Thursday, November 24, 2016

Rituals around death may help us live better

From Halloween on October 31 to All Soul’s Day on November 2, death gets a cultural nod from us.  Does this cultural nod at death fulfill some deep seated human need?

We don’t have to be historians to recognize that Halloween is connected in some way with death and dying.   Just walk around any neighbourhood in the days preceding Halloween and you will notice graveyards springing up on front lawns and ghosts flittering among the trees.  Walking around a tony Toronto neighbourhood last week, I spotted a macabre Halloween display that would have made a fitting set for a horror flick.

The foundations of today’s celebration of Halloween may go back to the Celtic celebration of Samhain and the Roman feast of Feralia.

The Celts celebrated Samhain as autumn gave way to winter and vegetation died.  The Celts believed that for one night a year the spirits of those who had died the preceding year roamed the earth.  They needed to entertain and feed the spirits, as well as protect themselves from any malevolence.  They dressed like witches, ghosts or goblins to deter evil spirits from taking possession of their bodies, and they left treats on the doorstep for good spirits.

The Romans celebration of Feralia, like Samhain, was a time to commemorate the dead. The Romans honored the graves of the deceased with wreaths made of tile, and they left grain, salt and bread soaked in wine to nourish the shades.

As Christianity spread through the Roman world, people began celebrating All Hallow’s Eve on October 31, the night before All Saint’s Day.  By the 16th century in France, children were dressing up in grizzly costumes to perform the Dance of the Macabre. In this allegorical dance, a skeleton rose from the grave and led both the dead and the living in a dance.  The dance was a reminder that Death claims everyone, regardless of a person’s station in life.

In 998, Odilo, abbot of a Benedictine monastery in Cluny, France designated November 2 as a day to pray for the deceased members of his community.  Odilo’s idea took hold, and by the 14th century, November 2 had become the Feast of All Soul’s Day.

While prayers for the dead are a staple of All Soul’s Day, people still observe other traditional rituals that commemorate their deceased loved ones. When I grew up, communal prayer at the cemetery on All Soul’s Day was common, as was leaving flowers at the grave of the beloved.  In some countries, people leave food at the gravesite, or set a place at the table for their deceased loved ones. 

The similarities between ancient pagan practices and our rituals around Halloween and All Soul’s Day are obvious.  While we might think some of these rituals are superstitious, morbid, silly or good old-fashioned fun, they have endured in some form for millennia. This suggests our rituals serve a purpose of which we may be unaware.

The creepier Halloween decorations may serve a function similar to that of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.  Bruno Bettleheim, in the seminal work On The Uses of Enchantment, posited that gruesome fairy tales played an important role in helping children resolve inner conflict. Perhaps menacing Halloween graveyard scenes are a subconscious attempt to gain mastery over our fears about death and dying, as well as other things that we cannot control.

And what of the rituals around praying for the dead?   As a child, I found the rituals a bit odd.  I never considered that I would die so visiting the cemetery didn’t make much sense to me.  But as I age and death gets closer, my thinking has changed. These rituals can help us accept our mortality with a bit more grace, especially since we live in a culture obsessed with youthfulness, a culture that some describe as “death denying”. 

Unless the ebb and flow of life forces us, we don’t typically give much thought to death.  For a couple of days a year, as we harvest the last pumpkin, as the leaves fall from the trees, as children excitedly traipse around in costume collecting treats, and as the faithful visit the graves of their beloved, we give death a nod. That nod might just help us become better at the act of living.  

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