For me, the month of October is all about Halloween. Throughout the month we go to pumpkin patches and haunted houses, watch horror movies, and make our homemade costumes. Every year I host a huge Halloween party with elaborate decorations, Halloween themed food, playlists, games, and fun scares. It is true that many of my Halloween decorations are actually just my witch aesthetic, and stay up all year, but October, and Halloween, is when I really indulge myself. Yes, for me, October is all about Halloween, and Halloween is…?
Hallowe’en, a contraction of All Hallows’ Eve, the first night of the three day Christian holiday, Allhallowtide, a time to remember and pray for the dead. Halloween, the descendent of the pagan Celtic holiday, Samhain, a potent and liminal time when the boundaries between our world and the Otherworld was porous and spirits would walk among us. Halloween, secular holiday where people enjoy dipping a toe into the darkness and giving themselves a good fright. On Halloween we touch death with a fingertip and dance back again to safety.
Memento Mori– Remember We All Must Die. The Romans gave us this phrase, but the Christians turned it into an art form. Medieval Christians lived closer to death than we do today. Death came for their children; it sat at their hearth; it laid, cold and incomprehensible, in their bed. They washed their own dead, dressed them, buried them, and prayed for their souls. Now we are once, twice, three times removed from the old ways. But death hasn’t changed. It comes for us all in our own time.
We have a fear of and a fascination with death. The medieval Christians created art– murals of Judgement Day, woodblocks of the Danse Macabre, skull necklaces like morbid rosaries, and paintings of skulls, hourglasses, and rotting fruit– to remind them that we all must die. Though many, in practice, may have reacted to the reality of their own mortality with an “Eat, Drink, and Be Merry for Tomorrow We Die”, the church’s philosophy was to prepare your body and soul for heaven, to get right with the Lord, and to live a good and virtuous life every day, because any day could be your last. When we are forced to think about the inevitability of our death these days, which philosophy do we adopt? For me, it is a little of both.
I joined the ranks of people who have had to contemplate their deaths in a serious and up close way when I was 37 and diagnosed with breast cancer. For a week I didn’t know what stage it was and I spent that week, and many moments over my six months of chemo and five years of treatment, becoming more familiar with death than most people my age have to be. I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at 42, and again I had to go through days of not knowing whether death was knocking or was waving as it rode by (“Catch ya later”). Because of my medical history, little bumps and pains that most middle aged bodies experience are often multiple hospital trip ordeals for me. Better safe than sorry, better check it out, better get comfortable with needles and MRIs. And waiting for results. The waiting is the worst, of course.
Memento Mori– Remember We All Must Die. Okay! I remember! What good is it to remember? This life is fleeting. This beautiful life is a miraculous gift. Everything I see with my eyes, and hear with my ears, and taste and touch… every day is a gift. Every warm hug. Every raucous laugh. Every night’s sleep and every new day dawning. Memento Mori is a philosophy, an art, and a true reminder to really see the magic that is ever-present in the world. Remember We All Must Die is an essential ingredient in my recipe for creating the sacred in even my simplest, most mundane moments.
Memento Mori is all about experiencing this life as a sacred gift. You never know, when you go to sleep, if you will wake up, or, once you wake up, if you will sleep again. How beautiful does the morning song of the bird sound to your ears when you don’t know if it is the last time you’ll hear it? How sweet the kiss of your love if it is the last time you’ll touch? How much kindness and generosity do you have room for in your heart when you let petty issues and vanities fall away?
Sometimes when I am feeling anxious about my own death I think about how I will be joining the host of humanity– Charlotte Bronte, Shakespeare and Marlowe, Prince, my grandmother– they are all dead, and I will be too. That is the right order of things.
Other times I think about the Carl Sagan quote that we are all star stuff. I like the idea of being another form of the essence that created the universe. I am also fine with being food for worms and mushrooms. I am part of the natural order of things. I, and everything else, will die.
Halloween is the season when our spirit is attuned to the universal truth of death. Death is frightening. It is okay to confront our fears with laughter and merriment, to have parties and surround ourselves with friends and loved ones, to dance and dress up and remind yourself that, tonight, you are alive. It may also be part of your tradition to light a candle and pray for the dead, to center down with some seriousness and make a welcoming space in your life for death, to be able to say “I know you will come and I feel prepared. I am living my life. I am living well.”