Book Review: Do I Have to Wear Black? Rituals, Customs & Funerary Etiquette for Modern Pagans by Mortellus

Review and Photo by Wren Harris | Website | Instagram | Facebook

About the Author

Mortellus is a mortician, medium, necromancer, British Traditional Wiccan/Witch, and High Priestex of the Coven of Leaves, a Gardnerian training group who likes to say that they are a bubbling cauldron of bitter esoterica slithering their way through western North Carolina. Currently, Mortellus resides on three acres that are becoming hastily overgrown with her partner, adult child, and afab/amab twins. She finds herself wishing she had more time for Pathfinder RPG and to play around in the pottery shed.

About Do I Have to Wear Black? Rituals, Customs & Funerary Etiquette for MODERN PAGANS by Mortellus
Where to begin with this utterly amazing book? As the title suggests, it explores the subject of dying, death, rituals, etiquette and customs for modern Pagans. More than a guide, this insightful and in depth book is a veritable encyclopedia. 

In the fabulous Foreword, the reader learns that they will need pen and paper to make notes for their own death planning, and the Acknowledgements are deeply personal, giving the impression that the author has already bared all. This gives the reader gentle reassurance that this is going to be an enlightening, educational, safe and refreshingly honest book, which it is. 

Mortellus soon gets to the heart of the matter – why we, as Pagans – need this book, and the prejudice that many of us face from within the death industry. It got me thinking about speaking at my own grandmother’s funeral, and how my words were “checked” prior to the service. I assumed this was for timing purposes, but realise now that it was to make sure her funeral was “appropriate”. This book consistently pulls you back to considering your own experiences, and those going forward, in relation to death. 

“In an infinite number of universes, all things are not only possible, but certain.” – Do I Have To Wear Black?

Mortellus takes the reader through Pagan views on the Afterlife and its various destinations. She shares her own personal beliefs and experiences, describing herself as a “scientifically minded person”; masterfully blending science with spirituality throughout the book. We are taken through Mortellus’ “Mortuary 101” where we are taught what happens to the body of a deceased loved one, typical funerary rites, what choices there are for disposition (of a body), ethical wills, and restorative arts and crafts, such as making shrouds and coffins. The section on rites, customs and etiquette is a wealth of information, and is a book in itself. Deeply touching, it covers more than a few Pagan traditions and provides rites and rituals for each; with suggested readings, etiquette and resources. The author also delves into companion animals, child loss, unexpected deaths, death after illness, and grief. Each chapter is beautifully and thoughtfully laid out, and all of the rites are attainable and doable. There is an abundance of practical information, for example entities related to certain types of loss, which is helpful for planning rites and rituals of your own. 

The Book’s Strengths

By talking very personally and easily of her own experiences, the author manages to open up death as a topic that should really be considered as a priority during life, and without fear.

Mortellus uses her knowledge as a mortician to explain clearly what is required by law when a death happens, and to help the reader become aware of what might need to be communicated during the process of arranging care after death to make the event as personal and meaningful as possible. Cleverly, there are sections set aside for deathcare professionals to understand better what it is that Pagans might desire each step of the way. 

With every practicality surrounding death thought of, this book is a boon to both Pagans and non-Pagans alike. Whilst no doubt extremely helpful for non-Pagans trying to understand the etiquette surrounding the death of a Pagan loved one, this book is also insightful for those of us who may need to navigate the differing traditions of our Pagan brothers and sisters, or even just figure out what it is that we would choose. 

The author not only covers the practical aspects of death and forward funerary planning, but also the spiritual and emotional aspects. An extremely humorous book at times, there are wonderful death quotes at the start of each chapter, meaningful contributions from others, and beautiful crow illustrations throughout.

What You Can Learn…

There is so much to learn from this book, and I don’t think a single review will ever be able to do this masterpiece justice. Hugely inspiring, by the end of the first chapter I was deep into thinking about life and death, and what is meaningful to me. Mortellus encourages you to think about your own feelings surrounding death, and the beliefs you were brought up with, and to discern from it all what is of most value to you. 

She allays our fears about what happens to the body during the various choices of disposition, and educates us on what the environmental impact of each choice might be. In fact, she manages to answer all of the questions we didn’t even realise we had until she answered them.

Mortellus imparts the idea that death is not an emergency. There is time to be involved, there is time to hold the hands of our deceased loved ones, and to speak to them about memories past. There is time for sacred rites, and for it to be meaningful. We come to the understanding, fairly early on, that there is no one-size-fits-all, not even within Pagan traditions, and that we all have the right to have the send-off we desire. Mortellus talks passionately of her desire for neutrality in death, so that families are free to choose what it is they want for themselves and their loved ones, rather than having to abide by outdated and old fashioned Christian ideals.

I was able to reflect on my own mysterious experiences surrounding death, and this book gave a home to them. This touching book broke me open at times and I was moved to tears on more than one occasion. Reading it has definitely made me realise that I might have some of the practical aspects of my death covered, but what about the spiritual and emotional ones? Instead of something that would be otherwise put off or neglected, I now look forward to planning my death, and easing the burden for my loved ones (who are non-Pagan) with the help of this book. 

If there is one book you read this year, this should be it. This book about death is a total gift.

About Wren Harris: Wren is a Traditional Witch from the South of England, living in a cemetery, and enjoying the beautiful arable landscape around her as a source of inspiration. A lifelong student of the Craft, she is a forager, hobby herbalist, fire spinner, tarot reader, and qualified Holistic Therapist. She has modelled for pagan-based artists such as Chris Down and Neil Geddes-Ward, appearing in seven paintings, a tarot deck, and on the front cover of Chris Down’s book “Otherworld: The Collected Works of Chris Down”. Wren is fascinated by the magic of colour and can be found on Instagram and Facebook

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