Befriending Death Again: Happy Hallowe’en
An ancient prayer of the church asks that we be kept safe “from ghoulies and beasties and things that go bump in the night.” Sounds a lot like Hallowe’en to me. Nowadays the ghoulies and beasties are small little people accompanied by their rather normal-looking parents. Sometimes their dogs and cats show up in costume, too.
Years ago, when I lived in north central Pennsylvania, I discovered that a small town named Catawissa has held a Hallowe’en parade since 1907. All others have to stand in line after the seniority of this parade that draws people from a large radius each year. In the last forty years, it seems like everyone has gotten into the act. Hallowe’en has moved close to the top in popularity among festive events in the USA and that means the economy around it is booming.
Economic statistics by the National Retail Federation indicate that over six billion dollars will be spent this year on the holiday by about fifty per cent of the American populace – and that’s down from last year’s spending, due to the continuing economic trials of the country. Hallowe’en also ties in closely to Dia de los Muertos – a holiday out of Hispanic tradition that grows in popularity.
The two are, of course, related because both festivals stem from the western commemoration of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day, which goes back to Gregory III, Bishop of Rome in 740. There may be overlap with Samhain, the Celtic fall festival when the barrier between the living and the dead is believed exceedingly thin, almost transparent. Hallowe’en is simply the old way of saying “All Saints Eve.” Dia de los Muertos is not a morbid festival, but a way to celebrate the memory of ancestors and the continuity of life.
I have a hunch that, deep down inside, people would like to befriend death again. We went through such an antiseptic period in our approach to death, catalogued in books like Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death and Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, that people may have an unexpressed wish to find new ways to approach this aspect of life. In recent years, books appeared that support traditional approaches to death and burial, including do-it-yourself manuals. There is a minor revolt going on against the overly sanitized, hands-off approach we have seen in the past. A growing number of people want to find a way to incorporate death into the cycle of life again, rather than banishing it to the margins of our consciousness, care, and concern.
In earlier times people referred to “a good death,” by which they meant a time when people could arrange their affairs, greet and bless their families, and in general put a period to their own lives. They lived with a focus on the ars moriendi, the “art of dying,” as handbooks called it, and all of this was a good thing that needs to be re-called and re-invented for a new day. If Hallowe’en and Dia de los Muertos are pointers in that direction, so much the better will our society become.
Of course I may be dreaming. The connection I hope for may be wispy or non-existent. There may be no tie between the little kids at my front door saying “trick or treat” with no trick to back up their request, on one hand, and the growing number of people who want to wrest death back from the professionals and give it a personal meaning again, on the other. But I live in hope that we can dig a tunnel between these two activities.