Naming the Dead (and other Funeral Traditions)

Heathens believe people live on after death when we speak (or write) their names,* which is why at blóts it is traditional to recite the names of our ancestors as far back as we can remember. Words can give life and power to the dead every bit as much as to the living. Therefore I will not speak the name of the deceased in this post (despite the search engine boost that would give us right now, *sigh*), for I do not wish to honor him or his actions, and his spirit will not live through my words.

I am glad we handled the body according to Muslim tradition (even if he didn’t deserve it – that man was not a real Muslim). I think Shepherd Book, from Joss Whedon’s Firefly, said it best when he said: “How we treat our dead is part of what makes us different than those did the slaughtering.” I also think it was brilliant that he was buried at sea, leaving no martyr’s tomb for pilgrims to visit.

Regardless of naming or burial, if his soul lives on in some way, I hope his ancestors are showing him what he has done, and he can be made to understand it and to empathize with his victims. Meanwhile on Midgard (the realm of the living, i.e. here in the “real world”) I hope his followers turn away from his legacy. With the violence and psychological damage done in his name, I can imagine no worse Hel** than true understanding of his crimes and deserved abandonment by his people.

Those Who Should be Remembered

According to CNN, Navy SEALS conducted the mission against a mansion/fortress that was specifically designed and built to house the terrorist. The walls of the compound are eighteen feet high and topped with barbed wire. There are few windows. The three story tall building has one terrace off the third floor with a seven foot high wall and it has additional internal walls that can section off and isolate different areas of the building. The men who went in had a pretty epic mission in both purpose and difficulty, and I thank them even though I don’t know their names.

My thoughts and prayers go not just to the SEALs who carried out a successful mission, but also to the men and women still on the battlefield fighting wars launched over this man’s actions. My thoughts and prayers go to their families who daily pray, each in their own way, for their loved one’s safe return. My thoughts and prayers go to the military leaders making decisions about human life; may they make them with the wisdom of Odin and the self-sacrificing integrity of Tyr. Regardless of how I feel about these particular wars and the myriad reasons governments and corporations play fast and loose with human life, these men and woman are heroes, risking their lives for the dream of what America should be.

Hail to our soldiers, from the SEALs on yesterday’s mission to those first stepping into the sandbox. Hail to those still in the field and to those veterans (like my father Colonel Robert Edward L.) who have retired with honor. Hail to those who live with the memories of their service, hail to the those who died in battle, and hail to those who (like my grandfather Arthur L. Smith) served in wars past and died at home in peace. Hail and thank you.

* One of the most often quoted stanzas from the Hávamál (a poem generally considered Heathenry’s most sacred text) speaks to names living on after death. I give you the lines from the P.B. Taylor and W.H. Auden translation, but the different versions vary pretty wildly; Norse poets used a lot of metaphor, which makes translation a rough approximation at best.

Cattle die, kindred die,
Every man is mortal.
But the good name never dies
Of one who has done well.

Though there are varying ways to interpret the lines (and varying ways to translate the lines) this stanza and others like it throughout our Lore show the Norse connection of immortality to a name that carries on after death.

** In Norse belief, Hel is the name of both the realm of the dead and the jötunn (often translated as “giant”- but that’s not really what a jötunn is) who runs it. Etymologically it is where we get the English word “hell” from. Unlike the double ‘L’ hell, it isn’t a place of fiery punishment, but a misty, somewhat depressing land where all the dead go except the select few who, for reasons of valor or talent or other above-and-beyond acts, are invited by a god to live at their estate (the einherjar of Vallhalla, soldiers who died in battle and were chosen by valkyries for Odin’s Army of the Apocalypse, are the most well-known example). However, unlike in Christianity where Heaven and Hell are usually taken very literally, most heathens I know look on different physicalizations of the afterlife as symbolic. If asked what literally happens when we die, most heathens will tell you “we join our ancestors,” and leave it at that.