LM: What prompted you to write In the Service of Life? 
AG: My grandfather, who saved me from Captain Hook when we watched Mary
Martin's performance in Peter Pan back in the 1950's, died when I was quite young.  My mother was too grief-stricken to talk to me about his illness and death, and my grandmother convinced herself that it would be traumatic for me to attend the funeral.  I never got to say goodbye, and never got to participate in any of the family's death rituals.  Those circumstances generated some interesting experiences, and left me with a fair amount of inner work to do -- and what has interested me since then is that I didn't, and don't, dislike that inner work as much as most people seem to.  Once I found Wicca, I was very comfortable with its death thealogy, and I have been working ever since to share that comfort with other people.  Wiccan thealogy puts death in such a beautiful perspective....  I actually wrote this book in 1994 or '95, but the first publisher I offered it to recoiled in horror because it was about death.  That seemed to me a strong sign that we needed a book about death, to confront our fears and find the reassurance that Wicca offers, but I didn't have time then to pursue publication with other houses, so it didn't come out for another few years. 

LM: Do you have a sense of when our (Western) culture shifted from respecting death as a passage to fearing it? 

AG: Excellent question!  My suspicion is that it began with theIndustrial Revolution, when our work shifted from its harmony with the seasons and work opportunities shifted from rural to urban.  TheVictorian era crystallized what we might call the Nature gap -- art and poetry were still idealizing the pastoral life, and I think some Maypoles were still being danced; yet piano legs were called "limbs" to avoid the bodily reference, and coach curtains were drawn to protect ladies traveling through Europe from seeing the harsh views of the Alpine peaks. On the other hand, photography was a new art then, and it was quite common to photograph the dead, 'cause they were among the only subjects who could hold still long enough for the picture to be made.  In rural areas, the dead were still laid out on the kitchen table, and prepared for burial at home, while in the cities, the mortuary professions were blossoming.  And then, in the 1950's, in this country, we got the interstate highway system, which broke up our extended families, so that adult children moved cross-country to take jobs, and the new suburban lifestyle didn't accommodate sharing a home with the grandparents, so people didn't get old and die in the bosom of the family anymore.  Not seeing this process, we've become unfamiliar with it, and grown afraid of it.   LM: You see death as an exchange of energy -- can you tell me a little more about that? AG: Everything's an exchange of energy.  Mammal breath comes in oxygen (mostly) and goes out carbon dioxide; plant breath goes in carbon dioxide and comes out oxygen.  Not only is there an energy exchange within the bodies of the breathers, but there's an energy exchange among the breathers -- we use the oxygen plants exhale, and they use the carbon dioxide we exhale.  Another example: ice melts, and then you don't have ice anymore, but you have water.  When we die, our bodies melt, a little like ice, and instead of an incarnate consciousness, we have a release of the energy that composed it.  Another example: when a little kid's playing with blocks, s/he makes a castle and knocks it down, and uses some of the same blocks to make the next castle -- the energy released when the castle falls creates the potential for the next one. The first law of physics is that you can neither create nor destroy energy – but it can take different forms.  Religiously, we call that exchange of energy, the changing forms the energy takes, the spiral dance. LM: How can we get excited by death? (That is, unafraid and looking forward to it?) AG: Oh, I'm sure reading my book is the first step!  I know that now I'm supposed to say, "No, but seriously..." but the truth is that my book confront some of the fears we have about death, and confronting our fears is the best way to reclaim the power they hold.  It's our own personal power with which those fears are invested, so when we face them, we reclaim that power, which we can then direct toward enjoying life.  I believe that living our lives to the fullest is our reason for being alive, and if we can do that, then we know we can ... well, live death to the fullest, too.     5. How can we best prepare for death? For dying? AG: There are some mundane things everybody needs to do.  These include making a will -- and depending on your circumstances, that might be something as simple as handwritten instructions, witnessed by at least two people who don't gain from your demise, or it might be as complex as establishing a living trust.  Whether you have minor children or not makes a difference, too -- you need to designate someone to care for them in case you die before they're grown.  You also need to make sure that somebody who can be in charge after you die knows what you want in the way of memorial or funeral services.  Taking care of those details might make you cry, but you'll feel better once it's all sorted out.          Beyond that, you need to understand and cherish the ageing process, the dying and grieving processes, and do your best to accomplish your goals before it's too late.  We all need to put some effort into balancing the realization of our dreams and being responsible grown-ups, which too often we feel means being "groan-ups."  