What We Should Actually Celebrate at Halloween

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Image of St Therese above relics 2

One of the great pieces in the (short) history of Beams was Br. Trevor's piece on Halloween entitled All Whore's Night looking at the whorification trend in Halloween costuming, particularly for women. Recently Trev wrote another piece on the value of Death Awareness. They are both worth reading. 

I was thinking about those two pieces as we come to yet another Halloween. I've been thinking of the way that the heavy emphasis on  kink at Halloween has obscured the value of the remembrance of death, especially the death of ancestors. 

The roots of the festival go back to a pre-Christian Celtic European festival of Samhain. It marked the end of the harvest season and the coming of winter. The veil between this world and the otherworld was said to become thin. The souls of the deceased (and other types of beings) were said to be able to pass over into our world. 

Christians incorporated this tradition into two separate festivals: All Saints (Nov 1) and All Souls (Nov 2). Halloween comes from All Hallow's Eve, All Hallows is another way of saying All Saints Eve. 

Day of the dead kite festival lg

All Saints commemorates famous or canonized saints in the Christian tradition. All Souls is a remembrance of all the dead. In Mexico those two days comprise (especially All Souls) comprise The Day of The Dead. Families have meals on the gravesites of their relatives. 

While that practice might seem morbid in North American society, I think it's a great practice. For various reasons (primarily economic) here in Vancouver we have very few coffins at funerals. Almost everyone is cremated and ashes are scattered. Or, more preversely (by my view), urns with the cremated ashes are kept in the home and never dispersed. I worry about the loss of a sense of place in relation to ancestors. The language of death is becoming increasingly etheralized. The corporeal element of death is being lost. People don't die, they "pass". They are shunted away into hospitals and so on. Death is taken out of view for many. We no longer have funerals but "celebrations of a life".* I think a good deal of this is really unhealthy. 


As someone who grew up in a traditional Roman Catholic familiy I went to funerals very often. I saw bodies in coffins quite regularly. I think it got me accustomed to the notion that death is a part of life. In my early twenties I spent a year working on the island of Guam. There they kept the bodies (essentially as is) of dead relatives in the home for a week. Each night there was a vigil and a meal. That was even more 'death in your face'--the bodies hadn't even been embalmed. I'm also use to churches (particularly in Europe) where saints' bones, skulls, or even their entire bodies are on display in churches of crypts.

I think all of this has made me much more comfortable with death. So when it comes to Halloween, I do believe quite matter of factly even that life continues beyond death and that there is inherent relationship between those living in physical form and those existing in some subtler forms of existence (or whatever it is exactly). 

Korean ancestor veneration-Jesa-01

And the ancient religions understood that there are proper ways of nurturing and fostering those relationships. Seems to me that's what Halloween ought to be about. In certain Christian literature, this will often be slammed as "ancestor worship". But far as I can tell, no one was worshipping their ancestors--they weren't treating their ancestors as God. I prefer the term veneration--a term meaning showing respect for, giving thanks for, remembering their preciousness. 

Western society is far too afraid of death and people don't grieve as a result. The genius I think of the ancient traditions surrounding death was that they both fostered a sense of continued connection with the deceased and trust that life goes on but also let them go. The traditions understood that they were dead and we (as of yet) were not. And they were now in a different reality--one that bleeds over into ours as ours does to their's but different. 

Western society neither grieves (says goodbye and recognizes that we are now in differing realities) nor venerates (remembers and honors the ancestors). It seems to me therefore too many people are haunted by the ghosts of their ancestors--not in the literal sense of spooky entities rattling your bed at night. (If you are more into shamanism, the souls of relatives can become lost between the worlds and sometimes attach themselves to relatives, causing potentially very negative consequences.) They are haunted more in the sense that philosopher Jacques Derrida used the term--the thing that appears to be dead and absent is actually influencing the living. People end up following the emotional, spiritual, mental, relational, financial, physical scripts of their families. They are haunted by the past. 


To artfully practice in this way in our day really I think could be a simple exercise. 

1. Acknowledge and give thanks for our ancestors.

I do this in simple intentional ways. Just have a sense of connection and say thanks. You might have a photo or remember a story from their life. This is possible whether or not you think their soul is still living after death or not by the way. This is also a moment to acknowledge our sadness at their death. 

2. Cut the cords and wish them well on their journey 

This is where I would understand myself to be invoking a power greater than the souls of the departed (call it Grace, God, Spirit, whatever). I ask that I be blessed to retain the good that has come to me through my ancestral line. I ask that I cut or burn away the patterns that continue to inflict damage and pain. I wish the best for my ancestors on their journey and offer them my own love in gratitude for the love they offered me. 

So spend sometime today or the next few days, in whatever way feels appropriate, connecting with our ancestors and remembering we all die. 


* I do think it's worth celebrating a person's life at a memorial service or funeral. But they are dead and we are not. We who loved and have now lost require a space for grieving. As a pastor, I have to explain this to so many families I work with in memorials. Under the guise of wanting to have the service their famliy member wanted, they are running from their own grief. Unprocessed grief is an absolute killer. 

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  • Comment Link Rev.Marcelle Saturday, 03 November 2012 20:02 posted by Rev.Marcelle

    I love the 2 simple exercises for giving thanks & letting go...very powerful in their simplicity

  • Comment Link Neale Adams Saturday, 03 November 2012 21:53 posted by Neale Adams

    I've often wondered why there were so many relics of the saints (and even Galileo's finger) in Italy. Pope John XXIII can be seen through glass under an altar in St. Peter's. Do you think this is a good thing?

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