A Pagans thoughts on End of life care

This is a personal subject, having very recently experienced  both the provision of End of Life care to my Father and his eventual death.

Death and dying are, in most western societies at least, something of a taboo subject. Difficult to think about and even more difficult to talk about, We tend I feel to leave this difficult task to the health care professionals.

But the we all have a responsibility to help shape the care that people get during their final weeks and months, and to do that we need to talk about what our expectations for such care are and what informs our views.

Religion of course, dealing with death and what comes after as it does, acts to form the basis of many decisions on what sort of care is appropriate, but this usually means that the decisions are based around the ethics and ethos of Christianity in large part. This is not to suggest that Christianity has it all wrong, but I do feel it is about time the Pagan voice was heard in these discussions and Pagan ethics and ethos fed into the process.

So to this end I would like to start the dialog by bringing together some of my thoughts on what a pagan approach to End of life Care might look like.

Many, if not most, Pagan tradition see the passage from this life, through Death, to the other world, and possibly other lives to come as more of a journey rather than an end or termination. Death is a transition point yes, but one that is perhaps more akin to a traveler leaving one country, crossing the border, into another different country. From a Pagan perspective it is often the journey from life to life, from life to the other lands or the cycle of rebirths that is important rather than the individual events along the way.

So I feel that we should look to what our Pagan traditions tells us about the hospitality we should offer to travelers as the starting point in building our understanding of what End of Life care should look like.

End of Life Care

There are many precedents within Pagan traditions that talk of the duty of hospitality that we owe to the traveller. The Greek god Zeus is sometimes called Zeus Xenios in his role as a protector of travelers.[1] He thus embodied the religious obligation to be hospitable to travellers, a moral and religious duty. Xenia consists of two basic rules:

  • The respect from host to guest. The host must be hospitable to the guest and provide him/her with food and drink and a bath, if required. It is not polite to ask questions until the guest has stated his/her needs.
  • The respect from guest to host. The guest must be courteous to the host and not be a burden.

And from this we can see that our duty to the traveler, and in our case the sort of end of life care provided, includes the provision of bodily needs and not to intrude unneedful into their thoughts.

Again in the Roman pantheon we see a similar concept Empanada, also called Empanda or simply Panda, is the Roman Goddess of asylum, charity, and hospitality. Her temple on the Capitoline Hill was always open, and from Her temple food was distributed to those in need.[2] Again bodily needs are catered for for those in need.

So what should this ‘Hospitality’ look like for those making that journey from this life to the next? Obviously their needs may be different from a traditional traveler but if we apply the same concepts I think we will begin to build a framework. Generally hospitality in the terms of travellers is to provide shelter / warmth, Food, drink and most importantly perhaps safety

From the Havamal [3], we read:

“He hath need of fire, who now is come,
numbed with cold to the knee;
food and clothing the wanderer craves
who has fared o’er the rimy fell.”

Shelter and safety are pivotal requirements again they must fit the needs of the traveler. They should provide Protection from those things that would harm the traveler. Obvious we think protection from physical harm but not so this must include mental harm and this harm can come from within as much as without. Our hospitality should provide peace of mind as well as body.

In providing this peace of mind the free will of the traveler is also a key concern, we should not, in the name of providing hospitality intrude on the actual, and perceived, ability of the traveler to make decisions and choices. We need to take care to consider the free will of those journeying through the end of this life extremely carefully. They may be more open to coercion or vulnerable to suggestion or even feel that they are imposing a burden on us and thus accept treatment or care that is inappropriate or even harmful. Thus the onus is on us to ensure that their freewill is maintained, respected and actively enhanced where every possible.

The Wiccan Reed talks of not causing harm;

“An it harm none, do what you will.”

And this can and should be taken as a sign of the need to respect the travelers wishes and that unnecessarily infringing on their ‘free will’ will cause them harm.

This key respect for the free will of the individual also can be seen, for example in the Odssey we see Odesius having to make an active choice thereby maintain his free will in the face of the Gods desires.

“The gods in The Odyssey are who held Odysseus captive for over eight years. They were responsible for his capture in the first place and then refused to let him go for almost a decade. When they finally decided he should be allowed to find his way home they made it known to his captor Kalypso. However Odysseus still had to choose to leave. Kalypso tried to keep him by offering immortality. “You would stay here, and guard this house, and be immortal” (Homer 267). Odysseus could have stayed but he chose to go”. [6]




How much is Too Much?

Providing this would quite naturally include medical care required and this leads us into the next question, at what point does providing this hospitality transgress into inappropriate, intrusive and unwanted interventions? I feel again Pagan traditions can provide a guide.

Hindus, for example, believe that death must come naturally at the proper time and that life should not be prolonged by aggressive medical means unless it will result in a good quality of life. Prolonging life artificially would result in the soul remaining on earth past its natural time “tethered to a lower astral region rather than being released into higher astral/mental levels.” [4]

There is also a tradition in the UK to be conscious of not prolonging life where this would be to the detriment of the ‘traveller’. For example as far back as the 1600s it was documented that letting somebody die, without actively intervening, was well established.

“In his next fit we may let him go. Tis but to pull the pillow from his head. – Ben Jonson, Valpone 1607” [5]

This refers to the practice of removing the pillow from under the head of a person and allowing the head to fall back. This was believed to help the dying pass naturally and end suffering but without active intervention .

A Pagan approach to End of Life care

So we are under an obligation to give hospitality to those making this journey as well and it is this thought, to prevent suffering where we can, to provide a place of safety where the travelers needs are met but without taking away or diminishing his or her self-respect and free will. Providing End of Life care is a duty and one that we should provide with gratitude. It is not the traveler that should be grateful for the hospitality but us who need to be grateful to the traveler for allowing us to provide such and fulfil our human, religious and moral duty. We should never lose sight of the fact that our Pagan traditions teaches us that to provide hospitality in all its forms and requirements should inform our decisions when thinking about End of Life care.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xenia_%28Greek%29

[2] http://www.thaliatook.com/OGOD/empanada.html

[3] http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/havamal.html

[4] Subramuniyaswami SS. Ashima: to do no harm. Hinduism Today. 2007;29(1):29-32.

[5] A Pocket Guide to Superstitions of the British Isles: Steve Roud , Penguin Books Ltd, p61

[6] “Destiny, Fate and Free Will in Homer’s Odyssey.” 123HelpMe.com. 25 Oct 2014





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