank the god or spirit.
Thank the predecessors and preservers of the tradition.
Spend some time in personal prayer, meditation and communion with
the gods and spirits.
Perform divination.
Close the rite by ringing a bell three times.

From these two things, I was able to create two rituals for graveside offerings: a complex, formal one called the Aponimma, and a less formal and structured one called the Deipnon or Daïs, the latter of which also has similarities to the Southeastern US’s tradition of Dinner on the Ground, a tradition of sharing food with one another and the Dead at the graveside. The Aponimma, on the other hand, is to help cleanse the Dead for their journey, to make offerings to strengthen them, and to make offerings to the Chthonic Gods to encourage welcoming the Dead.

This was a tricky but not a hard piece to write. The high formality of the Aponimma is not my usual ritual style, but it was important to me to strike that tone here. And unlike some of the other pieces for this book, writing it didn’t leave me in tears. Instead, it was an experience of strength and confidence. I felt as if I were writing well, as if I were really hitting my stride with the project.

“Graveside Offerings” will shortly be available on Patreon for patrons.

Research: The Funeral Feast of Midas

While reading Death Warmed Over by Lisa Rogak, I ran across mention of a recreation of the funeral feast of the legendary King Midas of Phrygia, based on chemical analysis of the leftovers and residues found in his tomb, where the dirty dishes and remains of the feast were simply left when it was sealed.

I tracked down several articles, the most important and informative being the host museum’s own pages on it, the introduction, and including their own recreated recipes.

This is so very exciting to me. Information on the content of a funeral feast is extremely rare. These things were not generally recorded, other than to say what animal was sacrificed for it. Food is truly one of my great passions in life. To find this was an absolute gift.

One of my goals for the Book is now to develop my own recipe of the lamb and lentil stew, and possibly of the mixed drink. I think a dark beer and a dry mead would mix well together, the way Guinness does with cider (and if you haven’t tried a half-and-half Guinness and cider, sometimes called a Black Velvet, you’re missing out), and a sweet red, like a black muscat. (The Greeks didn’t have white wines, as far as we can tell.) I might even look for something particularly bitter, like a barleywine. Some day I’d like to try brewing myself, and would definitely want to eventually try the King Midas Golden Elixir developed for the recreation feast.

First, though, I have to have the money to procure the ingredients. Lentils may be cheap, but lamb isn’t, and there are a lot of spices, red wine, honey, and more. And brewing equipment is even more expensive. Won’t you please consider donating to my Patreon, to fund my research?

Movie: Life Itself

Queepr is a social media site for memorializing the dead. It has some wonderful resources for grieving as well. I ran across this blog post listing excellent documentaries about death, and found Life Itself listed among them. I would never have thought to watch a movie about a movie critic for moving narrative about death, but I’m certainly glad I saw it.

Life Itself is a documentary about Roger Ebert (and partially based on his memoir of the same title) that was filmed starting only five months before his death. The movie covers Ebert’s diagnosis of the final return and metastasis of his cancer as it happened, even though it upset Ebert’s wife Chaz to have the crew there. It is the story of his dying as well as his living.

It also discusses Ebert’s longtime rival and tv partner Gene Siskel’s death of brain cancer. Siskel kept his tumor very quiet, very private. He didn’t tell Ebert, who was quite hurt by it, prompting him to be very public about his own cancer when his turn came in 2002. He was diagnosed with thyroid cancer then, and the next eleven years were a series of relapses, surgeries, infections, and complications. In 2006, he lost the ability to speak due to his multiple throat, jaw and chin surgeries, and never regained it. Thereafter, he communicated through his wife, and later a voice synthesizer. Eventually, his jaw was completely removed.

Chaz Ebert, his wife, tells about the time Roger gave her a note reading, “Kill me.” “No,” she told him, “that is not an option.” She also talks about Roger telling her, near the end, that she must let him go, about him signing a Do Not Resuscitate order without her knowledge. About the hospital staff refusing to using a defibrillator when Roger’s heart stopped, and finally “a wind of peace” flowed over her, and she accepted his death. She held his left hand, and someone else held hers, and another held theres, forming a circle around the room, with someone holding Roger’s right hand on the other end. They stood, and listened to music, until finally the doctor called time of death.

There is, of course, much more to this film than death, and it was never meant to be about death. Yet it covers death beautifully.


