In going over our slate of stories for this month’s issue, we on the 5enses team noticed with some regret that this year we have little for our twin annual spectacles of the dead, Dia de los Muertos and Halloween. Where other holidays are well covered elsewhere, over the years we’ve established the holidays of October as a regular thing for the magazine. It got me thinking about the deeper meaning of these ancient festivals.
It seems that most every culture and religion has its particular day or days for thinking about those who’ve passed. Both Halloween and Dia de los Muertos are rooted in Samhain, the annual harvest fest of the Celts, which in the ninth century the Catholic Church coopted as All Saints Day, aka All Hallows, referring not just to saints, but to the dead more generally. As in many other unrelated cultures, this is celebrated as the time of year when the veil between the worlds is thinnest, and life and afterlife can mingle. That the world’s days of the dead and the annual harvest are closely associated is no accident.
The harvest metaphor, in which we are the crop that matures and falls to sustain the living and make room for the next, is a deep one worth contemplating for all of us, and more immediate with each successive spin around the sun we take.
It may seem sufficient that we have a day to remember the people we’ve loved. But this metaphor and the traditions around it run much deeper than that.
Among the despots of the Roman Empire there was a tradition in which, when parading through the streets in processions celebrating their victories in battle (or in just wiping out non-Romans), the laurel-bedecked leader would place a slave behind him in the chariot, not to serve him drinks, but to whisper in his ear, reminding him that he was still mortal.
European gravestones of the 16and 1centuries frequently bear that whisper in Latin, along with representations of skulls, bones or skeletons: “memento mori,” generally translated as “remember, you will die.” You, me, the triumphant general, the long-serving monarch, everyone will pass and all our works, dreams, hatreds and passions will fade, decay and subsume into the earth.
“Let it go,” say the Buddhists and the Frozen princess alike.
Our festivals of death really aren’t so much about the dead, who can no longer care, but about us the living, an occasion to reel back and appreciate life. On top of that, and perhaps more important, we’re warned against taking ourselves too seriously, because the dirt underfoot will be presently over our heads.