A Herbalist View on Death, with The Seed Sistas
Our lives can be sweet precisely because they are finite. The sands of time are moving through the hour glass continuously, we are all moving towards dying. Yet living under the pressure of Grandfather Time, we are often too busy to consider our place within the cycle of life and death.
“Why are we here?”, “What happens after we die?” are some of the biggest philosophical questions that arise in our lives. Yet rushing through life leaves little space to practice being in the liminal state, little time to dream and explore mystery and the unknown, and so many people become scared of death. If through life, we had the space to practice non-attachment and imagine death and dying, we potentially could live more fearlessly with increased joy, and have less anxiety when we arrive at the end of our life.
In our practices as a clinical herbalists, we use our local herbal allies to support and aid the shifting of perceptions, especially the fear and anxiety that can often surround death. We create rituals around death, and also as medicine to support people’s emotional and spiritual state as they walk towards their own death.
As herbalists many patients come to see us who already have a terminal diagnosis. Each come for their own personal reasons, but often people are searching for a way to survive. Hearing that we are going to die soon is scary and often induces a sense of panic. Often feelings of shock and denial arise over the diagnosis, which then give rise to feelings of not being ready to accept or welcome death as part of their journey.
There are particular herbs that we have explored and used with people over the years, specifically to aid in the walk towards accepting death and surrendering to the journey.
Mugwort – Dream
The first herb is Mugwort (Artemisa vulgaris). Interestingly, Mugwort is a herb that is amazingly useful and nourishing during the birth process. This incredible herb can be used to reach altered states of consciousness; a liminal space that, with practice, can release us from many of our fears and worries about embracing the unknown, whether in birth or in death.
Mugwort is a herb famously associated with dreaming. Mugwort’s Latin name is Artemisia, named after the goddess Artemis, the Roman Moon Goddess.
One of our most mysterious and intriguing states of consciousness is in the dream state, when we lose consciousness and dive into the deep waters of sleep. Dreams provide insights into our aspirations, hopes and fears. Using Mugwort and guided exploration can enhance and aid dream work. Dreams are intelligent. They can be a valuable key to uncover unconscious process and unlock intuition. Analysing and recording dreams can offer an opportunity for the dreamer to recognise the mind’s own power to heal itself.
We use dreaming as a tool with patients who are facing death. It is a space from which to explore ideas and unlock faith or belief in something OTHER than the self, the beginning of dissolving the ego. It can return us back to a state of new perception, like that we have within the womb or as a new-born.
Elderberries – Introspection
The second herb we utilise is Elder. She has deep connections to the dark moon, crone energy and an association with the death rites of wakes and vigils, aiding folk in embracing and witnessing their own death.
For the Druids, the Elder tree’s protective power came from a spirit – the White Goddess. This goddess was the guardian of the underworld, establishing the tree’s association with death. Archeological findings have confirmed the use of Elder wood in funerary rites. Funeral flints and carvings in the shape of elder leaves have been found in megalithic long barrows.
Elder’s relationship with death can also be linked to the Celtic calendar. The 13th month or moon (approx.. Nov. 25-Dec. 23) of the year was associated with the Elder. This was the darkest time of the year and, according to one story, was the time the Celts believed their sun spirit was held prisoner, symbolising death. Yet, this time of the year was also associated with creativity and renewal as the end of the Elder moon meant new life. The Elder tree was a symbol of the cycle of life – death to birth to death.
As a tool with patients, we spend time considering the Elder and the folklore surrounding the tree together. We use the tincture to connect physically with the herb, and then creative writing or discussion if the patient is too weak to write.
Rosemary for Memory
Rosemary is an herb that has long been associated with remembrance and death. There are reports that the Romans used the herb in burials as well as Rosemary being laid atop coffins in traditional England. We now know that rosemary stimulates blood flow to the brain and literally helps us to remember! It has the added bonus of its powerful aroma which would aid in the concealment of odour from the corpse.
We use Rosemary before death to initiate conversations about memories and stories from the past. It can be reassuring to revisit poignant moments through life and the important people along the way.
The Story of Life and Death
Vibrant, community rituals, festivals and storytelling during our lifetime creates space where we can dream and imagine places that are outside of the familiarity of our daily lives and eases us into being comfortable with the unknown.
When we work with people facing their death, our work connects them with their past and their stories. Herbs can guide them to look forwards beyond death to a place that is unknown, but perhaps better prepared for. There is a sense through this work that if an individual feels held, heard and supported in their death, there can be less fear around surrendering to it.
A storyteller is more than a teller of tales. Storytellers are teachers and healers with a long spiritual tradition. It is one of our oldest art forms. Stories stimulate the imagination, building a sense of community between tellers and listeners, a deep ritual in itself. Storytelling helps us to make sense of our environment and personal experience. Many older stories are originally traditional folktales. They represent the richness of oral patterns of telling and are the product of a community experience. When we log peoples’ lives before they die through their stories, we gather the vessels with which we can remember and celebrate their life far beyond death.
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Sensory Solutions Herbal Evolution is an arts and health-education, Community Interest Company run by the Seed SistAs, Fiona, Karen and Belle. They promote empowerment, autonomy, freedom, health, and diversity through teaching about plant medicine.