So I’ve only just realized that I ran through all my queued posts for this blog almost a month ago. Oops. I’m so sorry.

But posts will resume this week, and I thought I’d step up and talk a little about the new books I’ve gotten through the generous donations of readers of this blog.

Last month, I was able to acquire Death in the Greek World by Maria Serena Mirto, an excellent examination of death in Greek literature that includes basically a whole chapter on Orphic practices around death. So this book is going to be incredibly useful to me. I’m reading it very slowly, though, as I’m very busy with school. I hope to have the chance to finish it over winter break.

I also picked up Final Rights by Lisa Carlson and Joshua Slocum, which is exactly what I had hoped Cemetery Law would be, a state-by-state examination of laws related to funerals and cemeteries. This one is going to be absolutely invaluable to me as I counsel members of my religious community in how to best enforce their wishes for their funerals. It’s put out by the Funeral Consumers’ Alliance, a group doing terrific work to inform and advocate for people arranging funerals, whether for themselves in the future or for loved ones now. They’re a very useful resource, especially to find out what you need to know in your state, and have a lot of local affiliates across the country. (They’re also badly in need of money right now, being about $50k short of this year’s budget, not to mention next year’s. If you have a little to spare, please consider donating.)

While I’m talking about great organizations, I also want to mention the National Home Funeral Alliance. It’s a wonderful group doing much-needed work to support people who want to have home funerals or otherwise care for their dead themselves. Since death care, particularly washing the body, is an important part of the Starry Bull’s funerary rites, I’ve now joined them.

This month’s donations have allowed me to buy Restless Dead by Sarah Iles Johnston, which I’m really looking forward to digging into, as soon as I finish the Mirto book.

Expect regularly scheduled posts to resume Wednesday, and thank you for your patience!

Women and Death

It’s a very common tradition, across the world and throughout history: women handle and care for dead bodies. It was true in the USA from colonial days on, and not until the Civil War did it begin to change, with the advent of arterial embalming (the injection of embalming materials into the arteries and veins) and the professionalization of mortuary practices. Older women in the family or the community (called shrouding women) knew what to do, and as many women as necessary pitched in. They washed the body, dressed it, laid it out, prepared the funeral meal, did everything but the actual service — usually conducted by (male) clergy of some kind — and the transportation and burial, which were the business of men.

It was true in ancient Greece, as well. Bodies and funerals were handled by the women of the household. Unlike in the US, priests were not involved in funerals, and indeed may have been forbidden from doing so, given the miasma associated with death. Instead, the same women of the household who did the laying out also conducted the funeral. At some point early on, there were women called enchytristriai, who officiated at a death in some manner that’s no longer clear, but gradually that position faded, and the kedemon (one who has charge of the dead and their rites) was simply a woman of the dead’s household.

Dealing with the bodies of the dead, like any other messy but necessary chore, has usually been the work of women. (An exception is made in some cultures that maintain strict separation of the sexes, in which case men tend to men’s bodies and women to women’s, and, if acknowledged, other genders to their own.) It is only when it becomes a profession that dealing with the dead becomes strictly the province of men, as it became in the United States after the Civil War, parts of Europe after World War I, and in other places at other times. Undertakers were men, because it was a profession, and only men held professions. Good statistics are not available, but anecdotes suggest that while the funeral industry today is still male-dominated, women are becoming more prevalent. And newer professions, such as death midwife or death doula, that are associated with the home funeral movement, are mostly made up of women.

In the Starry Bull Tradition, it is not necessary that a kedemon be a woman, but it is likely that we often will be, if only because the tradition (so far) runs heavily to women. Any initiate of any gender will be welcome to study the rituals and undertake initiation as a tender of the Dead, however. Once I get all of the rituals written, that is.

So I find myself acting in the grand tradition of my many ancestresses, caring for the bodies of the Dead. But I also find myself caring for their psychai, their souls, which has often not been the purview of mortal women (although many goddesses have overseen the Dead). It is interesting to bring the two halves back together again, when they have been separated for so long.

If you’re interested in the associations between women and death, I recommend Death & the Maiden, a blog about exactly that.

Writing Farewell to a Lover

While I was on a religious retreat with some other Dionysians, some of us were talking about this project, and especially for the need for mourning rituals. One of them spoke up and said that when her husband died, she had no idea of the kinds of possibilities that home funerals offered, and that she wished she’d known that she could spend more time with his body.

