In Memoriam, Shemsu Terry Atwood (Peret II )
"If death disturbs the living, it offers a unique opportunity to unleash one of the strongest emotional powers humans have: the power to grieve....People who know not the power of shedding their tears together are like a time bomb, dangerous to themselves and the world around them... [emotion is] a process of self-rekindling or calming, which not only helps in handling death, but also resets or repairs the feelings within the person. This is needed because death, and the sudden separation around it, puts the living in a state of emotional debt, loss, and disorientation. The unresolved energy produced by the death of a loved one translates itself emotionally as grief.
"And grief is in fact owed to the dead as the only ingredient that can help complete the death process. Grief delivers to the dead that which they need to travel to the realm of the dead -- a release of emotional energy that also provides a sense of completion or endedness, closure. This sense of closure is also needed by the griever, who has to let go of the person who has died. We have to grieve. It is a duty like any other duty in life."
-- Malindoma Patrice Some, "Ritual: Power, Healing and Community"
I received the news at 9:27 Friday morning. Terry had been killed the day before in an accident, on his way to work. His wife talked with me on the phone, matter-of-fact, being the dutiful woman who is still in shock but knows there is much that must be done to assuage the collective guilt of her own family and those whom Terry's life touched, before she will feel she is "allowed" to do so herself. I then passed the news on to the members of the House, and then Terry's friends, slowly but with more momentum as the day went by.
By evening, my house had turned into a "war room" of priests, one of whom made a six-hour drive to be here, dealing with counseling grieving friends and family, via Internet and telephone and physical words and gestures. At 3 a.m. I was still running, trying to get out the next official letter on the arrangements, making sure everyone having a hard time coping was covered for the night, writing this essay, checking flight and train schedules for the inevitable call to the faraway place where our Shemsu lies awaiting burial. It turned out to be a very long day.
But wait, you might say. The ancient Egyptians were totally obsessed with death. They hired people to cry at funerals...this is easy, something you should be good at! There should be a million different prayers and rituals...much to do and to say. Some people might think since the ancient Egyptians were "good" at funerals, maybe they even looked forward to them. The skew of archaeological evidence toward that which had to do with death and the dead does very little to shake this mistaken assumption.
Death is not easy. It wasn't then, and it isn't now, even to the modern Kemetic who may not be in the same geological place as I am. While some of the members of the House of Netjer may never have met Terry in person, all of us feel his loss, and the grief of his family and ourselves, keenly and just as strongly as any other person in any religion. Death is important -- perhaps religion was formed by mankind simply to comprehend the mysteries of life; and the biggest one of those is "why does this happen to us?" We are saddened, confused, and maybe even angry. These are legitimate feelings, and they must be acknowledged as such.
Many in the industrialized world think that death can be neatly packaged and tucked away, just like countless other things whose souls have been replaced with steel and wire. Death should be simple, painless, like going to the funeral home showroom and picking out the $3,000 "Guardian" casket which will vacuum-seal your loved one into eternity, like deciding on whether to play Kenny G or Schubert at the visitation, like the young son of the funeral director who hands out the little flags for your car and herds every one in line like a parade marshal. Death should be two days off work, three if you have to leave town, and then back to everything as if nothing had happened, a little anomaly in our lives like being stuck at the airport -- something you can't prevent but certainly shouldn't get bothered about.
By removing the emotion from death, we do not simplify it or make it safer -- if anything, we make our reactions to it worse, longstanding, more deeply seated. To deny grief on behalf of those who are no longer with us is the biggest insult to that person's memory anyone could contemplate. Death does disrupt lives -- those of the persons it claims AND those surrounding that person. Death has to be addressed, as does the person who has died.
For the ancients as well as for us, there is a period of mourning -- 70 days, analogous to the disappearance and reappearance of the star Sirius on the horizon, just before the life-giving inundation. We will spend 70 days remembering Terry, preparing for his final journey with ritual and objects and mental adjustments to learn to be acquainted with him in his new relationship with us. For while Terry may no longer sit in on our three weekly discussions or joke with us in e-mail any more, he is most certainly still with us, and when his period of mourning is completed and the rites of blessing are pronounced at his funeral, he will become an Akh, an "effective spirit," who will fight for our behalf from the other world, using the abilities we will give him in our attestation of the power of our love for him and his love for us, to continue the relationship even from beyond the horizon.
Terry has not left us entirely -- rather he has scouted ahead, to a place where he cannot be limited by physical frailty, illness, or even death. Terry has started the journey without us, but as it is a journey we will all inevitably undertake, his journey will not be in vain -- it will exist to light the way for all those who follow, as Terry's Akhu before him showed him the way when his time came.
We grieve Terry's loss, even as we know he will fare well on the ways of the West. We will miss his eloquent and passionate arguments, his ability to joke while keeping a straight face, his protestations that he wanted to remain "an ordinary man" while we all knew he had a strong vocation to the priesthood, previously entertained in two other religions but one he had hoped to realize most fully in the faith which sang to his ka. Terry, like his spiritual father Amun, was a man who seemed to have few words, yet the words he spoke were always pregnant with meaning, vivid and striking deeply to the heart of whatever he addressed.
Others saw a gregarious and even somewhat unrestrained side of Terry -- he seemed to have appropriateness down pat and always acted in the right manner to the right person. He loved his wife and his God beyond all. While we may never understand the circumstances which brought Terry to death before his time, we will not allow him to be taken from us without an appropriate marker of his passage. May he continue to watch over all of us, and accept our offering of grief, as he richly deserves.
from Pyramid Texts 216: