October 31, 2010 § 2 Comments

Brompton Cemetary, U.K. photo by Elise Thompson

Halloween: John Keats’ birthday; source of fond memories of being a black cat swashbuckling home with a brown grocery bag ¼ full of candy; and the Catholic reinvention of the Celtic festival Samhain, once celebrated on the full moon nearest the 1st of November. (It was Pope Gregory who had the brilliant idea of co-opting all pagan holidays and remaking them as Christian—he had an understanding of human nature sorely lacking in the papacy today.)

Samhain was believed to be the night when the souls of all who had died in the previous year passed through the gate to the underworld, and since gates swing both ways, it was also the night the dead could return. Food and drink were left out to propitiate them; people being what they are, some started dressing up as demons and ghosts to take these offerings.

Samahin was the most sacred holiday of the ancient Celts. You were supposed to celebrate by getting very drunk, and if you missed the holiday, you would probably go mad and die. Or so they said. Martin Luther, who choose October 31 to nail his 95 theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenburg (1517) probably thought otherwise.

What captures everyone’s imagination, though, is the idea of the barrier between the living and the dead being lifted. Was it less frightening to believe this happened only one night each year—that all the dead of that year had to wait? Did it ease terrors of attending deathbeds or burials? Or was it simply a way of explaining that feeling so many of us have, that our recent dead are still close by? When I was 9, and my brother died, my sister told me that when she and our parents were discussing his cremation, a box of matches on the mantelpiece suddenly flamed up. (Or at least that’s how I recall it. My sister often recalls things differently.) I loved the story mostly because it argued for his continued existence, but also it sounded like something he would do.

We want our dead to linger, but not forever, and we don’t want to think of ourselves stuck haunting an earth that will soon enough contain no people born while we were alive. So for our comfort, there must be an afterlife, however constructed and ruled, and souls must go there after some period of days or months. And if you follow the logic that far, it’s sensible to allow for the possibility of spirits returning once a year. There are lots of stories we want to tell that require the dead to offer counsel or comfort, or take revenge.

But think of this gateway with its comings and goings. The newly dead are on their way to an unknown place, while the old spirits are ascending for mayhem, message or frolic. Do they notice each other as they pass? Do the ones coming up stop to check out the new arrivals, while the young dead return the glances timidly? Who’s moving faster? How wide is the gate?

I’ve always preferred any version of this story to the one about a tunnel with a white light at the end, which apparently is not God but a cosmic Newcomers’ Lounge where you are received by your loved ones. The term “loved ones” is quite vague. Nobody ever distinguishes between the dead you loved, and the dead who loved you. What if the person you most loved never wanted anything to do with you in life? What if the ones waiting eagerly are those you’d most hoped not to see?

In older societies, of course, the distinction wouldn’t matter, because facing those who went before wasn’t framed as a day at the beach. Only facing God (for the worthy) was expected to be purely joyous. But in America we’re vague and mushy and so my friend Ann was dying, she went through great fear because the father who’d been so cruel to her, and held her heart in his clenched fist, had died not long before she was diagnosed with cancer. She’d finally felt free of him, able to be a whole person and adult. The idea of entering his presence again as a rookie was terrifying. Listening to her reminded me of those books where the dying person is in agony over the prospect of hellfire.

Far better to imagine hanging around home until the shock settles, then going with your new peer group, the new freshman class, through the gate into the vast metropolis of the dead. I think you’d want to stay with the others for awhile, then investigate the territory, look for the ones you want to look for, learn the rules and choices.

All this being said, there’s no answer for grief. There are only poems.


Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen

Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt

Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead

How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye

With cloud for shift
how will I hide?

May Swenson


Where Am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for October, 2010 at Mostly in the Afternoon.

%d bloggers like this: