There are witches in foxholes. But unlike their peers in more mainstream religions, when Wiccan veterans die, they cannot get the symbol of their religion, the pentacle, inscribed on their government-funded headstones.
Now, witches, including some on Massachusetts’ North Shore, are trying to change that. Two separate groups have asked the federal government to approve their star-in-circle symbol for use on deceased veterans’ grave markers.
“We have a fair number of people who’ve served in the U.S. military, too, and given their lives for this country or served it,” said Jerrie Hildebrand, a Salem resident and Wiccan priest. “They have just as much right to have their symbology on their headstone as anyone else does.”
For decades, the Department of Veterans Affairs has provided deceased veterans with headstones or grave markers that include an “emblem of belief.” Veterans can receive the markers regardless of whether they are killed in action and wherever they are buried.
The Christian cross and the Jewish Star of David are by far the most commonly requested emblems, but the VA has also approved symbols for 36 other religious groups, including Islam, Buddhism and even atheism. Even little-known groups such as the United Church of Religious Science and Eckankar have managed to meet the VA’s standards.
But Wiccan leaders have had trouble getting the VA to approve the pentacle, a five-pointed star surrounded by a circle that many pagan groups have adopted as their symbol. They say they have been trying to get the pentacle approved for nearly a decade but have continually been told that the VA is revising its application process.
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Taking a break?
“Everybody’s application kept getting put on hold,” Hildebrand said.
That may finally be changing. In November, the VA provided a new list of requirements to Circle Sanctuary — a national pagan group of which Hildebrand is a leading member. Earlier this month, the group submitted an application, including the name of a recently deceased veteran whose family wanted his grave marked with a pentacle.
Selena Fox, Circle Sanctuary’s senior minister, would not disclose the name of the veteran for privacy reasons. But she said that if the pentacle is approved, other veterans will make the same request.
“There are other people right now connected with our organization that when this gets approved … they will make that choice,” Fox said. “Our church not only has a need, it’s an immediate need.”
Hildebrand suspects political motives are behind the government’s delay, but a spokeswoman said the VA had not received a complete application in the past. She said she did not know whether the agency has received one now.
Angela Brin, a practicing witch who lives in Marblehead, said she hopes the VA does not delay any further. Especially during wartime, she said, the government should do all it can for those who serve.
“If a person serves their country, and if having a religious symbol is available and being offered to veterans, why should one group, no matter who they are, be excluded?” Brin asked. “If something’s being offered to one group, it should be offered to everyone.”
“There are practicing covens in Iraq right now,” she said. “We have people who are dying, too.”
When requesting a new emblem be approved for a headstone, the family must submit:
1. A letter from the “recognized central head or primary contact person” for the religious organization, certifying that:
– The emblem is “currently widely used and recognized as the symbol of the organization or its belief system.”
– The organization supports the addition of the emblem to the approved list.
– The organization “does not promote activity that is illegal or contrary to public policy.”
2. A written description of:
– How the organization’s belief system “is comprehensive in nature and addresses fundamental and ultimate questions.”
– The organization’s practices, such as services, ceremonies, clergy, “or other characteristics of a traditional belief/faith system.”
3. “Information about the size and organizational structure of the organization, including total number of members and the location of the congregations.”
Pentacle or pentagram?
The terms pentacle and pentagram are often used interchangeably, but most Wiccans say they are somewhat different. A pentagram is simply a five-pointed star, while a pentacle surrounds the star with a circle.
Both pentacles and pentagrams are ancient symbols that have been used by many different religions, including Christianity and Judaism. Wiccans trace their use of the symbols back to the ancient Celts, whose earth-based religion serves as a model for many modern pagan groups.
Many people mistakenly associate the pentacle with Satanism. In fact, Satanists generally use an upside-down pentacle, often with a goat’s head in the center.