It’s been over a month since Amici Mortem launched at Pantheacon. It was such a whirlwind and it’s taken a while to integrate the experience, and so many friends and acquaintances has been asking how it was… this kind of intensive multi-day event always ends up having a surreal, dream-like quality and sometimes the only way to remember WTF happened is to write it down!
For the who don’t know, Pantheacon is a huge pagan conference that has been happening in San Jose for decades. Thousands of people come from all over North America and elsewhere. There are over 100 workshop/presentations offered over the 4 day event and 2 floors of rooms that operate as temples, party and meet-and-greet spaces for different organizations wanting to invite people to participate and learn about their particular magical work and community. These are called hospitality suites and this year, Amici Mortem signed up to host one of these spaces for the 4 days over which the con happens.
Flashback to the previous year at Pantheacon; myself and a few other friends were sequestered off in a dark, remote corner of the massive hotel which had been swarming with people and spirits for days. As we discussed the conference I got into wild-fantasy-dream mode and joked about, among other things, starting a compost death cult and getting a suite at Pcon the following year.
Not all serious endeavors begin with a joke but this one did. A week or so later, Lauren called me, saying in her understated way, “I hope you’re serious, because this is what I want to do with my life.”
The year leading up to the event was full of brainstorming, plenty of google docs to keep my thoughts organized and a lot of reading and writing. When I thought about doing a suite at Pantheacon, the image that continually came to mind was that of a kind of magical Grand Central Station; people coming from all sorts of places, convening in the same place for a few days and then departing back to wherever they came from. I knew that this project wanted to cast a wide net (in addition to working locally) and that having writing ready in time to disseminate to all the potential collaborators would be in the project’s best interest. So I self-published 3 original essays working through my ideas about death and brought them hot off the presses to the conference.
The snafoo’s began immediately, but in hindsight I see that it all went according to some larger plan that I just wasn’t privy to. The windy, treacherous Hwy 17 that connects Santa Cruz to San Jose was closed due to a short but torrential downpour the day of our departure. I was 4 hours late for check in, my collaborator having been at the hotel since 10am but unable to get into the hotel without the credit card, and our reservation muddled, our room not ready for us, but a last minute room change seemed to take care of the issue. This kind of obstacle course is common, in my experience, when on one’s way to intensive magical gatherings. When going to other-worldly events that have the potential to change one’s life irrevocably, do you really expect it to be easy? Considering all the precedents, this was difficult, but not impossible.
It turned out that our room was not on one of the 2 floors where the hospitality suites were concentrated. Ours was one floor below, in what I came to refer to as “the Hospitality Underworld.” We were, in fact, directly below our friends, The Braided Path, who were observing Anthesteria, a Dionysian festival in which the dead feature heavily. It seemed that they benefited from having an auxiliary space directly below theirs for tending the dead. What the last minute relocation did was make it so that we were not available for casual cruising by bored conference attendees, looking for something to do between things.
The only people who found our space were either 1) looking for us or 2) lost. This suited our purposes quite well.
While we had lower attendance, especially in the first half of the con, the people who showed up were very intentional and prepared to be there or were meant to be there whether they knew it or not. The night of setting up was strained and harder than we had hoped, but we opened the next day, only an hour later than intended, with a very strong magical container that held us and our workings beautifully for 3 exceedingly full days.
Our room was beautiful (we got so many comments and compliments, I can say this unequivocally)! It was planned out far in advance and we brought a cargo van worth of stuff to make it so. We had contributions of art from Madison Wanamaker and Lindsay Tunkl, both of whom have art practices in which death is a major theme. We set up 3 main altars, the central and largest being to death and grief, with two smaller ones for ancestors & descendants and the web of life & (W)hole time. There was a compost altar on the tiny balcony and a cleansing altar at the front entrance. We had a merch table set up with zines, art prints, books, stickers and other good stuff, and another table set up with tea, coffee and a “tincture bar” of nervines, immune support and bitters for mixing with sparkling water.
Unlike many other hospitality suites at Pantheacon, our idea of a party was practicing diligent self-care.
The first person through our doors was Selena Fox, a witch from Wisconsin who founded a green cemetery on her pagan land project in the 1990’s. She expressed disappointment that the conference had yet again rejected her proposal to do a talk on green burial and green cemeteries, so we offered her an open slot in our schedule and she was excited to do it in our space. An auspicious beginning, especially considering that starting a green burial land project has been at the front of my long-term vision list for the last year!
Antheus offered a reading of the text First Protocols of Queer Goetia, which is a short channeled text in the form of a list of suggested practices for communicating with the queer dead. I had encountered this text years ago and have heard it read multiple times – it was very satisfying to feel how relevant it still is, and how new aspects reveal themselves each time. The text is available for free as a printable 1 page pdf booklet from Contagion Press.
In the one short window I had of downtime on the first day, I made a call to my Uncle, who just the previous week I had found out was going to end his life medically after over a decade of acute, chronic illness. We spoke briefly, he told me that he was suffering and I told him that I supported his choice and would do my best to help our other family members come to peace with his decision.
He said goodbye, “have a nice life” and he ended his life with medical assistance a few days later.
Crying at the foot of the grief altar we had just created helped me put down my facilitator self and be more wholly present with my own mourning, and with my need for the work we came to offer.