That means taking that trip, getting out those paints, or whatever such-like thing is on your list; it also means telling people how you feel about them, and getting over being embarrassed by your own feelings, accepting that your love matters to other people and that they love you too. LM: Why do you think anger is so much a part of death? AG: I think fear is behind most anger.  Road rage, a big deal right now, comes from the alarming potential for serious accidents, and from the fear of being "dissed" by other people, whose behavior doesn't actually have anything to do with you personally.  Fear of death ranges from the fear of being left alone when someone else dies, of feeling abandoned, to fear of being in trouble in the after-life.  These fears take many forms: we are (perfectly reasonably, I think) afraid of dying in pain, and part of the anger about that is socio-economic -- nobody should die alone or in pain just because they're not properly insured, for instance; there's the fear that people will love us less if we go and die on them, or die roughly; and there's the simple fear of not being sure what happens next. Anger lets you feel, for just a little while, like you're in control. Sometimes anger is legitimate, but there's no thealogical justification, for Wiccans, to rage against death.  It's like raging against a hug from someone who loves you. LM: How do you think we can find the 'adventure' of dying/death when we are tired/ill? How can we find the proper mindset, the strength? AG: It helps enormously not to wait till you're dying to sort out your attitudes toward death.  We can extrapolate from other experience, though, and remind ourselves that exhaustion is quite often part of a process that is ultimately wonderful.  You get tired climbing up the hill, but the view from the top is exhilarating.  You get tired during labor, but when you're holding that baby in your arms, you feel great. We need to remember that dying tires us in a good way.  It takes a huge effort to die, to return to the Mother -- like a drop of rain flowing to the ocean.   And like rain, our lives nourish the rest of life -- everything we do and think and feel has an effect in the worlds – and when we die, and we're taken back into the Goddess' wholeness, we don't disappear so much as become part of that oneness we talk about in ritual -- we are each one, and when we die, we're more than one.  So if we're weary, and ready to go, we can look forward to resting in the arms of the Mother, being part of, and thus supported by, life, the universe, and everything. LM: There are several magickal traditions (I'm thinking specifically of the shamanistic-based ones, like Castenda's work) that 'court' death, or at least see it as an omnipresent facet of life. How does this perspective mesh with (or not) a Wiccan perspective? AG: I have to agree with much of what Castaneda said in his early works. It's been years since I read the Don Juan series, but I remember being deeply impressed and moved by it, and strongly influenced.  Looking back without rereading, it seems to me that Don Juan and Carlos were working in much greater isolation than Wiccans, even solitaries, need to.  A shaman is personally isolated, but the work s/he does, the journeys s/he takes, are for the benefit of a close-knit community.  These days, a lot of people are practicing personally, for their own benefit, and that's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does stray from the shamanic mission as it's understood in primal civilizations.  As a Wiccan, I'm informed by the Anglo-Saxon concept of Wyrd, which tends to emphasize our interconnections rather than our isolation.  (Dr. Brian Bates' "The Way of Wyrd," written in 1983 and published by the Book Club Associates in London in 1984, may be hard to find, but it's one of the best reads on the subject of the Web of Wyrd.) Death ~is~ an omnipresent facet of life.  We witness it, even participate in it, in every breath we take, every meal we eat, every day we live.  But rebirth is an omnipresent facet of life, too.  We witness that and participate in it in every breath we take, every meal we eat, every day we live.  Wicca understands death as one step in the spiral dance of life, which isn't a two-step!  It's "life and death ~and rebirth~" for us, not just life and death.  Wiccan thealogy suggests to me not that we walk with death as a companion, or even with death and rebirth as companions, but that we are all life and death and rebirth incarnate, right here, right now.   LM: Which chapter was the hardest for you to write, and why? AG: I first wrote it close to 10 years ago, so I don't remember exactly, although because writing the chapter about suicide was -- not inspired, really, coincident with -- an Incident in the Community, I expect that had me in tears at the keyboard.  Writing about my friend's husband's death was also pretty wracking, but at the same time, cathartic.  But the most interesting thing happened when I was revising the book for publication.  After my parents died, I wanted to share some of my experience at their bedsides with readers.  Two or three months after my dad's death -- he died 10 months after Mom did -- I went back to make those revisions ... and discovered I'd already done it!  I had ~no~ recollection of writing any segments about their deaths, or of including any examples from my hours at their bedsides or conducting their memorials, but there were all the comments and anecdotes I wanted to make, already added.  That's never happened to me before, and I five years after their deaths, I'm still shakin' my head about it in wonder. ~interview by Lisa Mc SherryMay 2004

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