On the recent Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete women had the option of riding up a winding road on a mountainside in the back of a farm truck singing “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain” or could choose to go with the guard in his closed automobile.
That evening one of the older women who had chosen to ride in the car said, “I saw how much fun you were all having, but I have done that before. This time I was happy to let the rest of you do it.”
“That’s exactly how I feel about death,” I responded. “Some people want to live on after death, but I don’t. I am happy to let others do it. The only thing that would upset me would be if life did not go on after me.”
On the Goddess Pilgrimage we remember the dead in an ancient Cretan tholos tomb. The tholos tombs of ancient Crete are round. They were roofed and entered by a low narrow passageway. A heavy slab was used to seal the entrance. These were communal tombs, used and reused for centuries by small farming communities.
The bodies were placed in the tomb in a fetal position, either laid out on the floor of the tomb or in a small wooden box or more rarely in a ceramic box. Grave offerings were few and simple, a comb, a knife, a small piece of jewelry, a small figurine. There was no indication of rank or status, and grave offerings for males and females were the same
After the bodies had decayed the bones were removed to ossuaries, sometimes to bone rooms adjoining the tombs, in other cases placed in caves.
In Orthodox Christianity in Greece today secondary burial is still practiced. After death, the body is buried in the ground in a wooden coffin. Three to five years later the body is dug up, and if the flesh is fully decayed, the bones are washed and removed to a communal ossuary. In my village the bones are placed in a small box which is set on a shelf in the bone room next to the cemetery. Orthodox Christian belief is that these bones will rise when Christ comes again. Anthropological studies suggest that many Greeks believe death is final.
When I think about the death rituals of ancient Crete, I imagine that the round tomb with its narrow entrance was understood to symbolize the womb of Mother Earth. We are born through the narrow passageway of our mother’s bodies. In death we return through a narrow passageway to the womb of the Great Mother who accepts us back into Her body.
Small ceramic dioramas found in the tholos tomb at Kamilari suggest that baking bread and stamping grapes in a sacred way were followed by communal rituals in which bread and wine were shared with the ancestors.
In the death ritual on our tour, we crawl through the narrow entrance of a now roofless tholos tomb. Inside we create an altar with flowers and images. Each of us approaches the altar saying, “Remembering [my baby brother Alan, my mother Janet, Aunt Mary Helen, Uncle Ray, Aunt Lorraine, Mr. Nikos, Xarilambos and little Arseni…]” while pouring libations of milk and honey, water and wine. The others respond, “Let us bless the Source of Life, and the cycle of birth, death, and regeneration.”
On a recent episode of the UK version of “Who Do You Think You Are?” a young British man of mixed race journeyed to Africa in search of his ancestors. As he was welcomed into his tribe, the chief told him, “the ancestors live in us.”
There is no doubt that both our good deeds and our bad deeds will continue to influence the web of life for generations. The sins of the fathers are indeed passed down for seven generations. But so is love. We love because we have been loved. Communities that honor the ancestors recognize that life is a gift that must be passed on. In their rituals, they thank the ancestors for the care and generosity that has nurtured the seed of life through the generations.
It is said that the ancestors draw near as summer turns to winter.
I invite you to gather photographs and other things that remind you of your ancestors—both physical and spiritual–on a table in your home in the coming days.
Add fruits and flowers and a pitcher and a large bowl.
Pour libations into the bowl saying, “Let us bless the Source of Life and the cycle of birth, death, and regeneration.”
Carol has just returned from a life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete–early bird discount available now on the 2015 tours. Carol can be heard in a recent interviews on Voices of the Sacred Feminine, Goddess Alive Radio, and Voices of Women. Carol is a founding voice in feminism and religion and Goddess spirituality. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. Follow Carol on GoddessCrete on Twitter.