In the absence of his actual body, she said, she did a spontaneous ritual that involved blessing and saying farewell to the individual parts of him. The idea moved me deeply. It seemed to echo the work of Isis, who had to collect the seven body parts of her murdered husband and bring them back together, and through that connect to the dismemberment of Dioynsos Zagreus. The very idea had me blinking back tears. I knew that I wanted such a ritual for the book. And with the permission and help of the woman who originated the ritual, I set out to.

This has been the hardest to write of everything I’ve begun so far. I expect only the funeral ritual itself to be harder. I had to put myself in the situation, to imagine that I had lost my wife and that I was saying farewell to her. I went through the parts of her body that I loved, and thought of what I would want to say to her about each of them, if she were dead. I cried all over again, trying not to let my wife, on the other side of the room, see, so I wouldn’t have to explain. She’s very supportive about this project, but this felt too weird and too sad.

I started from the feet and worked my way up, giving only a single line for each. I hope that anyone who uses the ritual will improvise and improve upon that work, though. My comments on it are quite explicit that this is only an example, that anyone actually doing such a ritual should take as long as they need with every body part, to say whatever they feel about it, to tell any stories they may have. I also encourage people to speak only to those body parts they want to, not to feel obliged to do every piece and part, but to concentrate on what moves them most.

The goal of the ritual is to help release the deceased partner’s spirit by doing this, as well as to fully mourn their passing. It closes with a line the originator of the ritual wrote, “[Name], your body has been a beautiful vessel, but now it must return to the elements. You are free, [name]. Let all ties to your body be loosed. You may now release it in peace and gratitude. You are starry light, unbound by earthly needs. You are pure spirit, nourished by love and memory. [Name], know that you will not be forgotten.”

I was so touched and honored that this woman, this fellow maenad, allowed me to use her idea, that she approved of what I wrote, that she added to it. I felt I had not failed in my duty to the living and to the dead.

Movie: A Certain Kind of Death

A Certain Kind of Death is a documentary from 2003 about the work of the LA Coroner’s office and legal processes that surround dead bodies. The movie tracks several bodies after their discovery through the process of trying to find next of kin, looking for any funeral plans they might have made, checking to see if they have the money to cover their own disposition or if the county will need to cover it, and more. It shows the process of cremation, including shrouding the body, putting it in a cardboard coffin, putting it into the crematorium, manually breaking up the bones and sweeping out the ashes. For those who are interested in the process, it’s a good, straightforward look at the work of the unsung members of the coroner’s office. It’s nothing very exciting cinematographically, being very simply shot, and there are some images of bodies that have been lying in place for days or weeks that are fairly gross. It’s certainly not a movie for everyone.

Far more so than when I saw the bodies, I was absolutely horrified when, in discussing the relationship of the recently deceased Mr. Tanner to someone whose burial he had paid for years earlier as “roommates”. Mr. Tanner’s “friend” died of AIDS in the early 90s. Pictures of the two together showed them sitting together, touching in ways straight men in our culture generally don’t do. But there was no mention of even the possibility that they were partners.

This infuriates and upsets me. This is how our relationships are treated. As if they don’t exist. As if love between two men or two women doesn’t exist. We are “friends” and “roommates”.

It’s gotten better. We can get married now, everywhere in the US, and in many other countries. If this documentary were made today, they probably would have at least said “or partners” after “roommates”. But this is so recent. And I remember it so well. And it’s still like this is so many places. We’re just… erased. Constantly. I still get people referring to my “partner” after I’ve specifically said “my wife” (two words I love to say), erasing our marriage, erasing our same-gender legal relationship.

I had to pause the movie for half an hour while I cried, I was so upset. I remember the AIDS crisis all too well. I remember funerals… I remember helping men sew their partner’s Quilt panel, and then helping their friends sew theirs. Watching a relationship erased again just makes me so angry.

One person did later mention “his partner” as being the man whose burial he had paid for. But by the time this was edited together, they’d have been aware of the partnership. There was no reason to use footage of people referring to his partner as his “friend” or “roommate”.

