Paganism – beliefs and practical tasks at the End of Life

Introduction from Diane Yates – PF Hospital Ministry Manager

Over the past trying months with a pandemic spreading throughout our world, it was requested of me to produce some information on Pagan wishes at the end of life for hospitals and interfaith groups.

Due to the pressures of work for all at this time, I asked a fellow Pagan and friend Lyn Bayliss of LifeRites, whom I had been completing some work with for our community to help me collate this document of Pagan wishes.

Together we put together a basic overview, it does not go into any traditions wishes in great detail as that would have sadly taken too much time.  But we hoped that we were able to give some ideas, especially for those who do not follow a Pagan tradition or have never had experience of a Pagan at the end of their life.

As we are sadly encountering a second wave of this awful pandemic, I thought to share this as part of the work as the Pagan Federation Hospital Ministry Manager I have been doing behind the scenes.

Lyn and I hope that it will be helpful for anyone who is coming to or who knows someone who is coming to the end of their life, to give some ideas of what is available to them. Please do not hesitate to make contact if the Pagan Federation as a wider organisation or I as Hospital Ministry Manager can be of any support or help at his difficult time that we as a human race are having to endure.

An overview

In Pagan beliefs death is about transformation and renewal, and it is a part of the cycle of life which is what keeps us in touch with the rhythms of the human life course and the rites of death confirm this cyclic pattern engaging our imagination and our bodies. 

Immortality of the soul is grounded in the belief that the spirit of the person never dies but returns again and again to the earth until they learn the lessons which will allow them to reach perfection and become one with the Gods.  Alternatively, there are some who believe that we do not return as such but become part of Mother Earth and that is a form of immortality.

Many pagans believe that when the spirit leaves the body it does not mean that all ties to those left behind are disconnected. Sometimes they have the power to manifest themselves to us and in some instances they also communicate with us.  Often, depending upon our need, particular Spirits, from our own family are called upon to provide us with assistance, and these can come to us during dreams or in visions.

The funeral comes into its own as it generated a feeling of power and of completion of the life of the deceased and in many ways it enables the mourners to come away feeling transformed as if something important has happened.

The ritual performance which is invoked at the funeral changes something inside us at an emotional level, it changes the way we feel about the deceased and about the others who share our grief. If the ritual is done well, and if it has worked it will change things for the better. The grief is honoured the person remembered and life without them is just a little bit easier to deal with.

When death is viewed as part of a continuing process Pagan believe that it not only helps with the grieving process but also helps the surviving members and their extended family and friends to remember the ancestors who once walked this earth and we call upon them for help today knowing that one day we too will join them and be called upon for help by our grandchildren and their grandchildren.

Being able to have a continuous link with the past and present ensures that the values we hold sacred will never be lost.


Generally speaking the dead are not dangerous, to either our physical or mental health.  (The hospital or coroner or other place of death will not release the body of an infected person to the family – if the person dies at home and is infectious it will be removed to a suitable place of rest until the funeral)

Spiritual aspect.

Pagans believe that life is not the end of our existence.  They believe that all creatures possess a spirit or soul and that spirit or soul is eternal therefore when the body dies it is only a physical death and our spiritual journey continues. 

If we look at nature we can see in all things a cyclic pattern.  It is so with our lives.  We generally honour this circle of birth, infancy, childhood, youth, maturity and old age, and should therefore also find honour in death knowing that although the body undergoes physical Transformation, the Spirit remains unchanged.

Many Pagans believe that the soul/spirit does not leave the dead person immediately. Depending on their particular path, beliefs and ideology the soul can leave the body immediately and that a window needs to be opened to allow the soul to fly free, or any time during the following 3 days

Each person is unique and their Pagan path plays an enormous role in what they believe happens at the time of death.  Therefore the Rituals that surround death take many forms.  Each tradition has its beliefs and symbols which often define and lay out the process of death itself.


To help someone achieve a good death there are a number of steps that will assist this transition.

  1. Physical and Symbolic changes in the room
  2. Begin the mourning period by planning the pre–funeral ceremonies.

The first thing to do is to create a peaceful soothing atmosphere that will trigger all the senses and thus help the dying person and all present to get a sense of and to feel close to the Divine.

For maximum effect it makes sense to work with all the senses

this can be done by:


  1. Set up an altar/sacred space and arrange spiritually meaningful articles or pictures on it.
  2. cover unsightly furniture with beautiful cloth.
  3. arrange for soft lighting or candlelight to bring feelings of peace and safety.


  1. Scented candles,
  2. incense, & oils
  3. fragrant flowers

(make sure the dying people like the odours selected, and if possible that they have meaning to them.)


