For a number of years, Halloween was a chore.I felt pressure to carve the gourds, dress up in a ghoulish costume, ooh and aah over neighborhood children who came to the door being cute, and dutifully eat whatever candy was left over, even if it had coconut.
At a time when we are shaking with anger and despair, when we are wondering if there is enough goodness left in the world, and when we can barely tolerate any mention of death, seeing dozens of people walking down the street laughing as serial killers and flesh-eating zombies threatens to spiral us out of the fragile control we’ve duct taped together.
And yet, at this time of year, Halloween, All Saints Day, the Mexican Day of the Dead, and the Celtic Samhain offer us a chance to talk intelligently to each other about death and grief, and most of us won’t. We long to make peace with our fear of dying and not just flick our noses at it. Some of us want a quiet place to remember the people we loved who died this year so that their lives do not disappear from us.
Many of us feel the presence of loved ones after they die. Some believe that the veil between our world and the spirit world thins on this night, and we can dimly see and talk with our loved ones, friends, and mentors.
Death does not end our relationships. It adjusts them.
The Halloween I cherish the most is the one that came seven months after my wife Evelyn unexpectedly died when she was in her 40s. Late in the afternoon, I went to Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco. Only two people were there, kneeling by the rows of red votives burning up front.
I sat on a wooden pew in the darkness of the stone cathedral with massive, gray pillars and walls rising up to a vaulted roof. As dusk settled on the wooden pews, and the stained-glass windows glowed red and blue with the last light of day, a small group of people gathered in a side chapel to sing evensong. As I listened to the music drift through the cathedral, and watched the candles burn in the darkness, I thought of Ev and her compassion. And in remembering, I felt her draw close.
The red votives pushed back the darkness. Holding the ashes of my dead, my breath unknotted with half-muttered prayers. Outside, fog gathered on the streets. Even nature lingered this night to remember its dead.
Every Halloween I return and sit in Grace Cathedral, if only in my mind, and watch the candles flicker in the shadows inside that gray stone building. The candles burn for our dead. They also burn for the living, to guide us home.