Blog 128. The death-denying celebration

By one account,* Halloween originated in the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sowan, rhymes with cow-an), which marked the end of the harvest season. Costumes provided protection from imagined spirits that came back to life. The people knocked on doors, asking for soul cakes to be used as gifts for the ghosts. The medieval Christian church converted October 31 into the eve of All Saints Day, a night when the poor would go to a wealthy household, offering to pray for any departed souls of the family because the chance of salvation supposedly increased with the number of prayers. The earthly reward for supplicants was food and beer from the prosperous. Carved turnips served as lanterns—a practice that shifted to pumpkins when immigrants brought the custom to the new world.

I’ve occasionally joined present-day Wiccans in their modern celebration of Samhain. I experienced a guided time of reflection, a reverent private time of contemplation for each celebrant’s own beloved decedents, a moment of retreat in which you could experience the memories and the grief.

Mexico has its “day of the dead,” a respectful celebration of the departed, a combination of indigenous and Catholic observances. In the U.S., however, death has become sanitized. Perhaps we, too, need a time of reflection.

With the exception of some Jewish practices, we no longer have the custom of family or associates preparing, viewing, or burying the body. In the U.S., after an initial call to the mortician, the survivors do paper work. Rarely do we perform our own preparations, transportation, and final burial or cremation. Regulations of some statesprovide obstacles to family participation, such as a requirement for an official permit to transport the deceased. Even an open-casket funeral offers no physical contact with the actuality of the death. Clean, yes. Emotionally cleansing, no.

Whether carrying the emotional baggage of one or several deaths, each of us might benefit from the annual observance of Samhain, with its celebration of accomplishment, review of those who died, and the recognition of mortality.

In Halloween, have we abandoned a cohesive cultural event that we still need? For “Trick or treat on main street,” parents are supposed to buy costumes for the kids while preventing any imaginative tricks. Halloween has become a programmed activity, a denial of death, and “death” has become a dirty word. We are forced to say “passed” or “departed” or some other euphemism. That’s denial, and denial is how we avoid talking about an uncomfortable topic. If you can’t talk about a thing, you are powerless regarding it. I like parties, but I suggest we also put some redeeming content back into Halloween.

The kids don’t learn much from a ghoul costume, anyway.


  • * Time Magazine, November 6, 2017, p. 19.


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