In order to grasp the concept of death as it’s understood out side the confines of Abrahamic theology, we need to accept the fact that for the pagan mind, it is not the end of the series of events that play out in one’s life. Death is apart of a cycle that begins with birth and ends with transformation of the conscious mind. The stages of the cycle are continuous just as all cycles found in nature because for all our advancements as a species, we are still a species that adheres to the laws of nature whether we like it or not. You are born, you live, you grow old, you die and you are born again. Now to say we are “born again” is not as simple as it may sound.
While examples of reincarnation are prevalent in Northern European lore, that doesn’t explain away how the dead manifest in other ways. Sometimes the spirits of the dead simply reincarnate as creatures which why I’m inclined to believe animals and birds are often popular symbols for family coat of arms; especially for Celtic families as it was widely believed among many ancient Celtic tribes that they descended from particular animals. In parts of Europe, it’s not unheard of to come across stories of certain families who believe, after someone dies, they may manifest for a short time in dreams or the physical realm as a specific creature such as an owl, a deer or a butterfly and such.
I recall one story from Ireland where a woman came to her priest in a panic. She told the priest that her sister had been stalking her even though her sister had been dead for weeks. The priest was rather concerned by the woman’s claim and wanted to calm her fears through counseling. During their visit, the woman looked up and pointed to the window and told the priest her sister was watching them at that very moment. The priest looked at the window and saw a bee crawling across the glass. The woman was certain that was her sister; the bee had been following her every where she went ever since her sister died.
The idea that we don’t always change into someone else but rather some other living thing is closely tied to the more abstract concept of the afterlife. The popular motif of our soul being a seed that bursts from the body into a tree, a rose bush or a bird that takes flight points us to a very old idea that apart of us, perhaps the primitive aspect of our spirit, is somehow drawn into the natural world to be used to fuel a thriving environment. In theory, you can see this absorption, physically, if you ever watched a carcass being slowly broken down by different bugs and animals as the soil underneath it will literally drawing nutrients from the carcass. One could argue, thanks to modern society and many laws about burial in parts of the United States, we don’t even have the common courtesy to allow our bodies to be given to the land to use in return for all it gave us to sustain us while we were alive and someday, that will have dire consequences.
A good bulk of our lore also rests in the realm of ghosts, fairies and wights. There’s no denying we live in a haunted world. This concept is handed down from the lore in the Old World that tells us the dead can, and often will, take up residence in mountains and hills. From Ireland, Iceland, Germany to the Baltic, there are countless stories of mountains where you can find glorious halls within where heroes or whole families live after death. Sometimes, door ways will open, and a wanderer may be well received by the occupants of these underground places. Grave mounds are probably meant to serve as mini-mountain halls for the dead so one need not have to travel great distances to visit them. This would be very handy for the living, as in Celtic traditions, the underworld was a place that existed parallel to the living world and not some far away plain of paradises. So physical places, such as graves, could create access points for the living and the dead to converse from time to time.
These mountain/mound dwelling wights and fairies may venture out at certain times through out the night, but many are most adventurous during the later part of the year. The most noted time where the dead and other spirits move freely is during Samhain (October 31-November 1). In pop culture, it’s expressed that this is the “one time of the year,” when the dead walk. The reality is that the winter months appear to be just as active. After all, the most common spectacle to be seen would be the Winter Wild Hunt. This is a great spirit hunt that’s often hosted by supreme divine figures such as the God Odin or Goddess Hulda and the host is usually made up of spirits who join the hunt for various reasons. The hunts are not limited to the supreme divine though; figures like Sigurd the Great Dragon Slayer are said to host their own hunts.
The lore surrounding death is pretty diverse and filled with stories that you could fill my house to the ceiling with. If there is any truth at all to the over whelming volume of stories about reincarnation, ghosts and wild spirits who retained some of their memory from their mortal lives than it appears our consciousness tends to imprint itself onto the energy that fuels us on a daily basis and certain parts of who we are in life carry on after death.
To understand the transformation from a physical person to spirit, we need to understand the nature of energy. According to science, we know that energy can never be destroyed. It simply disperses, changes form or transfers into other cycles which is echoed in traditions found in Germanic paganism, for example. It is there that we find a belief of a soul complex that disperses into separate parts. Apart of your conscious absorbs into the elements. Another part may transcend to the next plain over while another is absorbed into the cycle of life to return in physical form. This is why when someone asks me what is the meaning of life? I simply reply: “Live like you’re never leaving this planet because you probably aren’t.” Don’t be so quick to taint the waters today, you may live in tomorrow.