About one year ago my family and I moved from the centre of town to my husband’s village on the outskirts of Bethlehem. The village is small and everyone is family (although not all happily related!). The community is comprised of second and first generation permanently settled Bedouins. Although most of their grazing and agricultural lands have been taken away, many families keep their traditions alive by keeping donkeys, goats, chickens, some vegetable crops and trees, like olive and almond. There are quite a few animals roaming around, including wild dogs and cats, snakes, lizards, a large number of crows and much to my surprise, foxes, porcupines and small gazelles.
As someone who has lived predominantly in suburbs and cities, I have learned so much just by observing the land and creatures around me, the seasons are so much more distinctive to me now that I can witness the cycles in more natural surroundings. I feel more connected to the earth and inspired to go out and learn about all of the life, animals, wildflowers and trees in my surroundings, and I am hoping to one day contribute to it by keeping bees.
With all of this wonder of life there also comes the inevitability of death. If you walk around any of the small surrounding fields for long enough, you will happen among many remains of the animals who walked there before. Most that I have found are old, smaller fragments that are difficult to identify.
The week that we moved into our house we could smell the strong scent of decomposition coming from nearby. After a short exploration we found the decaying body of a wild dog. There were no signs of blood that would suggest it suffered a violent death and very few cars drive in the area, so it was pretty safe to assume that it died of natural causes like disease or old age. From that moment on I had a bit of a fascination with that dog, I’d never seen anything decay outside of nature programmes before and I would occasionally walk across the road to see how it was doing. Initially, my interest was very scientific but as the months wore on I started to feel a different kind of pull to it.
When I was around 5 or 6 my first pet, a white rat named Pinkie died and I asked what many kids do at this event, ‘what happens after you die?’ My dad, ever the science minded man, began to explain the process of decomposition, how little creatures would eat away the flesh until nothing remained but the skeleton. Little me was wide-eyed at this, I loved doing those 3D wooden dinosaur bones puzzles you get at natural history museums, and I asked if we could dig her up and put her bones back together once they were all that was left. He humoured me and said yes, we could, although we never did. Strange as it may sound, my grief at the loss of my beloved little rat was greatly eased by this. I knew that she would not be as she was, but the thought of being able to reassemble and keep her bones brought me much needed comfort.
My fascination with bones remained with me into adulthood, but has been relatively dormant, mostly because I’d never really had the opportunity to forage for them before. It has been almost a year now since the dog passed and the weather and other animals did their work, leaving only the skull, jaw and one femur bone. Before venturing out to collect the remains I spent a while, almost a month fact, thinking about what my motivations were, why this strange attraction?
Despite my long standing interest in bones and remains in general (I have an academic background in anthropology) I have an anxiety ridden relationship with death. Thinking on it with any sort of depth and focus brings a tightness to my throat and the beginnings of a cold sweat , in fact in the past, particularly during intense periods of insomnia, my mind would often turn to death and I would end up having moderately severe panic attacks. My reaction is not as bad now, but the strong sense of fear is still very unsettling, and coming to have a peaceful relationship with the inevitability of death is very important to me, and one of the areas I wish to focus on particularly in my spiritual practice.
Once I realized that these remains were appearing to me as a memento mori with the message that healing my relationship with death should be a priority, I began thinking about how to best incorporate them. One of the strongest intuitive messages I received was to take it slow. Looking after two young kids all day, I don’t have much opportunity for setting up and performing any sort of rituals, and rather than trying to rush and fit everything that needs to be done into one evening when the kids go to sleep at a reasonable hour, I felt I should spread it out, mindful of each step of welcoming these remains into my home and spiritual life. It will take weeks, working through each step at a time, but I know that this is the right way to honour the bones and build a strong foundation in my relationship to them.
After I collected the skull and jaw, I wrapped them gently and placed them in my cupboard out of reach of my kids, waiting for the right moment to begin our work. A few days later when my toddler was out playing and my son was asleep for his afternoon nap, I brought out the bones. For the first few moments I just sat, touched and looked at them. I have been reading the book Buddhism Without Belief , and one of the death meditations discussed by the author is intended for building loving kindness and compassion. The visualization involves bringing to your mind the face of a friend, a stranger and someone you dislike. Once their images are held in your mind you imagine each in turn as a newborn baby, a child, an adolescent, an adult, middle aged, elderly and then gone from this world. The idea is that by visualizing the growth, old age and eventual death of all of those around us, we can cultivate greater compassion for them, because despite our possible differences, these are processes that we all experience and can relate to.
I thought that this meditation was particularly suitable as an introduction to the skull, as I would focus not only on its death, but try and connect with it as a living, breathing animal. By doing this, I hoped to build my empathetic relationship and make the promise that this skull would not be treated like an inanimate prop, I would honour all that it was, as well as what it now is – and by extension, honour all that I am now and what I will be after death.
