The following abstract has been written by members of the Council of theologians at Honouring the Ancient Dead (HAD).
Originally commissioned by the Leicester Museums Service, it is now published for use by any museum or other heritage organisation considering or arranging for the reburial of human remains. Its purpose is to offer inspiration and guidance that would be appropriate to perform at the recommittal of human remains of ancient and pagan provenance within the British Isles.
It should be read in association with HAD’s Guidance for the Reburial of Human Remains : Practical Issues, which explores ideas and gives practical guidance about community involvement, choosing a location, containers for the remains, using a ceremony, deciding upon and finding a celebrant, and more. Please contact HAD if you have any queries.
A Rite of Recommittal
The celebrant begins by honouring the spirits of place.
This can be a simple acknowledgement of those present in the environment of the place of reinterment. The spirits of place would include elements of the landscape, the flora and fauna, the sun, wind and clouds, together with the ancestors: those who had lived in that place before.
The purpose of the ritual is stated.
A simple declaration of what the ceremony intends to do is then said: ‘We are gathered here, at (location) on this day (the date) for the reinterment of these ancestors of this land.’
The not-knowing is acknowledged.
It is stated honestly that those performing the rite do not know what the original rites would have been, and thus what is done now is not intended to be a recreation of past religious ritual.
It is acknowledged that those performing the rite do not know how the person(s) being reinterred were regarded by their community, and thus the rite does not intend to reaffirm or dismiss any such regard.
The location is acknowledged.
Where the reburial is near the original place of interment but the landscape has radically changed, or where the origin is not known, these issues are acknowledged aloud in as much practical or poetic detail as is deemed appropriate.
The intention is declared.
The purpose of the rite is clearly stated as an attempt at respectful interaction with the deceased and their community. In Pagan terms, there is the hope of reconnecting the chain of being, the web of meaning, that returns the person to the context in which they were placed when their human life ended. Restoring a balance within the spiritual community of humans and spirits of nature, we are honouring the relationship between the individual and their gods, their landscape, their community and their descendants.
The disconnection is acknowledged.
The reason why the remains were originally excavated is stated, whether this was through scientific questing, housing or road developments, or whatever may have been the cause. Where possible, it can be stressed that this disruption was caused by modern human need.
The ancestors are honoured.
Because there can be little certainty (or none) as to the status of the individuals who are being reinterred, the focus of honour is upon the community of ancestors more generally. For example, ‘We acknowledge the life of this individual, as (sister, mother, lover, brother, father, child – whatever seems appropriate), honouring their part in the flow of life, in their unknown and unknowable being, their stories and histories, and their own ancestors’.
The interment is done.
The remains are placed into the grave plot, with symbolic goods / images or replacements of the original grave goods, with red ochre and earth from the site of the original interment if relevant and possible.
Offerings are made.
Because we do not know who the individuals were, we are not necessarily honouring the one reburied specifically. The offerings made are an acknowledgement of that person being a part of the history of the land and our people, and it is this flow of life that is clearly honoured.
An appropriate offering may be the simple pouring of a libation of mead, ale, wine, or whatever might seem apt to the place and time of the person’s life, this cup or horn being passed amongst those who are present at the rite. The value of using mead at the reburial of ancient remains is amplified by the understanding of it as the oldest alcohol found within Britain, and one still commonly used within modern Paganism.
Flowers, herbs, a hunk of bread, salt and honey, may also be simple but poignant offerings.
Offerings are also made in the form of words spoken aloud. A prayer may be made to the ancestors that this individual may find their peace. It may seem appropriate for a story to be told (something that is known of the person’s life or times). Music and song may be appropriate, with voice, instruments or drums. Poetry written by writers from an appropriate or the modern era may also be used here.
Thanks is given to all who have attended the rite, in spirit and in body, and all those who have made it possible for the reinterment to take place.
If there is to be any memorialisation, this may then be acknowledged and blessed, with thanks given to those who have made and presented it.