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By Cait Johnson, co-author of Celebrating the Great Mother (Inner Traditions, 1995).
In Mexico, Halloween is the Day of the Dead. It is a festival day, when families visit graveyards to picnic among the tombs, clean and sweep the gravesites, and leave offerings of food and flowers. After nightfall candles flicker, and the sounds of live music often weaves between the graves. Children are given gifts of sugar skulls, and playful skeleton figures dressed and posed in myriad ways are everywhere. An air of loving family festivity and celebration persists all through the day.
There is a great wisdom in making a festival of death: the Day of the Dead helps death to lose its scariness; dying becomes a normal, non-fearful part of life. Rather than celebrating Halloween as a costume-party with lots of candy, it can be inspiring to return to the spirit-roots of the holy day as an honoring of death. After all, dying is the one thing we can all count on. So how to take some steps to celebrate and normalize it? Here are a few ideas:
Visit a local graveyard, even if you don’t have a loved one resting there, and spend a little time tidying it. There is a very old graveyard almost next door to my house, and it’s a favorite hang-out for local teens. Although I like to do my bit to keep it tidy all year long, it feels especially meaningful on Halloween to take a plastic bag with me and pick up the soda bottles and potato chip bags left behind by young partiers.
Put out photos of deceased loved ones and light tea lights in front of them. Share stories about them with young ones who may or may not remember them, to help keep memories alive.
Ancestor feasts. On Halloween, some of us like to set a place at the family table for departed loved ones, and serve a favorite food of theirs. (I often make my grandmother’s corn sticks, using her cast-iron mold shaped like little ears of corn.) One year when my son was young, we dressed up in vaguely Celtic clothes to honor our Irish forebears and played a CD of Irish music as we ate.
Try some memento mori. The Latin phrase refers to a practice common throughout the centuries of using visual reminders of death (like skeletons or skulls, for instance) to help us befriend and face our own eventual demise. We like to make a game out of it, hiding little paper skeletons and clay or wax skulls in drawers or cupboards to surprise anyone who opens them.
Write a tribute. Post your remembrance of a loved one on.
Find and read some death-honoring poetry, like this beautiful excerpt by Birago Diop:
Those who are dead are never gone:
They are there in the thickening shadow.
The dead are not under the earth:
they are in the tree that rustles,
they are in the wood that groans,
they are in the water that sleeps,
they are in the hut, they are in the crowd,
the dead are not dead.