I closed my eyes and focused on my breathing for a while, clearing my mind, readying myself to begin the visualization. After a few moments, a little puppy being born emerges in my mind’s eye, shiny and slimy she lies on brown grass. The image shifts a few weeks and she stands preparing to take her first steps on too big paws. She grows a little more, coat fluffy and sandy in colour, her tail wags and she squeaks while she plays and nips and the other puppies in her litter. She grows a little more and takes a keen interest in hunting and foraging for herself, bugs are eaten, the crunch is fun but the taste is not. Larger now, she is big enough to jump in and out of the village dumpsters for leftovers, dragging bags of rubbish and leaving a trail of it in her wake. Older still, she is mating with a male. Her puppies are born and the image stays for a while of her licking the sack from their bodies, nudging them gently to nurse. They are bigger now, playing adventuring, but still always returning to her side. Another litter is born, she cares for them and brings them food, until like the others they are off marking their own claims within the pack. Years pass, and she’s growing slow, her back left leg bothers her, stiff at the joint, she hobbles. One afternoon, the sun is bright and warm, her bones are tired as she walks down the street. Her breathing is laboured. She sees a quiet place where she can be alone, down a small embankment, next to wall, a sunny spot of dried grasses and thistles, she lies down. The air is heavy and thick in the heat, her breathing slows even more, then stops. Her body is very still until the shock of postmortem spasms, her whole body shakes and twitches for a few moments before the final breath is exhaled, leaving her chest smaller and tighter looking than it ever looked while she was alive.
Very quickly this visualization took on a life of its own, and throughout I had strong emotional reactions to what I was seeing; smiling and chuckling along to her adventures, sad and crying at the end. And as you can see, she very quickly identified herself as female. Her energy was feisty, warm, cheeky and maternal.
I had previously decided to use only one tarot deck and one oracle with the remains so as not to confuse the energies of her, myself or my cards – although I haven’t decided on the oracle yet. One of my favourite tarot decks to use for ancestor and nature spreads is the Wild Unknown, and with no people in the cards I thought it would be a good fit. I brought out the cards and rested them on top of the skull for a few moments waiting to see if I felt any sense of rejection. All seemed fine, so I shuffled, allowing myself to remain in the feelings evoked by the meditation while running through the questions I intended to ask. I got the ‘zing’ of stop-shuffling-now and drew the following spread –
Were you male or female?
Six of Cups – I already got the message that she was female from the meditation, but I decided not to change my questions at the last minute. I designated sex according to elemental associations: Fire & Air – Male, Earth & Water – Female. I drew cups, water, which confirmed what I had felt.
How did you experience life?
Daughter of Swords – Clever little dog. She was sharp and curious, likely barked a lot! Always exploring for new sources of food. She was playful, but perhaps sometimes played a little too rough. A bit bossy too, yapping until everyone followed her lead. It’s more than a little interesting to me that this card appeared here, as the Daughter (Page) of Swords is one of the courts that I most strongly relate to. I have the feeling here of a kindred spirit.
How do you feel about me using you in my divination and spiritual practices?
Father of Wands – This was the most important question for me in this spread, if I didn’t get a positive go-ahead to use these remains, they would have been returned to where I found them and never bothered by me again. I wanted to check if I was getting the Father in his light or shadow aspect, so I pulled a clarifying card and received the Ace of Cups, which I felt was a very positive response indeed. The Father (King) of Wands is all about will, passion, inspiration and being bold, while the Ace represents a wonderful opportunity for new relationships and spiritual beginnings.
What is the best way to use you?
High Priestess – I couldn’t ask for a more apt card in regards to my original intentions with these bones, it feels like such a green light on all of the things my intuition has been guiding me to do. The best way to use her is in quiet contemplation, stillness and meditation. Good practice will require my deep focus and sincere intention to traverse the world’s mysteries, light and dark. She will act as a guide on my journeys to lift the veil between conscious, unconscious and collective worlds.
What is the potential outcome of our relationship?
Three of Wands – In this card I see a powerful trinity, with the three sticks representing the bones, the tarot and me, bound together to create a window into new insights and understanding.
Overall, I feel very positive about my first experiences with these bones, the meditation sparked a deep and personal compassion and the tarot reading felt like the confirmation I needed to go ahead with working with them. I still have a lot to do, I want to give the bones a bit of a clean (although I have decided against whitening them with hydrogen peroxide), and I feel the need to create some sort of official welcoming and thanking ritual. I haven’t decided what this ritual will look like yet, but I am in no rush, and nor do I feel is she. I would also like to find some sort of nice box to keep her in with a few offerings. Once she feels securely ‘at home’, we can begin our work together.
I’m sure to some, the idea of meditating frequently on death, and building a bond with a skull, seems unnecessarily morbid and weird, and I’m okay with that, because despite the oddity, the little work I have done so far has been incredibly helpful and life affirming to me. Even imagining my potential future self, who has truly, in full conscious awareness, found peace with death, gives me a sense of incredible freedom and lightness, and I see this skull as my dearest friend on that journey.