We hosted a Death Cafe every evening over dinner (BYO cake), the first one with just 4 people and the last one so full that we organized 5 different conversations based on the wide array of reasons for coming that happened simultaneously in the same space. It was wonderful to see how the word spread and the enthusiastic interest in gathering for conversation about death.
At the start of day 2, I was glad I had had the foresight to schedule “Introvert Hour” every morning from 9-10am. These kind of marathon social events are so difficult, even without the constant hosting.
The green burial workshop with Selena Fox had the place filled to capacity and we had a wonderful discussion. The first program I got to attend as a participant was about the Mari Lwyd, and as a ritual it was quite compelling. One of the presenters, Kristoffer Hughes, is actually a big part of why this project exists, but that’s a story for another time…
The main event of the day was a grief ritual co-hosted by the Temple of the Waters. Having been long-time collaborators, our rapport as co-facilitators was easeful and for the most part wordless and the space was gently but powerfully held through song and compassionate witness.
It is always hard to know how it will be when strangers gather to do ritual, especially one as vulnerable as this. For whatever reasons, the stars aligned for a deep and potent sharing of grief and tender care for one another.
When I think of it, I can still feel the warmth and love that was generously offered in that space. Many thanks to everyone who showed up.
The final thing we did that day was listen to the audio book Cutting Through Fear by Lama Tsultrim Allione while lying on the floor with the lights down low. After finding this book on tape at a thrift store I had been dying to share it and the folks that came to share in the experience of the “Feeding the Demons” practice that this audio book teaches were as excited as I was. We had a great discussion afterwards and shared some of the intimate details of the meditation.
It involves visualizing a dark goddess cutting up your body, transforming it into an elixir in a cauldron made from your skull and feeding it to one of your demons (in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, a demon is a disowned aspect of one’s self).
It sounds very macabre, and it is, but it’s also incredibly liberating and a direct, consistent way into one of the deepest meditative states I have encountered.
A lovely surprise at the very end of the night was a visit from Kristoffer Hughes, who as I mentioned earlier, is one of the reasons this project exists. We had yet to meet (the line up to talk to him after his workshop was way too long and I couldn’t do the fan-girl thing) but a note dropped off at his merch table did the trick. We were lucky to get to have a long conversation with this wonderful person, author, druid, drag queen and undertaker from Wales who has been a huge inspiration on my journey in service to the Reaper, as he calls her.
On the 3rd and final day of our programming, I spent introvert hour planning the Compost Devotional Ritual and went with excitement bubbling-over to Willow Munger’s workshop on Worm Bin Spirit Helpers and Metaphysical Composting.
When I arrived, there were 3 foot long worms wriggling across the wall at the front of the room and I realized she had microscope projectors set up to live stream the activity happening in a sample from her worm bin.
With the contagious enthusiasm and the very familiar out-there perspective of an artist, witch and obsessive composter, she enthralled the audience with a rapid-fire account of the experimental magical workings she had developed through the practice of vermiculture. A woman of my own heart!
After the workshop, I invited her to collaborate on the Compost Devotional Ritual that was happening next and she wheeled her worms up into our space, which I had transformed that morning – over the luxurious Persian rug was a brown tarp covering the whole floor. In the center, a black rotating barrel compost bin decorated with white, wormy squiggles and in the 4 directions, elemental offerings for the compost. A whole crew of friends showed up to support the ritual. We cleansed, grounded, cast, invoked, wormed our way through the Labyrinth into the Underworld and made offerings to the Compost in gratitude and as a gesture of towards healing for the unruly dead. As the power was building I remember thinking “I wish I had brought a drum”, only to have 10 sets of hands reach into the center and begin turning the compost barrel, the deep rhythmic sound booming through the dark space, rich with the smell of rotting earthy things. It’s always difficult to summarize magical workings for those who weren’t there, but suffice it to say that our magic is real… the hairs raised on your arm, the energy coursing through your veins, the quantum leap out of linear time into somewhere else entirely.
The compost, it turns out, can function as a portal for the dissolution of the dead who are not yet at rest. This I could have guessed, but didn’t know for sure until I saw it happening.
After the ritual, a friend of a friend hosted a casual meet-up for radicals. It was a very welcomed change to be in the space without anything happening besides old and new friends chatting and snacking and talking about how it all connects to the struggles we are engaged with in our life out in the real world. The magic of intensive spiritual work at these gatherings is such a relief from the oppressive working of the supposedly non-magical world, but sometimes it can be difficult to know how to bridge these realities. Going home, it can seem like it was all a dream, but these kind of conversations help prepare us to keep the magic working in the year to come.
The closing ritual was attended by many of the people who had enriched the space with their participation – co-conspirators, new friends, future collaborators. The go-around where we shared highlights from our experiences in the space really helped me understand the depth of magical working that had taken place. I was so moved to hear the ways our threads had woven together, even if only briefly. I went away from the weekend deeply exhausted and also very affected by everything that had been shared with me, the risks we took together, the help we received from visible and invisible allies. Overall the experience was overwhelmingly positive, and taking this time – albeit many weeks later – to synthesize the experience has made me even more grateful for the whole thing.
Thanks to everyone who made this project possible, especially Lauren, Briar, Gobble, Iridaea, Alex and the spirits (you know who you are).