I won’t pretend to be a big fan of Halloween—Groundhog Day remains my favorite holiday by a wide margin—but I’m open to the possibility that, greedy little beggars at the door notwithstanding, it’s a holiday that serves some useful purpose.
This1 is from an address that Richard Beck delivered back in 2007:
Thanatologists say that the modern era is characterized by “the pornography of death.” That is, the subject of death is considered to be morbid and inappropriate talk for polite company. Death is risqué and not for public viewing.
But it wasn’t always this way. We used to live with the dead. We were born in our homes and we died in our homes. Our dead bodies were viewed in the parlor of the home. The wake was in the home. We were buried next to the church or on the homestead property, in a family cemetery. And our cemeteries were next to our church, a building which also functioned as our school and the town hall. In those days, children played among the dead, church assembled with the dead, and the body politic deliberated with the dead.
But eventually the funeral industry took over. We began to die in hospitals. Our bodies were not taken home but to the “funeral home.” Cemeteries began to be displaced from the center of spiritual and public life, planted not at the center but on the edges of town. Tombstones were replaced with markers level with the ground so you could drive by and not know, not see, that the dead were close. Eventually, homemaker magazines noted that the parlor was no longer being occupied by the dead. So they reclaimed it from the dead by calling it the “living room.”
And so the dead were finally forced out of our homes, out of our lives.
And it began to be harder and harder and harder to find and talk to the dead.
But there has remained one lone failure in the communal hushing of the dead. There remains one exception to the hegemony of the living.
For there remains one public ceremony, one night a year, where the dead can walk the night and ring your doorbell.
Tonight I get to talk to the dead. And I look forward to it every year.
To invite the dead I'll decorate my front yard to look like a graveyard, complete with tombstones that say RIP. This will make the dead feel comfortable to approach. And I'll decorate with caskets, not coffins. Modern coffins, during this era of the pornography of death, look like rounded, spaceage, capsules. Coffins don't conform to the contours of the body, thus hiding, euphemizing, its contents. The dead prefer caskets, those elongated hexagons. Narrow at the top, wide at the shoulders, and tapering down toward the feet. Caskets take the shape of bodies. They know what they contain. So, only caskets, no coffins, for me and the dead.
Ready now, I'll welcome the parade of the dead to my door.
And the dead will come to my door as ghosts, spirits, and skeletons.
I’ll welcome the mythic dead, those vampires and zombies and mummies.
I’ll welcome the newly, gory dead with their blood and gore and detached limbs and misplaced eyeballs.
And I’ll welcome Death himself coming in the shape of movie murderers, those Hollywood incarnations of the Grim Reaper, the cold killer who cannot be escaped in slasher movies...or in life.
The dead will walk tonight. And it’s the only time we get to see them in modern America.
Which is why I consider tonight to be one of the most spiritual nights of the year.
I’m not fully persuaded; I don’t think I can go so far as to consider tonight, with its greedy little beggars, a spiritual occasion. I’ll save my spirituality for Sunday, when Missoula will hold its annual Day of the Dead parade, about which I feel much the same as Richard Beck feels about Halloween.
But Beck’s larger point is surely correct, and he is, of course, hardly the first to make it: the modern West lives in denial of death. Which means not only that we can no longer commune with the dead, but that we can no longer properly understand or appreciate our own lives for the finite, mortal, bounded things that they (and we) are.2
So enjoy Halloween, if that’s to your taste, and celebrate (yes, “celebrate”) the Day of the Dead on Sunday, and by all means try to keep this simple in fact in mind:
We’re all going to die someday.
2 The fact of our mortality is the subject of Julian Barnes NOTHING TO BE FRIGHTENED OF, a book I just finished and one I highly recommend if you’re in the mood for contemplating death. Or you could just read William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis,” I suppose, if you have a taste for obsolete prosody:
"So live, that when thy summons comes to join / The innumerable caravan which moves / To that mysterious realm, where each shall take / His chamber in the silent halls of death, / Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night, / Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed / By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave / Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch / About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams."
They sure don't write poetry like that anymore.