History tells us that the ancient festival of Halloween dates back to 43AD when the Romans commemorated the passing of the dead. In time, as the centuries added up, Halloween headed west across Europe, eventually crossing the Atlantic to the new world where immigrants introduced their variations of celebrating the dead, inherited from Catholic, Celtic and other Christian traditions. The newer festivities also embraced pieces borrowed from native peoples. The modern take of a hybrid Halloween, celebrated on October 30th or 31st depending on where you live, has been gaining popularity everywhere by way of wider travel, new immigration inroads, and of course global social media. What exists today as Halloween is a secular fusion of hints of Mardi-Gras type fancies with a smorgasbord of religious and anti-religious rituals from around the world that conjure up the spirit and the emblems of the dead. For Halloween die-hards, ghosts, skulls, skeletons, witches, and zombies rule supreme. On the other hand, costuming may involve disguising as anyone or anything, not necessarily connected to the dead or undead. Yet, there’s good reason for the guise of a pagan-loving raucous celebration to challenge the sting of death.
Wherever Christianity has entered you will find the holy days of All Saints and All Souls
Some more somber traditions persist on the Catholic and Christian calendars, with many pagan fêtes transformed into religious celebrations. Wherever Christianity has entered, you will find the holy days of All Saints, also celebrated on October 31st dating back to 735AD, as well as All Souls, observed on November 1st or 2nd, dating back to the 10th century. All Saints day was meant to honor only the faithful who went to Heaven while All Souls day was a later add-on, extended towards the souls who were suffering in Purgatory, though only for a time until their own entry into Heaven. Souls presumed to be condemned to Hell were automatically excluded from remembrance. A clear warning that if you choose to walk the path of evil while on earth, after you die, there would be no commemorations or prayers on your behalf. Hell, we are told, is forever. But bear witness that your soul might be aroused from Hell to partake in certain Halloween rituals where you will be invited to preside over haunted houses or star in epic horror stories. Many Halloween enthusiasts relish the evil side of things.
Deep down many still wonder where people really go when they die
Death remains an enigma to us humans. The fact that we live with death as a daily occurrence, hasn’t removed its mystery or its terror. Despite all attempts by religions to impress upon us the reality of Heaven or Hell as places of perpetual bliss or eternal damnation, or the promise to some of reincarnation, deep down many still wonder where people really go when they die. And because our deceased loved ones don’t leave our thoughts, the idea of the spirit world is a comfortable attempt to make sense of death and dying. We have been programmed to fear death. We manage our anxieties through participation in rituals and ceremonials to the dead. Depending on your belief system, the ceremonies and prayers honoring the dead are created to appease God, or the gods of your faith. And by sustaining your duties to the dead who have gone before you, the hope is that you guarantee your own ticket out of this world to the next best place. I grew up Catholic and back in the day, buying an ‘indulgence’ to secure your space in Heaven was a real thing paid with real money.
No joy can accompany a story of a dead child
My early experience with death rituals came during my childhood growing up on a Caribbean island. Prayers were offered for the dead, the faithful ones, as a regular part of Catholic mass. But the highlight for me was the span of three days that began with All Saints and ended on All Souls night, when we devoted our energies and time preparing for and visiting the cemetery where those who went before us lay under the warm earth. Back then our cemeteries were un-lit places. No one saw the need to provide electrified lamps. After all, the walking dead would relish the dark. And darkness falls early in the Caribbean where there is no lingering twilight. Day turns into night in a blink. But on those three days when October flips into November, the usual eerie shadows which caused children to quicken their pace if walking past a cemetery after dark, surrendered to glowing brightness rising into the night sky– the expanse of graves lit up with hundreds of candles. Prayers were recited, but the remaining hours until the last candle flickered, were spent in the spirit of a noisy family reunion, listening to stories the adults liked to repeat about those who inhabited the graves. There were jokes sprinkled into the tales of the quirks of various uncles, aunts cousins, grandparents , great grandparents, and even neighbors. But there was no way to miss the occasional lowered, sad, halting tones if the dead person being discussed was a child. No joy can accompany a story of a dead child. I know. My youngest sister Ingrid died when she was barely one year old. I was nine at the time. Her memory is still with me. Her birthday happens to be October 31st.
A good ‘wake’ was the way to send them on their journey
My maternal grandmother died at age 59 when I was eleven. There was a jubilant week-long celebration of life and death, with food, drink, the best local rum, and bongo-dancing – major features in a good Caribbean wake. From my perspective, my grandmother was old and old people are supposed to die. A good wake was the way to send them on their journey. When much later I too arrived at age 59, I did a double-take. I considered myself still young and pondered upon my grandmother’s death juxtaposed with my life. I wondered what it would have been like for those left behind if I had died at 59. Every country categorizes individuals over 60 as old. We are put on notice that we should be preparing to die. But is that such an ominous warning? It’s unfair and ageist perhaps, because after all, people younger than 60 die all the time. Even so, the idea of preparing for death is not misplaced. Shortly after my grandmother’s demise, when I was still eleven, my best friend Joyce died suddenly. Joyce and I shared a love of books. We couldn’t wait for Saturdays to be first and second in line at the window of the Mobile Library van that drove into our seaside village weekly. Then one day I walked to her home as usual, and she wasn’t at our meeting spot. Her little brother accosted me matter-of-factly, “Joyce died.” I stood there silent at their front door while her mother wailed, and neighbors gathered solemnly. My best friend was also eleven years old. I honor her by name. I’ve been preparing for death since then, not in a morbid way, but with the understanding that death is a part of life. Many family members of mine have since passed on and were sent onward with prayers and joyful celebration.
Life is a continuing dance of Birth and Death
The minute you enter the world, both processes – living and dying – begin at the same time. The paths they follow are not parallel, but converging ones. Sooner or later Life and Death unite. Then we pass on. Maybe at age one, or age one-hundred-and-one. Our bodies join the earth. Our souls or spirits shift conceivably to some new form or fashion or place or space. French philosopher Albert Camus left us with a gem of wisdom that “Since we are all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter.” The actual point of death is over in an instant. When you think about it deeply, without the noise, mourning the death of someone else is not really about the deceased person. It is about mourning what you the living – the persons left behind, have lost. It is about the perception and the feeling that your life has been interrupted in some way by someone else’s death. It is common to hear grieving family and friends list all the items or events that the deceased loved one will miss, or the family members yet unborn whom they will never meet. But the dead are not perched on clouds lamenting what they miss. They completed their circle of life whether a small circle or a big circle. The human brain tends to see measurements where there are none. Your pain and tears are fundamentally about you. It's acceptable to mourn what you have lost. But don't mourn your own death in advance. Buddhist writer Sogyal Rinpoche reminds us that “Life is nothing but a continuing dance of birth and death.” The message is, enjoy the space in between. Learn how to live. And learn how to die. That’s your tacit contract for your life as you know it– one of mesmerizing ambiguity.