Despite this casual, heterosexist erasure, it’s overall a good documentary for those interested in the process. It shows, among other things, the way bodies are treated in what in necessarily an impersonal system that deals with the dead in bulk. LA County saw around five hundred cases a year at the time, just of bodies who had no next of kind and who therefore needed to be dealt with by the county. They of course try to treat all bodies with respect, but cannot possibly treat them with the loving care a family member or loved one would, cannot possibly remain in a frame of mind that focuses solely on the body. This is their job, their day-to-day life. They cannot get to know each of the dead personally, even those who must sift through their papers and belongings.

Research: Cemetery Law by Tanya D. Marsha and Daniel Gibson, Funeral Law Blog, and Papers

Tanya D. Marsh has rapidly become an invaluable resource for me, although very little of my reading of her work will actually make it into the book. Instead, her work informs how I talk to other polytheists about the practicalities of death.

Marsh is both a lawyer and a funeral director, and the author of the first major work on cemetery law in the US since 1950. This entire field is almost ignored. As a topic, it faces all the usual problems that anything to do with death does: no one wants to speak of it. But additionally, funeral and cemetery law changes incredibly slowly, and few people bother to specialize in it.

But from Marsh’s book, blog, and occasional papers and presentation notes, I’ve learned a great deal. All of it applies only in the United States, and some of it varies from state to state.

I now have some idea of what can and can’t legally be done with a body. This is actually pretty limited: burial, cremation, burial at sea, donation to a medical school or body farm, and, in some thirteen states, a process called bio cremation or alkaline hydrolysis. Skeletonization for the purposes of the keeping the bones is not explicitly legal anywhere (aside from medical research purposes), and it would be extremely difficult to find any professional willing to perform the service. Nor can you bury a body, allow it to be skeletonized by natural processes, and dig it up, because legal principle states that once buried, the body becomes part of the earth, and cannot be dug up again without good reason and, generally, a court order. Possessing human bones is not explicitly illegal in most places, but except for medical purposes, is often in contravention of some law or precedent about disposition of the dead. Possession and sale of bones is of questionable legality nearly everywhere, as human remains are not property as cannot be owned. Things like air burial and being devoured by wild animals aren’t legal, either, but you can sort of get around this by donating your body to a body farm (an institution which studies decomposition, mostly for forensic purposes) and specifying that you would like it exposed. Open air pyres are legal only in Colorado, although in other states it’s possible to re-burn cremains on an open-air pyre, with proper fire permits.

I know roughly who gets control of a corpse. Unless otherwise designated by legal tool, it’s the next of kin; in descending order, these are the legal spouse, adult children, parents, siblings, or other relatives, some other concerned person. In most places. It can vary. In some states, even minor children may have legal rights above the parents of the deceased, for example. Legal tools for designating someone to take control of your body vary from place to place, but include wills, advance directives, and powers of attorney.

I know that whoever has control of the body is generally obligated to comply with the expressed wishes of the deceased for the handling and disposition of the body, but also that it varies wildly from state to state exactly how those wishes must be expressed. In some places, verbal last wishes is enough. In others, anything written down is sufficient. In some states, a will is the correct tool, but in others that’s forbidden because a dead body is not property and so cannot be disposed of by a will. Some states require that wishes be notarized. In Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi and Rhode Island, the only wishes that are required to be followed are those set out in a pre-need funeral contract (that is, one paid for when the personal was alive). In Kentucky, New Mexico, and South Carolina, all you can do is pre-authorize your cremation! What a mess.

I have learned that if you don’t leave wishes at all, whoever gets control of your body gets to do anything they like with it — even if they know it would have been something you hated, such as burying you with a Christian service or not respecting your gender. Finding out the laws in your state and correctly leaving behind instructions is absolutely vital if you have any firm opinions on what you’d like done with your body, and if you think your next of kin might not respect those wishes, it’s important to see if you can designate some other person to get control. Call an estate lawyer in your state to find out the correct procedures, and before you do, I suggest reading Marsh’s paper “Who Controls the Dead” so you can ask educated questions.

And perhaps most importantly, I have learned that most of the law out there is heavily influenced by, overwhelmingly benefits, and is often drawn up by the funeral industry. Most people don’t want to talk or think about it until they have to, so they don’t get involved or pay any attention. If you want to be able to explicitly determine what happens to your body, if you want options for your body or your loved ones’ that are not currently legal, get involved. Call your legislators! Band together with other polytheists or pagans or just concerned people who want to see change, and demand it!