I am writing this on Halloween while the ghosts and goblins and ghouls are roaming about. Little is more fun than dressing up in costumes, but the haunted houses and fright masks and scary guys emerging from coffins distort the sacred meaning and history of this season.
To some, October 31st is All Hallows’ Eve or all Saints’ Eve, which begins three days dedicated to remembering the dead. In Italy, the 31st is All Saints’ Day and their dead ancestors come on that night. The souls of the dead come to visit on the night of the Celtic Samhain, October 31st. November 1st is when the Zuni and Hopi have their ancestor day. Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, November 2nd and 3rd, is well-known to those of us who live in the southwestern United States. In this tradition, our beloved dead are enticed to visit with favorite food and drink on elaborate altars.
There does seem to be a connection between these various holidays, wouldn’t you say? The reality that ties them together is that the veil between the living and the dead is a little bit thinner at this time of year. There is a brief opening in which contact with the dead is made easier.
I discovered this opening quite by accident on an autumn vacation in Oaxaca, Mexico. Inspired by their Muertos festivities, I created a makeshift altar with a few candles, and some marigolds (the traditional flower of the dead) from the flower stalls at the Veinte de Noviembre Market, and one of Oaxaca’s famous sugar skulls. I used my travel sewing kit to represent my mother, a tourist brochure for my magazine publisher father. Once I lit the candles, the quality of sacredness was palpable. Though the signs were subtle, I was pretty sure I felt the presence of my parents, a first. Then came the real surprise—though I had done nothing consciously to invite it—the definitive presence of the baby I had aborted years earlier. When she (I had never known her gender!) reassured me she was all right, I was not only astounded by the visitation, but also by how much it comforted me, since I thought I had long ago made peace with my choice.
To illustrate just how seriously Mexicans take their altars, I’ll tell you about another year I was in Oaxaca for Muertos. My Mexican son-in-law Emiliano had left for his home village before my arrival, because his father was ill. My daughter Rowena and I had already put up the altar when we got the call that his father had died. She and my grandson left at once to join Emiliano. On their arrival, his tias, his aunts, looked worried. “Who’s minding the altar?” they asked. When my daughter replied, “Mi madre,” the tias smiled and sighed with relief. To have simply stopped lighting those candles when a significant death was so fresh was unthinkable. Perhaps at any time mid-Muertos, it would always be unthinkable.
I have come to consider this time of year to be a special gift. My parents, grandparents, aunts uncles, several cousins and friends, and now my daughter Randi are all deceased. Though some of them are in my mind daily, many are not, and I have learned that now is the perfect time to invite or deepen contact.
To do this we can use ritual or ceremony or prayer or an altar. We simply want to make it clear to our own psyches, as well as to our deceased beloveds, that we are inviting and welcoming them. This may be merely a candle, a photo, a moment of silent invitation, or an evening of prayerful vigil or contemplation. It can be as elaborate as a food/flower/candle-laden table lit up like a Friday night football field, accompanied by music and a feast and sharing stories about our dear dead. What matters is our clear intention to invite and acknowledge them, and then to release them back into the land of the dead.
It’s a perfect time to write a letter to the dead too. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by OCHO in Questa, New Mexico on November 2nd. OCHO’s Dia de los Muertos celebration doesn’t begin until 4 pm but from 3 to 5:30 I’ll be facilitating a Writing Letters to the Dead workshop. Participants might write a letter to address unfinished business or a love letter.
After the workshop, you can drop into the Dead Letter Office to use the desk and write on your own. If you mail a letter in the Dead Letter Box, I will ritually burn it later. No one will read it but the dead. Or take your letter home to burn, or sit by your own altar and write your letter there. Then burn or bury it and know your words will be received.
The After Death Chronicles: True Stories of Comfort, Guidance, and Wisdom from Beyond the Veil was released by Hampton Roads on October 6, 2017. Order online through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, or the publisher at http://bit.ly/2gM255a or find it in your local bookstore. Find out more on my Book Page.