A ritual for the Extinct
In the northern hemisphere, it is now autumn, getting close to traditional times to remember the Dead. Samhain/Halloween arrives at the end of the month, and November 30th is Remembrance Day for Lost Species.
The following is an outline of a ritual I did last year to mourn and remember extinct species, which I offer to provide a general framework for anyone else who may wish to do something like this.
I wanted to accomplish two things: create a space for myself to really grieve some of these losses, and the fact of human-caused extinctions more generally, as well as to formally acknowledge that my species has done this, and apologize, as a member of that species.
Block out 90 minutes to a couple hours for the ritual itself. You might not need it all, but I ended up using at least a couple hours, though some of that was me figuring things out as I went.
- 10 tealights or votives or similar sized tapers
- Papers with the names and biographical information of the Extinct
- A shoe box or similar sized box or container (big enough to hold 9 rolls of paper)
- String to tie 9 rolls of paper
- Kleenex or a handkerchief or five
Gathering the names:
Collect the names and biographical information of the extinct plants and animals you wish to remember. I tried to find names representing species from every continent, as well as names for each of the following groups (I do not think the order they are arranged in is important):
- Fish (freshwater and oceanic)
- Plants and fungi
- Arthropods (invertebrates with exoskeletons)
- Molluscs and other invertebrates without exoskeletons
This may not be the most taxonomically-correct way to group lifeforms on our planet, but it is one I understand, and it kept the groups to a manageable number – and it worked out aesthetically nicely, too, which I feel is important for a ritual.
The IUCN Red List is considered the authoritative list of extinct species, but it is not 100% accurate; when I did further research into some of the animals I found listed there as extinct, I found newer information that some of them had been found alive. I limited my search to animals and plants driven to extinction within the last 200-300 years – those that suffered the worst from industrialization.
Preparing brief biographies – something about their habitat or ways of living – is a nice way to remember these beings as more than simply a name, when they were last observed alive, and what was the cause of their extinction – though for creatures like snails, there may be little recorded other than where the snail lived. I also could not find any fungi on the Red List, which was distressing, as I know there must be extinct fungi, but it isn’t well recorded.
I also asked online if anyone wanted particular animals or plants mentioned; I did the ritual alone, but I felt others might like to participate in some fashion.
Write or print out your lists so that each of the eight groups above has its own paper(s).
Also get one blank sheet of paper, to represent all those species that have gone extinct that we never knew or recorded; they have the 9th candle.
Arrange your altar or altars.
The main altar is for the Extinct.
I had a secondary altar for the Elements (Fire, Earth, Air, and Water), Who I hailed as Ancestors of us all (the living and the Extinct alike). Including an altar for a deity of Death may be appropriate depending on your tradition; I have an altar for Hela normally, so I did not set up an additional space for Her.
On the main altar, I laid a white cloth, and arranged 3 groups of 3 candles each, with the 10th candle centered in front. I set them up on stone samples discarded by an architecture firm; plates would work fine, too, or you could simply arrange the 9 candles in a single line or arc, with the 10th centered in front.
The 10th candle is for Remembrance.
Place offerings as appropriate.
Cleanse, ward, etc., the space and yourself/others as appropriate to your tradition.
Hail the Elements as Ancestors, to bear witness, and thank Them for Their gifts – and/or Whoever you feel would be appropriate to invite.
Hail the god(s) of Death you honor.
I spoke some words about purpose and intent at this point.
Light the Remembrance candle.
Light the first candle for the Extinct, and read the names and biographies associated with it. (How you order the groups is up to you, but the Unknown should be last.)
When you finish each group, place the paper(s) on the altar and say, “May you be remembered.” Be mindful of where the flames are! (I placed the papers under the stone tiles, so that they were closely grouped with their respective candles.)
Repeat for the next 7 groups. Allow time between names and between groups to grieve and take your time; this is when the handkerchief may be necessary.
When you get to the Unknown, acknowledge their loss as well, but do not finish with “May you be remembered.” Last year, I said, “May your loss be mourned,” and some other words I did not record.
At this point, you may need another chunk of time to grieve or sit in silence or attend to whatever comes up.
I blew out candles on the Elements’ and Hela’s altars before the altar for the Extinct.
When you are ready, but before the candles burn down, blow each out in turn, saying, “May it be long before your surviving kin join you.” Blow out the candle for Remembrance last. The wax remaining in the candles on the primary altar has a significance to me of hope remaining for the surviving kin of the Extinct, as well as that those who are gone will be remembered in some way.
When the wax has cooled, wrap each candle in the appropriate paper, tie it, and seal it the knot with wax from the Remembrance candle (if you can; I found it tricky to drip wax from a tealight, and used a taper I lit from the Remembrance candle). Place all the rolls and the Remembrance candle in the shoe box and store it somewhere safe. (I actually did this the next morning, because I did the ritual in my living room and could leave the altars overnight – and I didn’t actually figure out what to do to finish until I got up the next day. I haven’t yet figured out what to do in the long run with the scrolls.)
Another round of cleansing and/or grounding may definitely be in order at this point; I found the experience emotionally and spiritually very intense and draining, though it was also cathartic.
It was an important part of my process last year to share the ritual publicly – primarily to share the names and biographies of the extinct animals and plants I specifically named. I do not know that this is a necessary or required part of this ritual more generally.
My main post from last year, which contains most of the text I spoke during the ritual, as well as a bunch of experiential stuff
Review of a book on grief (The Wild Edge of Sorrow) with some relevant commentary