A review of Kristoffer Hughes’ book The Journey into Spirit: A Pagan’s Perspective on Death, Dying and Bereavement by Maria Ede-Weaving
Druidry teaches us to honour death and to remember the dead with reverence. However, for most of us, our wider culture has hidden much of death’s processes from view. The physical realities of this most inevitable and unavoidable rite of passage have been obscured and this has only served to intensify the fear of death and sever the connection to its deeper mysteries. We live in a world of plastic, a substance which by its very nature defies the laws of decomposition, and this seems to reflect on some inner level, the chronic fear with have of the dissolution and decay that are the vital foundations of renewal and life.
This is a subject close to my heart. I have lost most of my close family over time and last year my father died. We were very close and his death was unexpected; the grieving has been intense. When Philip asked me to read and review Kristoffer Hughes’ The Journey into Spirit: A Pagan’s Perspective on Death, Dying and Bereavement, I had mixed feelings – although of late I have sensed an emerging from the darker spaces of my grief, parts of me still feel a little raw, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to gaze into death’s face again quite so soon, even if only in the pages of a book. Despite my fears, I am so pleased that I read this wonderful book.
Kristoffer Hughes is uniquely qualified to guide his readers through the realm of the shades. For over two decades he has worked in morgues as a pathology technologist and this coupled with his roles as a Druid Priest and Funeral Celebrant, gives him a special sensitivity and understanding of this challenging subject matter. As we read, it is clear that Hughes is acting as Psychopomp, a wise and compassionate guide on an extraordinary journey into the dark light that is death and loss. I found that from the very first page I trusted him to guide me with honesty and sensitivity. The tone is never patronising; Hughes’ exploration of death expresses both reverence and empathy for both the dead and the living. It’s a book where the author’s humanity shines through constantly, and in doing so, keeps us connected to our own as we are inevitably taken back to our memories of death and bereavement, and ponder our own mortality.
The book is divided into four main sections, three of which take us through the Druid Realms of Abred, Gwynvyd and Ceugant.In the circle of Abred, Hughes explores the physical dimensions of death, the visceral reality of it. He shows that an honest engagement with the physical processes of death and dissolution are a gateway to the spirit and the soul, which he examines in the Circle of Gwynvyd and Ceugant respectively. The last section of the book is a selection of beautifully written rituals, one of which is a particularly moving preparation of the body ceremony.
Hughes manages to maintain an extraordinary balance throughout between his role as guide and priest on the one hand and as a fellow companion of bereavement on the other. He doesn’t flinch from revealing the rawness and pain of his own grieving, sharing accounts of his personal losses with a tender honesty that adds a power to his overall message: death serves life, and when we engage with it with an open heart it reveals to us its healing and transformative nature.
There is a fantastic section about the ‘Seasons of Grief’ which, as a grieving person, I found enormously insightful and helpful. There are also useful and thought-provoking exercises and meditations throughout the book. Hughes encourages the reader to explore the mystery of death for themselves; illustrating that we can become our own wise and trusted guides, and in doing so, find an authentic understanding of death’s greater mysteries, one that has meaning and relevance for us personally.
I cried at sections, laughed too, and had numerous ‘Yes!’ moments. The Journey into Spirit is never morbid; from the painful core of our loss, Hughes shows us the pearl of light at its heart. With wisdom and humility he encourages us to recognise just how magical and awesome the process of death is, of how it connects us to the whole of creation – all that has preceded us and all that will come after.
The Journey into Spirit reminds us of the potency and potential wisdom and healing inherent in our most painful and dreaded experiences. It is a life-affirming work of value not only to Druids and Pagans but to those of all faiths and none. A beautifully written book, full of deep wisdom – hard-won but generously and compassionately shared.
Kristoffer is founder and head of the Anglesey Druid Order. Their website can be found here.