A friend died the other day and her family and friends came together and we all talked about how much we admired and loved her. Sometimes we talked to those around us, sharing our feelings, sometimes we talked directly to Adrienne, who had left this world just three days ago. It was a beautiful, affirming time of honouring her as a person without the constraints of time or procedure that a funeral by necessity imposes. Even so, we used a little ceremonial, a few poems and prayers, and time sitting in silence, to create a structure, a container, imbued with a sense of reverence and the sacred – but not piety – for our time together.
Three days after someone has died feels a good time to hold such a gathering, and this moment is considered significant in many traditions, including Buddhism and Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and particularly the Orthodox Church, Judaism, and in some Islamic and Hindu communities. With the ancient Druids’ love of triplicities, and with modern Druids’ openness to the perennial wisdom that underlies all religions, it seems a good practice to adopt, when it feels right to do so.
The reason given for marking the third day, explained in slightly different ways by each tradition, is that it takes a while for the soul to free itself from the body and its earthly attachments. In some teachings this idea is expressed in symbolic and mystical terms, in others in a more defined way, as when Swami Kriyananda writes: ‘The process of the astral body detaching itself from the physical body takes between 48 minutes and three days, depending upon the evolution of the incarnating spirit.’
In the Russian Orthodox Church, St. Makary of Alexandria talks about the same process but in a more lyrical way: ‘As the soul, accompanied by Angels, is permitted to travel for two days about the earth where it will, this engenders in it blessed hope. Sometimes, the soul, which loves its body, hides near the house in which the body rests, and thus spends two days, like a bird searching for its nest.’ On the third day, according to St. Makary, with the help of its guardian angel and Christ, the soul ascends to God.
The fact that so many traditions express the same idea, clothed in different language, suggests a deep truth at work. If not, there would surely be variance, with some stating that four or five days had this significance, rather than three.
Since each of us is unique, each of our souls’ journeys must be unique too, with the time it takes to shed earthly attachments varying widely. But since we cannot know how long each individual will take to accomplish this, it makes sense that traditions have evolved that honour this moment in conformity with the most likely time, and with the symbology of their tradition.
Perhaps there is also another good reason for honouring this time. Perhaps, for those who are left behind, it can offer an early staging post, a still point, in the long journey of grieving.
In looking back, it feels as if Adrienne’s three-day marking was a graduation ceremony. She has left the university of life on earth, the school of this incarnation, summa cum laude, with the highest honours. We all graduate in the end, and perhaps it is at this moment – in some exquisitely paradoxical way – that we realize our potential and become fully human.
As the red leaves of autumn fall from the trees at this time of Samhain, I think of the message of the Death card in the DruidCraft Tarot: ‘The old and unnecessary wants to die. What passion! The new prepares to open like a rosebud at the dawn of a new day.’
You can see a video interview with Adrienne in an earlier post here.