  1. Gentle chanting, and soft and evocative vocals
  2. Other music or sounds that will sooth and inspire
  3. Prayers in keeping with the dying person’s tradition,
  4. Reading of much loved books or poetry
  5. A guided meditation to take the person to the place they wish to be.

(remember the hearing is the last thing to go and loud, and high frequencies may make the person uncomfortable and distressed.)

Silence equally is very important sound. It is good to remember the value and necessity of simply sitting in silence with the dying person.


Water as in “holy water” or “spirit water” are often sprinkled on the dying person to prepare them for death.

Oil also is sometimes used to anoint the person and to make them ready for the transition. In many cases the chakra points are closed down along the length of the body leaving the head chakra open to allow the spirit or soul to escape (this is often done post death).

The most important thing to remember is that this time is for the person dying, and to make sure all are aware of their beliefs. 

If rituals are created with that in mind, and rooted in love and compassion, then there is no right way or wrong way to do things. Be aware that rituals can bring things to the surface and although they may help us see things more clearly they bring to the fore feelings that have been buried in our unconscious, which may trigger an emotional outburst –  practically in the friends and relatives.

At the point of Death

Often the dying person has a vision of what awaits them or there is one that is particularly significant to their path or tradition:

When death is imminent their Chaplain or Spiritual leader may wish to take them on a guided meditation to that place where they expect to meet their spiritual guide or family member.

  1. In many circumstances they will find their way through a woodland or country path that is well known to them to a River and that they will wait there for the ferryman who will take them over
  2. Sometimes there is a bridge (possibly a Rainbow bridge but not always) that they must walk over, and they will be met on the bridge or on the other side by a spiritual guide or a close family member.
  3. Sometimes that they will swim or wade across a stream or be taken across in some way and that the entrance of the Summerlands is between two pillars or between two massive oak trees.

Post Death

Cleaning and anointing the body

Two clean flannels and towels, and two bowls of water are placed by the deceased and three drops of oil usually frankincense & myrrh and another – possibly sage. (The third one may have a special significance to the deceased and/or their family) are put into the water.

(Myrrh is to honour the deceased and to take the soul to the afterlife, reawakening the higher self.   Frankincense is to set bless and purify and to detach the deceased from the needs of the body allowing the purified spirit ascend. Sage is blessings and purifying.)

Water is recognized universally as a symbol of purification, and is physically required to clean the deceased.  The person is washed with clean flannels one for the top half and one for the trunk and lower extremities and they are then anointed in line with their path or tradition.  Depending on the tradition, the feet, hands and mouth and/or other important parts of the body are often anointed with Sage or another oil.

At this point their chakra points are closed down, from the root chakra up to but not including the crown chakra. This is done by an anticlockwise motion of the hand over the given area starting at the outer edges of the aura bringing it down just above the surface. (this can still be done if the body is in a body bag)

Prayers and readings are spoken as appropriate and then the deceased person is placed into a winding sheet, or shroud or clothed in their robes or best attire ready to meet their deity.

Where the person dies at home or if the body is allowed home before the funeral, many traditions with then hold a Wake – Wakes can last a day, three days, even a week. Friends and relatives continuously take turns staying with the body.

Often the Wake becomes a vigil and vice versa.

At the time when the spirit is thought to leave the body the chief mourner/chaplain/or spiritual leader will close the crown chakra and cover the face of the deceased.

Remember that it is a time of sorrow but often it is also a time of joy and reverence, for the Soul to cross to the other world, or the spirit to join the ancestors.

We must also acknowledge that although time will lessen the pain of loss the memory of the deceased will always live in the minds and hearts of those who loved them.

Depending on what type of funeral is required some personal things may be placed into the casket. If this is a green burial or cremation there are guidelines as to what can and cannot be placed with the deceased. 

Finally the casket is carried into the crematorium or to the graveside.  This can be by members of the family or friends should they wish it,  The Armed Forces cover the coffin in their appropriate flag and this is only taken off the casket at the end of the ceremony when it is ritually presented to the next of kin, this seems a legacy from the American Indians who cover the casket with a blanket as a gesture of farewell and respect. if a person were married, they would cover the casket with the marriage blanket. Other traditions cover the casket with beautiful material or special cloth.  Also significant objects are often placed onto of the coffin when they cannot go into the grave or cremator.

At the funeral service prayers, The Eulogy (story of the life of the deceased) readings, poetry and songs are sung, this can continue at the graveside or in a memorial later for the deceased.

When the deceased is buried often the bearers will also help to lower the casket into the earth, and instead of the traditional handful of earth, seeds and flowers are thrown onto the casket, or mead is often poured upon it.

 In some natural burial ground the relatives and friends can, if they wish, fill the grave with or without help from the grounds keepers.

Written by Diane Yates and Lyn Bayliss