Imagine the look on my family’s face last year when I suggested we start a new family tradition – an annual feast to honor the dead. Now, our children are 20-somethings. Our son is married to a beautiful (inside and out), bright-spirited young woman; our daughter is in graduate school and has a terrifically accepting boyfriend. My son’s left eyebrow cocked upwards as it does when he hears something a bit outlandish, but my family is rather used to this habit of creating (what some might call) off-kilter but meaningful and life-enriching family traditions.
For example, at Easter time over 10 years ago – after I’d returned from India to our home in the mountains of North Carolina – we all created prayer puja boats and floated them down a river. The church nearby had just let out, and the preacher eyed us bending down at the adjacent river, and yes, he marched right over and questioned our actions and motives. I’ll leave it at this: as a Southern woman, I was very diplomatic.
Suffice it to say, my family knows me, and they are good team players. So, this Sunday, we will have our second annual feast. You may wonder what caused me to conjure up such an idea. Death has been a part of my life since I was 11 years old. It has shaped my life in ways I never would have imagined, and this death-consciousness has given me the wisdom to know how precious life is and how important it is to the living to keep the dead alive in memory.
What delights you this time of year?
We Southerners love Halloween. It’s the occasion that marks the end of our relentlessly hot, humid summers. If we’re lucky, we can finally say goodbye to the heavy, moist summer air and say hello to crisp, fresh autumn breezes, finally breaking out our sweaters, long pants and pumpkins.
I delight in listening to the sound of leaves crunching beneath my feet as I walk, in opening all my windows before I go to bed and awaking each morning snuggled next to my husband under our cotton blanket. We like to reminisce about the crazy costumes we’ve purchased over the years. Anyone remember making your own costume?
We think of candy and trick-or-treating. We adorn our homes and yards with witches, ghouls, skeletons, spider webs and zombies. Halloween is a joyfully spooky occasion that allows us to be creative, take on new identities and have fun!
As the daylight lessens and we move into a time of increased darkness, I hope you’ll also pause to remember the deeper meaning of this time of year.
The 2,000-year-old Celtic tradition of Samhain, a Gaelic word meaning “summer’s end,” celebrated the belief that at this time of year, the veil between the worlds is thin and transparent, allowing easier communication between the living and the spirits of the dead. Samhain gradually morphed into All Hallows, then All Hallow’s Eve, then Hallow E’en and finally Halloween. Remember that the word hallow means “to make sacred or holy.” At this time of year, the Catholic Church celebrates All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day. India celebrates Diwali, the festival of lights. The Iroquois celebrate the Harvest of Corn and the Feast of the Dead. And Mexico celebrates a week-long, vibrantly colorful festival called The Day of the Dead.
What are all of these celebrations about?
On the last day of October and the first few days of November, unconnected ancient cultures around the world have paused from daily life to celebrate death. These are timeless traditions that teach us what it is to be human; yet, in our hurried pursuit of commercialism and our squeamishness toward death and decay, we have lost the richness, the meaning and the value of these traditions. Along with the zany carnival aspects, the Shadow aspect deserves a spotlight.
The presence of death
During the summer of 1963, my 6-year-old brother started having severe headaches. I remember the day he was admitted to Columbia Hospital.
“Probably just eye strain,” I was told. Times were different then. Children were not allowed into hospitals, and parents did not talk to children about troubling subjects. But I knew something was terribly, terribly wrong when my grandmother from Santa Monica, CA, arrived to take care of me and my youngest brother, Paul.
My brother never came home from the hospital. He died during an operation to remove a huge, cancerous tumor in his brain. I was devastated and hurt and angry and silent. No one talked about “it,” and “it” had all happened so fast.
How could I, as a 9-year-old, make sense of this? I remember crying a lot, alone, in my bed at night. Time passed, and the tears lessened, but the deep sadness stayed.
Then, in 10th grade, one of my closest girlfriends was killed instantly in a car accident. Again, there was no warning, no time to prepare, no time to say goodbye, no time to say sorry. And still, no one wanted to talk about “it,” and my sadness etched itself deeper into my soul.
So death rooted itself deeply into my psyche. Throughout most of my life, I’ve reflected about death and life and the meaning of it all – alone. For a long time, there was not a community for me to express my confusion, my anger or my questions.
Mexico gave me a community that wholeheartedly embraces death with vibrancy, thrilling explosions of color, wafting bittersweet aromas of marigolds and spicy chocolate moles, and altars and shrines to the dead everywhere I looked. It is a gloriously stunning feast for the senses. Experiencing El Dia de los Muertos was a healing balm and ushered me towards the importance of taking the time to reflect on death, something our culture does not like to talk about.
Pondering death teaches me about living. It reminds me of the importance of quiet, of stillness, of tears, of remembering and of darkness. Death is an inevitable part of the process of living, to acknowledge what our ancestors have known for thousands of years – that, at this time of year, the veil that separates this world from the other world is at its thinnest – and to take time to ponder death. Doing so can only enrich and enliven us as individuals and as members of a living community.
Loss and memory
This year’s fifth annual Autumn Remembrance will be held Saturday, October 30, through Tuesday, November 2, at the fountain in Five Points. It will be available to the community day and night. You are invited to bring a candle, a flower, a photograph or an object symbolic of your loss and add it to our altar. It is my hope that this community remembrance will assuage and comfort while deepening your awareness and acceptance of the mysteries of life.
“My Memories of Day of the Dead in Oaxaca”
Pungent bittersweet marigolds
Yeasty braided breads cooking
Spicy rich chocolate moles simmering
Smoky pine copal incense
Flowers, riotous and vibrant in color
Candies skulls and bones and skeletons
Plastic table cloths, brightly patterned
Altars everywhere laden with photographs, food, liquor, beer, cigarettes
Graveyards filled with spend-the-night guests, drinking, dancing, feasting,
Sharing stories poignant and real.