Comforting the Dead

It seems that friends of mine are having passings of familial members this year, and there is always something that breaks your heart for the sorrow that is experienced by the grieving family members who have been left behind.

And yet when we are grieving it is good to remember that the dead are not abandoned, but rather are cared for by hosts of gods who ease the transition for their souls when they have been released by the touch of Thanatos. First there is Apollon, lord of cemetery, protector of the graves and tombs. Pausanias tells us that Arkadians would sacrifice to Apollon at the cemetery on the first day of burial, for the god would keep watch over the soul and the bodily remains for thirty days before the soul is retrieved by Hermes, wherein the family members would sacrifice again, this time to Hermes. Thirty days is what it took for the bonds between the soul and body to decay to release the soul. Here we see Apollon acting as a destroyer in this fashion, he is lovingly rotting the flesh to free the soul (much as his fire would more quickly destroy the bodily remains during the period in which funerary fires were the more common method of honoring the dead). It is quite likely, given the context that it is mentioned by Pausanias, that his title as Lord of Ashes is directly related to this. And so, he is there protecting the grave, in its sanctity, from those who would violate it (and remains from Ionian shows heavy curses in place on tombs petitioning Apollon to bring his retribution on those who would disturb the grave), and bringing the comfort of his gentle touch, the fiery warmth of his hands, as he unravels the bonds. He is as protector and father of the graveyard, bringing peace to the soul as they face the initial days of their death and their goodbyes to their loved ones. When one we love dies it is good to remember that he is there in this boundary of the living and the dead. One may give offerings to him when they come too to make offerings to the beloved dead.In fact, on special occasions in which one attends the graveyard to honor their ancestors, it would be highly appropriate to give offering to him as guardian of the graveyard first, and follow this with offerings to the deceased and to Hermes.

Hermes of course is a well known figure among the travails of the dead, for he gathers the souls up from Apollon’s care and leads them, departing to the next world. He is their guide and companion through this experience. The dead are not left to wander without aide, but he gathers them to him as a kindly shepherd and delivers to them to whatever rest is appropriate for them in the abode of Hades. Hermes serves as key-bearer so to speak because where it can be said Apollon is guard of the doors via his position in the cemetery though doesn’t participate in the movement through the doorway of the cemetery, Hermes is well known for this movement…not only in collecting the souls but also on particular days when Hermes escorts the souls of the dead back among the living in such occasions as the third day of Anthesteria. He aids in the communication between the dead and their family, which is perhaps the most valuable function he gives to the dead in their comfort, as well as that of the living.  Perhaps even more so for the living left behind as he is the middle man between our prayers and offerings at the tomb to those whom we have loved.

Apollon and Hermes here are perhaps the gods that are most immediate to us and the comfort of the dead in relation to our loss and their loss of us, however it would be amiss to not mention Hades and Persephone. Persephone among them perhaps has the biggest acclaim because her mysteries give benefit to the souls of initiates among the dead, that they eventually enjoy the paradise of Elysium. That anyone was able to become an initiate, with very few requirements infers a possibility that all souls eventually get there, but that initiates have a bit of a helping hand. She gives us hope, and is as a balm, a kindly mother to the dead. In contrast, Hades is not known for getting many offerings among the living, and has little to do directly with the living, but as the god who governs the domain of the dead and is therefore the most important deity interacting with the souls of the dead. His is the place of rest for many of our dearly departed, and as one who believe in reincarnation, his abode gives whatever is necessary to the soul to prepare it for its next birth. Rest, purification, and the stream of Lethe which is drank from before the soul comes again in rebirth. All of these are a part of him.

The soul drinks of Lethe, the souls is guided in her return even as Hermes participates in the return of Persephone, through the portal of Artemis and Hekate Protheryai, and guarded in its tender infancy by Apollon (which we can infer from the blessings of the seventh day which is a cause for celebration for surviving babes).

As such we can be comforted with the knowledge that our beloved dead are given all comfort, kindness and aide, and that such is extended too towards the living relations to help ease our sorrows and deal with our loss. And it is something that is beautiful.


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